“Ramírez Villamizar is like a Carthusian monk, his creative imagination taking the form of a severe, constrained abstractionism,” wrote noted Argentine critic Marta Traba. “In his paintings he tries to reach the spectator through the highest realm of the intellect. There is a clean, ascetic and dispassionate quality about Ramírez Villamizar’s canvases, a rigorously geometric style related to the mechanics of our modern age.” Named an exemplar of “modern classicism” in a group exhibition at David Herbert Gallery (1960) alongside such artists as Josef Albers, Ellsworth Kelly, and Alexander Calder, Ramírez Villamizar probed the plastic eloquence of geometry in painting and, preeminently, in sculpture over the course of his career. A student of architecture and painting in the early 1940s, he soon gravitated toward abstraction; by the time that he left Bogotá for Paris, where he lived between 1950 and 1952, he had begun to embrace the rationalist sensibilities of pure color and form. Ramírez Villamizar moved between Bogotá and New York from 1956 to 1964, a period defined by the emergence of his sculptural reliefs and his friendship with the Coenties Slip group of artists, among them Kelly, Agnes Martin, and Jack Youngerman. One of the “grupo de dos” with his compatriot and fellow sculptor Edgar Negret, he spearheaded the rise of geometric abstraction in Colombia through the postwar period; notable works from these years include the murals El Dorado (1958) and Mural horizontal (1962-65), both in Bogotá. He received the Guggenheim International Award for Colombia in 1958 and represented his country at the XXXVII Venice Biennale in 1976.
Percusión roja is one of sixteen wood reliefs that Ramírez Villamizar exhibited at his solo exhibition at David Herbert Gallery in November 1960. “Everything flows and everything is permanent, leaving the distillation of form still hovering in space,” observed M. C. Sonnabend in the exhibition’s catalogue. “In his exacting, qualitative feel for planes of light, their character of necessity, we sense the breathless, contained passion of expectation that awaits the coming of a form.... Form and wood are made one as the imprint of the idea in the artist’s mind is brought to clarity. And form settles into a serene illumination of itself.” The show drew critical acclaim. “Elegance and understatement characterize the carefully crafted wood reliefs of Colombian artist Eduardo Ramirez,” Arts Magazine observed. “Painted white or orange or black, these panels with their small protuberances, incisions and graduated layers suggest something to be used, like a keyboard or a game.”
“These delicate works of art distill a remarkable feeling for symmetry and design,” wrote Stuart Preston for The New York Times. “The beauty and distinction of Eduardo Ramírez’ carved wood geometrical reliefs…rest firmly on the pure logic of this artist’s sensibility. He adjusts shapes, space, and an occasional note of color with an almost Mozartian felicity. In fact there is something very musical in his way of ‘composing’ a relief.” The evocative musicality of these works is further implied by their titles, which suggest a moving rhythm of sound and silence: Percusión roja and White Sound (1960), Silent Surface (1960) and Resonant Red (1960). “If you look at my reliefs,” Ramírez Villamizar explained, “you’ll see that they are basically a very clear, quiet surface, like an enveloping silence. Well, music and sounds burst in the center of them—I learned that [in the pre-Columbian collection] of the Gold Museum.”
This musical impulse in Percusión roja materializes in the syncopated geometry of red relief elements that call to mind an abstracted keyboard, or mallet percussion instrument (for example, a xylophone or marimba). The smooth, monochromatic pattern of the horizontal register is punctuated by the diagonal “drumstick” that emerges out of the black rectangle below, displacing the exactingly proportioned red “bars;” its action creates a striking optical and sonic effect. As in Relieve negro y rojo (1960), the chromatic drama of red and black in Percusión roja amplifies the percussive sound, producing a dynamic, sensory resonance in contrast to the comparative silence of the contemporary all-white reliefs. “The perfection of his work consists in a style that is definite and without spectacular traits,” Traba declared, in a statement that appears in the catalogue that accompanied the artist’s solo exhibition in 1960. “The public has gradually learned what serene and lasting pleasures can be expected from his works and what rigorous processes of purification and polishing have been necessary for the artist to arrive at them. The title of first abstract artist of Colombia which Ramírez has won is not a gratuitous honor, but the recognition of a convincing style.”
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1 Marta Traba, “Pan America: Five Contemporary Colombians,” Art in America 48, no. 1 (January 1960): 111.
2 M. C. Sonnabend, Eduardo Ramírez, November 1-30 (New York: David Herbert Gallery, 1960), n.p.
3 M. S., “Exhibition at Herbert Gallery,” Arts Magazine 35 (November 1960): 64.
4 Stuart Preston, “Mind and Eye: The Outer and Inner Worlds of Artists Reflected Faithfully in Their Work,” The New York Times, November 6, 1960.
5 Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar, quoted in Camilo Calderón, “Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar: Escultura y abstracción,” in El espacio en forma: Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar, exposición retrospective, 1945-85 (Bogotá: Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango, 1985): 40, quoted in Ana M. Franco, “Geometric Abstraction: The New York-Bogotá Nexus,” American Art 26, no. 2 (Summer 2012): 37.
6 Traba, quoted in Eduardo Ramírez, November 1-30, n.p.