Some Observations on Arturo Rodríguez’s Life and Paintings by Juan A. Martinez

Essay for catalogue of exhibition Arturo Rodríguez and Demi. Crossings,

An intuitive passion for drawing and painting combined with a more deliberate interest in the representation of the human figure to discourse on the human psyche and condition are the primary impulses guiding the art of Arturo Rodríguez. One of the most talented exponents of figurative painting to emerge in the early 1980s, Rodríguez’s distinctive style is characterized by a masterly handling of oil paint , dynamic multi-figurative compositions, and a dream-like vision. His works have been the subject of one-person shows in Madrid, New York, Miami, Mexico City and Bogotá. His paintings are in major public and private collections, including that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Rodríguez art has been recognized through prestigious honors and awards, like the Oscar B. Cintas Fellowship (1982 & 1988). More importantly, his creative output is on the increase, including new portrait drawings from life and very loose watercolors; the compositions of his large paintings continue to grow in power and complexity; and his vision of humanity keeps evolving towards a subtler and more poetic expression.

Arturo Rodríguez was born in Cuba in 1956, emigrated to Spain in 1971, and settled in Miami in 1974. These places and experiences have been essential to his personal and artistic development. His Cuban birth and early upbringing have made an indelible mark on many aspects of his life, from the preservation of his native language to developing a highly educated taste for Cuban music. His art has also been impacted by Cuban culture, from its sense of rhythm to motifs borrowed from the paintings of Carlos Enríquez and Ángel Acosta León. The years he lived in Madrid and subsequent stays in Spain were particularly influential in determining his prime artistic interests. Rodriguez’s attraction to oil painting, no less than his commitment to figurative art with a strong humanistic content, are in great measure the result of his direct experience of the works of El Greco, Velázquez, Goya and the Venetian school during the young artist’s frequent visits to the Prado Museum. The personal and artistic consequences of settling in Miami have been a mixed blessing. Rodríguez’s own exile-immigrant experience, magnified by living in the midst of Miami’s self-conscious Cuban exile community, has impelled his condition of outsider and kept his memories of and interest in his native culture alive. These experiences, as well as those of residing in a fast growing and volatile city, have informed his work and given it a certain edge. The lack, until recently, of an adequate art infrastructure in South Florida and Miami’s provincial status in the art market also impacted on Rodríguez’s artistic education and recognition. He had to obtain both the hard way. His sharp draftsmanship and command of oil techniques are the result of self-disciplined, independent study. Rodríguez’s has rounded up his artistic education through a substantial interest in literature, film, music, and travel. Paradoxically this self-taught artist is very well informed and his art draws from various traditions that include premodern and modern art. In relation to the art of his own century, Rodríguez has been especially attracted to the expressionism of Max Beckmann, José Clemente Orozco, and Francis Bacon, without ignoring abstract tendencies from cubism to abstract expressionism. Within the contemporary art scene, Rodríguez’s works contribute to the varied and international neo-figurative movement of the last thirty-years. Among his favorite contemporary artists are Philip Guston, Avigdor Arikha, Lucian Freud, and Antonio López. His own contributions to contemporary neo-figurative paintings are an almost obsessive attention to the painter’s craft, a highly personal visual language, and an interest in the expressive and symbolic representation of the human figure.

