The proposals surrounding the visual arts currents that constitute geometric abstraction have not ceased to germinate, especially from the second half of the twentieth century through today, when we still see theories ranging from minimalism to conceptual art intersect and confront the legacy of artists such as Donald Judd, Daniel Buren, Sol LeWitt, François Morellet, and many more. José Ángel Rosabal has participated in this artistic tendency for more than sixty years and is distinguished by his singular vision of painting whose purpose is to question the visible in order to create a poetics of his own that forms a marvelous ceremony of knowledge. He knows that an image is also an object whose visual objectification means a representation; it is an embodied meaning.
The painting of José Rosabal has not ceased to explore and deepen the fascinating geometry of the sign and to reach pure, complex, intriguing beauty. He defends the fantasy of an initial harmony and recreates a primitive state, the conditions in which purity is possible, in which object and space are not dissociated. His painting is a process of sublimation elaborated with exemplary methodical skill amidst the ambiguous serenity of silence and an ecstatic tranquility that has something to do with mysticism.
José Rosabal radicalizes the theme of painting as an illusion, as anamorphosis; he reveals the use of perception as a resource of description and narration. His formal creativity is that of an uncompromising artist in each variation he executes from a figurative repertoire limited to his ideal forms of harmonic structures. His is a universe from within that represents immobile images for shifting thoughts.
The artistic response of José Rosabal goes through emotion: it has a deep conviction of the emotive and expressive power of art. His works do not refer exclusively to sensory experiences, but suggest what these experiences allow; that is, to explore his own spirit. He conceives painting not only as a geometric and optical practice, but as a spiritual position (to geometrize is to think…) that conditions the nature of his work and his singular process of representation.
In his work, José Rosabal inscribes signs and colors in space and planes, an innate condition of painting, while in his execution he adds the notion of time. His painting is a “space-time”, the spacing of the place or the form it represents and the presence of the time that gives rise to it. It is the moment and the place in which space and time take shape and merge, in which both become visible, tangible and are experienced physically and spiritually.
José Rosabal is part of a generation of Cuban painters who have taught us that painting is much more than a form of artistic expression: it is from the beginning a concept. It is a space of resistance against the images of power, the poor and banal images in fashion, and the vulgar and commercialized images: sub-images that pass and are quickly consumed. It is a protective shield against the consolidation of a symbolic regime of the visually tawdry. It is healthy, necessary, and hygienic (it cleanses us from bad images). This type of painting is a vector of truth, a vision that allows him to remake the images, to inscribe them in a duration that exceeds their original temporality, and to confer on them an unrepeatable and unique magical halo.
Let’s start with a self-portrait: tell me about your childhood in Cuba, your family…
I was born in Manzanillo in 1935. My family was closely linked to the wars of independence against Spain. My grandmother’s first husband, Ángel de la Guardia Bello, was riding in the manigua of Dos Ríos with José Martí when he was killed; he was the only Mambí witness to his death. He died two years later fighting in the same war with the rank of commander. In time, my grandmother remarried the man who was my grandfather. As a child, I lived for a while with my family in the house of Panchita Rosales Antúnez, widow of Bartolomé Masó, another outstanding General Mambí. I have vivid and beautiful memories of my childhood in Manzanillo.
But in my family there neither were nor had been artists. My father was not really an intellectual but he read a lot. Also, he was strongly linked to the literary and artistic circles of Manzanillo and associated with the tertutlias (gatherings) that were held on weekends in Céspedes Park. He was a close friend of the intellectual, writer and promoter of the arts Juan Francisco Sariol who, in his printing house El Arte, created the modernist magazine Orto, a publication with a liberal approach that dealt with aesthetic-literary topics. It published texts on cinema, music, ethics, history, and above all on the visual arts. It was the group around Orto, my father among them, who in the 1940s invited the Cuban painter Carlos Enriquez to exhibit in the city. My father not only collaborated with the magazine but also published articles in it.
When did art become the focus of your life?
