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6 Reasons to Check Out ‘Soy Isla’ at The Phillips Collection

A visitor with Zilia Sánchez, Lunar con tatuaje (Moon with Tattoo), c. 1968/96. Acrylic on stretched canvas, 71 × 72 × 12 in., Collection of the artist, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York. Photo: Rhiannon Newman

Marvel at seven decades’ worth of mind-bending art from abstract artist Zilia Sánchez right here in Washington, DC.

The Phillips Collection wants to introduce you to one of the most innovative and prolific abstract artists with Zilia Sánchez: Soy Isla (I Am an Island). The long overdue exhibition masterfully illuminates the life and work of Sánchez (born in 1926 in Havana), from her humble beginnings in Cuba to her time at the vanguard of modern art in New York City to her now-permanent residency in Puerto Rico, where she recently saw her studio apartment severely damaged by Hurricane Maria. Thankfully, Sánchez’s workspace has been re-built, so that she can continue providing the world with thought-provoking pieces like the dozens found in this remarkable display, which runs until May 19, 2019.

1 This is the first museum retrospective for the trailblazing Cuban artist.

Zilia Sánchez, Afrocubano, 1957. Oil on canvas, 27 1/2 × 21 1/2 in., Private collection, Madrid3

Zilia Sánchez has never been afraid to stand out. She has applied the title “I Am an Island” to several of her pieces, highlighting a theme present throughout her work. In a career that spans nearly 70 years, Sánchez has always used the abstract to focus on the female body and the surrounding space. In turn, her paintings, drawings, sculptural pieces and groundbreaking shaped canvases stand as remarkable symbols of women’s strength and fortitude. Audiences are fortunate to finally be able to observe the detailed retrospective that The Phillips Collection has provided.

2 Sánchez uses shaped canvases to create truly unique works of art.

A visitor with Zilia Sánchez, Troyanas (Trojan Women), 1984. Acrylic on stretched canvas, 54 × 95 3/8× 11 1/4 in., Compañía de Turismo de Puerto Rico, San Juan. Photo: Rhiannon Newman

Perhaps the most striking works in the exhibit, Sánchez’s shaped canvases merge painting and sculpture, creating a sort of synergy between art, geometry and the female body. Her “erotic topologies” are filled with visual references to the moon (indicative of femininity) and the female form, but are at no point crass. These “constructions” or “structures”, as Sánchez has often referred to them, are ambiguous puzzles that the viewer can construct in his or her own way. Standouts include Troyanas (Trojan Women), Juana de Arco (Joan of Arc) and Lunar V (Moon V).

3 You can experience Sánchez’s incredible evolution as an artist.

Zilia Sánchez, Azul azul (Blue Blue), 1956. Acrylic on canvas, 21 × 23 in., Collection of the artist, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

Soy Isla is a trip through the mind and life of a revolutionary creative. When you enter the exhibit, you will be greeted by a two-part I Am an Island piece that embodies ideas present throughout the artist’s oeuvre, as well as a chronology of Sánchez’s life. Her work is presented in the same manner. The retrospective begins with her abstract paintings in the 1950s and continues through her time in New York City, where she experimented with Informel paintings (which heavily feature earth tones), drawings and tattoo paintings, then dives into her jaw-dropping work with shaped canvases. Your experience concludes with a new documentary on Sánchez, screened in a room that displays recent pieces from 2016 and 2018.

4 Sánchez’s art pays tribute to the strength, bravery and independence of women.

Visitors with Zilia Sánchez, Juana de Arco ( Joan of Arc), 1987. Acrylic on stretched canvas, 97 1/4 × 73 3/4 × 13 in. Collection of Mima and César Reyes, San Juan

While the artist’s work is undoubtedly abstract, there is an undeniable through-line: the power of women. Sánchez frequently employs the narratives of female heroines in her work, including Joan of Arc and women who rebelled against authoritarian Amazonian rule. The notion of an island is also central to the exhibit: Sanchez is an islander herself, and she has swum against the tide her entire career, never afraid to stand alone.

5 You will see a masterclass in abstraction across a range of mediums.

\Visitors with Zilia Sánchez, Lunar (Moon), 1985. Acrylic on stretched canvas, 71 1/2 × 73 1/2 × 14 in., Collection of Ignacio J. López Beguiristain and Laura M. Guerra, San Juan. Photo: Rhiannon Newman

Sánchez has never limited herself in forms of expression. Soy Isla shows that no matter the medium, her mastery of the abstract is evident. You’ll see paintings, shaped canvases, drawings, graphic illustrations, works on paper and sculptures. There’s even plenty of context along the way, as The Phillips Collection has gathered photos, notes, hand drawings and publications that feature Sánchez from every era of her career.

6 Last but not least, you will be in the America’s first museum of modern art.

@aquinsta - Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party at The Phillips Collection - Art Museum in Washington, DC

The Phillips Collection is a fitting venue for the first museum exhibit dedicated to Zilia Sánchez, as the museum has a tradition of “firsts”. Opened in 1921, the Phillips Collection was the first museum dedicated to modern art in the country. Once you’ve taken in Sánchez’s revelatory work, make sure to check out what else the Phillips has to offer, which includes Jacob Lawrence’s historic Migration Series, a room dedicated to paintings by Mark Rothko, the famous Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, pieces by Vincent van Gogh, William de Kooning and much more.