Exhibition presented at the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture
Text: Mercedes Trelles Hernández, PhD
Luis Hernández Cruz began his career in the 1960s. During these beginnings, he was enamored of color and deeply influenced by European lyrical abstraction. Towards the end of the decade, however, he veered towards geometrical forms and began experimenting with new materials and formats. He surprised his public by creating emblematic works of art which have become part of the history of Puerto Rico’s avant-garde art movement. After establishing a solid reputation as our premier abstract artist, mastering painting, sculpture and the graphic arts, towards the nineteen eighties his oeuvre revealed an interest in the figure. The body’s silhouette was first insinuated into his painting, and then landscape crept in. Both appeared always sheathed in a screen of painterly marks.
Luis Hernández Cruz, Figurative/Abstract (2008-2012) is the title of the artist’s most recent exhibition. It brings together two types of painting: geometrical abstractions in which the human figure is visible through lattices of intense color, as well as entirely abstract works, in which squares and rectangles resembling pixels or mosaic pieces dominate the paintings’ structure. The first group of paintings - those that include the human figure - were created between 2008 and 2010, after a period of intense exploration on the subject of the artist and his model. The second group of paintings is more recent, created between 2011 and 2012, and it represents his current artistic endeavor. Both groups of works, despite their evident formal differences, contain unexpected elements: a decidedly open eroticism in the paintings of the first series, and an insistent lyrical quality in the second.
A rapid glance at the figurative works seems to deny any claim of an overt eroticism. Standing before Reclining Figure, one intuits great tension, generated by competing visual elements. The colors of this painting are very saturated and contrasting. Its grid, comprised of squares of varying colors, creates a sense of an even larger grid (the effect is similar to that of a patchwork quilt, the patches here being smaller squares of color). Both elements compete for the viewer’s attention, but there is yet another: visible underneath the color and the geometrical forms, there is a reclined figure. It is not rendered in a realistic fashion, rather it is a white mass, in silhouette, clearly identifiable as a woman. The simplicity of its drawing, the woman’s languid and unusual pose, even the large and irregular masses of colors that surge from the figure and resemble a flower’s petals, all of these elements bring to mind the exuberant sensuality of Matisse’s oeuvre. Indeed, both the early Matisse, in love with a contour line’s evocative power, as well as the late Matisse, who drew in color by using scissors, are brought to mind by this figure. At the heart of this painting there seems to be a profound contradiction: a collision between geometric abstraction and the history of (figurative) art.
The tension produced by Reclining Figure is not only generated by its capacity to bring together contradictory aspects of the history of art – such as simultaneous references to the artist and model trope and the dramatic contrast of 1960s Op art, a movement that sought to elicit involuntary eye movement in its viewers. Indeed, the tension this work provokes comes rather from contrasting impulses in the viewer, that is to say, myself. The viewer wants to see the woman, know what the figure is doing, while simultaneously trying to understand the structure of the work of art, the lattice or grid that clouds my view of the woman but actually dominates the whole painting. Between the narrative intention and the organizing structure of the piece, there is yet a third element of tension; spatial tension. The artist invites me to think of this work as geometric abstraction, a bi-dimensional surface, devoid of illusion, while simultaneously presenting the canvas as a screen onto which the figure of the woman appears, creating a sense of fantasy.
Looking around us at the rest of the works in the show, especially at those pieces where there is more than one figure, the erotic reading becomes even more apparent. Once we see more than one figure, we, as readers of the work of art, want to know how they interact. The revelation is that what we are watching – through the screen of geometry and its implied rationality – is contact of an intimate sort: vaguely hidden couplings, implied pleasures. The appearance of these narrative elements, many of them scenes culled from European movies, alerts us to the artist’s interest in modernity’s visual culture.
Geometry and desire are not words that appear together on a regular basis. The world of rationality is frequently pitted against the world of instinct and the body. In this extraordinary group of paintings by Luis Hernández Cruz, the artist returns to the temptation of working with the human figure, one that has existed in his work for several decades. But temptation is turned here into a tangible element. Our gaze is charged with desire in an assertive fashion: what we see leads directly to desire and geometry becomes the screen through which desire is negotiated.
