Don’t call Beatriz González a pop artist.
The Colombian, who has six decades of work to her credit, is one of the few remaining “radical women” Latin American artists alive, and her work is definitely not pop. It’s not so much the media or subject matter that excludes her from the genre—it’s the fact that she was living in a war-torn country creating art with no concern as to popularity or commercial success.
“Beatriz González: A Retrospective,” currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is the first United States retrospective of her career. Roughly 130 works—most of which have rarely been seen outside of Colombia—are arranged more or less chronologically to allow us to witness González's development in terms of technique and skill, but also in terms of subject matter.
At the recent press preview, González, 80, said she spent much of her early career trying hard not to be Fernando Botero, a Colombian painter extremely popular for his exaggerated figures. She also rejected Mexican muralism and abstract art. (“Abstract art was created solely to decorate curtains,” she recalled Botero saying.)
González was able to reject the popular styles of the moment because she never felt the need for commercial success. “My father was well-to-do, and he never pressured me to sell my work. Then my husband, who was very poor, also never pressed me to sell my work. That gave me a lot of freedom. I could create without caring if my work was commercial or popular,” she told Houstonia.
“Other artists, like [Alejandro] Obregón and Botero, were producing works to sell, and I was in my studio creating things to please myself," she said. "That saved me.”
González spent her early career appropriating images from masterworks and mass media. Paintings of Queen Elizabeth, for example, are seen in the exhibition’s sections of her early works.
Early on the artist was most often interested in color and shape rather than story, as seen with Los suicidas del Sisga (the Sisga Suicides) series, which she painted in 1965. González saw a small black-and-white photograph in a newspaper of a man and woman, holding a bunch of flowers. The two had just committed suicide together in a perverse effort to preserve the purity of their love. They had the photo taken just before their deaths. González painted a series based on the image; three paintings are in the MFAH exhibit. The original photo, very small and faded, is also seen, on a table in the center of the room. Another artist would have commented on the sensationalism of the story. González, instead, studies the shapes in the image. The paintings have no depth, the shapes are flattened. Colors vary from painting to painting but González focuses on the shapes and colors, as if she’s putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
That stage of her career changed with the 1985 massacre at the Palace of Justice, when several Colombian Supreme Court Justices were killed by guerrillas who overtook and held the building for two days. By the end of the siege, a dozen justices and some 100 hostages, guerrillas, and soldiers were dead. González turned away from creating humorous or satirical works.
“That was a terrible moment," she said. "They were killing the members of the Supreme Court in full view of the country. After that I said, I can’t laugh anymore. It was as if someone had lifted a curtain from my eyes. I had been creating intellectual work, and then, suddenly, for the first time I saw the realities of my country. The violence I saw forced me to work. I couldn’t let it go unnoticed. It was no longer the time to laugh.”
Her work took on a more urgent tone and focused on the violence and corruption she saw around her. There’s her Autorretrato desnuda llorando (Self-portrait Nude, Crying) from 1997. It’s a solitary figure, standing, hands covering her face. There are few details, and the skin is painted a luminous blue. In the background, there are curtains, parted as if on the side of a stage. González used the curtains in several paintings with grim subjects, as if to say, “This is our entertainment.”
There’s Los Papagayos (The Parrots) from 1987, a series of faceless military men painted in garish parrot-like colors.
And La pesca milagrosa (Miraculous Catch of Fish) from 1992, showing a dead man floating in a river with women casually seated on the banks. The armed conflict in Colombia has created new jobs, it seems: People are now paid to reclaim the many dead bodies that are found in rivers.
González is honored that her work is getting noticed in the United States, and this retrospective, she has said, is a dream come true for her. But her work isn’t done. Not while her country remains on the brink of political chaos.
“Right now, it’s still not the time to celebrate," she said. "There’s a sort of peace but the people who are in power are trying to dismantle it. They’re killing leaders, immigrants are coming from Venezuela, Maduro is taunting and tormenting us every day. There is work to be done.”
She added, laughing, “Now, that doesn’t mean that if peace were to break out, I would stop working. I would find something else to work on.”