Agustín Fernández

(1928 – 2006)

Cuba

Biography

My characteristic images and themes are objects from an unreal world of aggression and conflict, in which mechanical parts appear together with anatomical ones, under the surgeon’s scalpel, under the introspection of a curious mind, and in certain tormented zones. My painting is semi-abstract and endowed with a certain technical classicism. It represents an oneiric reality in which man is besieged by a number of forces that surround him: eroticism, mechanical civilization, the elements of war, as well as other afflicting impositions. A metaphor of belts, pieces of armor or machinery, binding strings, cutting knives, and violent actions that plague the body and the mind—I am a painter of ambiguous abstractionism and certain anatomical themes.[1]

 

—Agustín Fernández

Visit the Agustín Fernández Foundation website

 

 

Born in Havana in 1928, Agustín Fernández received classical artistic training from the Academy of San Alejandro, where drawing—particularly drawing from life—was of paramount importance. His later studies at the Art Students League of New York during the summers of 1948 and 1949, however, presented career-defining challenges to many of the techniques learned during these early studio lessons. Particularly relevant was the artist’s tutelage under the painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi [1889–1953], whose rejection of drawing what one sees, as well as his anti-academic advocacy of modeling from light to dark, Fernández later credited as important early cornerstones in the development of his practice.[2] In 1953, Fernández continued his studies in Spain by auditing courses at the San Fernando Academy, Madrid, and through the rest of the decade exhibited his work widely, holding solo exhibitions at the Pan American Union, Washington, DC (1954); the Duveen-Graham Gallery, New York (1955); the Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas (1959); and participating in the IV and V São Paulo Biennials. A milestone for any young artist, one of Fernández’s early colorful canvases, Still Life and Landscape (1956), was acquired in 1958 for the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The following year, however, brought with it a transition that proved fundamental for the artist; not only did Fernández move to Paris on a fellowship from the Cuban government, but his artistic style shifted as well: “I found my true self as a painter at the beginning of the 1960s,” the artist stated, “when I was more than thirty years old.”[3]

 

Through the gallerist Simone Collinet [1897–1980], the Paris-based Fernández met the likes of Max Ernst [1891–1976] and Roberto Matta [1911–2002] among the city’s Surrealists. Though his large biomorphic abstractions—rendered in cold grays, beiges, and black—evidence a Surrealist-informed style, Fernández strongly maintained his independence as an artist. Indeed, rather than understanding the artist as a deeply committed affiliate of Surrealism, recent scholarship has argued that Fernández instead redeployed the tenets of Surrealism to convey not only the metaphysical condition of the subject’s relation to the world, but specifically the exiled subject’s relationship to power.[4] This particular pain of separation is one that the artist knew well and endured until his death; after leaving Cuba in 1959, Fernández lived the remainder of his life in self-imposed exile due to his disavowal of his native country’s government. From Paris, he and his family lived in Puerto Rico from 1968 to 1972 before ultimately settling in New York. It was here where Fernández would meet another young artist who shared his visceral, confrontational, and uncompromising approach—Robert Mapplethorpe [1946–1989]. Their first encounter was under the auspices of a never-realized three-person show to be held at the Robert Samuels Gallery, featuring the work of the sculptor Nancy Grossman alongside that of the photographer and painter. Mapplethorpe remained close to Fernández and his wife, Lia, until his AIDS-related death, photographing the couple’s son, the painter’s mother, and the artist himself.

 

While Fernández’s paintings maintained their unmistakable psychological charge and distinct rendering of form (“The representation in almost all of my paintings is in the foreground, like sculptural reliefs…”),[5] the artist gradually integrated new objects and colors into his arsenal over the course of his career. The razor blades, cherries, and pins of the late 1960s were followed by the so-called “armor” paintings, a motif that Fernández explored well into his time in New York and which has been analyzed within the context of that city’s emerging punk subculture.[6] For an artist living in exile who, by his own admission, saw his art shaped by the various cities he called home, contextual readings such as this are important for charting the trajectory of his work. In the 1980s, clothespins, serpents, and butterflies appeared, while the early 1990s witnessed the emergence of his distinctive “femme-oiseau,” a totemic figure with hybrid features of both a woman and bird.[7]

 

Far from restricting himself to one medium, Fernández produced drawings, collages, and found-object assemblages alongside his haunting oil-on-canvas compositions. Neither preparatory studies for paintings nor simple throw-away sketches, Fernández’s works on paper were parallel investigations into the space beyond representation. His mysterious objects, whether painted or drawn, remain convincing in volume, trompe l’oeil depictions of sinuous and sensual forms that convey the physical qualities of objecthood while remaining unnamable in language alone: razorblades become the scales of serpents; phallic protrusions approximate the shape of breasts; and scenes of apparent pain morph into flowers.

 

The work of Agustín Fernández is featured in many prominent public collections, including the Art Museum of the Americas, Washington, DC; Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; El Museo del Barrio, New York; The Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin; Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL; Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana; Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Frost Museum, Florida International University, Miami; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; and Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT.

 

[1] Agustín Fernández, “I am a Painter of the Brush…,” in Agustín Fernández: The Metamorphosis of Experience (Milan: 5 Continents Editions, 2012), 48.

[2] Ramon Osuna, “Interview with Agustín Fernández,” Signal 66 Art Gallery, 1999. Online, vimeo. Accessed June 228, 2019.

[3] Fernández, “I am a Painter of the Brush…,”48.

[4] Abigail McEwen, “Erotic Encounters: Fernández and Post-Minimalism,” in Agustín Fernández: The Metamorphosis of Experience (Milan: 5 Continents Editions, 2012), 27–37.

[5] Fernández, “I am a Painter of the Brush…,” 49.

[6] Serda Yalkin’s narrative chronology in Agustín Fernández: The Metamorphosis of Experience (Milan: 5 Continents Editions, 2012), 245. For an analysis of Fernández’s paintings within the context of New York City, see Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, “Only in New York: Agustín Fernández and the Aesthetics of Subculture,” in The Metamorphosis of Experience.

[7] For a chronological outline of Fernández’s motifs, see Yalkin in Agustín Fernández: The Metamorphosis of Experience.

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