I always liked to draw. I remember that from a very young age, I always drew and copied figures from books, from newspapers, something I always continued to do. I was constantly doing it, I kept drawing with lines and colors. When I was about 9 years old my parents separated. My mother, my siblings, and I moved to Havana. My father married again and also moved to the capital. After high school, while still a teenager and out of self-interest, I began to visit museums regularly. My brother Joaquín and I, perhaps stimulated by the cultural atmosphere at home, had always had strong artistic interests, he in literature and I in art. In my case, I continued to paint enthusiastically on my own; at some point, with the support of my family, I decided to enter the Academia San Alejandro where I received academic training.
What made you decide to become a visual artist?
I don’t remember anyone, not even a painter or artist, who helped me or encouraged me to become an artist. Everything was spontaneous and natural. For example, I met Mariano Rodriguez when I was young because his family lived near my father’s house in Almendares. He used to visit my dad and his wife. Like almost everyone else, in the afternoons we would go out to sit on the porch and talk to people, neighbors and everyone who passed by, Mariano among them. I always greeted him, and we would talk for a while. One day, my father showed him a portfolio of my work; they were geometric drawings. He told him that geometry was what was in vogue in contemporary art and that I should follow that path. It was not until after I finished my six years of studies in San Alejandro, after the revolution of 1959, that I got to know him better at the Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba (Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba). We established a good friendship. Years later, I met and worked at the Palacio de Bellas Artes with Celeste, his second wife.
How do you assess the education you received?
I studied at the San Alejandro annex and, in general, it was a good experience, a very rigorous academic education. I had good teachers like Esteban Valderrama, Ramón Loy, Florencio Gelabert, and María Ariza, among others. In spite of the academic demands, some of them were very liberal towards contemporary art; they allowed it, they talked about the new artistic trends, but they did not encourage the students to experiment. When I was at the Academy, I really liked to draw human figures – the naked body of the human being is very beautiful – something I still sometimes continue to do.
How have you evolved as an artist?
While in San Alejandro I learned the essential principles of painting, I avidly read art magazines on my own. Frequently, Servando Cabrera Moreno, my friend, invited me to his house to consult contemporary art magazines and books that were not easy to find. By then, I used to regularly visit the art galleries in Havana. In those years at the end of the 1950s, abstract expressionism, gestural geometry, and concrete geometry (hard-edge) were in vogue and could be found all over the city.
Thus, around 1957 or so, I got to know and frequently visited Loló Soldevilla’s Color Luz gallery, and also Florencio García Cisneros’ Galería Cubana. A decade later, already living in New York, I exhibited in the gallery he had in the city, together with artists such as Hugo Consuegra, Carmen Herrera, Waldo Balart and Agustín Fernández, among others. In the 1950s it was common for us to meet at the gallery that Cisneros had in Havana with other San Alejandro students, especially those who were not defenders of the academy; those who, like me, had a greater affinity for contemporary art. There were spontaneous get-togethers, we talked a lot about art and an intense atmosphere of debate was created; it was really an interesting place. In his gallery, Cisneros exhibited a lot of abstract painting by Cuban and international artists, especially Venezuelan. We would also meet frequently in the central courtyard of the Museo de Bellas Artes (National Museum) to talk about art; and spend hours and hours talking.
With regard to your friend Salvador Corratgé, I didn’t meet him in San Alejandro; it was later, in the art world. On the other hand, the ones I met at the school were Carmelo González and José Mijares. It was in my last year at San Alejandro. They both taught there.
I had a friendship with Carmelo and his wife. He was more of a figurative painter, often with political and social motifs. However, he never said anything to me about abstraction that interested me. He didn’t care whether I did it or not.
It was with Mijares that I got into geometric painting, and we maintained a friendship until his death. I used to visit him a lot at his Havana house in San Miguel Street where he lived with his partner, the art critic Rosa Oliva. In exile, when I went to Miami, I would stop by to see him, and we would often talk on the phone. I collaborated with him on more than one editorial project. For example, in the 1970s he invited me to illustrate the literary magazine Alacrán Azul. Mijares was bohemian and very sociable. Lezama Lima, with his endless language, spoke of him with affection and fascination. Despite his marked interest in geometric abstraction, Mijares sporadically continued to do figurative painting commercially. He painted elongated, sad figures that were almost monochromatic, but they sold. Rosa would go to the corner of Galiano and Neptuno with a couple of them under her arm and sell them to the people passing by. The years in which he dedicated himself to concrete art, at the end of the 50’s, were Mijares’ best years. It was then that Loló Soldevilla included him as a member of the group of the 10 Pintores Concretos. Years later, Sandú Darié invited me to join this group through Corratgé. For me, it was a short but transcendental experience.
Are you reluctant to explain your work, to take a critical approach?
I am a person of few words, and I don’t like to explain my work. I paint and that’s it. I don’t like to do literature of art; if I did, I would write. I think that this is the work of others, and it is not for me. However, I am pleased to see how others discover my painting and I listen to what they have to say. But all my cues are given when I paint, in the painting itself.
Which artists have influenced you and which ones do you still admire?
The first artists that influenced me were the universal masters of painting, such as Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Velázquez, and Goya, among others; but the ones I identified with were those I discovered in contemporary art magazines. First were the French artists Auguste Herbin, with whom Carmen Herrera established a friendship in Paris, and Serge Poliakoff. Then, the American abstract expressionists, and later, Ellsworth Kelly, whose work I already knew from Cuba. When I came to live in New York, at MoMA I was able to encounter Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhart’s pieces, as well as other artists of that generation. There was a lot of minimalism in those years, and in the New York galleries there was a lot of geometric painting, like that of Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella and Brice Marden, who are artists I still admire.
From a distance, how do you judge your generation, that of the 1960s?
I am not one to judge anyone or anything. There is no doubt that, like all young people, we had many illusions with regard to the group of artists that emerged in Cuba in the 1960s, but for many they were not fulfilled. The 1959 revolution set a guideline, a path, and many were enthusiastic about the changes that were taking place, but the scene darkened very quickly. A closed-mindedness set in. Immediately, the need to defend a political ideology was imposed on art, and suddenly a struggle between figuration and abstraction broke out. It was a lacerating, emasculating battle, and all for nothing. The communists wanted a didactic art, with a message; for me it was nonsense. Although there was no explicit censorship, there were zones of silence that discouraged many.
At the time, my close friends were Umberto Peña, who unfortunately recently passed away, Eduardo Cerviño, Juan Boza, Orfilio Urquiola, Osneldo García, Lesbia Vent Dumois, Ñica Eiriz, Guido Llinás, Ofelia Gronlier, Ana Rosa Gutiérrez, and Alfredo Sosabravo, among others. If you review the list, you will see that little by little almost all of us have ended up living outside Cuba in search of other horizons, of fresh air.
What is your relationship with Cuban artists?
In the last decade, I have returned in a stable way to exhibit my work with Cuban artists, which pleases me a lot, because it has reconnected me with the past that I had put behind my back, and especially because it reunites me with young people. I have managed to have a relationship with several of them.
It all started in Miami with the exhibition The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction 1950-2013 in Art Space Virginia Miller Galleries, which was a recreation of a historical exhibition, parallel to a Havana Biennial, entitled Pinturas del Silencio, I believe in 1997. That Havana exhibition was intended to visit the steps of the degree of “abandonment” of abstraction in Cuba, rather of than a non-open censorship. The previous exhibition of abstract painting took place in 1963. The Silent Shout showed works by dead and old artists, such as Loló, Hugo Consuegra, Sandú Darié, Pedro de Oraá and myself, but also by younger artists such as Carlos García de la Nuez, Luis Enrique López-Chávez and José Ángel Vincench, who was one of the curators along with Janet Batet and Rafael DiazCasas. It was a resurgence that had a lot of local and international press coverage and had an impact on what came after.
For me, it was an important exhibition for several reasons. Among them, I was able to meet again after more than four decades with my youthful friend Salvador Corratgé, who happened to be visiting Miami, and with whom I had an exhibition two years later, despite his sudden and sad death. I also met again with Pedro de Oraá, whom I had not seen since the days of the group of the 10 Pintores Concretos. We met again in New York for the Concrete Cuba exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery, and finally in Havana for the XII Biennial.
