María Martínez-Cañas, Rebus + Diversions, Untitled 10, 2016
Courtesy María Martínez-Cañas

With her series Rebus + DiversionsMaría Martínez-Cañas uses the archives of influential curator and art historian José Gómez Sicre (1916–1991) to explore Cuban art history and her own biography. Here, Martínez-Cañas chats with Cuban Art News about five of her works and the stories behind them.

Historical Close-Up: ‘Modern Cuban Painters’ at MoMA, 1944


How did this series come about?

I don’t know if you remember that in September 2015, you did a write-up on Vestigios, the series in which I erased the image. I started that series by photographing pages—blank pages, or pages that had remnants or stains from things that had been there before. They belonged to archives of José Gómez Sicre that I own.


In Conversation: María Martínez-Cañas on ‘What Remains’


That turned into not only the blank pages, but also pages that had clips from newspapers. From there, I photographed one newspaper clip, small, about the opening of the Museum of Modern Art’s Modern Cuban Painters show in New York [in 1944].

It is with that little newspaper clip that I started. I took sanding paper and started sanding [the image]. That gave me the idea of doing the Vestigios work, and I put aside the blank pages that I took pictures of, and did the Vestigios.

In 2016, I received the Pollock Krasner fellowship in photography. I had proposed a completely different project, but after I started, I suddenly decided that I needed to work with something that was a lot more personal.

I took out the blank pages again. One of them had stayed in my mind, the image of the blank file folder. I went to the Gómez Sicre scrapbooks that I had. I started looking at them and finding that they had images that also had stains. The idea of remnants and things that are left behind—I felt like I needed to continue thinking about that.

I decided, I’m going to take out these scrapbook pages, with all the material that is there, I’m going to do them—archivally, without scanning, without using anything but the material.

One thing led to another, and they became more sculptural. I couldn’t stop—I had this energy. I did the 20 works in four months.

You’ve chosen number 2 to start with.

María Martínez-Cañas, Rebus + Diversions, Untitled 2, 2016
Courtesy María Martínez-Cañas

This is the one with the newspaper clipping. When I photographed the clippings, I saw they had this beautiful three-dimensional quality to them.

What you’re looking at in this piece in particular is an archival ink-jet pigment print of the newspaper clipping that is 31 x 44 [inches]. And then I collaged the actual clipping onto the piece.

This is a constant in my work: I want to challenge the notion of what the viewer, the public, feels that they are looking at. I remember when my father first came to the studio, he went to touch the gray part under the newspaper clipping, thinking that it was three-dimensional.

Detail of María Martínez-Cañas, Rebus + Diversions, Untitled 2, 2016
Courtesy María Martínez-Cañas

That aspect of almost lying with the photographic image has always intrigued me, and is something that I continue working with. But the real newspaper clipping is also put in there. And now you see the size of the original in comparison to the size that I printed it.

Then, I sent you number 5.

María Martínez-Cañas, Rebus + Diversions, Untitled 5, 2016
Courtesy María Martínez-Cañas

You know, in a scrapbook, you glue everything. In this one, I wanted to glue some parts of the pages, and allow some other parts to remain non-glued.

See the corner below where it says ‘Cuba Arte’? That point, that corner, is sticking out. That’s for real, that is three-dimensional. The background photograph, the ink-jet background, is the file folder that I mentioned before.

On the top, that light blue thing is a letter that Gómez Sicre wrote to my father in 1980, something about my photography—talking about me. I felt, I am going to put myself even more in the personal here.

Detail of María Martínez-Cañas, Rebus + Diversions, Untitled 5, 2016
Courtesy María Martínez-Cañas

I was also challenging myself to think more abstract, and to work with layering. All of these materials are not together on one page. They are being built, in layers.

There is a photograph below ‘Arte.’ It’s a group of people. Two of them are the sisters of Cundo Bermúdez, who are looking at a painting of his that I erased. I knew the sisters, and I knew Cundo personally, because he lived with us for a few years in our house in Puerto Rico. Cundo for me was like a grandfather.

So the work started to get a lot more personal.

Next is number 6.

María Martínez-Cañas, Rebus + Diversions, Untitled 6, 2016
Courtesy María Martínez-Cañas

Notice that the ink-jet in the background in reality is the page that is on top of it. See the two marks?

