SANTIAGO CÁRDENAS

b. 1937, Bogotá, Colombia

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When I was studying there were many philosophical questions about art. Modern art began with Cézanne because he, who was supposed to be a bad painter, realized that the painting was flat. That completely transformed the perspective of the Renaissance and I found it interesting. One was no longer there to copy, but to propose and create something different. But the art of Miguel Ángel and Velázquez seemed so interesting to me. Then I thought that nobody had thought that the three illusory dimensions could get out of the picture. Instead of space being inward, it could be created outward.

—Santiago Cárdenas [1]

Throughout Santiago Cárdenas’s prolific career, the artist has drawn from a wide range of art historical practices—ranging from the Old Masters to Pop art—in the creation of enigmatic still lifes of everyday objects. Despite their stunning exactness of form, however, Cárdenas’s paintings and drawings are not straight-forward exercises in tromp l’oeil. “My intentions,” the artist reflected, “are not to trick nor to play with the viewer. I use illusionism to create a ‘presence,’ just as nature does.”[2] With paintings, drawings, and prints of electrical sockets, clothes hangers, suits, chalkboards, and flowers—to name only a few recurring subjects—Cárdenas refocuses Pop art’s eye for parody to ask persistent questions about the nature of representation and the pictorial surface itself. Rather than opening onto space, Cárdenas’s paintings of chalkboards, unassuming walls, and closed windows, refute the conventional relationship between the viewer and the work of art. 

 

Although born in Colombia’s capital, Cárdenas moved to Pelham, New York, with his family in 1947 at the age of ten. He attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where he studied architecture before transitioning to painting and drawing. After receiving his BFA in 1960, he enrolled in the United States Army, taking advantage of his station in Europe to visit institutions like the Louvre and Prado, and to see the works of Diego Velázquez, Francisco Goya, and the Flemish painters first hand.[3] In 1962, Cárdenas entered Yale University for his graduate studies at a time when the University counted among its faculty the likes of Alex Katz, Jack Tworkov, and Al Held, and when his classmates included Richard Serra, Chuck Close, Nancy Graves, and Jennifer Bartlett.[4] His paintings from this time betray the indelible impression that the surrounding community of artists left upon him. The flat colors and use of pop-culture imagery speak to the artist’s proximity to Alex Katz in particular.

 

Cárdenas received his MFA from Yale in 1964 and returned to Colombia the following year where he reconvened with the sculptor Edgar Negret, whose New York studio the young artist first visited in 1959. Negret advised Cárdenas to get an audience with Marta Traba, the Argentine-born director of the Museo de Arte Moderno, Bogotá. Through the intervention of the sculptor Feliza Bursztyn, Traba met the young painter and presented a solo exhibition of the artist’s work at the institution in 1966.[5] His art from this time still featured Pop art imagery, but by 1967 Cárdenas had begun incorporating real objects into his paintings and working with oil on wood, often cutting the support to conform to the shape of the objects he was depicting.[6] This series of moves conceived of the picture plane as a physical three-dimensional object in space rather than as a surface that dematerializes into a “window.” These ideas were further explored on a grand scale as part of the radical group show Espacios ambientales, curated by Marta Traba and held at the Museo de Arte Moderno in 1968. Foundational to the emergence of conceptual practices in Colombia, and important for introducing the international aesthetic of “installation art” to the country, the exhibition invited Cárdenas, Bursztyn, Ana Mercedes Hoyos, and Álvaro Barrios to create large-scale environments.[7] The art historian Gina McDaniel Tarver described Cárdenas’s contribution as “a painting of a room that was coterminous with a real room in the museum, in which he placed a real iron, whose real cord merged with a painted cord on the wall.”[8] 

 

In 1970, Cárdenas received the award for Best Colombian Artist at the Coltejer Biennial in Medellín for his painting Enchufe en la pared of the same year. A large-scale canvas depicting a wall with a plug, the illusion was of such quality that viewers couldn’t help but touch it to verify its existence as a painting.[9] If this anecdote attests to the strength of Cárdenas’s representation, it also reveals the degree to which the objects represented elicit human interaction. As the curator and professor Raul Cristancho has noted, it is this quality that distinguishes Cárdenas’s brand of Pop from that found in the work of artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, or Jasper Johns.[10] The objects that he begins incorporating into his paintings at the turn of the decade have “an implicit allusion” to human beings—plugs that ask to be plugged and unplugged; clothing waiting to be taken off the hook; umbrellas propped in anticipation of being opened. They aspire to provoke within the viewer a level of engagement going beyond solely aesthetic contemplation.[11] The artist reveals that this effect is intentional, once reflecting that “the point to my painting is that what you see is an object, not a picture.”[12]

