Francisca Sutil is a Chilean abstract artist who lived in New York from 1977 until 1992, when she returned to Santiago, Chile, where she currently lives and works. She came to New York to study printmaking at Pratt Institute. In 1978, she discovered papermaking and, within a short time that included a basic how-to class, mastered the process. Between the late ’70s and mid-’80s, she made abstract works out of cast paper, which she exhibited. Often sculptural, these works were influenced by Ellsworth Kelly and high modernist abstraction, but the intention was quite different. Her changes in medium, from printmaking to making paper and then to painting in the mid-’80s, were motivated by a deep-seated interest in technical processes and the meanings that might arise from their application. For Sutil, process and meaning are inseparable.
Although the paintings Sutil began making in the mid-1980s were labor intensive — requiring the use of flexible blades to apply layers of oil or pigment to smooth, stiff surfaces — they submerged the time and effort that went into their making. She would not call attention to the labor, as she would see that as a sign of vanity. Titles such as “Atma” (which means the higher self in Buddhist and Hindu traditions) and “Ungrund” (a word invented by the Jakob Böhme, the 17th-century German mystic, meaning the ”One”) underscore her focus on the transformation of the material self into a higher form of being. Her interest in layered, luminous color and the relationship between materiality and immateriality has never been purely formal.
Since I learned of Sutil’s work in the early 1980s and began writing about it a few years later, I have thought of her as a chromatic artist. Her current exhibition, Mute, at Nohra Haime (October 1–November 16), marks a major break with her earlier, chromatic work in which mark making was effaced. In the prints, paintings, watercolors and gouaches included in her current show, Sutil strips away everything she does — all the technical processes she developed and mastered — until she is left with one simple, repetitive act that requires intense concentration and a precision that allows for change and accident.
Sutil’s act is to touch the carefully loaded brush to paper or canvas, leaving an imprint, one after another, in rows. The imprint resembles a teardrop, candle flame or fingerprint — water falling, fire rising and elemental human sign. Austere and direct, even naked, each imprint is an act of prayer, praise, devotion and humility. It is a way of marking and honoring time’s relentless unfolding in which infinity is the only destination. The placement of each impression influences the orientation of the following, adjacent impression. Each is definitive. Nothing is altered. There is no going back.
Sutil’s directness amounts to a refusal to posture or make grand claims, which seems to be a necessary move in today’s scene. Instead of making an attention-grabbing gesture amid the media hubbub, she chooses to be mute. On that level, her art seems to have little to do with what has been proclaimed by art commissars to be relevant to the public and thus to the world. Her repudiation of all the verbal and visual rhetoric we have come to expect from art — declarations of social significance being paramount — comes as a welcome relief.
At the same time, I cannot help but think that the recent history of Chile — the overthrow and assassination of President Salvador Allende by Augusto Pinochet and the subsequent deaths, arrests and repression, as well as the devastating earthquake of 2010 — must in some significant way inform the background against which these imprints — these candle flames, tears and fingerprints — have been made.
Applying white gouache or oil paint to a black ground, Sutil starts in the upper left corner, moving across the surface. When she finishes a row, she begins immediately on the next one, but not always. Sometimes she starts mid-row with a new color, or the row trails off uncompleted. For all the uniformity of the shape, each imprint is different, going from dense to translucent. Different clusters and configurations seem on the brink of emerging from and dissolving back into the overall field, which feels as if it is in a state of change. In some rows, the imprints tilt to the left, while in others they lean slightly to the right. The effect is mesmerizing, as our attention keeps refocusing, moving from one to many and back. In the few works where she doesn’t finish a row before beginning the next, she seems to be acknowledging that we break time down into small, manageable passages.
In the watercolors, Sutil first covers the paper with an earth-red wash. There is one in the show with a puddle of dried color that shoots out, like a starburst, from the middle of the paper top edge. As she applied the marks in the first row, Sutil shifted their placement so that they adjusted to the edge of the puddle, which introduced a topographical aspect to the work. The artist is not just leaving an imprint on a blank surface; her strokes are as responsive to the ground as they are to the adjacent marks.
In these works — which mark a new stage in Sutil’s art — I see connections to other artists who count time in their work: Forrest Bess, Roman Opalka, On Kawara and, more distantly, Andrew Masullo in his early mixed media works involving collage and found photographs. Like them, Sutil has found a way to organize the chaos of time, its pitiless erosion of all that we know and hold dear. Put beside something so basic and human as this, the self-aggrandizing claims of social relevance and aesthetic breakthroughs that routinely circulate through the art world seem even more trivial and ridiculous than they already are. Sutil’s recent works are prayer carpets to accompany you on your journey.
Francisca Sutil: Mute is on view at Nohra Haime Gallery (730 Fifth Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through November 16.