The Venezuelan artist Oswaldo Vigas (1923–2014) is a particular case. He spent much of his career taking on established modernist styles well after their moments had passed or as they were being eclipsed, and in that way comes across as a curious, perhaps even stubborn, kind of individual: both a follower and not exactly a follower, both an autodidact eagerly engaging with prior innovation and a strict recusant of current fashion. His practice in retrospect can seem almost manic, given that he produced somewhere between five thousand and eight thousand paintings (not to mention drawings, murals, prints, ceramics, tapestries, sculptures, jewelry . . . ) and that this significant effort saw him grappling with such divergent propositions as Cubism, Surrealism, Constructivism, Informalism, and Abstract Expressionism, as well as a number of aesthetic projects associated with single artists. While a restless drive is not in itself a bad thing, whether Vigas’s “passion” (as many critics have put it) ultimately hindered his work is debatable.
Among the earliest pieces in “Oswaldo Vigas: Antológica, 1943–2013,” a touring survey I saw in Bogotá that is now being shown at the Museu de Arte Contemporânea in São Paulo, is a painting called Composición IV. Cumulous forms float amid a colorful geometric field, seemingly pinned by its angled planes, the image appearing like a cubistic fracturing of a surreal landscape. Vigas’s son mentioned to me that Vigas had not yet encountered modern European art when he made this painting and had inexplicably arrived at Cubism on his own while living in an isolated provincial city. The remark reflects the way in which Vigas’s work has generally been framed, by Vigas himself and by others. “Magic” is a predominant theme, with Vigas cast as an artist-visionary whose work operates through mystical channels that tap into a shadowy pre-Columbian underworld. From Vigas: “Our continent is full of dark signs and warnings. Telluric signs, magic, or exorcisms are deep components of our condition. . . . The intention of my painting is to reach them, interpret them, and translate them into new warnings.”
Before magic, however, there was a more pragmatic pursuit—medicine. Vigas studied to be a surgeon. He received his degree in Caracas in 1951, but did not go on to practice, focusing on the anatomy of art instead. He had become interested in pre-Columbian artifacts, primarily Venus de Tacarigua figurines, clay renderings of a deity with an elongated head and vulval eyes produced by a tribe native to an area near today’s Valencia, where he was born. In the early 1950s, he used this Venus as the foundation for a series of paintings depicting primitive-looking female figures, which a poet described as “brujas” (witches). Vigas adopted the designation, and the motif became central to his career. A characteristic example, included in “Antológica,” is Bruja infante (1951), in which a broad-headed, flat-bodied figure with crooked breasts is presented as heiress apparent to both the bruja and the Demoiselles d’Avignon.
In 1952, with a plane ticket he received as a prize for another bruja painting—La gran bruja (1951)—Vigas moved to Paris. Around this time, he began making almost cartoonish paintings with the type of scythe-blade forms and nightmare creatures seen in Wifredo Lam’s work, and then, in another marked shift, took up a semifigurative geometric style based in Joaquín Torres-García’s Constructivism. Soon he moved on to fully geometric paintings and soon again—in the early ’60s, while nouveau réalisme was burgeoning around him in Paris, alongside Op and kinetic art by his Latin American peers—abandoned Constructivism for a recent and very different mode, Informalism. Out went geometry, and in came patchy image-obscuring thickets of paint or, in a more New York version, aggressive strokes or splatters.
After twelve years in Paris, Vigas moved back to Venezuela with his French wife. He took up a new figurative style and pursued it in splintering directions until the end of the 1980s. Beings with Venus de Tacarigua heads and all manner of bodily distortions appear as if reaching us from some other side. At times they have unfortunate echoes with Hollywood versions of aliens, particularly when they hold their hands up in a “Greetings, earthling” way. Perhaps this is magic. Perhaps it is schlock. In any case, Vigas produced his strongest paintings during this period, especially after he moved beyond simply remaking de Kooning’s women to creating images like Personaje (1976), a streaky rendering of a beast with beaklike limbs and a dangling leaf earring, and Génesis (1980), a fiery diptych in which two archetypal figures conjure Mars and Venus symbols.
While Vigas might be well regarded in Venezuela as an early interpreter of abstraction, his contribution to art history at large is unclear. Is there really such a difference between bringing African masks into modern art, as Picasso had done, and bringing the Venus de Tacarigua into modern art, as Vigas did half a century later? Does it matter that the Venus de Tacarigua is tied to the geographic region where Vigas was born? Does that change the nature of the appropriation? There is a lingering sense that the difference between Vigas’s primitive references and those of artists before him is mostly formal, and that his self-portrayal as a medium connecting twentieth-century abstraction to pre-Columbian magic was just an angle.