Delicate jet-black brush strokes pattern the pastel surfaces of Zilia Sánchez’s work like tattoos on human skin. The canvases themselves seem to contract and expand, as if breathing. Beneath the surface, invisible to the viewer’s eye, are wooden skeletons that give these works their wondrous three-dimensionality, transforming paintings into sculptures that resemble bent elbows, erect nipples and pointed tongues and suggest existential explorations of space. Since the 1950s, Sánchez, who is now 93, has dared to expand the dimensional constraints of painting with boundless ingenuity, conceiving a new visual language for sensuality. But unlike other artists who warped canvases to provocative effect, like the American sculptor Lee Bontecou and the Argentine-Italian painter Lucio Fontana, Sánchez worked for decades in obscurity.
This month, the retrospective “Zilia Sánchez: Soy Isla (I Am an Island),” the most significant effort yet to remedy that oversight, opened at New York’s El Museo del Barrio. Curated by Vesela Sretenović, the show features 60 artworks from the ’50s to the present and was met with critical acclaim when it debuted at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. Many pieces reference female characters from myth and history: Joan of Arc, Antigone and Trojan women. In “Amazonas” (1970), white nipple-like protrusions ascend in rhythmic sequence across seven blue columns, a reference to the mythic warrior women’s sacrifice of their right breasts in order to bolster their prowess as archers. All of these women, Sánchez told Sretenović in an interview for the show’s catalog, “had to go through a lot of suffering, yet they overpowered the tragic and became heroines.”
Born in Havana in 1926, Sánchez created imaginative sets for guerrilla theater troupes during the Cuban Revolution of the ’50s. Later, she lived abroad, for a year in Madrid, where she studied painting conservation at the Prado Museum, and for a decade in New York City, where she studied printmaking at Pratt Institute and socialized in literary circles with other Cuban émigrés. In 1971, she settled in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and created photomontages and experimental graphic designs for the influential yet short-lived avant-garde literary journal “Zona de Carga y Descarga.” Since 1991, she has taught at Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Diseño de Puerto Rico and influenced a generation of Puerto Rican artists who revere her greatly.
But outside the Caribbean archipelago, she has been largely ignored. Until the mid-80s, major art institutions in Europe and the United States rarely granted exhibitions, let alone solo shows, to Latina artists, and Sánchez’s identity as a gay Cuban woman rendered her especially invisible. In 2017, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles included her work in a sweeping survey of 120 Latin American women artists, and that same year, Sánchez made her debut at the Venice Biennale.
Then, at this pivotal moment in her career, disaster struck. In September 2017, Hurricane Maria tore the roof off her San Juan studio, which she had occupied for 50 years, wrecked the small building’s interior and destroyed much of her life’s work. In the aftermath, a visit by the German-born curator Klaus Biesenbach, then the director of MoMA PS1, spotlighted the storm’s devastating impact on Puerto Rico’s artists and rallied support for the rebuilding of Sánchez’s studio; she has since repaired windows, two staircases, the balcony and the roof. “I was able to keep the beautiful old tiles on the second floor,” she says. “Because they were old, it doesn’t mean they’re ugly.” Since the building’s restoration, she once again works here every day, surrounded by lush ceiba trees and sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean.
After a lifetime of making art, Sánchez’s process is focused and intuitive. “Colors have to call me,” she says. “It’s why I’ve never used red. Sometimes I listen to the call and I grab my brush and start painting over works that are already done.” Her signature palette includes muted peach, periwinkle, gray and lavender, which she creates by blending water-based paints with varnish or powdered pigment. On a balmy day in October, while she prepared the freshly cut wooden armatures for a new body of work, Sánchez answered T’s artist’s questionnaire.
What is your day like? What’s your work schedule like?
I used to be busier — I taught class and then went to my workshop for eight hours, until 9 at night. Now, I don’t have a specific discipline. I go to the studio every day, if I don’t have to be at the doctor. If it’s raining outside, I don’t work on my terrace, and I close my studio windows. There are several plants that I water. It’s a healthy way of living.
What’s the first piece of art you ever made?
A painting of a guajiro [a Cuban agricultural worker].
What’s the worst studio you’ve ever had?
I’ve always worked in this studio. With what I have, I’m satisfied.
When you start a new piece, where do you begin? What’s the first step?
I start with the wooden frame, which I consider the weakest or most vulnerable part of the piece. I make the object by stretching canvas over armature.
How do you know when you’re done?
When the piece is no longer missing anything and the paint has dried properly. I put the work in spaces in my studio that help the drying, like near a window where there’s a breeze that’s light and not too strong — or it might damage the work.
How many assistants do you have?
Three. They’re former students. I taught two of them to make the wooden frames for my work.
What music do you play when you’re making art?
My music is silence.
When did you first feel comfortable saying you’re a professional artist?
In a furniture shop, they asked me to paint something on a piece of wood. I painted a blue sky with some doves.
What’s the weirdest object in your studio?
What is the last thing that made you cry?
The recognition of my work.
What do you usually wear when you work?
Light fabrics. Pants that are soft and don’t bother me. And I always wear heels.
What do your windows look out on?
I have two big windows in my home that face the ocean. I can see a water landscape. At the studio, I can also see my neighbor Marina’s house. The studio is on a little street called Calle Delicias. I’ve always loved that name.
What’s your worst habit?
I don’t have bad habits. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I don’t have any caprices.
What embarrasses you?
What’s your favorite artwork by someone else?
The work of Victor Manuel. His drawings are all divine. When I was 7 years old, I saw him painting in his garden from our balcony in Cuba, and I became very interested in painting. He eventually gave me art classes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
“Zilia Sánchez: Soy Isla (I am An Island)” is on view now through March 22, 2020, at El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Ave, New York, elmuseo.org.