Since The Silent Shout, a mutual friendship with Vincench was born, which has kept us in touch, and today we are studying the possibility of doing a project together. This is something that excites me because I respect his work for its artistic quality and conceptual integrity, despite the restrictions.
Also, I have been in contact with a very active group of young artists from Manzanillo, the city where I was born. Among them, and especially with José Yaque, who has even visited me here in New York City. I don’t know if you have noticed, but something happened in Manzanillo with abstraction. Many artists from there have become interested in abstract art, like Julio Girona, Joaquin Ferrer and Yaque, who uses it, among other artists whose names I don’t remember now. These encounters with young Cuban artists have been something very stimulating that helps me to continue working, because despite the decades of exile and the “uprooting” the connection with the place where I come from is still strong and emotional. I feel very Cuban.
Tell me about your creative process.
I like to draw; I like to paint. I do a lot of sketches, I draw a lot, I color them, I look at them and recreate them again and, in the end, I definitely transfer them to paint, to canvas. This is the essence of my process.
Before painting, I make an infinite number of sketches, previous projects to choose what I want to keep. The sketches are trial and error, I make changes on the changes. Still, when I paint, I don’t lack spontaneity, despite having worked on the idea beforehand. There are times when I also modify my final sketches, if you will. It is like a kind of “gestural geometry”, where somehow improvisation and spontaneity are still alive. There is no doubt that concrete geometry is rational. For me its essence is to combine and compose with geometric shapes I like, such as the square, the rectangle, the triangle, the circle, and the semi-circle. I feel very well working with them.
So, as I adjust the composition, I do the same with the colors. I play with their intensity and look for contrast. Of the infinite range of colors, I feel better working with the bright-intense ones, although I have used pastel tones on occasion.
For me, it is clear that a color changes its value when it is next to another; independently the colors do not work in the same way. In my work process the relationship between colors is important, and it has a lot to do with Josef Albers’ color theory. When I paint, I play with these ideas of combinations, I play around. When I put a red next to a green, when I put a yellow next to a red… I experiment with their values and tones.
Knowing and dealing with these color theories helped me a lot during the years I was working in textile design; I put them into practice on a daily basis. It was an intense and interesting time of a lot of visual exercise with color, which somehow, I see now coming out in my painting. I cannot hide the fact that I like color, I do not restrict myself in its use, and I am not afraid of it. In my paintings of the last few years, you will find that there is an explosion of color, a full use of it.
Likewise, none of this prevents me from sometimes, when I feel like doing something expressionist or purely gestural, I do it too. I don’t limit myself. But at least, those impulses have been left more and more behind, because I identify myself with the geometric.
What is your relationship with the other arts? What is their importance in your life and work?
I like ballet and music very much. I enjoy ballet, the movement, the beauty of the dancers’ bodies in movement in the space. In some of the last series of paintings, I have given a lot of importance to the movement, the optics, and the rhythm of the visual movement. When I compose a painting, I create a visual rhythm, and it helps me to take into account the rhythm of movement that I experience in a dance or ballet performance. Moreover, formally, when composing visually in my head, I often refer to the music, both classical and popular, that I listen to on a daily basis. Opera is an art form that fascinates me, because of the drama and grandiloquence of the spectacle. I was for years a subscriber to the Metropolitan Opera House here in New York, but since the pandemic I have not returned. I can’t walk like I used to.
In my painting, I also maintain a dialogue with cinema, which sometimes provides me with themes. I watch and enjoy a lot of classic movies, especially American, what is known as old Hollywood. I enjoy its transcendental themes and the drama between characters that sometimes gives motifs to my paintings: they are transfigured for me in geometric shapes and colors.
Definitely, one of the arts with which I converse the most is architecture; I am fascinated by new buildings. New York is the ideal city for that, it’s constantly renewing itself. It’s incredible how fast it’s built here, how fast the city changes. In more than one painting I have tried to capture the boiling of that growth, its rhythm and dynamics. I have lived for decades in Manhattan’s Upper West Side and the buildings around me never cease to inspire me.
