New York

Zilia Sánchez, Amazonas (de la serie Topologías) (Amazons [of the Topologies Series]), 1978, acrylic on stretched canvas, 43 × 70 × 11".

Zilia Sánchez, Amazonas (de la serie Topologías) (Amazons [of the Topologies Series]), 1978, acrylic on stretched canvas, 43 × 70 × 11".

Zilia Sánchez

Galerie Lelong & Co.

Zilia Sánchez, Amazonas (de la serie Topologías) (Amazons [of the Topologies Series]), 1978, acrylic on stretched canvas, 43 × 70 × 11".

It’s hard to know whether to be gratified or dismayed by the number of extraordinary women artists who continue to be drawn out of the shadows of art history in their old age—gratified, of course, because they’re finally getting the recognition they’ve long deserved, but dismayed that it’s still taking so long. The latest such “case” is that of Zilia Sánchez, born in Cuba in 1926 but a longtime resident of San Juan, Puerto Rico. A prominent figure on the island—as a teacher as well as an artist—she has rarely exhibited elsewhere. This exhibition, “Heróicas Eróticas en Nueva York” (Heroic Erotic in New York), featured works primarily from the 1960s and ’70s, along with three dated 1993 and one, Conversatorio (de la serie Eros y la Comunicación) (Conversation [of the Eros and Communication Series]), dated 1993/2014. The show followed hard on the heels of an exhibition last year at Artists Space that was, for all intents and purposes, Sánchez’s introduction to a contemporary New York public, though she lived and worked here in the ’60s. That show led the New York Times’ Holland Cotter to wonder, “Why wasn’t this artist included in the Venice Biennale?” One can only agree, and it should have happened forty years ago.

To give a first idea of what the work Sánchez has been making since the mid-’60s looks like, one might call it an unlikely (and utterly convincing) synthesis of geometric abstraction and erotically charged Pop art. It’s something like a cross between the painting-objects of Agostino Bonalumi or Enrico Castellani (recalling the way in which those artists transformed the canvas surface into a three-dimensional relief—like Sánchez, both were influenced by Lucio Fontana) and the work of female Pop artists such as Evelyne Axell or Marjorie Strider (both notable for their insouciant fascination with female sexuality). But Sánchez should not be seen entirely within the aesthetics of her own generation; certain New York artists of the 1990s, such as Carl Ostendarp or Karin Davie, might have found inspiration in Sánchez for their breed of Pop-inflected abstraction—if only they had known about her. Her work blatantly evokes the female body—nipples, lips (vaginal or otherwise), and so on—but it is not representational. That it can be at once so in-your-face and so indirect is probably its greatest strength.

Sometimes, as in Amazona (Amazon), 1968, or Antigonía (Antigone), 1970, the works’ titles underline their figurative references, but in other cases they insist on abstraction, as in Módulo infinito (Infinite Module), 1978. For me, the referential side comes on strong at first but then, with time, recedes to give primacy to seemingly simple yet brilliantly inventive formal structures whose import is as multivalent as their impact is vivid. The palette is always cool and subdued—mostly shades of white to gray, with some pale blues and pinks. And yet a voluptuous sensuality is never far away. Touch is as important as vision, and the paintings seem to want to touch themselves. Often the simple, organic, wobbly forms subtly create the impression that they are in motion, floating free in space. Many of the paintings—nine out of the fourteen works on view in this show—comprise two canvases pressed together like a diptych. In them, the artist uses symmetry (more often sagittal than transverse) and variation to stage a dialectic of unity and duality; if the painting is a metaphor for a body, this body seems to be one that has formed a couple within itself, or conversely, to consist of a couple that has become so enmeshed as to have become a single thing. The crevice between the two canvases is figured as an unfathomable depth from which visible forms have emerged. Eroticism and autoeroticism become indistinguishable.

Barry Schwabsky