In the decade before Fidel Castro turned Cuba into a Communist country, Havana was often described as having become a Latin Las Vegas – an international playground for the fortunate few who could afford to enjoy it. But the 1952 military coup, led by American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, and the ensuing influx in US tourism, brought about a surge in nationalist sentiments.
Against this backdrop, a new visual language was taking root. Developed by a group of 11 artists in response to the turbulent political and cultural climate, Diez Pintores Concretos ('Ten Concrete Painters') was an influential but short-lived group (active only from 1959 to 1961) that created hard-edged, geometric abstract works that sought a universal, utopian aesthetic.
Influenced by the time many of the group members spent abroad in Europe and across South America – in particular, Wifredo Arcay, Mario Carreño, Pedro de Oraá and Loló Soldevilla – Cuban concretism sprang out of the philosophies and aesthetics of neo-plasticism, constructivism, suprematism, and post-cubism. However, the group did not consider their work to follow the same dictates; instead, their non-referential compositions were based exclusively in intellectually formulated constructs using plastic elements, which they reduced to simple planes and colours. Offering a new, more cerebral form of political and social engagement, Diez Pintores Concretos pushed abstraction from the purely visual toward the conceptual and phenomenological.
Thanks to their apolitical aesthetics, Los Diez's relationship with the Batista regime was largely amicable but, following Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, abstraction became an altogether more suspect genre due to its earlier radical associations. Consequently, many abstract and concrete painters fled the country and in 1961 Los Diez disbanded for good after the closure of their main exhibition space, the Galería de Arte Color-Luz – an artist-run space co-founded by Soldevilla and de Oraá in 1957 to foster abstract art in Havana.
This month, a comprehensive exhibition of the Cuban concretism group's paintings and sculptures opens at London's David Zwirner gallery. Curated by the gallery's associate director Rodolphe von Hofmannsthal, the works on show include a number of Sandú Darié's experimental and experiential kinetic sculptures, which he called 'estructuras transformable', or 'transformable structures'; kinetic sculptures, hard-edge paintings and geometric collages by Soldevilla; and several works by Arcay, who worked as a printmaker in Paris in the early 1950s alongside artists such as Theo van Doesburg, Fernand Léger, Sonia Delaunay, Robert Delaunay, and Jacques Villon.