For example, I have a predilection for the architecture of Jean Nouvel. He has designed several buildings here, but there is one in particular in the Chelsea area that is very interesting to me because of the abstract way he defines the façade. It creates a very particular tension, when he covers the entire semi-curved façade by combining windows of different sizes and shapes that simulate a certain chaos by pointing in different directions. The way Nouvel organizes those windows reminds me of how Mondrian internally organized his paintings. With that building in mind, I painted a series I called Windows.
When and why did you go into exile?
In 1968. It was a decision that had strong family and professional roots at the same time. At the age of 30 I had never left the island and I needed to leave; I needed it, particularly for my artistic training.
I felt an incredible attraction to the world, to face museums, to see the works of artists I knew through books and magazines. In Cuba at that time, in painting circles, if you had not had European training, you were not considered. Those who had not been to Paris or New York were not respected. You can imagine that not having traveled abroad made me feel insecure. Insecure because of my knowledge, because of my way of expressing myself artistically. It was not the same to be looking at the works in publications as to be in front of them directly in a museum, to see their scale, to analyze their execution, etc.
At that time, New York was vibrating with the Pop Art of Andy Warhol and Lichtenstein, the group we already know, and Minimalism was also on the rise. And in Cuba, none of that was to be seen. The Revolution was not interested in abstraction. Although nobody was forbidden to paint abstractions, there was no doubt that in Cuba after 1959 abstract art was out of place. It was not appreciated, it was perceived as elitist, and it was accused of turning its back on reality. After three or four years of the change of government, the situation became tense.
Those were difficult times. My sisters had left the country, and my brother and I were left with my mother. Both of us were forced to work in agriculture for several months before we were allowed to leave the country. When I said I was thinking of leaving, I lost my job at the Palacio de Bellas Artes as Lezama Lima’s assistant, working with Ofelia Gronlier. By that time Umberto Peña had already invited me to the Taller Experimental de Gráfica. Meanwhile, I had my studio in the house of Julio Berestein, the national museum’s official photographer. That decision of wanting to leave immediately turned you into a stinker; people stopped treating you, visiting you, and greeting you in public, out of fear. Even so, many supported me. For example, I remember Marta Arjona, an intellectual and artist very committed to the Government, who became a cultural official. She was very kind to me, and very helpful even though she asked me to rethink my decision to migrate.
I still love my birth country and I can practically say that mine was not an exile, but a voluntary departure. Nobody forced me to leave, as they do now, I simply wanted and needed to live abroad, to have other experiences, but at that time that was not possible, everything was very radical, in black and white. In those years many artists sought government scholarships or diplomatic posts to have those experiences and be able to travel, as Corratgé did, but that was not my case.
How was your life in exile?
It was difficult. I never returned to Cuba, because the whole situation became very complicated with the Cold War, travel became complicated, and I had almost no family left there. In the United States, after trying many times to find a place as an artist, it became complicated. At first in New York, I exhibited in institutions and galleries that concentrated on showing artists of Latin origin, but I had subsistence problems and left painting aside for a while.
I taught art in different schools and universities; with Juan Downey for example, a conceptual artist of Chilean origin with whom I had a close friendship. While stumbling around I met again with Inverna Lockpez, a very interesting young artist and member of Grupo Espacio, the second group founded by Loló Soldevilla. She had been living here [New York City] for some time and gave me good advice, but like me, she was looking for her own path. I later learned that she came to make a mark in art in New York with the gallery she created at INTAR.
In those early years, I also met Waldo Diaz-Balart and worked in his studio; he became a close friend. He had already distanced himself from the Andy Warhol circle where he moved, and soon after he went to live in Europe. It was Waldo who introduced me to Carmen Herrera. She was always a respectable lady who enjoyed a stable economic situation provided by her husband. We frequently shared many times in exhibitions and with common friends, such as the architect Enrique Fuentes and with the architect and painter, soul of the Cuban group Los Once, Hugo Consuegra.
