New York Museum Highlights the Artwork of Zilia Sánchez

The Cuban American artist has long been a creative force. Now she’s having her big moment—in her tenth decade

Moon with Tattoo
The circa 1968-96 Lunar con Tatuaje (Moon With Tattoo), made of stretched canvas and acrylic, is one of over 40 works in the retrospective. © Zilia Sánchez / Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

"Being an island is something strong,” says the artist Zilia Sánchez, a singular, if long overlooked talent. “It’s not about being self-centered. The things I want to do, I want to do them by myself.” The 93-year-old’s first museum retrospective, “Soy Isla” (or “I Am an Island”), on view through this month at El Museo del Barrio in Manhattan, explores island life both literal and figurative. Born in Cuba, Sánchez lived for a time in New York City, then moved to Puerto Rico in 1971. Despite wide acclaim there, she was in her late 80s before the international art world began to notice her undulating three-dimensional canvases, which she shapes over wooden armatures to suggest the female form, otherworldly landscapes and the shifting sea. Sánchez lost much of her work when Hurricane Maria ripped the roof off her San Juan studio in 2017, but she rebuilt and continues to work every day, compelled, she says, by a stronger inner force. “That’s how the art is. It is in my soul. I have to go to the studio.”

New York Museum Highlights the Artwork of Zilia Sánchez
Azul Azul (“Blue Blue”), 1956. Acrylic on canvas. Collection of the artist. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York
New York Museum Highlights the Artwork of Zilia Sánchez
Topología Erótica (“Erotic Topology”), 1960-71. Acrylic on stretched canvas. Collection Jose R. Landron, San Juan, Puerto Rico
New York Museum Highlights the Artwork of Zilia Sánchez
Lunar (“Moon”), 1985. Acrylic on stretched canvas. Collection Ignacio J. López Beguiristain and Laura M. Guerra, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Subscribe to Smithsonian magazine now for just $12

This article is a selection from the March 2020 issue of Smithsonian magazine