This article is part of a feature which originally appeared in Art+ Magazine Issue No. 26. The article is republished in honor of National Artist Arturo Luz who passed away on May 26, 2021.
Words by Cid Reyes
Now in the ninth decade of his incredibly productive artistic life, National Artist Arturo Luz remains the exemplar of the Filipino artist who can still wield the same majestic command over his art. Amazing is the contrast between the vast output of works and that most spare and economical of all plastic means – indeed something that does not even exist in nature – line.
With what spellbinding expertise did Luz weave a body of works merely on that leanest of expedients. After all, line is nothing but a visual stimulus that connects the eye to the brain, which finally creates in the imagination that missing element—volume and mass. Line was all that Luz needed to explore the depths of space. Liberating shape and form from nothingness, line animated space by itself. It was Paul Klee, the Swiss artist, who defined drawing as “taking a line for a walk.”
Not surprisingly, it is the art of Klee that contains what can be regarded as the DNA of the art of Luz. There is a small drawing by Klee – all his works were, in fact, small in scale, as most everyone may know – of a view of Venice composed entirely of thin, spidery lines. Luz, who has from the start acknowledged his debt to Klee, has his own versions which he titled “Venezia.” Suffice it to say that it was not for long when Luz would do Klee one better. This was in the sense of extending the potential of line, leading it to a full-blown state of amplitude and visual resonance.
A flashback: in 1950, Luz, at the age of 24, returned to his country after an absence of four years. He had just spent the time studying at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. After finishing his three-year studies, he stayed in New York for a year where he enrolled for a brief course at the art school attached to the Brooklyn Museum. Much to his regret, Luz missed the chance to study under the Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo, whose works he regarded highly. Tamayo had left the faculty a year earlier.
A year soon passed and Luz, now expected home in Manila, wrote his parents asking for permission to visit Paris, informing them that he would stay only for three weeks. But, mon Dieu, Paris, of course, exerted its own unique brand of magic on an avid Filipino artist. The visit extended to a full year, within which Luz managed to study art at the fabled Academie de la Grande Chaumaiere. So meager was his allowance that, in his own words, “I was living practically on air.”
For his art materials, he subsisted on cheap newsprint and little notebooks which in no time were filled with pen-and-ink drawings. Already indicative was the artist’s appetite for work, as evidenced by the amount of drawings which he had quickly amassed. Moreover, Luz was fortunate to have been invited to show his drawings (technically his first solo show) at a gallery eponymously named Raymond Duncan. The allure and mystique of the gallery owner was burnished by the fact that the proprietor was the brother of the great legend of dance, Isadora Duncan.
Thus arriving in Manila in 1950, Luz’s own legend unreeled through the decades. It was a career unequaled by any of his contemporaries whom, by the way, he first met in his Manila Hotel show, organized by the artist’s own mother, herself a venerable figure in interior design, the self-taught Rosario Dimayuga Luz.
Unparalleled because Luz was that rare amalgam: not only an artist, sculptor, print-maker, jewelry maker, and photographer, but also an efficient art manager. Simultaneously, he managed the Luz Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum, the Design Center Philippines, and the Museum of Philippine Art. The Luz Gallery, which lasted four decades, invariably shaped the standard of Philippine contemporary art. Committed only to quality and excellence, Luz imposed the same standard on the artists who were chosen and invited to exhibit at his gallery. Indeed, such a show was in itself a benediction and a sort of imprimatur that the works of the exhibiting artist had passed the acid test of quality.
The tremendous body of works which Luz has produced speaks primarily of his commitment to linearity as the operating principle. Only from line – and its multitude of variations – emanate the vitality and animus of his art.
Recall merely his figurative works in the Fifties: the barong-barong, the candle vendors, and the madonnas. While his contemporaries – Manansala, Legaspi, Magsaysay-Ho, Ocampo – were plumping up their images with a plenitude of spatial and coloristic effects—Luz at the outset proceeded to strip the figures of their excrescences. First to be renounced, of course, was color, that seductive instrument of painting. Already, Luz was drawn to the drained, earth-bound hues such as ochres, browns, russets, ashen grays, copper reds. His arrangements of Vienna chairs, skeletal and striated, emphasized their extreme architectonic stance and gave the lie to the great Matisse’s ideal art: a relaxing and comfortable chair for a weary businessman on which he can repose his tired, exhausted body.
Luz’s passion for linearity was una- bating, even as he pursued an intentionally limited repertory of subjects: cyclists, musicians, acrobats, carnivals, still lifes of Oriental vessels and pottery, which later evolved to accommodate the stylized and imagined architecture of Asian and Indian palaces, forts, battlements.
Indefatigable is the only descriptive word for this artist who works daily in the expected spartan studio of such a sensibility, which translated his designs into the three-dimensional realm of sculpture. Linear, too, were the tube-like twisted sculptures which were inspired – one would not have not expected this – by the paper clips which daily accumulated on his desks when he was managing the institutional museums.
Last year, Luz held a show of these sculptures titled Monumental, which precisely captured the soaring, overwhelming, and assaulting thrust into space by planks and planes of welded thick metal sheets. Typically, these works were homages to international artists, in particular, the modern Spanish school (Zobel, Torner, Sempare) and the Japanese-American Isamu Noguchi, whose attributes Luz admired profoundly. The artist’s homages connect him to a universal brotherhood of artists committed to abstraction.
At the Ayala Triangle Gardens at the Makati business district, a young generation is being introduced to the sculptural works of Luz where they are ideally placed amidst verdant greenery. While for decades now, the long expansive mural of Luz, in austere, geometric black and white, has been a commanding presence at the lobby of the Little Theater at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
Today, hordes of Luz collectors and viewers continue to imbibe the master’s disciplined modernism, emphatically spare and severe, relentlessly linear, and, in the autumn of his life, showing no signs of diminishing. Truly, the art of Arturo Luz is a classic in Philippine contemporary art.