Arturo Rodríguez’s extensive body of work includes many large multi-figurative paintings, which are the main subject of this two person exhibition with his wife Demi at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale. The large paintings included in this show cover the last seven years of Rodríguez’s work and offer his most ambitious and powerful images. These images, which resist instant consumption and reward detained observation from various distances, are characterized by a rich mix of abstract and representational forms, experimentation with color and tone, symbolic content, and sensual surfaces. In part due to these paintings’ size, it is usually their overall composition and color scheme that first catches the viewer’s attention. The compositions, at their most complex like in Misterioso (Mysterious 1987) and Subrosa (1994), consist of fragmented, pulsating spaces enfolding figures and objects. Rodríguez’s handling of space, a push and pull of geometric ad organic planes, curves in counterpoint with angles, represents the abstract element in his otherwise representational approach. In very personal fashion he has combined cubist space with realist expressionist figuration. In other large paintings, such as Broken Journey (1990) and En el suelo del cielo #3 (On heaven’s floor #3, 1994), the background space is treated more naturalistic as a continuous expanse of earth or sky respectively. In all cases, an integral part of the total composition is rhythm, resulting from the positioning and representation of the human figures, color arrangements, and brushstrokes. Rodríguez’s emphatic visual rhythm is highly personal, inspired for the most part by his passion for jazz and Cuban music. This is one of the strongest links between Rodríguez’s work and his native culture. Cuban music is characterized by vibrant and varied rhythms, a mix of African and Spanish, which in one way or another resonate in Rodríguez’s canvas. The connecting point is Rodríguez’s extensive knowledge of international jazz and Cuban music, and the fact that both types of music and their junction in Latin jazz, are his constant companion while working in his studio. Color is one of the most immediate and variable elements in Rodríguez’s work. It contributes to his paintings spatial and rhythmic structure, sets the emotional tone of the compositions, gives a semblance of reality, and suggests symbolism. The tenebroso light-dark contrast of Misterioso, the flaming yellow and reds of Broken Journey, and the expansive ultramarine and green of En el suelo del cielo #3 evoke strong moods of somberness, agitation, and calm respectively, while the paintings’ hue and/or tonality suggest day/night in the first, fire in the second, and sky in the third. Besides their expressionistic and representational qualities, the color-tones in these paintings invite symbolic associations with earth, hell and heaven respectively.

Rodríguez’s pigments move easily from expressionistic to realistic and symbolic roles. On closer view, the human figure set in oblique landscapes and interiors is the dominant element of his highly personal style. In a painterly and fairly descriptive language Rodríguez represents a cast of characters whose facial expression, tentative gestures, and distorted poses forcefully convey a sense of dislocation and confusion. On one level, close to home, these figures may be interpreted as signs of an exile state of mind, or in a more broad sense the feeling of being an “outsider.” On a more universal level the single figures, embracing couples, children, mothers, women and men of different ages, including self-portraits, signify humanity performing upon the stage of its own “Theatre of the World.” The selective props accompanying the figures point to two major themes played out in Rodríguez’s large canvases. One is the theme of the “journey” as suggested by figures riding in all sorts of wheeled vehicles (Broken Journey), boats (The Boat, 1991, Passages, 1993) and walking (Self Portrait with Nightmares, 1987). In these paintings Rodríguez appropriates traditional and modern symbols for expressing the idea of life-as-a-journey: the fabled Wandering Jew, the allegorical Ship of Fools, the romantic storm-tossed-boat or raft (as in the case of Theodore Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa), and the modern wheel. Also related to this subject are the figures with wings (Passages, Subrosa) and ladders (Untitled, 1994, En el suelo del cielo #3). Inspired again by traditional western myths, such as that of Icarus and Jacob’s Ladder, Rodríguez explores in his own way the more spiritual versions of the journey theme. Generally e represents it as perilous and endless. The other recurring theme in Rodríguez’s iconography is that of life as a “balancing act.” Many of his works show figures holding on to high wires, long legged chairs, ladders, and horses suggesting a circus performance (parts of Misterioso, Untitled, En el suelo del cielo #3). In tune with modern painting from Gustave Courbet to Max Beckmann, Rodríguez uses the motif of popular performers or entertainers to discourse on humanity and contemporary life. His performer’s main feat is a balancing act, ironically and precariously achieved by means of off-balance poses and gestures. In reality the iconography of these paintings is more complex and indefinite than I have suggested. Paintings like En el suelo del cielo #3 combines the themes of the life-as –a journey and life-as-a-balancing-act. Furthermore, these images are more poetic than narrative (although they come tantalizingly close to the latter); “they” as Rodríguez states, “are always open and in a way unfinished, suggesting a confusion between dreams and reality.” Rodríguez’s large paintings stand out for their cohesive formal structure, emphatic rhythms, chromatism, and humanist discourse. They are aesthetically stunning and thematically challenging images that invite and withstand prolonged viewing.

Visually they project a personal and powerful combination of abstract and representational languages, dramatic colors, and a rich painterly surface. In content they evoke experiences which have marked the artist’s life as well as this century in general: exile and alienation, the intrusion of dreams and memories into ordinary reality, the ubiquity of the absurd, and the search for meaning through it all.


Juan A. Martínez
Professor Emeritus of Art History. Florida International University.
Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
September 8-November 20, 1994