Oswaldo Vigas at the Boca Raton Museum of Art
By Isaac Aden
The gift of a painter is to slow time and make it remain forever in an instant, yet infinitely relevant. Oswaldo Vigas (1926–2014) was a masterful painter of modernist abstraction gifted with astonishing vigor. Vigas’s artistic valor and dedication earned him a place alongside the most significant modernist painters, and his paintings will most certainly endure for generations to come.
Born in Venezuela, Vigas’s, success ultimately propelled him to live a consequential portion of his life in Paris. There he would gain entry into a select group of Europe’s most preeminent painters and become associated with such notables as Fernand Léger, Max Ernst, Wilfredo Lam, and Pablo Picasso. Over the years, pictures by Vigas would be exhibited extensively internationally and acquired for permanent collections of various museums. He represented Venezuela in the XXVII Venice Biennial of 1954, and some of his public works have even earned the designation of a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site. However, it was in Vigas’s relentless quest to imbue his personal aesthetic style with archaic Pre-Columbian pictographs, as well as his Mestizo identity, that one can truly see the unique merits of the artist’s originality and his contribution to the globalization of 20th-century Modernism.
In recent years, increased calls for equity and inclusion have caused institutions to expand the scope of their lenses to create exhibitions that more broadly reflect the various communities that make up of their constituencies. It is admirable, indeed, that the diversity of the artists exhibited reflects the diversity of the fabric of America, despite the fact that many critics may think this is purely a reflection of modern-day political pressures. One could surmise, in any event, that there is an additional point to consider: what has been missed or overlooked. Certainly, the connoisseur can recognize that what is most commonly known is not necessarily synonymous with what is of the best quality. It can easily be argued that a great deal of formative artwork has been underrecognized (or yet to be uncovered) by mainstream western audiences due to linguistic differences. It is certainly true that a vast number of the recognized artists in the United States are English speakers. Nevertheless, for those more interested in the quality of the artists’ work than their biographical backgrounds, such individuals will be pleased to discover the work of Oswaldo Vigas.
The Boca Raton Museum of Art should be applauded for mounting “Oswaldo Vigas,” a truly sensational exhibition by an artist of exceptional quality who remains relatively unknown to the wider audience of the United States. The exhibition, on view February 15–May 21, 2023, presents a focused look at Vigas’s geometric periods spanning 25 years and including two separate blocks of time: 1952–1958 and 1969–1973. The museum’s executive director, Irvin Lippman, asserted that the decision of presenting Vigas was in accord with the museum’s long-term interests in the “continuum from the ancient Americas to the present day.”
The exhibition coincides with the launch of the artist’s digital catalogue raisonné, which was organized by the Oswaldo Vigas Foundation and developed with the support of Axel Stein, former head of the Latin American Art department at Sotheby’s. Having access to the catalogue, which is free to view, in its digital format allows for the viewing—even on one’s phone—of the contents of this tome of paramount significance. Such comprehensive online access to the catalogue raisonné is something that is truly remarkable and further serves to enhance the ease with which one can wade into the great depths of Vigas’s oeuvre, discovering and experiencing his rarely seen triumphs of modern art. What is quite astonishing about the catalogue, which includes over 3,000 paintings produced by Vigas, is the evidence of the sheer drive that Vigas embodied and his unrelenting push for artistic success. One cannot help but be taken by his intense perseverance. While he worked tirelessly in the different artistic veins he mined, finding dazzling gems along the way, Vigas never seemed satisfied; his work would be characterized by his courageous ability to embrace radical change in his art, all in an effort to further his reach for greatness.
Included in the museum’s presentation is an introduction by Vigas’s son, Lorenzo Vigas, who is a visionary and award-winning filmmaker. (He has been awarded the Golden Lion prize at the Venice Film Festival.) As part of its tribute to Oswaldo Vigas, the museum will host a screening of “The Orchid Seller,” Lorenzo Vigas’s documentary that traces his father’s search for a lost painting, The Orchid Seller, which the elder Vigas painted in 1945. The film is a tender and compelling biographical portrait of Vigas and provides an intimate look into his personal life. Furthermore, it reveals how navigating the emotions of the human experience significantly weighed on him and would shape him as an artist. Vigas’s path to becoming an artist was unlikely. He never went to art school; rather, he was trained as a doctor and practiced medicine. One of the most moving moments of The Orchid Seller occurs as Vigas recalls through tears the excruciating pain of children dying in his own arms as he tried to treat them because there were not enough beds. Vigas would leave the medical field, stating, “If I had practiced medicine every day I wouldn’t have lived long.”
Vigas excelled at painting, and at age 26 he mounted a major exhibition that covered seven years and included 52 paintings. One of the paintings in the exhibition was La Red (The Net), which was originally titled La Cabeza en la Red (Head in the Net) in the exhibition catalog. La Red is a large vertical painting comprised of desaturated colors depicting a mouth enveloping another mouth, perhaps alluding to the interconnectedness of life. Vigas’s composition is heightened by its structure, creating positive and negative forms simultaneously, such as with the teeth of the largest maw. Apparent in La Red is Vigas’s individual style: his handling of paint begins with a linear structure that is drawn with paint and features corresponding shapes filled in with a single solid color. Larger forms are emphasized by contrasting color, whereas fields of similar values recede together as a single field. La Red is one of the most important works Vigas made prior to his extensive exposure to European painters, and it bears a distinct and exquisite color pallet, shared by only four other works.
One of the other four paintings is Alacrán (The Scorpion). The painting shares many similarities with La Red, but here the spiny teeth are the scorpion’s pincers. In Alacrán, Vigas’s layers of underpainting are incorporated more clearly into the finished layer by contrasting more strongly the color of the foreground form as it overlaps with the linear background structure. This can be seen with the leaves above and around the scorpion’s red pincer; the two sections of the leaf made up by the line that passes through them are painted in varying shades. The result of this is the abstract underpainting that becomes clearer (rather than receding), and this allows Vigas to situate the scorpion firmly into his own abstract language.
In 1952, Vigas received Venezuela’s highest honor in painting and was awarded a trip to Paris.
During this period, Vigas would undergo an explosive artistic evolution. Vigas’s handling of paint shifted radically, as would his relationship to content. At some point, in fact, his work would even become almost entirely color field. Nevertheless, geometry had remained a core facet of Vigas’s style, and during his time in Paris he would continue this investigation. One recurring structure would be found in his Objecto series, which seems to encompass slight variations of purely abstract geometric forms gathered in a centralized cell and suggesting a type of architectural logic. Historically, this series is highly significant because, genealogically, it is an extremely early example of an approach to systemic geometric painting. Half a century later, artists such as Peter Halley would develop whole practices around this methodology.
Vigas would live in Paris for 12 years before returning home to Venezuela. As always Vigas’s work would continue shifting and evolving—and he would undergo another geometric renaissance in his work. One prominent characteristic of this period is Vigas’s palette, which can be seen clearly as being influenced by returning to the geographic climate of South America. This is apparent in Organico (Organic), from 1969. Seen in this truly graceful painting is Vigas’s adaptation of a palette of more naturalistic colors. He also introduced a greater push and pull, because he created a sense of depth by more clearly contrasting lights and darks. The handling of the paint is also quite admirable; the scumbling of thinner washes more clearly reveal the deftness of the artist’s hand. Moreover, Vigas introduces drama by making use of gentle gradients.
Not long after this, his work would shift again—this time resettling in what appears to be a type of comfortable muscle memory, one in which his painting style would return to the primacy of his youth. This time, though, the forms would be influenced by his years of exploration in Paris. The aesthetic culmination of his artistic pursuits resulted in two seminal works from the 1970s: Agorifera Gris and Ancestral. One of Vigas’s largest canvases, Agorifera Gris, rendered in black and white, is a monumental painting depicting cubist figuration.
Executed in the same year, 1976, Ancestral is a masterpiece. Like Agorifera Gris, it depicts a centralized cluster of cubist figures set against a dark background. This was a distinguishing characteristic Vigas had employed previously and one that would continue appearing in the late artistic achievements of seminal significance he produced well into his 80s. Perhaps one of the most distinguishing aspects of the work is that it combines his unique brand of modernism with his firsthand knowledge of the archaic petroglyphs of his Mestizo identity. This union would become an underlying attribute of Vigas’s artistic journey and one of his most important contributions to art history.
While countless histories have been written, our understanding of history itself continues to shift. In the past, distinguishing whole groups of people as Latin American, for example, may have led to vast underrepresentation, but, clearly, there is today a renewed interest in presenting the works of various underrecognized artists. Although Vigas’s sheer brilliance is plain to see for general audiences, and private collectors have the independence to render judgments on quality, institutions—many times—are slow to respond to the nuances involved in collecting and exhibiting work by artists of diverse backgrounds. Hopefully, a new generation of curators, like those at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, will continue to expand the voices of contemporary artists, as well as those who have come before. Oswaldo Vigas, along with other 20th-century figures similarly underrepresented, produced works of unquestionable quality that rightfully deserve to be included in any serious collection of modern art.