This one is about Henry Moore. I took actual 1940s, 1937 images—silver gelatin prints of Henry Moore’s work that Gómez Sicre had in the archives—and started putting them down. I took one of the silver gelatin prints—the one on the left—and there’s a little glassine envelope on the bottom left. I bent the image, which is from 1937 or the 1940s. I basically folded it in half and decided to glue half of the silver gelatin print onto the ink-jet. And the other half, which is the sculpture, I sanded.

Then there is a photograph of another sculpture, the one above on the left, that has strings. That started me thinking, What about bringing strings into the work, or rope into the work? At that time I didn’t have the material, so I just connected the little glassine envelope, where the negative was, and I connected it with white graphite crayon.

Detail of María Martínez-Cañas, Rebus + Diversions, Untitled 6, 2016
Courtesy María Martínez-Cañas

Inside that glassine that Gómez Sicre wrote ‘Henry Moore,’ on—his writing is there—there is an actual vintage negative [of a photo] where Gómez Sicre is standing next to Henry Moore. I put the original negative in there.

So now more objects are starting to be introduced. Objects that are much more three-dimensional.

Then we go to number 8.

María Martínez-Cañas, Rebus + Diversions, Untitled 8, 2016
Courtesy María Martínez-Cañas

Number 8 is based on [Uruguayan artist] Joaquin Torres García. Gómez Sicre had a lecture that he had prepared about Torres García. I took the slides and started cutting them and putting them together. Some have red tape—I just connected them.

There was a gelatin silver print, which is the center image. I glued something on top of it. That’s an outdoor sculpture that he did. Then I took a silver gelatin print of a painting that is next to it [on the right], that I also folded, but I’m showing more the back than the front of the painting—that’s where you have all the writing and the different labels about where it comes from.

I own a 1932 artist book by Joaquín Torres García. I scanned the cover of the book, on some of the scrapbook pages, and that’s the other material you see. That’s the front of the book.

Again, the same page that I photographed is the page that is on the center of the piece. You can see the folding of the yellow paper in the ink-jet in white and on the scrapbook page.

And then number 10.

Number 10 is probably one of the most personal of the entire series, because it’s of Cundo. It was one of the most difficult for me to do—in some ways more difficult than the larger work [in the series]. Because it’s about somebody that was very dear to me and that I knew since I was eight years old.

There was an empty portfolio that was part of the archives of Gómez Sicre. I decided to glue the portfolio onto the ink-jet print. Then I took a wash that Cundo had made for me at the age of ten, scanned it—because I’m not going to put the original—and put it inside the portfolio. If you see the work in person in the gallery, you can see that he wrote “María” on the bottom.

Detail of María Martínez-Cañas, Rebus + Diversions, Untitled 10, 2016 (full image at top of article)
Courtesy María Martínez-Cañas

Then I put in a letter that he had written around 1976. That was a very personal letter that I had had in my files. To the left of that—you can barely see it, because it’s a little darker—is a 4 x 5 transparency of a painting he made of my mother and the three of us.

On the left is a little booklet of an article that Gómez Sicre wrote about Cundo’s work. Then I took a gelatin silver print image of Cundo, and I sanded around and left his face more apparent.

In a way, I feel these works are reactions to my identity. I went back with this series to work—especially in the first ten—with Cuban material, which I have used before in my work. And with the actual materials from the archives.

What happens in the series after number 10?

On Number 11, everything suddenly changes. They become a lot more sculptural. By looking at this archive that has things by José Luis Cuevas, things by the Venezuelan Jesús Rafael Soto, by Agustín Fernández—I suddenly started bringing in those aspects of my being a Latina, or Latin American if you are Cuban. Thinking about Diego, Soto—and then also Moholy Nagy, because I’ve also been very influenced by Bauhaus photography. Then just allowing myself to do something I had never done before, with the three-dimensionality of the work.

María Martínez-Cañas, Rebus + Diversions, Untitled 20, 2016
Courtesy María Martínez-Cañas

One image, the last work in the series, comes out 18 inches from the wall. That is made using photographic paper from 30 years ago that they don’t make anymore. Instead of the darkroom, I made the print by putting the photographic paper in my ink-jet printer and creating images on top of it, allowing the paper to change color just by being exposed to light. That opened new ideas of work. And the wires, and the circles, and everything.

I find it a very energizing time. I’m going to continue working.

An exhibition of María Martínez-Cañas: Rebus + Diversions ran February 3­–March 6, 2017 at Fredric Snitzer Gallery, Miami.