If you know Agustín Fernández’s artwork only from its star turn in Brian DePalma’s 1980 movie Dressed to Kill, a new exhibition of the Cuban master’s drawings at the Frost Art Museum offers a more nuanced take on his working method and subject matter.
Fernández’s appearance in an erotic crime thriller is hardly an unexpected pairing. Adept at painting, sculpture and printmaking, he portrayed human sexuality in a way that was both seductive and threatening.
Form’s Transgressions, organized by the Frost and Notre Dame University’s Snite Museum of Art, is the first exhibit dedicated solely to Fernández’s works on paper. “This exhibition marks our attempt to introduce his works on paper as key elements of his impressive career that have not previously been explored in depth,” explains Carol Damian, director and chief curator at the Frost.
Born in Havana in 1928, Agustín Fernández was part of the 1950s third generation of Cuban Modernists that included Agustín Cárdenas, Hugo Consuegra and Rolando López Dirube. He left for Europe in 1959, never to return to his homeland. Fernández spent many years perfecting his craft, but his best work, critics agree, came during years in spent in exile in France, Puerto Rico and New York. It was in New York where he died, in 2006.
His mature style is characterized by contrasting images of body parts and armor. A colorful palette yielded to flesh tones and finally to just black and white. This exhibition presents graphite drawings from the late 1960s to the 1990s that provide a comprehensive overview of his most recognizable imagery, a visual language instilled with desire and vulnerability. The exhibition is installed in chronological order, making it possible to see at a glance the artist’s transition from abstract to organic forms.
Fernández’s works are also seemingly contradictory, Damien notes. “The hard metallic surfaces of his paintings depict subjects that are soft and sensual, sometimes with erotic overtones. Science fiction or surreal, his images are complex in their incorporation of symbolic references.”
Those forms defy easy categorization. Tentacles, breasts, phalluses, root-like structures, jigsaw puzzle pieces — even razor blades abound in Fernández’s drawings. They are, often at the same time, erotic and predatory, fleshy and mechanical — drawing on contortions, obsessions and fantasies. An expectation of violence hovers over the work.
These unexpected juxtapositions are the product of years of esthetic exploration that took him from Cuba to the post-war Surrealist circle of Paris and, starting in 1972, the counterculture of downtown New York.
All the drawings are untitled, which is both a hindrance and an advantage to the viewer. Knowing what Fernández had in mind when he put graphite to paper would provide key insights into his creative process. On the other hand, the absence of labels forces viewers to probe deeply into their own psyches to find the artist’s meaning.
Miami-Dade College professor Ricardo Pau-Llosa is the exhibition’s curator. He describes Fernández as “the most consistently original and profound Cuban painter of his generation.”
In his catalog essay, Pau-Llosa wrote that “this exhibition provides a comprehensive view of his audacious visual thinking and discloses Fernández’s journey into the essential restlessness of form with the same staggering range of power and subtlety of his paintings.”
Over his five-decade career, major museums in Europe, Latin America and the United States hosted solo exhibitions of Fernández . His work is included in many local public collections, including the Cintas Foundation Collection at the Miami-Dade Museum of Art and Design, Lowe Museum of Art at the University of Miami, Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art and Miami-Dade Public Library as well as the Frost — which owns seven of his paintings.
The current exhibition is an outgrowth of Damien’s service on the advisory board of the Agustín Fernández Foundation. In the process of photographing artwork for a planned monograph, the cache of drawings at the Snite Museum provided the impetus for the show.
The Frost will be the venue for the launch of the resulting book, Agustín Fernández: The Metamorphosis of Experience, at 11 a.m. Tuesday. It is the most comprehensive exploration to date of the artist’s work and career.