LETRA URBANA

Incluido en: Sociedad Edicion: 38

Lydia Rubio: Constellations and Alphabets

By Francine Birbragher-Rozencwaig

Translation by John Schranck

[Read online Spanish version here]

An alternative proposal to the aesthetics of excess and the visual and verbal turbulence dominating the world:

Lydia Rubio’s work stands out for the way it uses words, images and symbols inspired by her marvelous life experience. Her paintings, drawings, travel diaries and sculptures reflect her vast sensibilities as well as a constant search for balance, both physical and spiritual. At the same time, they offer an oasis from the vast desert of excess and extreme visual and verbal turbulence that dominates the contemporary world.

Her more recent work signals a return to her roots in architecture and explores the contrasts between rational geometric structures and spontaneous gestural forms, inspired in some cases by movements in nature, such as the motion of migrating animals or humans. To understand the complexity of her artistic project and the details of her trajectory, Letra Urbana spoke with the artist in her Miami studio.

The travel journal is very important to you. How did your own travel journal started, your personal story?

I was born in Havana, Cuba. In 1960, my family went to Puerto Rico. Unlike many Cubans who left at that time, I didn’t go to the US. Instead, I stayed in the Caribbean and was able to maintain contact with Latin American culture. When I was 18, I went to the University of Florida, in Gainesville, to study architecture. I finished the architecture program very young at 22.

I married a Cuban architect. We went to Italy for a year to work with the renowned architect Leonardo Ricci in Florence. Ricci was a poet-architect. He could combine literature, politics and poetry. When our stay came to an end, I asked him what he thought I should do, and he said, “Go and study visual perception.”

Did you take his advice?

We went back to Puerto Rico where I worked at an architectural firm. The grind of a nine to five job was wearing me down, so I decided to go teach at the school of architecture. The department had printmaking and ceramics studios. It was there that I got to know Antonio Martorell and Lorenzo Homar, whose work was a seminal contribution to the tradition of printmaking and posters in the Caribbean, and I did a number of projects to bring art and architecture closer together. I even invited Marta Traba, an important art critic, to give a lecture and published an interview with her in the art review Módulos, of which I was editor. On a personal level, I separated from my husband, and at that time I said to myself: “I have to leave to follow Ricci’s advice.” I went to Boston and studied visual perception at Harvard. There I did two research papers with Rudolf Arnheim and invited him to visit the school of architecture. It was incomprehensible to me that there was no kind of relationship between the schools of art and of architecture. When I graduated, I stayed in Boston.

When did you realize that art was your thing?

A breakthrough came at the Graduate School of Design. Students chose their design professors according to options presented. I offered with the design studio, a seminar of theory and aesthetics and brought artists to the school of architecture. The design process has been very precise—there was no abstraction, no poetry. I saw things in a very different way. In my view, sculpture and painting were the basis of architecture.

I went to work with an architectural firm, Cambridge Seven. My dream was to work as an artist, so in 1978, I moved to New York, where I worked at the firm of Ivan Chermayeff, a branch of the Cambridge firm. I took part in a project to redesign 42nd Street sponsored by the Ford Foundation. My job was to develop the proposal and present it with elaborate drawings. It was a very beautiful time, but I didn’t want to keep going in this profession. I didn’t like dealing with clients, working with a team, or making budgets. Plus, I didn’t have control over the work. I said to myself, “I want to work on a small thing and have total control.”

Is that when you started your work as a visual artist?

The love for art and painting began with my grandmother in Cuba. In 1979 I took a huge leap. I quit working in architecture and went back to Boston, which was cheaper than New York. To distance myself from all things architectural, I painted landscapes—even if the landscapes had geometric and gridded elements. Nevertheless, I still did prepare architectural drawings in order to supplement my income. Later I went back to New York and got a studio in Long Island City.

At four in the winter afternoon it was scary just to walk around there. After that I got a studio in SOHO where other artists, like Luis Cruz Azaceta, worked at the time. The space was in the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art’s building (MOCHA), which was directed for ten years by Nilda Peraza. Quite a few people passed through that museum’s doors, including Marcelo Bonevardi and Julio Alpuy.

In New York you were very connected to the literary world?

That’s correct—I’ve had very close ties to the literary world. Through my friend Suzanne Jill Levine, I met Emir Rodríguez Monegal, a Uruguayan critic and intellectual who authored the Jorge Luis Borges biography and was a Professor at Yale. When he came to New York, Emir would stay in my apartment. One day he asked me, “What are you doing tomorrow morning at 9? Want to have breakfast with Borges and María Kodama?” He was scheduled to do an interview with them at National Public Radio (NPR). I brought my camera and took photos that to this day have never been published. I also have pictures of Octavio Paz, Reinaldo Arenas, Severo Sarduy and Lydia Cabrera.

Octavio Paz always stayed at high end hotels like The Plaza. One day Emir said to me, “We’re not comfortable here, I am coming to your place with Octavio Paz.” It was an amazing thing! Imagine having such an intimate experience! I’ve got photos with Borges with Emir taken in 1985. Rodríguez Monegal passed away in 1985 and Borges in 1986.

The 1980s in New York were a beautiful time. I taught for two years in Parsons, had an exposition in the Bronx Museum of the Arts, worked in a studio on 28th in the Garment District, and lived in an apartment at 81st and 3rd.

When did you decide to relocate to Miami?

