Mexico City

View of “Beatriz Zamora,” 2020.

View of “Beatriz Zamora,” 2020.

Beatriz Zamora

Determination is the backbone of Beatriz Zamora’s practice: Since 1977, she has devoted her career exclusively to “El negro” (The Black), a continuing monochromatic quest. Defined by the artist as “a cosmic theory,” the series is grounded on the conception of the color black as an absolute. This formulation, drawn both from physics and from mysticism, engages with the color as a primordial source of life and silence—an originary void. The result has been more than three thousand black abstract paintings that, for evident reasons, have sometimes been reductively compared to the pictorial language developed by another artist known for abstractions in black, Pierre Soulages.

Notwithstanding her restless activity over more than five decades, and in spite of having been bestowed various prestigious awards, including Mexico’s Salón Nacional de Artes Plásticas prize in 1978, Zamora remains a somewhat obscure figure. Her recent exhibition introduced her oeuvre to younger generations through a selection of eighteen works from “El negro” dating from the outset of the series through 2017. Unlike in previous exhibitions where the artworks hung from the walls, at Labor her large- and medium-format canvases and panels were displayed in freestanding rows, resting on steel construction I beams designed by Sala Hars and AGO Projects. The spatial configuration lent the series a sculptural quality that stressed its hybrid nature. Rather than relying on perspective techniques, Zamora’s paintings create a sense of depth by amassing materials—among them coal, carbon, graphite, obsidian, sand, and silicon carbide—which she grinds, strains, sieves, washes, and dries in her studio before manipulating them into different textures that result in bulky lumps or fine dust. The surfaces refract light thanks to their physical properties rather than representing it through brushstrokes. Lampblack is another indispensable element of “El negro.” This black pigment has a bluish tint obtained from the incomplete combustion of organic materials, generally resinous wood combined with grease, tar, blubber, coal, or the like. Also known as “black soot,” it has been used in pictorial endeavors since prehistoric times, and Zamora is keenly aware of the ancient echo in her materials of choice.

Thanks to its coupling of an abstract language with seemingly primordial materials, “El negro” exudes a timeless quality. Given the project’s combination of duration and seriality, its formal outcomes are remarkably diverse. One canvas might recall a fragment of a meteor crater or a section of the lunar landscape, another a snake’s molted skin. Here one thinks of earth, there of sky. Transformed into an installation, the works seemed to capture distant, nearly otherworldly images that drew the viewer’s gaze into deep space or, conversely, into the earth’s profound interior. However, even if the contemplative summoning of future or past ages produces a temporal alterity (akin to that embodied by the practice of many artists who currently recur to prehistory to find a yet unwritten past), Zamora’s production is deeply affected by its own time. All the more reason why its heretofore limited reception must be noted: Dealers viewed her work as too hard to sell, she lived and produced work in poverty, and some of her male peers were frankly hostile. One fellow painter, Enrique Guzmán, threw a fire extinguisher at one of her paintings before flinging the piece down a staircase in Mexico City’s Palacio del Bellas Artes. She ended up decamping to New York from 1979 to 1988.

With an original presentation that breathed new life into an impeccable selection of works, this show announced a new chapter in the public life of “El negro.” While this development should be a matter of celebration, it is also a matter of concern. The fact that female artists, in Latin America and elsewhere, have often had to wait until their senior years for their breakthrough within the art circuit seems to be more a rule than the exception. However belatedly, exhibitions such as this one should contribute to a more timely acknowledgment of women artists in Mexico. Zamora is more than just making up for lost time; she’s continuing to break new ground.