The half-century-old U.S. embargo on Cuba came with a cultural cold war. For years, the Communist island banned much news from the West. In response, the United States shunned artists who supported the regime and propped up the work of dissidents who opposed the dictatorship.
But lately, things have changed. The embargo’s grip has loosened, and relations with the island have liberalized. The result is an unprecedented cultural exchange.
Gustavo Pérez Monzón, who’s known as one of the principal exponents of postmodern Cuban art, recently mounted a retrospective of his work, titled “Tramas,” that’s being displayed concurrently in Miami and Havana through the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO). Though Monzón has lived and taught in Mexico since the early ’90s, he chose to do so under the aegis of the Cuban government. Perhaps as a result, his work has been overlooked by the Cuban exile community.
Through the ’70s, the Communist Party and the Cuban revolution carefully monitored and controlled art produced on the island. For years, the government funneled the work of many of its creatives to propagandize sweeping social reforms. By the early ’80s, the intellectual class, stifled by a decade of toeing the dogmatic party line, looked elsewhere for influences.
“I was a young boy at that time,” CIFO director and chief curator Eugenio Valdes Figueroa says. “The energy around Havana at the time was amazing. You know, in Cuba people go hungry, but there are always museum shows, ballet, world-class music, and film festivals to go to.”
In 1981, along with contemporaries such as Leandro Soto and Jose Fors, Monzón formed part of an exhibition of contemporary Cuban work known as “Volumen Uno.” The popular and critical success of the exhibit marked a turning point for artists living in Cuba. For the first time, the island’s artists were allowed to engage in dialogues with the West, and although they were still prohibited from speaking out against the regime, the new freedom began breathing life into a withered society.
Inspired by the work of American conceptual and postmodern artists such as Sol LeWitt, Monzón began dealing with questions of numbers, geometry, form, and authorship. Often basing his work on precise sequences, he created metallic canvasses dotted with numbered points, lines, and shapes that are more than just pure mathematics.
“The endpoint is not ‘science’ in the Newtonian sense, but a scienza as understood by Agrippa, Ficino, and Vico,” Nestor Diaz de Villegas writes in the introduction to the exhibit’s accompanying catalog. “Arithmetical speculation yields a mystic surplus.”
Monzón was interested in expanding numeric interpretation past its accepted use — into the spiritual and occult. Around friends and family, he loved to read tarot cards, a form of clairvoyance that’s tied to numerology and symbolism. He would go on to create tarot cards reflecting his modern style. His deep fascination with metaphysics also stood in stark contrast to the rationalism and atheism advocated by the government and party establishment.
Among the many pieces on display at the retrospective of the artist’s work, Vilos (1981) stands out. It’s a large-scale installation that fills an entire room in the vast exhibit space. Monzón first completed a version of the project in the middle of a Cuban jungle as part of a summer program for kids. When the work was presented to discerning critics in Havana, it was met with awe.
The entire structure is a play on tension and release. Three layers of elastic strings are threaded from the ceiling and held in place by counterweighted stones. Much like a Roman arch is held in position by the remarkable tension on the keystone, Vilos is a jagged conceptual sculpture based on structural tension.
By the early ’90s, Monzón had become an art-world darling in Havana and an established name on the international art scene. His newfound celebrity granted him privileges that even established intellectuals didn’t enjoy. Under the permission of the central government, he was allowed to live abroad in Mexico, where he gave up much of his art practice in favor of teaching the next generation of artists.
Since then, his work from the late ’70s and ’80s has become legendary as the oeuvre that broke Cuba’s contemporary-art glass ceiling, creating an opening for a deluge of new voices, many of whom would eventually lead a dissenting charge against the repressive regime.
Monzón no longer produces new work, but the thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba will undoubtedly bring new attention to his creations. And as Miami and Havana gradually become reacquainted with each other, the long-estranged exile community and the citizens of Cuba are bound to reclaim their shared history.
"Gustavo Pérez Monzón: Tramas"
Through May 1 at Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation, 1018 N. Miami Ave., Miami; 305-455-3333; cifo.org. Admission is free. Noon to 6 p.m. Thursday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.