Concrete Cuba, David Zwirner, London

Concrete Cuba, David Zwirner, London

The turbulent 1950s in Cuba began with the military coup led by Fulgencio Batista and were marked by growing conflict between the US-backed Batista dictatorship and the revolutionary movement of Fidel and Raoul Castro, which would eventually topple Batista and transform Cuba into a communist society from 1959. The political turmoil of the times also found its expression in a radical departure by a group of Cuban artists, Los Diez Pintores Concretos (the Ten Concrete Painters), who responded directly to the transformation of Havana into a vibrant international city as the policies of the Batista regime brought both American tourist dollars and organised crime to the Cuban capital, as well as rapid urbanisation.

Concrete Cuba is the first presentation in the United Kingdom to highlight the origins of concretism in Cuba during the 1950s, and includes important works by 11 artists who were at different times associated with the group: Pedro Álvarez, Wifredo Arcay, Mario Carreño, Salvador Corratgé, Sandú Darié, Luis Martínez Pedro, Alberto Menocal, José Mijares, Pedro de Oraá, José Ángel Rosabal, Loló Soldevilla, and Rafael Soriano.

Los Diez enjoyed a relatively easy relationship with the Batista regime, despite the artists’ opposition to his dictatorship, owing in part to their seemingly apolitical aesthetics. Their hard-edged, geometric abstract works were distinct from the overtly political tactics deployed by previous abstract expressionist painters in Havana. The group sought a universal, utopian aesthetic that offered a new form of political and social engagement. Though they employed a purely non-representational idiom, they did not consider their work to follow the dictates of abstract art, which they presumed to derive from forms found in nature. Rather, their compositions were based on intellectually-formulated constructs, which they reduced to simple planes and colours. Los Diez moved abstraction toward conceptual and phenomenological ends, in line with contemporaneous international art movements, to engage both the viewer and the broader collective conscience of Cuba. In one key example, Luis Martínez Pedro’s series Aguas territoriales (Territorial Waters), circular and semi-circular lines, most often gradients of blue or mauve, swirl like a whirlpool around a central core and float across a monochromatic plane.

The dialogue between this distinctly Cuban group and developments in the wider art world is illustrated by the works of Wifredo Arcay (1925–1997) who worked as a printmaker in Paris in the early 1950s and befriended many contemporary artists, joining the constructivist Groupe Espace, which encouraged a synthetic relationship between art and architecture. Despite its brief existence, Los Diez had a profound impact, not only on Cuban art, but on the trajectory of twentieth-century abstraction internationally.

Concrete Cuba, until 3 October, David Zwirner 24 Grafton Street London W1S 4EZ.

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1. Sandú Darié, Estructura (Structure), 1958. Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner.