EDUARDO RAMÍREZ VILLAMIZAR

b. 1922, Pamplona, Colombia

d. 2004, Bogotá

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If you look at my reliefs, 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 [in Bogotá].

—Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar [1]

Having studied architecture at the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá from 1940 to 1943, Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar transferred to the Escuela de Bellas Artes, where he began his career as a painter by first working in an academic style before transitioning to canvases informed by the expressionism of Rouault and Van Gogh.[2] By the early 1950s, however, Villamizar was a devout follower of geometric abstraction. Important in this transition were the artist’s stays in Paris (1950–52 and 1955–56, punctuated by a return to Bogotá),[3] where he attended workshops under the instruction of Jean Dewasne and Edgard Pillet at the Atelier d’Art Abstrait.[4] A focal point in spreading the tenets of geometric abstraction to a younger generation of artists, Villamizar’s fellow students at the Atelier included Jesús Rafael Soto, Alejandro Otero, Ellsworth Kelly, and Jack Youngerman.[5] His compatriot Edgar Negret, with whom he had exhibited previously in their native Colombia, also arrived in Paris in 1951. 

 

Villamizar’s interest in geometric abstraction grew as he explored Paris’s postwar artistic environment, visiting the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles and the famed Galerie Denise René. Here, the paintings of Victor Vasarely exerted a profound effect on the young artist, who later reflected: “Vasarely touched me like a Greco, a Picasso or a Van Gogh. He taught me that there was no need to represent reality in order to express the wonders of creation: color, form, and geometry together were sufficient.”[6] In 1956, Villamizar traveled to New York, and this same year exhibited his paintings in a solo show at the Pan American Union in Washington, DC. The exhibition traveled to the Roland de Aenlle Gallery in New York, where Alfred Barr purchased Black and White (1956) for the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.[7] 

 

After returning to Bogotá in 1957, Villamizar accepted a commission to create a mural for the Banco de Bogotá. This proved to be a career-defining event. Originally conceived as a painting,[8] Villamizar changed course on the project after a site visit, noting that “the site’s lighting and architecture drove by necessity to a three-dimensional solution.”[9] Villamizar resolved that a relief would provide the best technique for proceeding, and in doing so embarked on a journey that would take him from two-dimensional painting to the later three-dimensional sculptures that compose the majority of his output. But beyond this formal transition, the mural commission also marks an early instance in which Villamizar attempted to blend the international language of geometric abstraction with Latin American cultural history. Drawing upon pre-Columbian artifacts and traditional goldwork, as well as the interiors of colonial churches of his hometown Pamplona[10], Villamizar’s El Dorado signaled the introduction of themes that the artist would pursue with ever-increasing intensity in his subsequent body of work. “[El Dorado] is one of my earliest public works and one of my earliest attempts to apprehend the spirit of pre-Columbian art through geometry.”[11] As Villamizar introduced these themes into his art, he joined the ranks of such venerable artists as Joaquín Torres-García, who likewise perceived a parallel between the fruits of Amerindian material history and contemporary artistic practices.

 

In 1959, Villamizar arrived once again in New York after taking a detour through Mexico to see first-hand the material culture of the Mayans and Aztecs. His commitment to pre-Hispanic art thus reaffirmed, Villamizar began to create a series of monochromatic reliefs that would run until approximately 1964.[12] Typically white—though occasionally black, red, or yellow—Villamizar’s meditative and restrained compositions typified the “cool,” hard-edge aesthetic currently being developed in the city by his friends Negret, Youngerman, Kelly, and Louise Nevelson.[13] And yet, despite their deep affinity with contemporary taste, the "White Reliefs" are nevertheless flooded with references to pre-Columbian material culture, gathering their potency by bridging diverse visual languages, time periods, and traditions. In contrast to the “Mozartian felicity”[14] that the critic Stuart Preston uncovered in Villamizar’s "White Reliefs," the artist himself identified a musicality born of the distant past: “If you look at my reliefs, 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 [in Bogotá].” The "White Reliefs" were exhibited in New York at Villamizar’s one-person exhibition at David Herbert Gallery in 1960, as well as in the group exhibitions Purism (1961) and Modern Classicism (1960) at the same gallery. They were again featured at the Sidney Janis Gallery as part of the 1964 show The Classical Spirit in Twentieth-Century Art. Other exhibitions during this time included the 1963 traveling exhibition, Arte de Colombia, which was presented in Rome, Madrid, Stockholm, and Stuttgart, as well as Hard Edge and Geometric Painting and Sculpture, on view at the Museum of Modern Art’s penthouse restaurant.[15] Villamizar and Negret were also the subject of a two-person exhibition at the Graham Gallery in 1964, where Villamizar would have a solo exhibition in 1966.  