I was working a lot to hold on to the art studio and apartment. I wanted to be in the studio all the time and, to be honest, I was getting a little lonely. I decided to come to Miami in 1987 when my parents moved there from Puerto Rico and my brother from Connecticut. I came in search of companionship, but I’m very independent, and mingling doesn’t come easily for me. I had a small studio at the South Florida Art Center on Lincoln Road and worked for two years at an architecture firm as I had in Boston to supplement my income. Adapting to Miami was difficult because if you don’t belong to groups, the place it’s not going to work for you. It was during this time that I met Lisa Austin on a flight from Miami to New York. She ended up purchasing some of my artwork for the South East Bank, and later, in 1988, she commissioned two paintings from me for Marty Fine. The works were installed in a lobby where Gloria Luria, then the most important dealer in Miami, spotted them. She came to my small apartment in Coral Gables, we spoke, and then she said to me, “I am going to represent you.” She gave me two expositions, and through the gallery exhibitions I became connected with the Miami group of collectors and artists, including Carol Brown, Karen Rifas, Robert Huff and Bob Thiele, among others. I’ve always associated myself with them and attended the expositions of American artists. The 1990s through 2000 were a wonderful time for gallery sales and exhibitions. In 1994 I completed the series of the ships: Written on Water, that would be exhibited in the Joyce Goldstein Gallery in New York in 1995. When the Cuban rafts began arriving in 1994, I got interested in sea currents, maps and navigation books, and I investigated trade routes, island names, and locales. I realized the sea had as much history as the land, that it had a narrative, and so I created a series based on islands. Each had a story. The oil paintings were chronicles connected to the sculptures of ships. They go with the history—that is to say, the sculptures form dyptychs with the paintings. In this series I also worked with the four elements: air, fire, water and earth. Mysticism interested me and served as a guiding thread.

After 2000, in order to fulfill sizeable commissions, I dedicated myself to public art. Problematically, the galleries that had represented me were closing (Gloria Luria, Bianca Lanza, Gutiérrez Fine Arts, and Bernice Steinbaum). After the financial crisis of 2008 I kept painting, but not with the same intensity, and I moved away from constant studio work.

What did you do then?

An opportunity to travel to Colombia came up in 2011. I rented a small studio and started working in painting and drawing again—a series that took the Bogotá savanna as its subject. I’d never lived in mountain country, and the landscape fascinated me. Inspired by the travelogues of Alexander von Humboldt, I visited various places in the savanna and did an artist journal a large format book with drawings of the countryside, its people, its fauna and its vegetation, along with recollections of my experiences. The book is titled “Genius Loci,” the spirit of the place, its essence.

I’m interested in understanding the art of memory and using the visual image as a means of remembering. I’m investigating the theory of mnemonic devices, the importance of the five senses, the role of the image in conclusive thinking. Thought is visual. The imagination is present in a process that is not programmed. You remember many things and then you synthesize them. Tying together concepts that explain complex things is fascinating to me. For example, I love Octavio Paz’s book, “Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz o las trampas de la fe.” I am interested in hermeticism, the Kabbalah, theories for explaining human phenomena, the idea of imagination in art, alchemy. I enjoy finding common traits among plants, animals, stars, and human beings—coincidences that have been there, always, and that serve as a foundation for numerous things. In this way I move from the macro to the micro.

In recent years you’ve made many enormously enriching trips.

After Colombia I was able to travel quite a lot. I visited India, Morocco, Patagonia, Russia, Chile and Peru. Travel shakes things up. I started to do “Travel Journals” in 2000 with the suitcase book of 17 pieces “Miami Geneva”] These include sketches, drawings and writing. On a trip to Patagonia in 2015, I loved taking in the countryside and experiencing its calmness. Throughout the trips I would document what I saw. The “Book of Patagonia” Chile/Argentina 2015, features the geometric layout of a map. The grid is always present in the maps, the details.

The written words may become paintings as in the case of “ the flowers insist on growing “ . There is also a connection to the journals of Alexander von Humbolt, following his steps in Colombia. An exhibition featuring my travel journals is being planed at the Center for Book Arts in New York.

The trips have also influenced the technical aspect of your work.

I traveled to India in 2014 and brought back natural pigments that I mix with resin and use on paper and canvas. I mix my own paint, and the way the pigments are used allow my paintings to achieve transparency. I like watercolor and how the light comes from within the works. The issue with expressionism in the US is one of “macho” materialism rooted in heavy paint and the brutality of the gesture. It doesn’t have any connection to a feminine sensibility—it loses that sensibility. But transparencies allow me to restore that sensibility—a delicacy of execution. The works of Helen Frankenthaler and Georgia O’Keeffe, who also painted without relief or texture, are points of reference. Eventually I returned to lyrical and geometric abstraction. Using natural pigments and crayons, I created a new series, “Constellations and Constructions”. Here geometry is drawn after the fact, underneath the gestural forms. The free gesture is like a counterpoint to the strict geometry. A León Ferrari exposition in Buenos Aires inspired me, and I made an alphabet of gestures. I also make references to numerology. My ink drawings are a type of Haiku: minimal things of minimal gestures.

I have also made pieces comprised of multiple elements that can be combined in various ways. The work “Suite 70” (2017), for example, consists of seven pieces that can be installed in various combinations. Each work has considerable potential for development. With all of them, there is a mixture of geometry with free gesture, but gestures are controlled, it comes to a halt right when it hits the grid lines. It is an expression of controlled movement as in a ballet. You’ve returned to Miami and the environment is still quite prevalent in your work. That’s right. In the larger works like “Twelve Moons Biscayne Bay” (2017), in which I represent the water and the day, the “feeling of water” is what I encounter there. Now I’m working on the series “Constellations” about the night, and without a doubt it’ll have to do with the heavens of whatever other place in which I find myself.