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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — With a career spanning more than 70 years until his death in 2014, Oswaldo Vigas was a towering figure in Venezuelan modernism — an artist who bridged the gap between pre-Colombian iconography and the experimental art movements of the 20th century. During his lifetime, he was famous in Latin American art circles but less well known internationally. Now, the Oswaldo Vigas Foundation is trying to rectify that situation by promoting his work in the United States.
Oswaldo Vigas: Transformations is the artist’s first solo museum show in North America and goes a long way towards introducing this artist to new audiences. “We are proud to be the first US museum to explore this fascinating artist’s contribution to 20th-century modernism,” says Ron Platt, Chief Curator at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. “This is the first exhibition outside of Venezuela to examine the interrelationship of the artist’s painting and drawing process, which truly is a continuous creative thread.”
Born in Valencia, Venezuela in 1923, Vigas identified himself as a mestizo, a term for a person of mixed Amerindian and Spanish heritage, and from a young age he was interested in the pre-Colombian artifacts and petroglyphs in the region. Largely a self-taught artist, he attended medical school before winning Venezuela’s 1952 National Fine Arts Prize, which granted him a plane ticket to Paris, where he attended the École des Beaux-Arts. He immersed himself in the post-war art scene, befriending important artists such as Max Ernst and Pablo Picasso and conversing with Latin American expats Wilfredo Lam, Rufino Tamayo, and Roberto Matta. Garnering attention even then, a selection of his works were featured in the inauguration of the Venezuelan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1954. After 12 years there, he returned permanently to Venezuela, establishing a reputation as one of the continent’s preeminent artists and exhibiting regularly in museums across Latin America and in Europe.
“I think what’s most important is to see how deeply he went into many modern art tendencies but never lost his roots and his relationship with Latin America,” said the artist’s son Lorenzo Vigas, an award-winning filmmaker who has completed a moving documentary about his father titled The Orchid Seller. As both the documentary and this exhibition show, the elder Vigas began his exploration of painting in the early 1950s with a series of works inspired by pre-Hispanic brujas, or witches, an imagery later subsumed in more abstract compositions but which reemerged later in his life. The exhibition includes one stunning example of this interest with “Brujas Infante” (1951), a Klee-like outline of a terrifying woman against a bold ochre background. But it traces his development through later decades, reflecting diverse influences from Cubism and Constructivism to Art Informel and CoBra, such as Triptico (Terracolas) from 1963, a whirling dervish of a painting with three tangled forms rendered with abstract expressionist brushstrokes.
“My father was never, never interested in promoting his art. He didn’t like galleries,” said the younger Vigas, noting that since the foundation was established in 2010, he and his mother have been trying to rectify that situation. In pursuit of a wider audience, the foundation is supporting an extensive biography of Vigas, scheduled to come out later this year, as well as a series of exhibitions. In 2016, the foundation organized the major exhibition Oswaldo Vigas Anthological 1943–2013, which traveled to some of South America’s most important cities, including Santiago, Chile; Bogotá, Colombia; Lima, Peru; and Sao Paulo, Brazil. “We are doing what my father wasn’t made for — promoting his art,” said Lorenzo Vigas.
“There has often been a narrative about Latin American modern artists that they looked to Europe and developed their version of European painting,” said Platt, adding, “but I feel that with Vigas, though he was obviously energized by the 12 years he spent in Paris, his artistic identity was formed enough before then that he was not unduly influenced by a sort of European juggernaut.” According to the curator, an artist like Vigas adds to our understanding of the development of modernism, complicating the narrative of the more traditional canon.
“This exhibition is only a start because you would need 10 exhibitions to fully appreciate my father’s art,” said Lorenzo Vigas. “But I think people will start to see how this Venezuelan artist is important not only as a Latin American artist but as an important modern artist as well.”
Oswaldo Vigas: Transformations continues at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (110 Monroe St. NW, Grand Rapids, Mich.) through September 2.