 

With the conclusion of the "White Reliefs," Villamizar moved fully into the realm of three-dimensional sculpture. Works from this time consist of crisp, planar forms precisely crafted from industrial material like aluminum and acrylic. They were featured heavily in a solo exhibition at the Center for Inter-American Relations (now the Americas Society) in 1968. In the catalogue to the exhibition, curator Stanton L. Catlin observed that the sleekness and precision of the sculptures suggest “fantasies related to a modern instrument world of perfectly finished parts.”[16] Within the context of an ascendant minimalism, however, Villamizar’s forms have much in common with the sculptures of artists like Robert Smithson and Sol LeWitt, though Villamizar directed his own artistic goals elsewhere.[17] The artist continued developing this sleek aesthetic into the next decade, while also completing several major public sculptures. These include Four Towers (1971) in Vermont; Colonnade (1972), installed in Fort Tryon Park in New York; and From Colombia to John F. Kennedy at the Kennedy Center, Washington, DC. In 1974, he established his studio in Bogotá permanently, and began working on his iconic Sixteen Towers (1974), overlooking the city. 

 

A major shift in Villamizar’s practice occurred after a 1983 visit to Machu Picchu. Reflecting on this experience, Villamizar wrote: “Surrounded by solemnity and silence, I was able to grasp the oneness and harmony of those grandiose stones that metamorphosed under the changing Peruvian light. At dawn or dusk, under the rain, through a mantle of fog, each stone realized its own sacred energy.”[18] The artist’s subsequent sculptural practice drew heavily from the monumental sculpture and architecture of the Incans, often rendered in iron left to oxidize. The use of this material—which carries the visual marks of its own degradation over time—adds an addition gloss of temporality to the sculptures, bringing together human construction and natural processes. Once sharp edges become bitten with rust, while the occasional glimmer of smooth metal cuts through the dusky patina that has settled upon Villamizar’s sculptures. The artist reflects on his choice of material as follows:

 

But iron itself emerges whole and pure from the earth and returns to it as dirt and filings. And that eternal return to the original matter, that slow pilgrimage to a final fusion of elements that lead to death seemed to me qualities so natural and absolute, so emphatic and beautiful, that I can no longer conceive my sculptural work if not submerged in this spectacular process.[19]

 

Villamizar’s sculptures therefore operate on a cosmic level. In their delicate and poetic language of folds and creases that belie their construction in iron or concrete, the sculptures are visual equivalents of haikus, those tight-lipped poems laden with expressive potential. “Through my sculpture I seek to communicate something which may be readily understood, something which the observer may read as quickly as he can read a Japanese poem. I wish to put in one sentence all that is inside of me.”[20]

 

One of Colombia’s foremost sculptors, Villamizar’s work has been exhibited in such international venues as the São Paulo Biennial (1958, 1962, 1969); Venice Biennale (1957, 1976); and the Havana Biennial (1989). Villamizar’s sculptures, paintings, and works on paper are in the collections of the Art Museum of the Americas, Washington, DC; Banco de la República, Bogotá; Birmingham Museum of Art, AL; Essex Collection of Art from Latin America, University of Essex, Colchester, UK; Museo La Tertulia, Cali, Colombia; Museo Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Museum of Modern Art, New York; and Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, among others.

[1]  Quote transcribed as reproduced in Ana M. Franco, “Geometric Abstraction: The New York–Bogotá Nexus,” American Art 26, no. 2 (Summer 2012): 37. Her source is Camilo Calderón, “Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar: Escultura y abstracción” in El espacio en forma: Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar, Exposición retrospectiva, 1945–85, exh. cat. (Bogotá: Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango, 1985), 40.  

[2]  Ana M. Franco, “Edgar Negret and Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar: Transnational Encounters and the Rise of Modernism in Colombian Art, 1944–1964,” (PhD diss., New York University, 2012), 122–123.

[3]  Ibid., 120.

[4]  Ibid., 136–137. See also 144–146.

[5]  Ibid., 136.

[6]  Ibid.

[7]  Ibid., 149.

[8]  Ana M. Franco, “Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar en contexto—pintura, relieve y esculturas entre 1950 y 1974,” in Ramírez Villamizar: Geometría y Abstracción (Bogotá: Ediciones Gamma, 2010), 24.

[9]  Villamizar quoted in his obituary authored by Germán Rubiano Caballero in ArtNexus 3, no. 54 (2004): 66.

[10]  Franco, “Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar en contexto,” 25.

[11]  Quoted in Caballero, 66.

[12]  Franco, “Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar en contexto,” 26–27.

[13]  See Franco, “Geometric Abstraction: The New York–Bogotá Nexus.”

[14]  Stuart Preston, “Mind and Eye,” New York Times, November 6, 1960.

[15]  Franco, “Edgar Negret and Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar,” 169.

[16]  Stanton L. Catlin, foreword in Eduardo Ramírez: Sculptor, exh. cat. (New York, NY: Center for Inter-American Relations, 1968), 3.

[17]  Franco, “Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar en contexto,” 34–37.

[18]  Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar, “Homenaje a los artífices precolombinos,” reproduced in Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar: His Own Sacred Geometry, exh. cat. (Miami: Durban Segnini Gallery, 2017), 40.

[19]  Villamizar, “Homage to Colombian Craftsman,” 41.

[20]  Quote reproduced in Frederico Morais, “Utopia y Forma en Ramírez Villamizar,” in Ramírez Villamizar, exh. cat. (Bogotá: Museo de Arte Moderno, 1984),  31. The author also references hai-kai poetry. 

Latin American Art Gallery in New York City, USA. Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) member.