“The entire painting was now floating in space. Nothing was holding it together, yet it existed.” This is how the artist Virginia Jaramillo described her curvilinear paintings from the late 1960s and early 1970s in a recent email interview with Hyperallergic. Though they may look like monochromes from afar, these massive, richly hued acrylic canvases are sliced by razor-thin, precisely painted, dancing lines. Jaramillo’s “lightning whips” — as the artist Frank Bowling called them — unsettle the viewer’s sense of depth and space as they move around the works. Jaramillo’s wide-ranging influences include Agnes Martin, José Clemente Orozco, and Japanese aesthetics. Her paintings fuse cool, crisp minimalism, science fiction, and ancient cosmology into vibrant fields of pure color and elegant form. Despite a career spanning six decades, Jaramillo’s rigorous, innovative work has largely been overlooked by museums and markets — until now.

Virginia Jaramillo, “Untitled” (ca. 1970), acrylic on canvas, 60 × 84 inches (image courtesy the artist and Hales, London and New York, © Virginia Jaramill)

The “lightning whip” paintings are on display together, for the first time, in Jaramillo’s first institutional solo exhibition, Virginia Jaramillo: The Curvilinear Paintings, 1969-1974 at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. The exhibition commemorates a crucial moment in Jaramillo’s trajectory when her complex work with space and paint reached a new zenith. “For Virginia, this really was her break-out work,” curator Michelle White told me in a recent Zoom interview. “The curvilinear work is the basis of the work that she still makes.” The show also marks the 50th anniversary of Jaramillo’s inclusion as the only woman and Latina in the Menil’s groundbreaking The De Luxe Show in 1971, one of the first abstract contemporary art exhibitions to feature artists of color in the United States. 

Virginia Jaramillo, “Morning Becomes Electra” (1973), acrylic on canvas, 72 1/8 × 72 1/8 inches (Hales, London and New York, image courtesy the artist and © Virginia Jaramillo)

Jaramillo was born in El Paso, Texas in 1939, and grew up in a multicultural neighborhood in East Los Angeles. Like Philip Guston and Jackson Pollock before her, she attended Manual Arts High School. Known for its progressive art curriculum — students drew and painted from nude models, for example — the school “opened up vast horizons,” the artist told Hyperallergic. On weekends, Jaramillo’s instructor took her and a small group of other students to Charles and Ray Eames’s studio and offices for films and talks. There, Jaramillo was introduced to design, architecture, and “a philosophy of structure and the purity of form.” These discoveries opened “a different way of seeing” for Jaramillo and would guide her artistic thinking and output in the following decades. 

Virginia Jaramillo: The Curvilinear Paintings, 1969-1974, installation view at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas (photo by Paul Hester)

Eames sparked Jaramillo’s passion for negative space, but her interest in cosmic space came much earlier. By age 12, Jaramillo was hooked on sci-fi magazines, especially Galaxy and Amazing Stories, which she read religiously. “Every illustration and story I read took me on a journey which allowed me to imagine, and believe, in the possibility that things, places, people, and ideas could exist far beyond that which we comprehend,” Jaramillo remembered. Perhaps this early experience with life in unexpected places influenced Jaramillo’s intensely vivid color fields, which seem to pulse and sway under the artist’s gracefully choreographed, curved strokes. “The color field was not negative space, but a space filled with life and possibilities,” Jaramillo said in her recent Modern Art Notes podcast interview. In the days and weeks that she spent laboring on each canvas, “the painting had to inform me as to what it needed in order to come alive,” Jaramillo explained.

Jaramillo travels in space and in time: the artist has long been fascinated by the architecture and ethos of ancient civilizations. Her thickly textured, earth-toned early paintings were undoubtedly inspired by the hours she spent biking over the bare, cracked earth of her grandparents’ turkey ranch as a child. But the works also evoke the crumbling walls of a ruin in Mesopotamia, Chaco Canyon, or Teotihuacan — an especially important site in relation to the artist’s Mexican ancestry. “Although the majority of my cousins are ethnically mixed, I’ve never lost sight of who I am, nor of my Mexican heritage of art and culture,” she told me. However, Jaramillo rejects the conventional racial labels. “My father once told me, ‘They ask you what you are so they will then know how and what to think about you.’ I truly don’t care. I know who I am. My name is Virginia Jaramillo and I’m an artist.”

Virginia Jaramillo, “Untitled” (1971), acrylic on canvas, 84 1/8 × 71 inches (the Menil Collection, Houston, purchased with funds provided by Suzanne Deal Booth, © Virginia Jaramillo, photo by Paul Hester)

Jaramillo’s artistic debut came while she was still a student at the Otis Art Institute, when one of her paintings was selected for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s annual exhibition. On this occasion and over the following years, the artist signed her works with the gender-neutral “V. Jaramillo” to avoid discrimination. “Although it has gotten better, in many areas of our society there is a problem just being a woman, let alone a woman artist,” she told me. After a brief stay in Paris, Jaramillo settled in New York City in 1967 with her husband, the artist Daniel LaRue Johnson, in a Soho loft a few doors down from Donald Judd. “She was not on the fringes; she was physically there,” White told me. “I think it’s easy for us with this language of ‘undiscovered women artists’ to think they’re somehow practicing outside of the dominant discourses, but the fact of where she’s living says everything.”

In New York, Jaramillo was a contemporary of artists like Melvin Edwards, Kenneth Noland, Mark di Suvero, and Jack Whitten, though she was rarely considered part of the cohort formed by her male peers at the time. The artist explained her situation this way: “All my life, though married with two children, I have basically been a loner. The only thing I cared to join was my work in the studio. The work is what enabled and gave me the courage to seek my own path, regardless of the price. I had women artist friends whose work I respected, but socially that was limited. Time was and is precious to me, [and] the work as always won out. I had to make every day count, even if it was only a single brush stroke.”

That steadfast dedication and work ethic have not faltered with time. Jaramillo is currently working on a 12-foot piece, what she calls a “sister painting” to another of her recent works titled “Quantum Entanglement” (2020). Science is another of the artist’s key inspirations. “When I hear some kind of scientific theory, I visualize it,” she said. As in science, Jaramillo’s work is vast, enigmatic, and experimental. And as in space, there’s always more to explore.

Virginia Jaramillo: The Curvilinear Paintings, 1969-1974 continues at the Menil Collection (1533 Sul Ross St, Houston, Texas) through July 3, 2021.

Lauren Moya Ford is a writer and artist. Her writing has appeared in Apollo, Artsy, Atlas Obscura, Flash Art, Frieze, Glasstire, Mousse Magazine, and other publications.