At the beginning of the decade of the 1950s a group of young artists who had been formed in cities such as Paris, Florence, Madrid or New York, returned to Puerto Rico. They would constitute the Generation of the Fifties, whose principal members were: Manuel Hernández Acevedo, Lorenzo Homar, Augusto Marín, Carlos Raquel Rivera, Félix Rodríguez Báez, Julio Rosado del Valle, José Antonio Torres Martinó, and Rafael Tufiño.
These artists formed an artistic movement with a populist agenda of creating images that affirmed national identity. In 1950, they established the Puerto Rican Art Center, a hub dedicated to promoting an art that identified with the people. The radical discourse of political leader Pedro Albizu Campos inspired them to give a visible shape to the claims for dignity implicit in the pro independence position of the Nationalists. Consequently, they used the graphics medium, with its dramatic contrasts between black and white, to bring to life images that celebrate the strength of our people or that condemned the economic and colonial exploitation in Puerto Rico during the beginning of the 20th century.
The Mexican muralist movement influenced the affirmation of national identity, the rescue and monumentalization of everything indigenous, which was the basis for the emergence of the schools of modern art in Latin America. Portraying the people, the landscape, the popular celebrations, as well as explicitly condemning U.S. control of the island, captured the imagination of this generation of artists. They focused their efforts on creating visual images of national identity, a Puerto Rican iconography, while at the same time denouncing Puerto Rico’s difficult situation. But the radical struggle of the Nationalists alerted the government of the United States of the need to make changes. Thus the fifties also saw the political reforms of the Popular Democratic Party, led by Luis Muñoz Marín, who, in 1948, was the first duly-elected governor of Puerto Rico.
The reforms included a massive literacy program, for which the artists of the generation of the 1950s designed and produced books, movies and the posters which promoted them. Practically all the members of this 50s generation worked in the government’s Community Education Division (DIVEDCO) of the Education Department stimulated by the interest of contributing with their work to the improvement of the living conditions of the people. At the DIVEDCO they made silkscreen posters, a medium that has become the popular instrument to produce all kinds of color posters. The genre of the literature-based graphics portfolio came as a result of the close collaboration with the main Puerto Rican writers in the production of “Libros del Pueblo” (Books for the People) at the DIVEDCO. This genre has been developed by successive generations of Puerto Rican artists.
The University of Puerto Rico, the other center of artistic development during the decade of 1950, had welcomed exiled Spanish intellectuals and artists after the Spanish Civil War. Their presence created a stimulating environment and established another frame of reference in the visual arts. Angel Botello Barros founded a successful art gallery in San Juan. Through Esteban Vicente, Olga Albizu and Julio Rosado del Valle had their first contact with abstraction. Spanish surrealist Eugenio Fernández Granell stimulated pupils Rafael Ferrer and Rafael Alberti in the search for expressions considered irreverent by their peers. Ferrer’s rebelliousness led to his migration to the United States, where in the sixties he played a distinguished role in international vanguard movements. Surrealism inspired the works of Luis Maysonet and the Dobal brothers, José and Narciso. At the University of Puerto Rico, Félix Bonilla Norat found a more conducive environment for his fantastic images. The work of Carlos Raquel Rivera has been described as “surrealist,” because of his enigmatic figures and the way he combined pictorial elements.
The Mexican muralist movement and European surrealism influenced the development of Puerto Rican contemporary art, but the New York school played a defining role in its future direction. During the fifties, New York displaced Paris as the center of the contemporary art world. The devastation of Europe during World War II, the migration of artists to the New World, the development of abstract expressionism and the economic boom of the U.S. in the post-war period made this cultural relay possible. Art critics and historians made an eloquent case in favor of the supremacy of abstract art, which was considered the culmination of a linear development from impressionism to gesture painting.
