Mothers of Invention: Zilia Sánchez

Originally published December 16, 2019

Detail from Troyanas (Trojan Women) which you will see in full farther along this post

She is older than your grandmother, but 92-year-old Zilia Sánchez makes the sexiest paintings you will see in this or any season: largely monochromatic compositions whose surfaces undulate with the suggestion of breasts, nipples, clefts, and lips. Two current New York City exhibitions provide the opportunity to experience her work, which is at once reductive and geometric while also radiating a full-bodied erotismo. 

A life in art:

Born in Cuba, Zilia Sánchez has lived and traveled widely, including stretches in New York City and Madrid, before settling in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1971. In this photo, from El Museo's timeline, she is shown in her San Juan studio from that first year


Below, Sánchez in a recent video on view at El Museo. She is in her studio (the same space she has had for 50 years), recently rebuilt after the devastating hurricane in 2017, when the roof blew off and much of her oeuvre was damaged 

At El Museo del Barrio: Soy Isla

We start up past the Met on Fifth Avenue, where El Museo del Barrio presents a seven-decade survey of Sánchez's work, and end at Galerie Lelong in Chelsea, where her newest work—including her first sculptures in marble—were seen.


(Soy Isla was at El Museo from November 20, 2019-March 22, 2020; Eros at Galerie Lelong November 21, 2019-January 17, 2020)

At El Museo: View from the vestibule into the first of six large galleries. Water figures prominently in Sánchez's identity, both as an islander and as one who has chosen to live a relatively isolated life. The video is from a 2000 performance, Encuentrismo--Ofrenda o Retorno (Encounter--Offering or Return) in which the artist repeatedly pushed a painting out to sea only to have it be returned by the waves. The painting is on a plinth in front of the screen.



Soy Isla originated at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and traveled to the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico before arriving here. It was organized by The Phillips Collection and curated by Vesela Sretenovic'.

The first main gallery contains Sánchez's early work.There are prints and drawings I'm not showing you (too hard to photograph behind reflective glass), but here you can see a couple of geometric abstractions in soft focus, as well as two paintings whose biomorphic forms prefigure her later work

Azul azul (Blue Blue), 1956, acrylic on canvas

Lo que es de isla y piel (Belonging to Island and Skin), 1958, acrylic and ink on canvas


This work dates from the same era in which the sepia photo of Sánchez was taken. The drawing elements, which she calls, tatuajes (tattoos), appear sporadically in her more recent work as well

We're now in Gallery 2, where the sculptural paintings begin. These are from the series Topologia erotica (Erotic Topology). Unless noted, all the work from here on is acrylic on stretched canvas 

Front detail of Construccion: Topologia erotica, 1973

Amazonas, 1978


 Sánchez's paintings push beyond their rectilinear parameters to occupy dimensional space. Maybe I'm reading my feminism into her work, but like assertive women, they take their place in the world. Moreover, their diptych, or polyptych, format powerfully emphasizes the coming together of similar and equal elements


Angle view below

Topologia erotica, 1960-71


Angle detail below

While El Museo's wall texts don't offer much information about Sánchez's personal life, there is a sapphic sense of intimacy and visual pleasure in her work. The catalog's essays confirm her lesbian identity, although being out in the 1940s and 50s in Cuba, and even in New York City in the 1960s, likely meant being open within a very small circle of friends, very different from how we identify today. In this regard it seems that her work really speaks for her, as well as for itself.


This might also be a good time to talk about the construction of these sculptural paintings. My curiosity was satisfied by a description in the catalog. Let me share it with you:


"Sánchez often describes her finished works as 'bodies' and the fabric she stretches as 'skin.' She first builds a structure built of reclaimed wood or plastic, which she often finds on the streets of Santurce [the San Juan neighborhood in which she lives]. These 'constructions,' as she calls them--sculptures in their own right--are the basis from which she makes and shapes the elevations and protrusions characteristic of her work. For the fabric, Sánchez has chosen a local type of linen known as blanquin, which is primarily used for upholstery. After dipping the blanquin in a glue-like mixture, Sánchez extends it over her constructions, stretching it over several days until it achieves the desired effect." --Carla Acevedo-Yates


View of Gallery 2 at left . . .


