On ViewHutchinson Modern & Contemporary
October 22, 2020 – February 13, 2021
Hutchinson Modern & Contemporary’s inaugural exhibition at its East 64th Street gallery space, Freddy Rodríguez: Early Paintings 1970–1990, features a selection of paintings and collages by the Dominican York artist. While these works range in era, formal approach, and medium, together they evidence Rodríguez’s incisive responses to his own transnational experience, and include eloquent examinations of colonialism and racism in both the Dominican Republic and in the United States.
Born in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic in 1945, Rodríguez left for the US in 1963, feeling that his life was in danger. Indeed, his involvement with leftist student-led protests during the first term of Joaquín Balaguer (successor to dictator Rafael Trujillo) rendered him a political dissident, vulnerable to state acts of terror. Once settled in New York City, Rodríguez began his art education, studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology and at the New School for Social Research. Also crucial to his artistic formation were visits to the city’s museums, where he gravitated toward Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. Despite the enlightening aspects of his new cultural environment, Rodríguez often faced racial discrimination due to his mixed ancestry.
Having now lived and worked in New York for more than five decades, Rodríguez’s oeuvre clearly demonstrates his absorption of the city’s artistic milieu in the 1960s and ’70s. Included in Early Paintings are three of the artist’s hard-edged geometric abstractions from the 1970s. A meticulously rendered, untitled canvas dated 1970—long and relatively narrow in form—recalls a panoramic landscape: the composition is divided into upper and lower registers, with the lower containing horizontal bands while the upper contains vertically subdivided sections of varying length. Rodríguez’s palette of lilac, mint green, rose, lemon, and apricot calls to mind a gloriously bountiful, sun-struck bucolic setting. Meanwhile, Un Año De Soledad (1972), which juxtaposes brighter hues against slate gray and garnet, signals the profound impact of Latin American literature on Rodríguez’s artistic practice; here, his work title references Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Cien años de soledad (1967).
Rodríguez maintains that his adoption of geometric abstraction was driven by transnational trauma. In a 2015 conversation with curator and historian E. Carmen Ramos, the artist cites his arrival in the US as a period of extraordinary emotional tumult and asserts that creating rigorously ordered compositions helped him to achieve emotional balance and mental clarity. Thus, the tendency served as a psychological tool that promoted his diasporic adjustment.
Paintings on display from Rodríguez’s “Cimarrón” and “Paradise” series reckon with particularly fraught Dominican histories. Begun in 1985, the “Cimarrón” works lay bare the brutality faced by fugitive slaves in the colonial Dominican Republic. Both Atrapado en punzó (1986) and El Cimarrón Y La Comedia Divina (1986) contain simplified yet harrowing images of human legs with toeless feet—a common punishment for slaves who attempted to escape plantations. Cruelty and injustice against the Dominican Republic’s Black inhabitants persisted throughout Trujillo’s dictatorship (1930–1961), which saw racialized violence against Haitians, and the state’s official negation of its own Black heritage.
Both paintings blend these haunting facts with Rodríguez’s observation and experience of racism within US art institutions. In Atrapado en punzó, the artist embedded a Museum of Modern Art member’s calendar beneath the aforementioned legs, which are themselves encapsulated by a tombstone-shaped block of crimson paint. The calendar advertises exhibitions of artworks by Modigliani, Mies van der Rohe, Matisse, and Jim Dine, with the obvious omission of BIPOC artists and women. Here, Rodríguez underscores MoMA’s exclusivity, its (then) blind eye trained upon the creative output of white men. In sum, while Rodríguez benefited from the museum’s educative potential, he recognized that it neglected him and other artists with diverse racial and cultural backgrounds.
Like the “Cimarrón” works, Rodríguez’s “Paradise” series probes the effects of colonial violence in the Dominican Republic. The title comes from a letter sent by Christopher Columbus to the Pope, in which the explorer described the New World as “paradise.” For native inhabitants, of course, the arrival of Europeans brought unimaginable devastation: the colonizers not only exploited and decimated indigenous civilizations in the 16th century, but also brought enslaved West and Central Africans to support the island’s sugar industry. With “Paradise,” Rodríguez posits that tropical flora is the ultimate witness to these atrocities—a silent, omniscient bystander whose beauty belies the ugliness it survived.
Dance in Paradise (1987), a particularly arresting example, is divided into two yin-yang-like fields of glowing color: fiery orange on the right, and deep turquoise on the left. Looming against the turquoise field is a bold group of leaves and blossoms, whose erect postures—pistils and veins turned to face the viewer—imply a state of vigilance. On the composition’s right side, abutting a channel of multicolored impasto, a review clipped from the New York Times proclaims the “exuberant creativity” of a performance by the Paul Taylor Dance Company. The history of Rodriguez’s native land is inextricable from the realities of his adopted country, just as human activity is inseparable from the natural world.
The multifaceted surfaces of Dance in Paradise and Atrapado en punzó—both of which feature layers of acrylic, collaged paper, and sawdust—encourage viewers to excavate through histories of art and injustice. Rodríguez’s works remind observers that experimentation is an act of freedom; that subsuming challenge is revisionary; and that both lay the foundation for a more inclusive future.