I knew both of them from Cuba. Enrique crossed the border from Canada after he finished his commitment to design and produce the Cuban Pavilion at the Montreal 1967 fair, together with Vittorio Garatti. Although he had a position in the government as assistant to Celia Sanchez, Fidel Castro’s personal secretary, he was fleeing the persecution that had been unleashed on the island against homosexuals. We are still neighbors today. Consuegra and Rita, his wife, were close friends from Cuba. When in 1962 he said he was leaving the country I never turned my back on him, and we continued to visit each other. We were friends until he died here in Queens, twenty years ago this January.
After a while, I found a stable job as a textile designer, where I met and shared with many artists who were fleeing from Eastern Europe. I had to focus a lot on my job as a designer. It was very time-consuming and hard work; everything was done manually, not with computers as it is now, and I had to work a lot. I spent hours and hours designing, drawing, and painting. After the long hours of work, I had no time or strength left to do my paintings. In those years I traveled a lot to Mexico and Europe, where I met friends. In Paris, I was always warmly received by Guido Llinás. He was a very jovial and cheerful person. Many of the photos of my visits to the city were taken by him.
And you never returned to Cuba?
I didn’t return to Cuba until 2015, and it was only once, at the invitation of Juanito Delgado for his Detrás del Muro project as a result of the 12th Havana Biennial. A few years earlier my work had begun to appear in exhibitions there. It had to do with the renewed attention given to the group of the 10 Pintores Concretos. It was the then curator of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Elsa Vega, who showed my paintings, and since then they have appeared regularly in exhibitions at the museum, which has a considerable amount of my work in its collection.
That visit during the Biennial was unexpected, very hectic, and short, just a few days. At the same time, it was very emotional, because exhibiting on the Malecon, a few blocks away from our last family home in Havana, was a pleasant coincidence. The idea of the portable mural, Fuente de Luz, was to play with the reflection of light on the Caribbean Sea that reaches the wall. Everything went so fast that I was unable to contact old friends and acquaintances. But I had the pleasure of walking along the Prado, sitting in the Parque Central in the same place I used to do as a teenager when I worked for an American shipping agent who had his offices in the Manzana de Gómez.
Now the exhibition La Línea en Fulguración, dedicated to my work, is taking place at the Factoría Habana gallery, but I couldn’t travel. At the moment everything there is very precarious, and I don’t want to expose myself to an accident; besides, there are other legal issues. But I am very happy with the exhibition, and I would like to see it. I was thrilled to know that Cuban institutions kept so much of my work, such as Casa de las Américas, the Taller Experimental de la Gráfica, and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. The one at Casa was a donation for the awards I won. The Taller de Gráfica keeps a very large amount of work that I did there. The Museo Nacional bought one piece from me, but the others were the ones that stayed in my studio at Berestein’s house. Somehow after his mother’s death they ended up there.
In this exhibition, I feel gratitude for the careful selection made by curator Concha Fontela, because many of these artworks had never been exhibited before. There is no doubt that with La Línea … she succeeded in introducing me in Havana to younger generations, as well as in breaking the stereotype that people had of me as the only thing I did was to be a member of the group of the 10 Pintores Concretos, the youngest and today the only one who is still alive.
It has been very pleasant to reencounter my own history, but Rafael DiazCasas is also responsible for this because, as he did with Carmen Herrera, he knew how to find every step I took and has pushed me to continue working. He has done a meticulous work of historical reconstruction that I am grateful for. Decades ago, during a move between Los Angeles and New York, boxes containing materials from my artistic archive were lost. Everything was lost and it has been hard to recover what we have.
What does Cuba represent in your life and in your art?
Artistically, I am pleased and proud to be seen as a Cuban artist, even though I do not live or will not live there. To know that those of my generation, despite the years of silence, remember me and that young people are interested in my work and want to talk to me, is a very pleasant feeling of belonging. This does not happen to me in New York, because somehow, I live more and more isolated.
Besides, you know that in spite of years of living outside the island, of not visiting it for so long, of the obvious uprooting, I feel Cuban. The same thing happened to Carmen Herrera. You are born with that mark; you are from that place. It is astonishing to see how politicians, governments and regimes make an effort to define who one is. It is absurd. In my case, my personal history and that of my family is part of the history of the country. We are the country, we are Cuba.