Surprise in Venice

Zilia Sánchez was one of the most referenced names at the 57th edition of the Biennial. This Cuban artist, established in Puerto Rico and not frequently mentioned by the international critics, was definitely revealed during the latest months to be one of the most distinctive and premier Cuban women artists of the 20th century. The casual visitor, who does not consult the maps explaining the event, inevitably came across the strong power and striking delicacy of her work. Those of us who are interested in her work had to make a long tour of the huge ancient shipyards that contributed to Venice as one of its main sources of splendor and wealth, and whose ancient and sober buildings today house seven of the nine Thematic Pavilions that make up the central showcase of the Venice Biennial.


In the Dionysian Pavilion is a striking series of three beautiful canvases of refrained and precise lyricism that celebrate the essential attributes of the female body and the eroticism that overflows from it. They are abstract works where painting and sculpture merge in a particular result, full of sensuality and eroticism, with exquisite mastery of color expressed through a limited, almost monochrome palette that contributes to “the construction” of what the artist calls “stretched canvases.” There are pieces whose forms denote a graceful voluptuousness, projecting reliefs of sharp forms that are unmistakable references to the feminine body in its splendor, seducing the viewer in full sensory enjoyment. The artist admits that beauty, passion, and sensuality are essential keys of her work.

The selection of Zilia Sánchez was one of the surprises of this Biennial edition for some critics. The 91-year-old artist, despite a solid and sustained body of work and having participated in important events such as the Sao Paulo Biennial, has not received continuing international recognition. Only in recent years have the large specialized magazines and mainstream spaces paid attention to her.

Zilia Sánchez was born in Havana in 1926. She studied at San Alejandro Academy of Visual Arts and was a member of the Sociedad Cultural Nuestro Tiempo. She has lived outside the island since 1960, having traveled to Spain, Italy, Canada and the United States. She has been a painter, sculptress and teacher. During the 1970s she painted several murals in buildings in Puerto Rico, and since 1991 she is a member of the staff of the School of Visual Arts of that Caribbean country.

Zilia Sánchez was born in Havana in 1926. She studied at San Alejandro Academy of Visual Arts and was a member of the Sociedad Cultural Nuestro Tiempo. She has lived outside the island since 1960, having traveled to Spain, Italy, Canada, and the United States. She has developed her work as a painter, engraver, sculptor, and teacher. During the 1970s she painted several murals in buildings in Puerto Rico, and since 1991 she has been a member of the faculty of the School of Visual Arts of that Caribbean territory.

According to critic Rebeca Noriega, “it is complicated to place Zilia Sánchez’ work in context if we disregard the New York minimalism, the Caribbean identity, the feminist culture, and the search or rejection of nationalism.” Zilia Sánchez works with a bit of everything. Much has been said about Zilia’s association with minimalist art, characterized by the motto “less is more” from the Bauhaus. However, she laughs when indicating that she should not be considered a “minimalist artist.” She insists in classifying herself as a Caribbean mulatto or as a minimalist mulatto.

Noriega, who has dedicated great attention to this extraordinary nonagenarian, has also affirmed: “In New York’s art circles, the critics have looked mainly toward that group of minimalist artists to find Sánchez’ work. She was even trained initially as a sculptor, and sculpture was the favorite medium of minimalist artists. She chooses cement as moldable material highly associated to the building trades. This could bring her closer to some works of this group and to her idea of “building.” However, for Zilia the construction is the design, which, in turn, is the illusion of inventing by means of the line. Donald Judd (1928-1993) or Dan Flavin (1933-1996), representative Minimalist artists, used industrial materials such as iron or fluorescent lights, but distanced themselves from the process of manufacturing their work. Zilia, however, is not only involved in conceptualizing her work but in the entire process of creation.”

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