NEW YORK — I don’t remember exactly where I first met the artist Pacita Abad, whether in New York, Washington, or in Manila, nor the occasion, but the first thing that leaps to mind is her dazzling smile—not that of the skillful politician, though she came from an influential political family, intent on charming his or her listeners, but of an individual glad to be alive, to be in and of this world. She was someone who embraced life wholeheartedly, and not in a Pollyannish way: too well-travelled and smart for that. It might have been, as some have suggested, that somehow she knew she wasn’t long for this world, for in 2004, at the age of 58, she took her last breath in Singapore, felled by cancer.
An Ivatan from Batanes, the Philippines’ northernmost province, she is interred in Basco, the provincial capital and her hometown. Not far from her burial site is Fundación Pacita Nature Lodge, her former studio cum residence. Atop a commanding height, the lodge has breathtaking vistas of sea, towering cliffs, and windswept rolling hills. You could be forgiven if you had the impression you were in Heathcliff territory.
She was a magical spirit, a woman of color enamored of colors, of which she once said, “I always see the world through color, although my vision, perspective and paintings are constantly influenced by new ideas and changing environments. I feel like I am an ambassador of colors, always projecting a positive mood that helps make the world smile.”
Abad is the subject of a long-deserved retrospective “Pacita Abad” at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis that opened in late April and is on until September 3rd—the first retrospective of her works in the world, created over the span of 32 years.
Serendipitously for New Yorkers unable to travel to Minneapolis, a smaller show of her works has just opened at the Tina Kim Gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, titled “Colors of My Dream.” As indicated by the title, the works exhibited at the gallery are for the most part exuberant exclamations of colors, in varying shades and shapes, suggestive of hallucinatory dreamscapes.
Pacita came into her own as an artist in the ‘80s and ‘90s, in a male-dominated art world that favored, as suggested by Victoria Sung, Walker’s associate curator of visual arts, the conceptual and sleek minimalist styles in art centers like New York and Los Angeles. Sung pointed out that Abad’s aesthetics were diametrically opposed to what “would have been defined as good taste.” In short, she was often considered a craft artist operating on the fringes of the art scene. This distinction has always irritated me—there is craft in art, there is art in craft—for its underlying hierarchical assumption of class and often of race and gender as well.
Interestingly, Abad’s first award as an artist came in 1984, when she received the TOYM Award for Art in the Philippines, TOYM standing for Ten Outstanding Young Men—an award that had heretofore always been given to men. Abad became the first woman to be so honored. Not surprisingly, there ensued a public uproar, mainly from male artists discomfited by this gender bender. In her acceptance speech, the artist declared that “it was long overdue that Filipina women were recognized, as the Philippines was full of outstanding women,” including her own mother.
Abad is particularly known for her trapunto paintings, a technique based on quilting that she developed, wherein through stitching and stuffing the painting metamorphoses into a three-dimensional artwork. She incorporated in the literal sense various objects, including beads, buttons, mirrors from India, cowrie shells, and traditional cloth, a playful spirit very much in evidence.
It’s very much that sense of play that to me always comes across so clearly in her work, even in the seemingly darker ones—that of a child’s delight in creating these fluid bursts of being and seeing as though for the first time a universe of colors. Her way may often seem helter-skelter but is more accurately quite disciplined, going not just with the flow but embodying it—an achievement enough to make one smile gloriously each time.