A report by Tessa Solomon for Art News.
Painter Emilio Sánchez has made history as the first Cuban American visual artist to be featured in a new series of Forever stamps released by the United States Postal Service. Released this year in honor of the centennial anniversary of his birth, the stamps will feature four of his colorful paintings and lithographs: Los Toldos (1973), Ty’s Place (1976), En el Souk (1972) and Untitled (Ventanita entreabierta) (1981).
Sánchez, who died in 1999, is acclaimed for his “architectural paintings”—naturalist depictions of store facades and cityscapes that appear static. Dramatically colored and expressively lit, the works have drawn comparisons to Edward Hopper and Charles Sheeler, though Sánchez’s practice was rooted not in American urbanity but his native country of Cuba.
“This is a tremendous accomplishment, particularly given how long he had been unrecognized by the art community,” said Victor Deupi, a Cuban American teacher of architectural history at the University of Miami. “It’s a wonderful honor on many fronts because it gives so many voices to people of different races and ethnic backgrounds.”
Sánchez was born in Camagüey, Cuba, in 1921, and was raised by one of the island’s most prominent families, whose wealth allowed him to travel often. As a young man, he moved to New York City to begin his arts education at the Art Students League. He would spend the rest of his life in the city, whose built environment became an enduring fascination. By the 1960s, early portrayals of friends and models had given way to studies of the crisp horizontal and vertical lines that comprised the city’s geometry, marking a break with the kind of abstraction that was preferred by many at the time.
Sánchez was foremost interested in the effect of light on color, and that fascination stemmed from sights seen in Cuba. He tried to distill structures to their essence—Carol Damian, director of Miami’s Frost Art Museum, once described his subjects as symbols of buildings, not earnest copies.
The artist traveled widely throughout the 1970s and 1980s, studying the architecture of the Mediterranean and Latin America. The high white homes that line the broad boulevards of Casablanca made a particular impression. Using his travels as inspiration, he further explored color through depictions of sunsets, clotheslines, and still lifes of tropical fruits and flowers, though Sánchez gravitated most often towards awnings and open windows or doorways.
In Untitled (Medio Punto, San Juan, Puerto Rico), 1971, the stained glass of an arched doorframe is brilliantly lit from behind, light spilling forward through the open door. During this time Sánchez was featured often in biennials across South America and the Caribbean, and he was awarded first prize at the 1974 San Juan Biennial in Puerto Rico.
Today his work has been featured in over 60 solo and group exhibitions at museums and galleries worldwide, and his art is held cultural institutions in including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.