The rise in abstract expressionism coincided with the beginning of the Cold War and the widespread persecution of communists and all critics of the government in the United States. This climate of intolerance influenced the arts and the supporters of abstract art discarded figuration. The Puerto Rican art exhibition organized at the Riverside Museum in New York in 1957 received negative reviews. Rockefeller had destroyed the Diego Rivera murals, an action that set the stage for the demolishing work of the “mainstream” regarding different artistic expressions, and particularly the committed art of the generation of the 1950s. The native school developed by this generation clashed with the “universalism” dogma of abstraction coming out of New York: metropolitan prestige in an unequal struggle with self-affirmation.
The cultural denial/affirmation conflict is explicit in the debates that emerged in relation to the creation of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture in 1955. The Institute was dedicated to “preserve, promote, enrich and divulge the cultural values of the people of Puerto Rico.” In the press and the public hearings held before the approval of the Institute bylaws there were bitter attacks opposing the new agency by sectors who favored assimilation to the U.S., bent on discarding Puerto Rican history and its Hispanic cultural legacy and adopting assimilation into American society. The colonial discourse that belittled Puerto Rican culture coincided with other sectors that feared national affirmation, which was identified with the radical ideas of Albizu Campos.
The graphics, sculpture, stained-glass and ceramic workshops at the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (ICP) became another nucleus of artistic production. Young artists like José R. Alicea, Myrna Báez, Tomás Batista, Rafael López del Campo, Antonio Martorell, José Rosa and Rafael Rivera Rosa, among others, started there. These workshops evolved into the Escuela de Artes Plásticas”(School of Fine Arts).
Alicea, Báez, Martorell, Rosa and Rivera Rosa worked under the direction of Lorenzo Homar and during the next decade become distinguished artists. Their learning experience led them to establish other production workshops, such as Taller Alacrán, Taller Bija, Taller Capricornio and its continuation in New York, Taller Boricua. A refined design and its excellence are part of the legacy of Homar to his pupils. At this workshop they also learned to go against the current, to conceive their production in terms of its social impact, in addition to aspects related to form.
Tomás Batista and Rafael López del Campo studied under Spanish artist José Vázquez “Compostela” at the workshops of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture and received scholarships to study sculpture in Mexico and Italy, respectively. The substantial development of painting and graphic art in the fifties did not have an equivalent in sculpture; there were few public commissions for sculptures and there were even fewer collectors to support it. Batista y López del Campo dedicated themselves to teaching and developed new generations of sculptors at the Escuela de Artes Plasticas.
The international prestige of abstraction had an impact on the artists of the generation of 1950 and the young artists that were getting started. Stimulated by the mood of the times, Julio Rosado del Valle explored successfully abstract expressionism, thanks to his sense of color and texture and his superb skills as a draftsman. Olga Albizu studied in New York under Hans Hoffmann and worked the genre throughout her career. Although she stayed in New York, she showed her work consistently in San Juan and her abstract paintings created a presence on the island. Luis Hernández Cruz, who became the principal abstract artist of the island, studied at the University of Puerto Rico. He produced minimalist graphics, worked on fiberglass and returned to landscape-based lyrical abstraction, a genre also worked by Noemí Ruiz. Hernández Cruz, Marcos Yrizarry, Domingo López and Carlos Irizarry, among others, became exponents of experimental expressions that Luigi Marrozzini’s gallery, Galería Colibrí, would promote during the next decade. During the sixties, Domingo García also experimented with abstraction and produced minimalist silkscreens.
The relationship of Puerto Rican artists with the New York school was one of conflict. The easy access to the city, the stimulus of the new artistic movements, the Guggenheim fellowships granted to several Puerto Rican artists during the fifties, the substantial migration of Puerto Ricans to the city, rejection and racial discrimination formed a web of conflicting forces. The debate between the committed art of the 1950s generation and the “universalism” of the abstract artists grew in part due to the political relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States; the adoption of the new styles promoted in New York were seen as cultural imperialism. Artistic expression assumed a key role within the struggle of Puerto Rico to survive as an autonomous culture. At the end of the fifties a profound crisis emerged due to the conflicting demands of creating socially significant art versus the discourse of metropolitan universalism. The identity/affirmation conflict substituted the claims for social justice as the main theme of art in the island.
Author: Dra. Marimar Benítez
Published: September 12, 2014.
This post is also available in: Español