OMAR RAYO

b. 1928, Roldanillo, Colombia

d. 2010, Roldanillo

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Rayo always retained his refined technique; his skill did not decay with the passage of time and remained unbeatable. He was able to treat a variety of themes and subjected them all to the exactitude of geometry and the optic balancing acts that exercise the viewer’s retina. He constructed a visual grammar based on precision, on chromatic and formal variations capable of bringing forth his personality, which became singularized and entered collective memory even beyond the circle of the visual arts. 

—Miguel González 

 

 

Over the course of his distinguished career, the Colombian artist Omar Rayo practiced drawing, printmaking, sculpture, and painting in a range of styles that encompassed elements of caricature, Pop, and Op art. His most iconic works, however, facilitated a conversation between pre-Columbian visual culture and geometric abstraction. Often featuring crisp patterns of lines and folds, his hard-edged mature work bears a familial resemblance to Frank Stella’s stripe paintings of the late 1950s and early 1960s, made around the time of Rayo’s move to New York. But if Stella famously said in regards to his own output, “What you see is what you see,” Rayo’s paintings are anything but. With his distinctive method of shading, Rayo’s ribbons and patterns seem to break from the confines of the picture plane, undermining the paradigm of flatness ubiquitous in North American abstraction during the mid-twentieth century and fostering a visual language uniquely his own.  

 

Rayo was born in Roldanillo, Colombia, to Catalan migrants. His formal artistic education was minimal, almost exclusively entailing correspondence courses in drawing from the Academy Zier in Buenos Aires at the age of fourteen. He quickly applied these skills to his first career as a caricaturist for several newspapers in his home country, where he developed an idiosyncratic, geometric style that he called “maderismo” (woodism). An encounter with the work of Yves Tanguy [1900–1955], however, led to his initial engagement with painting in a number of surrealistic watercolor and acrylic pieces that he later deemed his “bejuquismo” (reedism) period. 

 

In 1954, Rayo set forth on an extensive journey throughout South America. He painted and exhibited throughout his travels, and his output from these years constituted his “Via Sur” series. The paintings and drawings within this body of work reflected the trove of influences that he accumulated over the course of his trip, including meeting towering literary figures such as Jorge Luis Borges [1899–1986] and Pablo Neruda [1904–1973] and—crucially—exposure to indigenous artifacts, architecture, and textiles. Rayo’s fascination with these artworks manifests throughout “Via Sur” in the intricate geometries that compose the stylized depictions of the various towns, landscapes, and historical sites he visited over the course of his travels. These works also introduced the color palette he would retain for the remainder of his career: black, white, blue, green, red, and yellow, which he coupled with an ever-present subtle shading.

 

Rayo lived in Mexico City from 1959 to 1961 under the auspices of a scholarship from the Organization of American States. Rather than painting, however, his artistic output during this time was dominated by a sustained engagement with printmaking, specifically intaglios. Often inkless, these prints employed 300-pound Arches paper to create images in deep relief of household objects including hooks, scissors, buttons, and neckties. Rayo eventually exhibited these works in New York in 1962 to a strong reception, receiving praise from artists such as Jasper Johns [b. 1930] and culminating in the Museum of Modern Art’s acquisition of twelve of them. This early exhibition coincided with a long-term move to New York, where he would stay for several decades and join a circle of artists that included César Paternosto and Marcelo Bonevardi, as well as fellow Colombians Edgar Negret, Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar, and Leonel Góngora. 

 

Rayo also witnessed the ascendency of “Op art” in New York, which—alongside Duchamp’s pioneering optical experiments—would guide him towards the illusionistic abstract paintings that he is remembered for today. These acrylic compositions integrated Western artistic practices with those of indigenous cultures he saw first-hand over the previous decade. He wielded his powerful understanding of light and shadow to create imaginative knots and ribbon-like illusions, an optical play that was occasionally heightened by the artist’s application of painted wooden rods directly to the canvas. These illusory elements endowed his art with an energy that oscillated between an emphasis on the canvas surface and an exposure of a deep, internal expanse within. The success of his work comes from his ability to sustain a remarkable coherence between these two forces. Rayo’s later paintings entailed an unceasing devotion to this aesthetic, which became a tool to capture highly personalized sites of meaning shared through titles that referenced people, places, and mythology. 

 

Rayo became well established within the Americas over the course of his lifetime. He was the subject of solo exhibitions at the Bibilioteca Luis Ángel Arango, Bogotá (1966); Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas (1968); Museo de Arte Moderno, Bogotá (1971, 1974); Museo de Arte Moderno, Rio de Janeiro (1972); Museo la Tertulia, Cali, Colombia (1972); Museo de Arte Moderno Chapultepec (1973);  El Museo del Barrio, New York (1980); Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, New York (1987); Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City (1994); and the Museo Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá (2015). An award winning artist, Rayo received numerous accolades, including the International Prize at the 1971 São Paulo Biennial and the Antonio Berni Prize at the 1984 Havana Biennial. In 1981, he opened a museum dedicated to drawing and printmaking in his hometown of Roldanillo, hosting workshops and housing a large collection of both Rayo’s work and that of other artists. After his death in 2010, the Museum continues to be a cultural center to this day. Rayo’s artwork is currently represented in the collections of museums such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; Art Institute of Chicago; Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin; Brooklyn Museum; Museo de Arte Moderno, Bogotá; Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas; Museo Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; and the Yale University Art Gallery.

[1]  Miguel González, “Omar Rayo,” in Geometric Abstraction in Latin America (Bogotá: ArtNexus, 2013), 180.

[2]  Hollman Morales, “El Ojo Nómada,” in Rayo: El Ojo Nomáda (Cali, Colombia: Impresora Feriva S.A, 2007), 32.

[3]  González, “Omar Rayo,”176.

[4]  Ibid.

[5]  Ibid.

[6]  Miguel González, Omar Rayo: Geometría Vibrante, exh. cat. (Bogotá: Museo Nacional de Colombia, 2015), 10. 

[7]  González, “Omar Rayo,” 177.

[8]  Morales, “El Ojo Nomáda,” 68.

[9]  González, “Omar Rayo,” 178.

[10]  Ibid., 179.

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