Artists Space presents a survey exhibition spanning sixty years of work by Puerto Rico based artist Zilia Sánchez. Born in Cuba in 1928, and trained in art and design at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro, Sánchez has since the early 1950s developed a practice in painting, drawing and printmaking that is highly significant when considering the seemingly resolved history of minimalism.

Sánchez’s early work in Cuba developed an approach to formal abstraction through the production of paintings and drawings, alongside the design of furniture and theater sets. Influenced by the Havana based modernist painter Victor Manuel, she became associated with a group of artists and intellectuals known as Sociedad Cultural Nuestro Tiempo. Her scenographic work with a “guerilla” theater group called Los Yesistas (The Plasterers) signaled her involvement with a pre-revolutionary, anti-Batista workers movement. As a result of regular exhibitions in Havana she received work and travel grants enabling her to travel to Europe, before moving to New York in 1964. Living in the city for eight years and studying at Pratt Institute, she began working with elaborated stretcher frames in order to produce shaped canvases, painted in neutral tones and emphasizing a sculptural abstraction of bodily form. Alongside ink drawings of multiplying cellular constellations, her paintings have often taken on a modular character, comprised of two or more abutting parts. This seriality has become a cornerstone of Sánchez’s practice: she continues to rework and add to paintings begun in the 1970s, considering each work to be a part of a larger whole. Alongside the sensual and haptic “queering” of a hard-edged, minimalism, her multi-part works bear relation to the temporal and semiotic sequencing of musical notation.

In 1972 Sánchez moved to Puerto Rico, where she continues to live today. Between 1972 and 1975 she designed the literary journal Zona de Carga y Descarga (Zone of Charging and Discharging), a short-lived but highly influential publication that marked a moment of openness and experimentation in Puerto Rican writing and reading, involving previously marginalized Latin American, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Nuyorican, women and homosexual writers. Sánchez’s use of photomontage, innovative typesetting and layered layouts of image and text inscribed into the publication a fractured topology that paralleled fellow contributor and Cuban author Severo Sarduy’s theorizing of writing in his 1969 collection of essays Written On a Body, and in texts that directly addressed Sánchez’s paintings. Zona was configured as both place and practice, intrinsically connected to Sánchez’s work as “actualizing in space (and in the skin of the canvas)... the ludic meaningfulness of language, as both a tense, a wracked, and a martyred system of differential signs, and as a related erotic display of desire...” Since the 1980s such textural and scriptural qualities within Sánchez’s paintings have become more defined, through line drawings on the surface of the canvas that indicate an undefined syntax, including the occasional literal appearance of figurative transfers of semaphore and sign language.

Equal to her position as an artist, Sánchez’s influence in Puerto Rico has been felt through her teaching; since the 1980s she has taught weekly at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas de Puerto Rico, becoming a central figure for artists graduating from the school. Her work however has seldom been exhibited outside of Puerto Rico – the exhibition at Artists Space marks a significant and long overdue overview of her practice, including paintings, drawings and design work from the 1950s up to the present day.