This article is part of a special feature which originally appeared in Art+ Magazine Issue No. 6. The article is republished in honor of National Artist Arturo Luz who passed away on May 26, 2021.
Words by Cid Reyes
Foreordained by his own character and temperament are the cardinal qualities in the canon of oeuvre of National Artist Arturo Luz—simplicity and austerity, tension and balance, order and harmony—all these effected through a rigorously disciplined approach to design, finally arriving at a clarity of vision and composition where not a strand of line or a flick of color is misplaced. An Arturo Luz artwork seems to come all-of-a-piece, predetermined, alighting in pictorial and, for his sculptures, real—space, like a visual puzzle resolved.
In the late Fifties, Luz emerged in the wake of Philippine modernism’s struggle to find a new sensibility that arrests the energies of the times, an era trapped within the context and images that seemed the palliative pleasures of an idyllic existence. The traumas of the then recent war, with its consequent deracination of the people’s spirit, uprooted from their familiar emotional moorings, the degradation of their material and physical comforts, and, inevitably, a vision of human existence seen through the distorting lenses of violence, brutality and cynicism. The stalwart leaders of that modernist movement—Vicente Manansala, H.R. Ocampo, Cesar Legaspi, more notably—individually mapped their way through a welter of European influences—Cubism and Surrealism, rearing their elegant heads. How to bring Philippine art to another dimension, relieved by the burden of visual tradition and aesthetic pieties, was ever the challenge. In this struggle, it was Arturo Luz who, now in retrospect, delivered Philippine art closest to the doorsteps of modernism.
That Luz should find his mark, figuratively and literally, in the element of line should not be surprising. The line is the main instrument of drawing, thus the scaffolding of design, whether figural or non-representational. Line allows the artist to discover boundaries, create divisions and shape contours of forms. To reduce a figure or an object to its barest delineation is to arrive at its essence.
Thus, even the early images of Luz—cyclists, musicians, jugglers, acrobats, carnivals and cityscapes—have retained their essential freshness. Indeed, in their rejuvenation commanded by the hands of Luz in the Nineties, the images acquired new strength and more innovative construction and design. Whether veering between the asceticism of his hermetic still lifes of shells, boxes, bottles, and pottery—and the exuberance of his long-running Celebration and Performance series—Luz wields, as it were, a conductor’s baton over a symphonic assembly of intertwined lines, subordinating color to earthen hues such as siennas, ochres, and terracotta reds. The artist’s hand leads the viewer’s eyes through a thread of lines that spreads across the canvas-space, whence emerge the temples, forts and battlements, mosques and palaces from across the expansive horizon. The noble architecture of Asia and the Indian subcontinent are magisterially evoked in Luz’s Cities of the Past series, at- testing to his complete absorption and mastery of the grid and the hatchwork.
Triumphant proof of the inexhaustible openness of the Luz aesthetics is the seamless cascading of his paintings into the three-dimensional, something the viewer would be hard-put to imagine with the art of the other pioneer modernists. In his excursion into sculpture, Luz leaves the works with what the late critic Leo Benesa has described as bearing “the same unmistakable imprint of a highly personal style.” Indeed, his sculptures, juxtaposed against the space that enfolds them (or the edifice itself that serves as backdrop), seem to match the planar cadence of much modernist architecture.
Admirably, even at an advanced age, Luz shows no diminishment of aesthetic prowess and energies. His production of large- scale sculptures in the show Monumental (2009) at the Ayala Museum, stunningly displays the unrelenting modernist sensibility that ushered in a new way of transforming reality. With a plenitude of new works, astonishing in the sustained finesse and craftsmanship of execution and intelligent visual logic, we can only marvel at the mastery of National Artist Arturo Luz.