As the US continues to thaw one of the last vestiges of the Cold War – its decades-long Cuba embargo – and as the eyes of collectors and critics turn in greater numbers to contemporary Latin American art, David Zwirner gallery has expanded upon its impressive group show highlighting Cuban art through the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, which we first caught wind of in London last year. As you may recall, a cohort of Cuban artists known as ‘Los Diez Pintores Concretos’ (Ten Concrete Painters) produced a distinctive body of work linked to the broader trend of abstraction and concretism during those years. This week in New York, 'Concrete Cuba' presents 40 works (of which only five make a reprise from London), highlighting the innovative spirit of the group.
Instead of the palm trees, sunsets and beaches that earlier Cuban art tended to depict, the work from this era dealt with geometry and color, making a distinct break from past conventions. ‘Abstract art became the signpost of Cuba’s modernity,’ says Abigail McEwen, an assistant professor of Latin American art history at the University of Maryland, and a contributor to the exhibition’s catalogue, which will be published this autumn. Many artists had traveled abroad – to Europe and the US, or elsewhere in Latin America – before returning to Cuba in the 1950s, resulting in a richly layered treatment of abstraction. Pointing to an untitled canvas by Sandú Darié, McEwen says, ‘It’s like they’re taking Mondrian’s grid and blowing it up.’
As with art anywhere, these works cannot be extracted from its political context. For this group of artists, their practices became a way to contribute to what was a moment of tumultuous change. As McEwen puts it, 'They believed concretism and abstraction could be socially and politically engaged, that this art could be a spring board to a better future.’