Zilia Sánchez, “Encuentrismo ofrenda o retorno (The Encounter–offering or returning)”, video of a performance, 2000, Berezdivin Collection

Upon entering Soy Isla (I am an Island), the first museum retrospective of Cuban-born artist Zilia Sánchez, you first encounter a projected video that shows Sánchez on the beach in Puerto Rico, releasing one of her signature sculptural canvases into the ocean. It bobs in the waves and floats mercifully back to the shore, only to be repeatedly subjected to the same ritual. The work, also entitled “Soy Isla,” lies on a pedestal, puckered and stained by sea salt. Despite being the only documented instance of performance in her career, the video’s prominence suggests a vital emotional connection between Sánchez and her art.

Indeed, the exhibition, organized by Phillips Collection senior curator Vesela Sretenović, presents a deeply personal interpretation of Sánchez’s creative journey. The wall text frequently references the artist’s thoughts and musings, as does a newly commissioned, nonlinear documentary which bookends the introductory video. Here, in addition to contemporary footage, we are offered further insight into her earlier performance. “I wanted her to swim and leave,” Sánchez says in a documentary screened in the exhibition, musing on the performance. “I wanted to see her agony.”

Zilia Sánchez, “Amazonas (Amazons)” from the series Topologías eróticas (Erotic Topologies) (1978), Acrylic on stretched canvas, 43 × 70 × 11 in., Princeton University Art Museum, NJ, Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund, 2014-53

Born in Havana in 1926, Sánchez trained at the Academia de San Alejandro before moving to Madrid and later New York City, during which time she experimented with different abstract idioms. Two smaller galleries within the exhibition are devoted to this period, with works that recall Cuban concrete art and Art Informel.

The primary draw of the exhibition, however, is undoubtedly Sánchez’s stretched canvases, a practice she has pursued with few deviations since she moved to Puerto Rico in 1971. Elegantly hung in an airy, open space, these canvases bulge and expand over their wooden armatures. With the addition of curving shapes painted in muted shades of pink, blue, black, and white, the works achieve a dynamic formal equilibrium, encompassing many seemingly opposing forces: whole yet divided, spiky and soft, straightforward and nuanced.

Zilia Sánchez, “Lunar con tatuaje (Moon with Tattoo)” (c. 1968/96), Acrylic on stretched canvas, 71 × 72 × 12 in. (Collection of the artist, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York)

Although these works bear some similarities to the shaped canvases and pared down, geometric forms of Minimalism, the constant presence of Sánchez’s hand and their connection to the organic world set them apart. Rising in stiff peaks, soft mounds, and folded slits, these works, while abstract, unmistakenly allude to the contours of the female body. Referred to as “erotic topologies,” some wear “tattoos” on their skin — small, carefully executed figures and arcs applied in bold, gestural strokes. Imperfections emerge from the semi-matte surface — embedded hairs, reworked passages, and thin seams that (pardon the literalism) resemble stretch marks.

The artist’s personal narrative recalling her artistic inspiration further distances her from the detached ethos of Minimalism. Sánchez claims that while grieving after her father’s death, she escaped to the family rooftop and observed a hanging white sheet fluttering against a metal pole, billowing in the wind. This anecdote amplifies a notion that, despite their vibrancy and sensuality, a sense of loss inhabits the shaped canvases as well.

Similarly, Sánchez’s identity as a queer woman cannot be overlooked. In the exhibition catalogue, curator and researcher Carla Acevedo-Yates argues that the works’s implicit eroticism requires a homotextual reading, one where sexual difference is inferred and the heteronormative gaze is rejected.

Zilia Sánchez, “Topología erótica (Erotic Topology)” (1960–71), Acrylic on stretched canvas, 41 × 56 × 13 in. (Collection of Jose R. Landron, San Juan)

Occasionally, the use of biographical detail veers to the overly inward. Particularly baffling is an unchallenged quote concerning Cubans of African descent. Explaining the title of an early series, Afrocubanas, Sánchez says, “I am mulata … every Cuban has some black blood, and I like this reference to race.” Sánchez’s usage of the word mulata here is rooted in a longstanding trope, that of the mixed race woman embodying the myth of idealized racial harmony in Cuba. Arising from popular nationalist discourse in the early 20th-century, the mulata figure emerged as a complicated symbol in Cuba’s collective imagination, at once sexualized and denigrated but also romanticized in poetry, song, and literature. It is a highly loaded term that, in this context, belies the actual economic inequality and social stratification that characterize Cuba’s racial dynamics and history.

Panorama view of Zilia Sánchez: Soy Isla (I Am an Island) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Still, it is immensely gratifying to move through a museum space that affirms the dignity of female subjectivity, a perspective that is too often devalued or dismissed. Although Sánchez rejects the term “feminist,” her works (and career) convey an expansive complexity that mirrors the many layers of women’s selfhood.

Over the past few years, museums in the US have mounted major retrospectives of Latin American women artists, including Lygia Pape, Lygia Clark, Tarsila do Amaral, Doris Salcedo, and Carmen Herrera, not to mention the current Frida Kahlo juggernaut at the Brooklyn Museum. Although Sánchez may not be as well known as these other artists, her inclusion amongst this tide of institutional recognition marks an important step in acknowledging her legacy: not only as an isolated island but as a noteworthy member of a burgeoning canon.

Zilia Sánchez: Soy Isla (I Am an Island), curated by Vesela Sretenović, is on view at the Phillips Collection through May 19.

Carolyn Yates is an art historian living in Washington D.C.