MIAMI — In the early 1960s, Rafael Soriano received a spiritual revelation — a divine intervention — in a dream. The painter was napping, explains his daughter, Hortensia, in an interview for the New York Times, and he “felt himself levitate above his bed.” Then, says Hortensia, a figure appeared and spoke to Soriano: “‘Rafael, where do you want to go?’ He said he wanted to go see his little house back in Matanzas.” The figure brought Soriano to Matanzas, where a herd of wild horses galloped down a hill, threatening to trample everything in their path. Soriano knew then that he, like Thomas Wolfe, couldn’t go home again. Still, upon waking, he arose out of a years-long creative blockage and began to paint.
The dream has all the elements of Soriano’s late work: divine transmission; displacement; the temporal interjected by the spiritual. The Artist as Mystic, an exhibition on view at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum — it was originally organized by the McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, in collaboration with the Rafael Soriano Foundation — features more than 90 of his paintings and drawings, beginning with his experimentation in Cuban abstraction and ending with the years preceding his death, when the flat planes of his early work softened and lifted, like a bird in flight. Geometric forms gave way to curvy, illuminated, surrealistic images; in the ’80s and ’90s, Soriano’s paintings all looked a bit like the cosmos. The show presents Soriano as a kind of practical mystic: a dreamer at once fascinated by God and doggedly aware of his own mortality.
That Matanzas dream came shortly after the Cuban Revolution; in 1962, Soriano fled Cuba for Miami with his wife and daughter. But the sense of exile left him distressed and uninspired. According to a placard accompanying his painting, “La gitana (The Gypsy)” (1965), he’s quoted as having said, “[M]y uprooting was such that for two years I couldn’t paint.” Prior to his move, Soriano’s abstract paintings had garnered wide acclaim, and he eventually went on to co-found the collective Los Diez Pintores Concretos (Ten Concrete Painters), whose ideological philosophies and concepts were reduced to bright colors and uncomplicated planes.
Works from this time are playful and linear, stylized with wide angles. I love “Juego infantil (Children’s Game),” a 1950s gouache piece in which the depicted shapes look like bursts of energy, a rainbow of clustered lines thinning into spinning-top points. There’s a theme of kinetic buoyancy in pieces like the oil painting “Luciérnaga (Firefly)” (1955), where geometric outlines appear to float in space, or in “Plenilunio (Full Moon)” (1953), with its adoration for the seemingly weightless moon. Even in the 1950s — and especially in the 1940s, before his lines temporarily took on a hard geometry — one could’ve foreshadowed his later, far more cosmic oeuvre.
Soriano’s work doesn’t yield to typical notions of artistic evolution, the idea that one must continually reinvent himself. Despite the stark differences between each period of his work, one can find a wondrous thread throughout. Like the magic present in his earlier paintings, a strange geometry infuses the later work; Soriano was always interested in preternatural luminosity. In “El filósofo (The Philosopher”) (1974), the subject’s face, its Picasso-esque jigsawing, appears to emerge from darkness, glowing and stoic.
The dark became a constant. I’d be remiss to describe any of Soriano’s post-exile work as sad, but they contain a somber liminality: a feeling of not quite here, nor there, either. His paintings from the 1970s through the ’90s are deep —blacks, dark purples, rich indigos — but their figurative forms are willowy, wispy: biomorphic peels and curves that evoke a space in between worlds. A note in my journal, scrawled quickly while exploring the exhibition, reads: “Thinking of Alexander Grey.” This is a visually inaccurate comparison (an embarrassing one, too), but ideologically speaking, it isn’t too far removed: bodies glow, faces melt into aquatic layers, forms take on alien qualities.
In a section devoted to work from the 1990s, there’s an easel from Soriano’s studio, along with a striking photograph of the artist. Soriano sits in a plush chair, a billowy curtain to his left, pastels and paint to his right. He looks calm, at ease, and decisively alone; he reminds me of the Hermit Tarot card and its corresponding archetype, that wise old figure seeking spirituality, lit by the light of his own lantern, nothing more. Soriano seemed to move through his life, ever onward toward its end, with an inexplicable grace, documenting each phase however surrealistically. As a placard at the exhibition quotes him: “‘The anxieties and sadness of exile brought in me an awakening. I began to search for something else … And I went from geometric painting to a painting that is spiritual. I believe in God, I believe in the spirit.’”
Rafael Soriano: The Artist as Mystic continues at The Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum (Florida International University, Modesto Maidique Campus, 10975 SW 17th Street, Miami) through January 28.