June 16, 2012
By John Angeline
Traditionally the art establishment has tended to favor the Big Picture: large-scale works over more intimately sized ones, and in hanging art, paint on canvas beats works on paper almost any time. However, as most art historians and lovers know, to truly understand an artists with any sense of intimacy, one must look to the drawings and works on paper. This recent exhibition of the work of Fanny Sanín provides that sort of insight.
The Colombia-born Sanín’s career is well into its fifth decade. She has had more than 40 solo exhibitions and participated in more than 300 group shows worldwide, and her art is in the permanent collections of numerous museums and institutions. She has lived and worked in New York City since the 1970s. Yet somehow her art has retained a somewhat elusive presence during much of this time. Thus this exhibition satisfies on many levels: it allows the unfamiliar viewer an opportunity to catch up on the major aesthetics, themes and trajectories that have spanned Sanín’s career while providing the more familiar visitor a deeper insight into the artist’s working process.
Entering the gallery one’s attention is immediately drawn to the dark and powerful Acrylic No. 2, 2011 which is by far the largest work in the exhibition and the only “finished” painting executed on canvas. The rest of the exhibition is comprised of roughly 100 drawings and studies on paper, from the 1960s through the present. Despite a fresh perfection to each composition that suggests the realization of a single vision, one learns what a considered and studied artist Sanín is: to date, no large-scale painting of Sanín’s has been achieved without multiple preliminary studies on paper, usually no fewer than four (the large Acrylic No. 2 that is included in the show was the result of eleven such studies).
While one might think of Sanín as a hard-edged geometric abstractionist, this show reveals an evolution from a more fluid style of expressionism to the complex yet severely symmetrical motifs favored later on. Although even in the earliest watercolors from 1960, which are the most fluid and expressionist, Sanín anchors the gesturality with more solid forms, very much akin to works by Hans Hoffmann. Like Matisse, the finished quality of natural effortlessness is belied by all the planning and changes that came before, and like Barnett Newman the end result is a powerful saturated work bold in its seeming simplicity and yet anything but simple. One also thinks of the fusion of Incan masonry with European geometric abstraction that was attempted by the Albers as another source for these visual explorations, as evidenced in the Studies for Painting No. 1, 1976. Also included in the exhibition are some examples from Sanín’s Composition series. This series serves as a mediation between the drawings and the larger canvases and is comprised of works that are acrylic on paper executed in a scale that is larger than the drawings yet still more intimate than the paintings on canvas. Despite also being works on paper the Composition pieces all have preliminary studies as well.
Since 1974 Sanín moved from mere geometries to employing strict symmetry to her visual practice. According to the artist this adherence to symmetry provides a sense of order, balance, and peace, elements that are otherwise largely missing from her life and by extension the world at large. And although the artist has shied away from more spiritual readings of her work in the past, there is clearly a spiritual component to many of these pieces, particularly when one thinks of them in connection with Incan geometries, the spiritual tonalisms of Ad Reinhardt, the evocation of stained glass, or even in the later works the employment of cross forms.
The intimate space of the gallery serves these works well. Hung salon style, they manage to surround and overwhelm the viewer despite their smaller scale and occasionally sketchy appearance. This group hanging also makes comparisons easier, be they from work to work in one series or from period to period. Many of these “studies” have the visual strength and completeness to stand as finished works on their own. This exhibition was a visually rewarding way to see a “new” artist in an immersive way or to see an “old” artist in a new light.