Rafael Soriano, Luciérnaga (Firefly), 1955
Courtesy McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College

Cuban Art News readers may recall Elizabeth Thompson Goizueta as the curator of the Wifredo Lam exhibition that debuted at the McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, in 2014. Now, Goizueta has a new show at the McMullen: a retrospective of Cuban artist Rafael Soriano. She spoke with Susan Delson about Rafael Soriano: The Artist as Mystic, and her own discovery of his work.

How did the show come about?

While I was working on the Wifredo Lam exhibition, my colleague Roberto Cobas Amate, from the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, and I were talking about other Cuban artists. He mentioned Rafael Soriano as a Cuban artist that he felt had been very underappreciated. I asked to see some of his works. He had a catalogue there from the Lowe Art Museum [in Miami], which had done an exhibition in 2011.

I was immediately fascinated and intrigued. Rafael Soriano was a generation later than Wifredo Lam. He was born in 1920 and died in 2015. His initial works were clear examples of geometric abstraction. The colors and the textures of those paintings were very novel and exciting.

Rafael Soriano, Candor de la alborada (Candor of the Dawn), 1994
Courtesy McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College

Then I flipped through the catalogue and saw his development into a surrealist style that was still reminiscent of geometrics but had morphed into a more organic, biomorphic surrealism. I knew that I wanted to work on him.

For those who aren’t familiar with Soriano’s work, could you place him in the context of Cuban art history, and art history in general?

First, it’s important to place him in the context of Cuba and the Cuban avant-garde modernist movement. There were three generations. The first started in 1927 and ran to 1938. They flocked to Paris, and were influenced by the great European modernist movements of the time.

Rafael Soriano, Flor a contraluz (Flower against the light), 1943
Courtesy McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College

These first-generation modernists also taught at the San Alejandro Academy that Rafael Soriano attended. He was very influenced by some of them, like Victor Manuel García and Fidelio Ponce de León. He was also influenced by some of the second generation, which would be about 1938 to mid-century. Those artists, instead of being drawn to Paris, were drawn to Mexico.

The second renaissance for the surrealist movement happened in Mexico City. So Soriano was influenced by surrealism, and by nationalist attempts to try to describe the essence of Cuba. Wifredo Lam was principal in that, in terms of hybridization and using baroque elements. In Soriano’s painting Flor a contraluz from 1943, we can see clear references to Wifredo Lam’s work, in terms of the hybridization of vegetal and animal elements.

Then we arrive in the 1950s, mid-century, and Soriano’s generation. Which of course is a group of young upstarts who want to do everything differently from the preceding generations. They were no longer interested in trying to define the essence of what was Cuban in a nationalist vocabulary.

Rafael Soriano, Juego infantil (Children’s game), 1950s
Courtesy McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College

They were more interested in the  international scene, and what was happening in Latin America and the United States. Abstraction, as you know, was the latest aesthetic novelty, and that is what these third-generation artists, including Rafael Soriano, were interested in doing. Nationalism gave way to transnationalism, and abstraction was the new baby.

Let’s turn to the show itself. Roughly how many works are included, and how is it organized?

The show is a retrospective, with over 90 works. Most are oils, but we have a few pastels, and one drawing that Rafael Soriano was able to take with him into exile. We also have ephemera, such as photos of early works that were lost in Cuba.

Rafael Soriano, Músicos tocando un órgano (Musicians playing an organ), 1949
Courtesy McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College

We want to make sure that people understand how well known he was in Cuba before he left in 1962. We’re attempting to look at his work in its complete canon. His trajectory is definitely divided into Cuban life pre-Revolution, and post-Revolution, when he came to the United States.

In essence, his exile experience was one of experimentation and retrieval of imagery that he had been exposed to and that had nurtured him. We look at those elements of retrieval, and then at his mature style, which began in the 1980s—how he fused the surrealist and abstract forces that previously had been competing in his work. He was able to fuse elements of both into an artistic vision that is otherworldly, fantastic, and universal.

We look at how he went from the physical to the metaphysical, and how his exile experience led him to transformation and ultimately to transcendence. That’s why we have the title Rafael Soriano: The Artist as Mystic.

Is Soriano widely collected?

Yes. He’s widely collected in Miami, of course, which is where he ended up. And he was widely collected in Cuba—his works are found at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, and the museum in Matanzas, his home town. Matanzas was considered the Athens of Cuba for its intellectual and cultural renown.

Rafael Soriano, El cabalgar de la noche (The ride of the night), c. 1979
Courtesy McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College

He’s also collected throughout the United States. The Smithsonian has a lot of his works, and will be receiving his archives. He’s in the collection of the OAS American Museum of the Americas in Washington, DC. He is also collected by the Long Beach Museum of Art, which will be hosting the show after it leaves Boston. It will be there from  June until September. As I said, he’s collected extensively in Miami, and the show will then go the Patricia & Philip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University there.

In terms of logistics, how was the Soriano exhibition different from the Lam?

What was different was the speed with which I was able to carry out each of these exhibitions. The Wifredo Lam estate and archives are in Paris, and there is a complicated relationship between the archives and Cuba, and the Cuban Americans in Miami and Spain. Because of this, it took much more time to talk to collectors, as well as museums, and to assure them that the political and emotional issues around Lam’s work were going to be resolved. That was much more complicated.

Rafael Soriano, Preludio de un ensueño (Prelude to a dream), 1987
Courtesy McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College

Going into the Rafael Soriano exhibition, I had the advantage of already knowing those museum directors, knowing all those collectors. It was much easier to get people to lend, much faster. Also, Soriano didn’t have quite the complicated biography that Wifredo Lam had. There weren’t as many countries, and as many collectors. In that sense it much easier. I could rely on those relationships I’d already built.

Because Soriano has not had as much press as artists like Wifredo Lam or Roberto Matta, one of the more surprising elements—and this was my great pleasure—was to be able to disseminate his story in a more original fashion.

Rafael Soriano, Dimensión enigmática (Enigmatic dimension), 1994
Courtesy McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College

Tell us about the catalogue.

It’s our first bilingual catalogue, in Spanish and English. This is very new scholarship, which brings Soriano to the next level. It compares him not only with the avant-garde modernist movement in Cuba but with the movements throughout Latin America, and the abstract movement in United States.

In terms of the essays, Roberto Cobas Amate defines Soriano’s position within Cuba as a third-generation modernist. I then broaden that to look at the Latin American aesthetic movements that influenced him, and the Mexican and United States influences on him, which really have not been explored.

Rafael Soriano, La noche (The night), 1970
Courtesy McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College

Alejandro Andreus of William Paterson University talks about the transcendence of Rafael Soriano’s work and how his metaphysical aspirations and the trauma of exile caused him to reconnect with the metaphysical work that he was doing before.

Claude Cernuschi’s essay firmly places Rafael Soriano as a neosurrealist. He compares Soriano with great European surrealists like Hans Bellmer, Jean Arp, and Arshile Gorky, and makes an argument for him in that arena, which has never been done before.

Rafael Soriano, Forma en expansión (Expanding form), 1994
Courtesy McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College

And then finally my husband, Roberto Goizueta, writes as a theologian on Rafael Soriano’s quote that he painted where the intimate and the cosmic converged. He looks at Soriano’s art as an icon that leads you toward contemplation, in the way that a Mark Rothko or an Ad Reinhardt might do.

Any parting thoughts?

I’m excited about this exhibition. The ability to bring Rafael Soriano to Boston—to the northern part of the United States—Is very exciting, and we hope that the public loves him as much as we do.

Rafael Soriano: The Artist as Mystic opens Monday, January 30, 2017, at the McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College.