Richard Pagan, “Il Mare” ("The Sea") (1988–89), oil on canvas, 83 7/8” x 119 3/4” (click to enlarge)

Richard Pagan, “Il Mare” (“The Sea”) (1988–89), oil on canvas, 83 7/8” x 119 3/4” (all images courtesy the Puerto Rico Museum of Contemporary Art)

When the little-known artist Richard Pagán died in 1989, he was at the precipice of a promising artistic career. Pagán had just recently become the first Puerto Rican to win the Pollock-Krasner Foundation’s Jackson Pollock Award for his large expressionist canvases, and his circle of friends included the likes of Willem de Kooning. A new body of work was slated for exhibition at the Institute for Puerto Rican Culture, but the show was derailed when the 35-year-old tragically died after inhaling gas leaked by his apartment’s defective heating system. Over time, his work was forgotten.

Installation view, "Richard Pagán: Figures in Flight" at the Puerto Rico Museum of Contemporary Art (click to enlarge)

Installation view, “Richard Pagán: Figures in Flight” at the Puerto Rico Museum of Contemporary Art (click to enlarge)

More than two decades later, the Puerto Rico Museum of Contemporary Art has rekindled Pagán’s legacy with a retrospective, Figuras en fuga (Figures in flight). The show is about physical and emotional escape, for which the sea becomes a powerful metaphor, simultaneously liberating and confining. Though mostly painted in northern Italy, many of the works recall the light and color of Pagán’s native San Juan, a city defined by its strategic location within the Caribbean. The same salty trade winds that in the late 15th century brought Spanish conquistadors to the New World gust through the city’s streets today, breaking waves the color of river glass onto the touristy beaches of Condado.

Pagán referenced those waves in a nearly seven-by-ten-foot painting, “The Sea,” painted in 1988 and ’89. A faint horizontal line divides the canvas into sky and water. In the lower half, an abstracted figure — human, angel, demon? — is captured swimming mid-stride. Obscured shapes sink in washes of blue, turquoise, and magenta oil paint, and a mossy green patch suggests a distant hillside. The painting’s perspective shifts evasively: a form on the right could be a floating swimmer viewed from above or a bird emerging from the water with outstretched wings.

Richard Pagán, “Untitled” (1988), oil on canvas, 43 1/4" x 54"

Richard Pagán, “Untitled” (1988), oil on canvas, 43 1/4″ x 54″

This same bird-human figure appears in another work from 1988 that also evokes the sea. In “Untitled,” four figures splash in a primordial soup of color. Pagán filled the canvas with the same bright pigments that decorate the residences of Old San Juan — aquamarine, sap green, tangerine, and coral, layering them thinly and allowing the paint to drip and muddy. While these later works recall the paintings of the New York School or even Susan Rothenberg, the show also includes a few earlier images, such as “Creation” or “The Mask and the Elf” (1982), which seem descended more from Post-Impressionists like Cézanne, another master of seascapes.

It’s bittersweet to think that the same sea Pagán found so inspiring may also have isolated him. Puerto Rico’s placement within the Caribbean has rendered it a valuable US territory since 1898; consequently, many Puerto Ricans live in a cultural limbo. As a commonwealth, the island lacks the full rights of statehood, but as a US territory its inhabitants are sequestered from their Caribbean neighbors. Though Pagán spent time in New York, it’s difficult to ignore the possibility that his geopolitical location excluded him — along with many other deserving Puerto Rican artists — from the cultural conversation. Perhaps because of this, or maybe in spite of it, Pagán chased his own fascinations, exploring abstract figurative painting at a time when the rest of the art world was fawning over neo-conceptualism. It is fitting, then, that his first major retrospective has opened in his hometown of San Juan, just a short walk from the sea that so pervades his work.

Richard Pagán: Figuras en fuga (Figures in flight) continues at the Puerto Rico Museum of Contemporary Art (Av. Juan Ponce de León, Parada 18, San Juan) through February 24.

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...