Born in San Juan, Olga Albizu ranks among the important women of American Abstract Expressionism and may be considered the movement’s most outstanding representative from Puerto Rico. A student of Esteban Vicente and Hans Hofmann, the preeminent teachers of the New York School, she evolved a painterly practice of gestural abstraction from the 1950s through the 1970s. Albizu remains well known today as the artist behind the celebrated album covers produced by Verve and RCA Victor for Stan Getz, João Gilberto, and many others identified with Brazilian Bossa Nova. “The association is not accidental,” José Gómez Sicre wrote at the time of her solo show at the Pan American Union in June 1966. “The flat splashes of pure color, rhythmically distributed across the surfaces, while in no sense a literal translation of musical ideas, are nonetheless suggestive of syncopation.”1
Albizu’s associations with RCA were also of a practical kind: she supported herself from time to time through secretarial jobs there, and through a remarkable connection – an assistant to the head of the record division, who displayed her work in the office – at least ten of her paintings were chosen for contemporary album covers. Albizu’s financial and professional struggles as a woman artist were, unsurprisingly, of a piece with her time; like peers from Carmen Herrera to Joan Mitchell and Elaine de Kooning, she lacked institutional support and regular exhibition opportunities. Her aptitude, however, was clear from the beginning. “Although still a very young painter,” Dore Ashton noted in an early review, “Miss Albizu shows considerable range in her handling of singing colors, putting them together in dense masses composed of heavy but sure strokes . . . her work has the mark of promise.”2
Albizu’s mature canvases characteristically feature vibrant, lyrical color expressed through gestural and densely compacted slabs of pigment, often on an intimate scale. The synaesthetic quality of her painting, in which strokes of color take on an expressive musicality, yields an internal incandescence and rich emotional timbre, as in the present Untitled. Here, contrasting colors interact dynamically across the surface, the staccato passages of yellow, pink, blue, green, and orange highlighted against a warmly immersive purple background. Albizu’s mature paintings possess a radiant equanimity. Freer in their paint handling and color arrangements than her earlier works, they resound with a chromatic intensity whose harmonies rise and fall, richly calibrated through hue and texture.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1 José Gómez Sicre, Olga Albizu of Puerto Rico, June 13 to 28 (Washington, D.C.: Pan American Union, 1966).
2 D. A. [Dore Ashton], “Simpson-Middleman Paintings on View,” The New York Times, 19 December 1956.