 

In 1973, Cárdenas and his compatriot Carlos Rojas held a two-person exhibition at the Center for Inter-American Relations (now the Americas Society) in New York. This same year, the Museum of Modern Art purchased one of the Cárdenas’s charcoal drawings for its permanent collection before acquiring a painting by the artist in 1976 titled Black Slate with Shelf (1975). The latter piece is reflective of an overall trend in the artist’s work apparent by the middle of the decade, when Cárdenas, like Jasper Johns, “restricted his subjects to things that were in themselves two-dimensional, such as blackboards, window shades, the side of a corrugated packing box, empty picture frames, and the backs of canvases.”[13] Building on Cy Twombly’s precedent, these blackboards become a recurring trope in the artist’s work, and will later function as the background for still life compositions in which Cardenas’s exacting detail plays against mists of chalk erasure. Three chalkboards are shown at the São Paulo Biennial (1977), which earned him an honorable mention.[14]

 

As Cárdenas’s career advanced, his canvases became ever more adventurous. By the middle of the 1980s, he had begun to incorporate a freer, more expressive use of color, setting the stage for compositions that quote the likes of Matisse and Picasso while nevertheless remaining true to the style that has earned him international recognition. The importance of Cárdenas’s pathfinding practice has been underscored through numerous solo exhibitions at venues such as the Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango; Museo de Arte Moderno, Bogotá; Museo de Arte La Tertulia, Cali, Colombia; Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas Sofía Imber; and the Museo Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City, among other prestigious institutions. His work has been presented in international venues such as the Coltejer Biennial, Medellín (1968–72), Paris Biennale (1971), São Paulo Biennial  (1977), Medellín Biennial (1981), and the Venice Biennale (1990). Cárdenas’s artwork was included in the now-canonical exhibitions Art in Latin America 1820–1980 at the Hayward Gallery in London (1989) and The Latin American Presence, organized by the Bronx Museum in 1988, which traveled to the El Paso Museum of Art; San Diego Museum of Art; Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, San Juan; and the Center for the Arts, Vero Beach, Florida. Several of the artist’s “blackboards” were also included in the important exhibition Latin American Artists of the 20th Century, which opened at the Plaza de Armas, Seville, in 1992, and was subsequently presented at the Centre Pompidou, Paris; Cologne Kunsthalle; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Today, Cárdenas’s work can be found in the Art Institute of Chicago; Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin; Museo Nacional de Colombia; Museo Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City; Museo de Arte Moderno de Rio de Janeiro; Museo de Arte Moderno de Santiago, Chile; Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas; Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence.

[1]  The artist quoted in María Alexandra Cabrera, “Santiago Cárdenas: el ilusionista,” El Tiempo [Bogotá], April 19, 2017. 

[2]  Cárdenas quoted in Jacqueline Barnitz, Twentieth-century Art of Latin America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001), 261.

[3]  See the relevant dates in the artist’s chronology published in Edward Lucie-Smith, Santiago Cárdenas (Bogotá: Villegas Editores, 2006)

[4]  Félix Angel, “The Latin American Presence,” in The Latin American Spirit: Art and Artists in the United States, 1920–1970, exh. cat. (New York: The Bronx Museum of the Arts, 1989), 276.

[5]  Cárdenas recalls these events in Cabrera, “Santiago Cárdenas: el ilusionista.”

[6]  See the 1967 entry in the artist’s chronology published in Smith, Santiago Cárdenas.

[7]  Gina McDaniel Tarver, “Intrepid Iconoclasts and Ambitious Institutions: Early Colombian Conceptual Art and Its Antecedents, 1961–1975,” PhD. Diss. (University of Texas, Austin, 2008), 58.

[8]  Ibid., 367.

[9]  See Cabrera, “Santiago Cárdenas: el ilusionista.”

[10]  Raúl Cristancho in Santiago Cárdenas: Obra Grafica, exh. cat. (Bogotá: Banco de la Republica, 1992), np.

[11]  Bernice Rose, Santiago Cardenas, Carlos Rojas, exh. cat. (New York: Center for Inter-American Relations, 1973), np.

[12]  Cárdenas quoted in Angel, “The Latin American Presence,” 279,

[13]  Barnitz, Twentieth-century Art of Latin America, 261.

[14]  See the 1977 entry in the artist’s chronology published in Smith, Santiago Cárdenas

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