Wifredo Lam, "Señorita" (1948) oil on canvas 36-1/4 × 28-3/4 inches (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Now seems a perfect moment to celebrate the life and work of Wifredo Lam, a gifted painter with a backstory ripe for a Lionsgate film biopic. He was born in Cuba in the tiny town of Sagua la Grande at the turn of the 2oth century to a Chinese father and Congolese-Iberian mother. He took himself to Havana, initially in obedience to his parent’s counsel to study law, but became entranced by painting. After finding he disliked the kind of academic tutelage he was receiving in Havana, he made his way to Spain, to Madrid to study under Fernando Álvarez de Sotomayor y Zaragoza, a teacher of Salvador Dalí. From then onward his story includes harrowing narrative declensions such as the death of his young wife Eva Piriz and their son to tuberculosis, and being imprisoned for a short time in Martinique before returning home to Cuba.

And there were soaring exploits: fighting for the republican side in the Spanish Civil War; moving to Paris, becoming acquainted with members of the European avant-garde including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, and others; becoming a part of the Surrealist movement; collaborating with André Breton on Breton’s “Fata Morgana” poem in Marseille. Resettling in Cuba during the 1940s, he developed a singular painting style that synthesized Afro-Cuban culture, in particular emblems and symbols of the Santería religion, along with elements of Surrealism and Cubism. From that point onward his “figures” became organic composites of human, animal, and vegetal forms, a style that continued to dance between figuration and abstraction in a way that showed that one approach to depiction is not diametrically opposed to the other, but actually abstraction often implies the representational and vice versa. Lam himself was a hybrid figure, one foot planted in the Caribbean with its colonialist, African-diasporic perils and complexities, and the other in Europe with its internal contradictions and its intoxicated and intoxicating sense of standing astride the world. Lam’s career and the body of work he left behind after his death in Paris in 1982 implicitly demonstrate that a child of the so-called global South could also stand astride the world of aesthetic production and make it remember him.

Pablo Picasso and Wifredo Lam, (1954) in Vallauris (image by © André Villers courtesy Pace gallery)

Pace gallery mounting Wifredo Lam: The Imagination at Work certainly seems like a more timely move than say presenting a retrospective of Jasper Johns (which for all its promotional trumpeting is a stupefying show that reminds me that museums do indeed sometimes play the role of mausoleum). Showing Lam is an opportunity for the gallery to make a case for having legit woke credentials. Though last year I made a point of talking about how its fall program was rather oblivious to the overlapping crises engulfing our culture, I don’t think that Pace lost any sleep over my critiques, but they still want to be part of the impassioned conversations happening now at the intersection of identity, art, politics, history, and representation. As their press release insists: “Lam cultivated a practice that decolonized Modernist art.” And, to be fair, the same release does quote him saying essentially the same thing, describing his work as, “an act of decolonization not in a physical sense, but in a mental one.”

Lam is not a token choice. A man of Afro-Cuban ancestry, he became a pivotal figure in spreading the gospel of Surrealism to the Caribbean, while raising African diasporic traditions to the plateau of great painting. Even the current Surrealism Beyond Borders show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art affirms his position within the history as a key figure and with their presentation of “The Eternal Present [Homage to Alejandro García Caturla]” (1944) with a caption to talks about how Lam merged “Afro-Cuban traditions with Surrealist tenets” in order to (in his words) “act as a Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating images with the power to surprise, to disturb the dreams of the exploiters.” From his perspective he was an intentional combatant in conflicts that were both armed and not, and among the most important of these was the fight for emancipatory self-determination from the restraints of colonialism.

Installation view of Wifredo Lam: The Imagination at Work (photography courtesy of Pace Gallery)

But then I look at his paintings, and at first I’m intrigued and then slowly, I become underwhelmed. His figures are nightmarish, crooked, and asymmetrical. “Señorita” (1948), a figure of a horse-headed woman that would reappear in his work, gives me the view of some creature with a neck that bifurcates into a tail with a mane of hair, ending in a head with something like bared teeth facing away from the viewer, and attached (maybe) to the neck is another appendage like a head, shaped like a crescent moon with one eye visible, over a set of plain lips and a beard beneath. This is a creature that does not exist except in the imagination of someone who actively cultivates that psychic plot of land.

Installation view of Wifredo Lam: The Imagination at Work (photography courtesy of Pace Gallery)

Lam also has a great sense of how to use color to compliment and augment the power of his graphic forms. I see this in “Personnage” (1970) the two figures, again vaguely humanoid, but with limbs and antlers, appendages and decorative appurtenances that aren’t recognizable as occurring in nature, but are still arresting with their stark tonal differences. Look at the forceps of the creature on the left. Rendering its pincers in a lighter shade of brown than the arm it’s attached to makes it more menacing than it would otherwise be — a sleeper agent waiting for the call to action. But the selected compositions tend to repeat throughout the show. It’s almost always the same frontal, closeup view of the figure(s) with the bodies occupying a single visual plane. There is some depth to the picture plane in earlier works, but mostly it’s just one flat surface on which the painted creatures are presented like some undiscovered Eukaryote sandwiched between two glass slides underneath the eye of a microscope. After a while the works seems stuck.

Wifredo Lam, “Personnage,” (1970) oil on canvas, 31-7/8 × 45-3/4 inches (photo by the author)

But then I look online and see that Lam has portraits from the late ’30s that are just as flat, but closer to being representational and more affecting. And in the opposite direction, I see his version of landscapes that are whirling almost frantic maelstroms of abstract forms. The curators, Gary Nader, the owner of a Miami-based private museum of Latin American art, Andria Hickey, a Pace senior director and curator, and Dr. Michaëla Mohrmann, a scholar and curator of Latin American art, don’t show these other aspects of Lam, and I wish they had. They did add some “rarely seen” bronze sculptures that Lam created in Albissola Marina, Italy in the late 1970s. But they have none of the vitality of Lam’s crossbreed, crepuscular creatures that indeed look like they will come for you in your dreams. This is to say that while Wifredo Lam is a great candidate for proper retrospective this show isn’t quite that.

Installation view of Wifredo Lam: The Imagination at Work (photography courtesy of Pace Gallery)

But then the curators and Pace seems very much to want to have Lam and this exhibition to stand in for something associated with the zeitgeist. The caption for “Personnage” reads: “Their flattened, graphic qualities seem less informed by Cubism or Surrealism than sci-fi culture’s representations of cyborgs. The futurity visually encoded in Lam’s late style suggests that he did not tether his Afro-Cuban artistic idiom to a mythical past. Rather, his repertoire of forms continuously evolved, becoming a vehicle for Black futures.” Did Fred Hampton have a child who studied at Bard?

It’s all well and good to talk about Black futures and to show work that conveys the spirit of Lam: curious, self-determined, egalitarian, anti-colonialist; but it is just as important to represent that actual lived life in all its nuanced complexities. I never find out what brought Lam to New York in the 1950s, or why the Chinese part of his heritage is hardly discussed, or why he moved back to Paris to live out his last days there, and I would like to know. Indeed there is much much more to know about Wifredo Lam and this exhibition only whets my appetite without satisfying it.

Wifredo Lam: The Imagination at Work continues at Pace gallery (510 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 18. It was curated by Gary Nader, Andria Hickey, and Dr. Michaëla Mohrmann.

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Seph Rodney, PhD, is a senior critic for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on the podcast The...