In Lunar V, a modular canvas made by the Cuban-born artist Zilia Sánchez in 1973, the halves of a full moon taper into tongue-like crests, which interlock and extend toward the viewer. Crafted in the wake of the Apollo moon landings and the resurgence of the feminist movement in America—where Sánchez lived between 1964 and 1972—Lunar V suggested both female anatomy and celestial terrain at a time when women’s bodies and outer space were contested sites of mythic possibility and subject to processes of domestic and geopolitical control. In the late 1950s, the American artist Lee Bontecou hollowed out the picture plane with vaginal lacunae that echoed the limits to knowledge suggested by newly discovered black holes. Similarly Sánchez’s work puts both the body and the natural world at stake in experiments with abstraction.
Sánchez’s retrospective at Artists Space—a rare exhibition of her oeuvre outside of Puerto Rico, where she has resided since 1972—invited both contemplation and physical encounter, as the works oscillated between muted, pastel vistas and distended, somatic forms. Sánchez’s signature technique consists of stretching canvases over molded wooden armatures, abstracting the traditional support for painted figures and landscapes into epidermal surfaces and topographical shapes. In Amazonas (Amazons), 1972, a sequence of nipple-like protrusions becomes a mountain range or a row of bobbing whitecaps, while in Lunar con Tatuaje (Moon with Tattoo), begun in 1968 and finished in 1996, a sprawling “tattoo” drawn in marker doubles as a cartographic inscription.
Sánchez’s pieces often contain internal repetitions (most are composed of modular canvases) and occur in series. One of the pleasures of the exhibition was encountering the works not as discrete objects, but in formal and thematic archipelagos stretching from the late 1950s into the 1990s. Sánchez’s repeated reworking of the sets of aesthetic relationships she has referred to as “topologies” may at first appear limiting. However, her recourse to repetition and mythic tropes provocatively disturbs narratives of progress and innovation undergirding modernism.
While Sánchez’s serial process links her work to Minimalism, the corporeal undulations and feminine contours of her paintings exceed the industrial, deadpan productions of her American contemporaries. Sánchez’s reconfiguration of the frame into a fold that extends into the space of the viewer also resonates with midcentury experiments in abstraction by Latin American artists—such as the Brazilian Lygia Clark’s geometric reliefs of the late 1950s—which, like Minimalist objects, invited reflection on embodied forms of perception. The bodily encounter elicited by Sánchez’s canvases is productively supplemented by the curators’ inclusion of the first issues of Zona de Carga y Descarga (Loading and Unloading Zone), a literary journal published in Puerto Rico between 1972 and 1975 that Sánchez initially helped to design. Read alongside her disruptive play with modernist surfaces, in which Greenbergian flatness is bloated and eroticized, Sánchez’s experiments with the printed page—including photomontage, color offset, and textual layout reminiscent of concrete poetry—indicate the discursive strategies and structural approach to meaning and perception that also inform her oeuvre.