Cuban-born Zilia Sanchez is an abstract painter and one of the most influential art teachers in Puerto Rico. She has imbued geometric abstractions, painted on shaped canvases, with erotic sensuality. Her shaped paintings are suggestive of female bodies that sometimes look like ocean waves. The undulating and sensuous forms of her work deal with metaphysical themes of loss and displacement as she considers herself to be an outsider: an exile, female artist, and a lesbian.
Sanchez was born in Havana and studied art at the Escuela Elemental de Artes Plasticas Aplicadas for two years before attending the Escuela National de Bellas Artes “San Alejandro” from 1943 to 1948. While she abandoned plans to become an architect, she states that “the affinity for architecture is something that has always been inside of me.” In 1966, she studied conservation at the Instituto Central de Conservacion y Restauracion in Madrid. Her work as a conservator helped her support herself when she was living in New York in the 1960s and studying printmaking at Pratt Institute. Moreover, it allowed her the freedom to make her unique shaped paintings.
In 1971, Sanchez settled in Santorce, a district in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She created photomontages and experimental graphic designs for a short-lived avant-garde literary journal. She made paintings that incorporated raised sections of canvas. Her technique was to stretch canvas over handmade wooden armatures and apply acrylic paint and ink while the canvas lay flat. She has continued in this way up to the present time.
Her curvilinear forms and muted palette of blue, gray, and cream suggest sensual nude bodies or abstracted topographies. She employs geometry and imagery related to female mythological figures, such as Antigone or Amazon women. Her three-dimensional paintings often protrude into space, and sometimes Sanchez joins multiple canvases together whose openings recall various human orifices.
Harmony, doubling, and balance are central to her abstract forms. Two panels of “Soy Isla” (I Am an Island: Understand and Retreat), 1969-96, fit together almost exactly. “I am after a harmony between two forces.” While “Soy Isla” is hard-edged, its raised surface makes her work softer and more human.
In the wake of Hurricane Maria she remains in the remnants of her studio where she had worked for nearly fifty years. Her former students came to help her rebuild her studio, which she envisions having a protective concrete box around it.
Her identification as a gay Cuban woman made her work invisible for decades to major art institutions in Europe and the United States. Her art was rarely seen outside Puerto Rico. She was discovered by American audiences in 2013 when her work was shown at the Artists Space in New York City. She exhibited at the 2017 Venice Biennal, and her work was seen in “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-85” at the Brooklyn Museum in 2018.
She had her first retrospective of 65 paintings, sculptures,and sketches at the age of ninety-three at The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. from February to May, 2019. This retrospective then opened at New York’s El Museo del Barrio in October, 2019. Its title, “Zilia Sanchez: Soy Isla (I Am an Island)” refers to her alienation both as a Latin American artist and as a woman.