Freddy Rodríguez, 76, Artist Who Explored His Dominican Roots, Dies

An obituary by Neil Genzlinger for The New York Times.

His main medium was paint, but his most viewed work may have been the outdoor memorial in Queens to Flight 587.

Freddy Rodríguez, an artist who explored colonization, immigration and other aspects of his Dominican heritage, finding success in the United States at a time when artists of Latin American background struggled for mainstream attention, died on Oct. 10 in Queens. He was 76.

His wife, Mary McKenna Rodríguez, said the cause was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Mr. Rodríguez, who was born in the Dominican Republic and first came to New York as a teenager, had a wide-ranging artistic career. His earliest works, beginning in the late 1960s and continuing through the ’70s, were geometric abstractions, inspired in part, he said, by New York’s skyline.

“I had a job downtown,” he once explained, “and during my lunch hour I would sketch the buildings around me and later turn them into paintings.”

“Cenizas,” a 1988 work by Mr. Rodríguez.
“Cenizas,” a 1988 work by Mr. Rodríguez.

He then moved to a more expressionistic style and began delving more explicitly into history — the colonization of his home country and others in Latin America; the role the Roman Catholic Church, in which he was raised, played in furthering oppression and later in sexual scandals; the immigrant experience and the tension between maintaining a heritage and adapting to a new country.

“One finds oneself standing for a long time in front of ‘The Heart of the Quixote’ by Freddy Rodríguez from the Dominican Republic,” William Zimmer wrote in The New York Times in 1990, reviewing a group show of Hispanic artists at the Discovery Museum in Bridgeport, Conn. “Not only does this heart, which is deep red against a pale-blue ground, bleed, it is sundered.”

Mr. Rodríguez liked to create series; he was heavily influenced by literature, especially the works of the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, and he thought of each painting in a series as a new chapter. One series dealt with slavery. Another was a homage to Dominican baseball players.

Another, the “Vestment” series, created in the 1990s when allegations about Catholic priests were gaining attention, spoke to those controversies as well as the church’s role in erasing native cultures. The garments of the clergy, Mr. Rodríguez said in a 2015 interview with the art historian and curator E. Carmen Ramos, were a sort of costume, both evoking and obscuring.

“El Papa Verde” from Mr. Rodríguez’s “Vestment” series, created in the 1990s when sex-abuse allegations about Catholic priests were gaining attention. It is in the permanent collection of the Newark Museum of Art.
“El Papa Verde” from Mr. Rodríguez’s “Vestment” series, created in the 1990s when sex-abuse allegations about Catholic priests were gaining attention. It is in the permanent collection of the Newark Museum of Art.

“They have a duality to me,” he said. “Some, they can make you feel very reverent. But other ones, I think they use it to hide something.”

Mr. Rodríguez’s main medium was paint, but he also incorporated other materials into his works and branched out into genres like collage and sculpture. With every new idea, he said, “I had to find a new style; I had to find new materials to put into the paintings.”

“I use metal with canvas,” he added. “I use leather with canvas. I use earth. I use glass, sawdust — all these things.”

But perhaps his most viewed artwork was his outdoor memorial in Queens to those who died in the American Airlines Flight 587 crash in November 2001. The plane had just taken off from Kennedy International Airport, headed for the Dominican Republic, and many of the 260 people aboard were bound for home or were immigrants returning for a visit. (Five people also died on the ground.) The memorial, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Rockaway Park and dedicated in 2006, is a curved, perforated wall with the names of the dead inscribed on granite blocks and with spaces for people to leave mementos. A large portal affords a view of the ocean.

“Look at the light coming in through the wall and through the gate,” Mr. Rodríguez told The Times in 2011 at an event commemorating the 10th anniversary of the crash. “The light is like the soul. And the light goes through the gate to paradise.”

Mr. Rodríguez designed the outdoor memorial in Queens to those who died in the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in 2001.
Mr. Rodríguez designed the outdoor memorial in Queens to those who died in the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in 2001.

Federico Augusto Rodríguez was born on Dec. 2, 1945, in Santiago de los Caballeros. The dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, known for his brutality, was in power, and after his assassination in 1961 a period of chaos enveloped the country. In a 2014 interview with the artist and curator Marcia G. Yerman, Mr. Rodríguez said he was involved in a student movement that sought “the kind of freedom that is denied in a dictatorship,” and he began to feel that his situation was precarious.

“Friends were tortured and killed,” he said. “Things were very bad.”

He left for New York in 1963 and graduated from Haaren High School in Manhattan. A teacher gave him a pass to go to the Museum of Modern Art, where he was first exposed to abstract art.

“I fell in love with abstraction right away, especially geometric abstraction,” he said in the interview with Dr. Ramos.

He returned briefly to the Dominican Republic, then lived for a time in Puerto Rico, but by the late 1960s he was in New York for good. He studied textile design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and also studied at the New School.

Mr. Rodríguez in his studio in Manhattan in 1974.
Mr. Rodríguez in his studio in Manhattan in 1974.

Dr. Ramos, who is chief curatorial and conservation officer at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, knew Mr. Rodríguez for many years and elaborated on his career.

“He is part of an important generation of Latinx artists,” she said by email, “who came of age in the post-civil rights era and found ways to explore topics of race, diaspora, dictatorship, colonialism and Latinx history in his work, so often through the languages of abstraction, which are not a likely combination.”

Yet, she added, his work was not fully appreciated in the Caribbean and Latin America, and he did not define himself by his birthplace.

“His visual language was molded by his U.S. residence, schooling and exposure,” she said. “To use his own words, he was above all a ‘New York artist.’”

Mr. Rodríguez married Mary McKenna in 1977. In addition to her, he is survived by two daughters, Erin Rodríguez and Caitlin Rodríguez Elberson, and three grandchildren.

Mr. Rodríguez was represented most recently by the Hutchinson Modern & Contemporary gallery in Manhattan, which two years ago made “Freddy Rodríguez: Early Paintings 1970-1990” its inaugural exhibition.

“Freddy considered himself a colorist,” Isabella Hutchinson, the gallery’s founder, said by email, “and always wanted beauty to be an important part of his work.”

Mr. Rodríguez’s paintings frequently incorporated text as a way to get a viewer to pause.

“Some of my abstract paintings are so minimal people don’t spend enough time with them,” he told Dr. Ramos. “So I wanted the viewer to really spend more time with the work by reading it, and hopefully getting into also the other side of painting that had nothing to do with text.”

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