“Why am I still making work?” Zilia Sánchez once reflected. “Well because I need it. I have it inside of me and I need to go to the studio.” Born in Cuba in 1926, the artist has worked as a painter, sculptor, and printmaker for more than 60 years. Following her initial visual art training in Havana, Sánchez frequently exhibited her work abroad, representing Cuba in the Bienal de México in 1958 and the Bienal de São Paulo in 1959.
Sánchez was already an established artist in Cuba when she became interested in nontraditional materials after encountering the work of Antoni Tàpies in Spain. As a result of the Cuban Revolution, Sánchez decided to remain abroad; she moved to New York in 1962. Sánchez’s work with alternative materials and compositions expanded during her time in New York. She once remarked, “One sometimes wants to stop being submissive, to create a work that does not follow the rules of what is already established of what is commonly done.” This independence and innovative spirit are evident in Sánchez’s best-known series, Erotic Topologies, comprised of canvas paintings stretched over wooden armatures to create three-dimensional works. “I don’t think of the form exactly; I feel the form,” the artist said of the process of building and stretching the canvases.
Part of this group of works, Antigone (1970), uses her abstract visual language to transmit such feelings. The work focuses on a curving, muted blue form accentuated by the sloping peaks and valleys of the three-dimensional, neutral white stretcher, echoing a woman’s figure. It is bisected by a vertical white line, dividing the canvas in half. In this symmetrical, two-color composition, Sánchez plays with abstraction and dualism to convey the strong emotions and woman’s struggle implied by the title’s reference to the Greek tragic heroine.
Similarly the artist’s attention to shadows evokes another binary between darkness and light; muted colors in her canvases take on further dimension and depth when in light or in shadow. The three-dimensional armatures create a contrast between the protruding and receding parts of the painting. In Troyanas (Trojan Women) (1984), Sánchez repeats forms to create a further sense of doubling. She uses visual dualism to establish a sense of what she refers to as aesthetic equilibrium to create a sense of unity in her works. In other topographic works, Sánchez applies drawings on top of the abstract forms, as in Soy Isla: Compréndelo y retírate (I Am an Island: Understand and Retreat) (1990).
After solo exhibitions at the Universidad de Puerto Rico in 1966 and 1970, Sánchez settled in San Juan, working for and helping design the avante-garde publication Zona Carga y Discarga. She lives and works there, transforming and expanding her artistic practice. Her works continue to be attentive to the female experience, honoring mythical and real women’s lives, including her own. “I paint with feeling,” she has said, “and the feeling is inside. That’s how art is.”
Rachel Remick, 12-Month Modern Women’s Fund Intern, Department of Painting and Sculpture