In 1930, Theo van Doesburg suggested what concrete might mean in the plastic arts: concrete art would not refer to the natural world, would be devoid of emotion, and would be cerebral and spiritual rather than impassioned.
It sounds terribly solemn, which this brilliant show of 12 Cuban concrete artists of the 1950s and ’60s most certainly is not. Our idea of pre-revolutionary Cuba is distorted by Cold War politics, but this wonderful assemblage of work conclusively demonstrates Cuban sophistication, Cuban contact with contemporary art movements, and Cuban originality.
The precursor of “Concrete Cuba,” at David Zwirner, which debuted in slightly different form in London, was the 1959 “10 Concrete Painters” exhibition at the Galería de Arte Color-Luz in Havana. In 1959, when the Revolution triumphed in Cuba, Cuban culture changed forever, and several generations of artists went into exile.
One who did not was Sandú Darié, who was born in Romania in 1908 but resided in Cuba until his death in 1991. He is represented in this show by eight works, painting, sculpture, and collage. Especially interesting is his circa 1950 Untitled, Transformable Structure, a modestly sized (15 by 19 by 8 inches) hinged sculpture. It is composed of brightly painted wooden triangles whose relation to one another can be modified. The viewer, just like the artist, is free to invent within the limits of geometry.
Paintings by Mario Carreño, including Untitled, Composition (1956), contain biomorphic allusions, and works by Luis Martínez Pedro (1910–89) created during the ’60s show an evolution away from strict concretism. “Concrete Cuba” is a precious document reminding us of the precarious relationship that prevails between art and politics.