Turning our sights now towards the artist’s most recent production, there seems to be a very clear relation between these pictures and the first “erotic” series. Both groups of paintings feature a strong use of the grid and initially, the most glaring difference between one series and the other is simply the removal of the human figure and the transformation of color. In this more recent series of works, Hernández Cruz works with a less saturated palette with a greater number of complimentary colors, a decision that yields, occasionally, surprisingly lyrical passages. However, there is a greater similarity between these two series of works; indeed, we could speak of a joyous referential density in both series. In these works, as in their predecessors with their cinematic references, there are strong echoes of the history of painting, a pairing of distant and recent references. These abstract paintings imply a vast cultural background, they bear witness to the culture of painting.
Marrakesh is a good example. It is a large scale painting which is differentiated from the rest of the series by its extensive use of black and rather dramatic color contrasts. Upon seeing it for the first time, the spectator may think, vaguely, about fabric and weaving, a reference that seems somewhat anthropological, yet the bright color palette brings the work securely into the present. Looking more closely, something extraordinary happens: one has the vague sensation of watching a work of art weaving itself into the history of paining. The composition of this work centers on a vertical strip and two lateral ones, which brings to mind Barnett Newman’s “zip” paintings. Yet it is not the tension between vertical height and lateral space that dominates this work, as happens in the Abstract Expressionist’s work, but rather a sense of continuous eye movement, a seemingly perpetual wandering of sight on the surface of the work, often referred to as an “all over” composition. The grid seems to resemble a map, and that, coupled with the “all over” composition, brings to mind in the overwhelming joy of the exiled Piet Mondrian, living in New York, fascinated by jazz music, creating his masterpiece, Broadway Boogie Woogie.
Most artists nowadays fail to enjoy comparisons to other artists’ works. The search for a proper language seems to require that painstaking years of training and centuries of history stay mute. That is never the case when faced with a work by Luis Hernández Cruz. As a spectator, one is instantly aware of a distinctive, personal style, which can be summarized by pointing out his passion for color, his consuming interest in landscape, painstakingly transformed into abstraction, and his geometric discipline, against which he often rebels. However, Hernández Cruz has never ceased to be himself a spectator, a lover and a connoisseur of modern painting. Perhaps in his works the spectator and the artist coalesce so seamlessly because he spent decades in the class room. Be that as it may, when looking at his works, the history of painting is not mute, but rather resonates within his own paintings. Let us be clear: this is not a case of post/modern appropriation, although he has occasionally done just that. It is rather the revelation of a consuming visual passion, an appetite for painting, resounding throughout his works.
Once located within the mindset of a constant dialogue with the history of art, we find traces of the history of painting everywhere in this new series of works. We have already mentioned Matisse, both early and late, as well as Op Art, Barnett Newman and Piet Mondrian. I can think visually of yet others whose paintings are brought to mind by our incomparable San Juan abstract painter. For example, Thermographic Register brings to mind Gustav Klimt with his tesserae-like painting technique and his golden coloring, while Secret Code II and The Entrance to the Garden of Eden bring to mind Chuck Close, due to their interest in the square as an element reminiscent of a photographic pixel. 6:00PM NYC, on the other hand, with its light color palette and irregular notations, recalls Seurat’s measured applications with the brush, creating structure with texture. Some of the works of this group, such as Lyrical Suite II and Lyrical Suite III, bring to mind earlier works of his: works created in the 1960s, in which the artist debated between the poetry of color and the hard edge of geometrical abstraction and new materials, such as aluminum and fiberglass. And of course, throughout this section of current works, there are echoes of Venezuela’s Kinetic artists, especially Carlos Cruz Diez and Jesús Rafael Soto, both contemporaries and equals of our Puerto Rican artist.
To look at Luis Hernández Cruz’ most recent works from the perspective of art history, nevertheless, is dangerous. Apart from willful acts of appropriation, or direct quotes from another work of art, it is not easy to ascribe references. In fact, references usually betray those who seek them out. Yet even knowing this, I find myself insisting that these paintings by Luis Hernández Cruz, like many others from this extraordinary Puerto Rican artist, are testimonials to his knowledge of and faith in painting.
The works of art shown in the exhibition titled Luis Hernández Cruz: Figurativo/Abstracto (2008-2012) present original, lyrical, rigorous explorations of the meaning of painting. In them he uses small units of color and form to create his own visual universe. This is a cultured and sensual universe, one where abstraction can be the engine of visual desire, generating sensual pleasure. Each form, each color, each line is, for our artist, an affirmation of painting’s desirable body, be it figurative or abstract, geometric or lyrical, erotic or rational.