“A man does not enter priesthood to become Pope, but because he feels the religious vocation,” Albizu once reasoned. “A painter becomes a painter because he feels the urge to paint, not to become a famous artist.” If fame once eluded her, Albizu is lately recognized among the great women of American Abstract Expressionism and may be considered the movement’s most outstanding representative from Puerto Rico. She trained under the Spanish-born abstractionist Esteban Vicente, in San Juan from 1945 to 1947, and grew close to him and his second wife, the Puerto Rican intellectual María Teresa Babín. She followed them to New York in 1948, continuing her studies there under Hans Hofmann, the preeminent teacher of the New York School, and at the Art Students League. Albizu’s arrival came on the eve of what has been described as a triumphal moment for postwar American painting, just months after the first exhibitions of Jackson Pollock’s “drip” paintings and of Willem de Kooning’s breakthrough black-and-white abstractions. Although long occluded from period accounts of Abstract Expressionism, she evolved an exuberant, painterly practice of abstraction from the 1950s through the 1970s whose lyricism and chromatic brilliance mark an entirely original contribution to American and Puerto Rican art history.
Albizu remains perhaps best-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,” wrote José Gómez Sicre, curator and chief of the Visual Arts Section at the Pan American Union, at the time of her solo show at the PAU 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.” 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—a friend who worked as 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 a review of her first solo exhibition, at Panoras Gallery in midtown Manhattan, “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.”
The imprimatur of Abstract Expressionism, even in its waning years, distinguished Albizu’s work from the start in Puerto Rican contexts from Nuyorican Manhattan to San Juan. With a few exceptions, Puerto Rican artists embraced an ideologically invested social realism in the 1950s, elaborated through the print medium—notably, in the work of Rafael Tufiño—as well as in paintings that explored tropes of national, ethnic, and social identity. Albizu long disavowed this activist impulse, from her student days through her New York years, instead positioning her work in classical, and high modernist, aesthetic terms. “To a certain extent, I believe in art for art’s sake,” she reflected. “I believe in eternal art and eternal values, in Botticelli and Kandinsky, they will live. I really don’t think an artist today has to give a political or social interpretation to his work. I suppose it is inevitable that you are influenced by everything around you. There is a lot of ugliness around and I want to create beauty—as far as my concept of beauty is concerned. When I look at Giotto, I’m not interested in his politics or religion. I’m interested in his art.”
Albizu’s late 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. Made at an often-intimate scale and through gestural and densely compacted slabs of pigment, they rhapsodize color through an inside-out layering of surfaces in shallow pictorial space. As Gómez Sicre recognized, the synaesthetic quality of her painting, in which strokes of color take on an expressive musicality, yields an internal incandescence and rich emotional timbre, delivered beautifully in the present Untitled. Here, pure colors interact dynamically across the surface, the staccato passages of red, orange, green, blue, and magenta highlighted against a warmly immersive yellow ground. Albizu used a palette knife to give dimensional depth to her jagged rectangles of color, laid both in broad applications—in Untitled, mostly at the center of the canvas—and in smaller taches of pigment, vigorously and tightly compacted within the image. The all-over flux of colors and shapes is additive and suggestively syncretic, a mosaic of polyphonic and tactile values. Albizu described her abstractions as “a dialogue between myself and my work,” advising, “The art viewer must introduce his own conversation into that dialogue to complete the circle.”
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park