. . . as we move into Gallery3, with its more dramatic topologies

Left: Subliminal, from the series Amazonas (Amazons); right: Troyanas (Trojan Women), 1984


Below: Full view of Subliminal

Angle view of Troyanas with Juana de Arco and Antigone beyond it

Juana de Arco (Joan of Arc), 1987

Antigone (Antigona), 1970

The wall text notes that the tragedy of Sophocle's Antigone "torn between competing loyalties to family and state resonates deeply among many Cuban exiles and Puerto Ricans due to its theme of political repression, violence, and civil disobediance."

As for the Amazonas and Troyanas, we learn this: "Throughout her career, Zilia Sánchez turns repeatedly to female warriors and heroines in classical mythology and history for inspiration. The Amazon and Trojan warriors referenced in her work highlight the collective power of women. . . . Although Sánchez does not align herself with any feminist movement, she has always been an outspoken supporter of women's independence."


To orient you: We are still in the large third gallery looking into two additional spaces


Below: the work you see on the left wall of Gallery 4

Shown work is identified below

Lunar (Moon), 1985

Right: Lunar con tatuaje (Moon with Tattoo), 1968-96

Left: Lunar blanco (White Moon), 1964, with side view below

Detail of Lunar con tatuaje

With her occasional "tattoo" elements drawn in ink, Sánchez reinforces the idea that her paintings have corporeal "skins" 

Panorama of Gallery 3 and 4

(I shot this with Lunar con tatuaje behind my right shoulder)

Foreground: Las Troyanas (The Trojan Women), 1967


From here we look into Gallery 5, which contains the artist's more recent work

Installation view of this last gallery, with Maqueta Soy Isla (I Am an Island Maquette), 1972/92 at left


Below: Detail of Maqueta Soy Isla. I love how the shapes nestle and cast shadows on each other. The variance in dates, noted above, suggests that this work was remade from an earlier incarnation, perhaps as a result of 2017's Hurricane Maria, which destroyed much of the work in Sánchez's studio

Two paintings titled Topologia (Topology) from the Azul azul (Blue Blue) series, 2016, acrylic on stretched canvas

As we leave the last gallery we walk back through where we have come, stopping to view  Represion (Repression), 1998, white cement with iron bars


Closer look below

At Galerie Lelong: Eros

Both El Museo del Barrio and Galerie Lelong have championed Zilia Sánchez's work. I first saw it in 2016 at El Museo in an ambitious multicultural survey of optical art called The Illusive Eye and the following year at the Art Dealers' ADAA show in the Galerie Lelong booth. My antennae twitched, and I've been following Sánchez's work since. While the current exhibition at El Museo features seven decades of work, Eros at Galerie Lelong shows the artist's more recent work, including the surprise of two marble sculptures.

Entering the gallery you are met with the diptych Mira que pasa despues de todo (Look at what happens after everything), 2019; all work acrylic on stretched canvas unless otherwise noted


Full view below

On the far wall: Conexion (Connection), 1999-2018

(Given the date range, I assume this is another work that was remade after the storm)

Moving our attention to the left wall, we see Conjunction (Conjunction), 1998-2019

We continue down that wall to view the two works below

Sin titulo (Untitled), c. 2000

Sin titulo (de la serie Azul azul) [Untitled (from the Blue Blue series), 2019

Eros, 1976-1998; acrylic on stretched canvas with painted wood supports

With Eros at my shoulders, I photographed this view

Left: El silencio de la brisa (Silence of the Breeze), 2018; center: Topologia erotica (de la serie Azul Azul) [Erotic Topology (of the Blue Blue series)], 2016; work on far wall identified below

With Mirar que pasa despues de todo oat right to orient you, we peek into the small gallery where—surprise!—there are two sculptures in marble. The transition from canvas to marble is nearly seamless conceptually, with the cool stone every bit as sensuous as the shaped canvases

Lunar blanco (White Moon), 2000-2019, marble


Below: Luna Lunar,  2000-2019

More on Soy Isla and Eros
. El Museo del Barrio info
. The Phillips Collection info
. Galerie Lelong info
. Nadja Sayej: The Guardian
. Profile by Anna Furman: The New York Times
. Review by Katarina Wong: Two Coats of Paint
. Video 1 from Phillips Collection
. Video 2 from Phillips Collection
. Video 3 from Phillips Collection
. Catalog, publilshed by Yale University Press

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