Raúl Martínez, Island 70

Island 70

Raúl Martínez, Island 70, 1970.

Island 70 as Art, History, and Agnosticism 

Pop Art draws its origins from objects and images ingrained into our visual vocabulary and memory via society's consumer culture. We consume these things without much regard for their quality, assumptions, and implications. Pop Art then regurgitates our visual consumer culture and demands our attention to what is common and ignored. (Whiting 1-6) 

In North American Pop Art especially, the consumer culture referenced is often commercial objects – retail catalogs, films and their actors and actresses, food items, etc. The American artist Robert Rauschenberg’s Signs (1970) provides something that alters that notion slightly. Here, Rauschenberg takes images alive in American visual culture via news media and collects them in a way that bombards the viewer with their stored emotion and context common with the popular audience. For example, the image of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the right and bottom respectively, both evoke accomplishment as well as sadness given their assassinations in the previous decade (National Gallery of Australia).

Drawing similarities in the combining of loaded images, the Cuban artist Raúl Martínez gathers a number of portraits and objects to create the piece Island 70 (1970). The two are connected by more than just a “coincidental” commonality, Martinez spent some time in the 1950s studying in the Chicago Design Institute as well as making a few trips to shows in New York City. This exposure to North American art, both abstract and figurative, would be ingrained into Martínez’s visual vocabulary (Matamoros 246-247). Signs was created in the same year as Isla 70, so Martínez would most likely not have seen the piece until much later. Nevertheless, the influence Rauschenberg had on Martínez is notable considering he says it himself, “Mi mayor contacto ha sido a través del pintor Rauschenberg, al cual considero como promotor de todo este movimiento o el enlace entre la pintura de acción y el pop-art” [My greatest contact has been through the painter Rauschenberg, whom I consider a promoter of that entire movement or the link between action painting and pop art] (Consejo Nacional de las Artes Plásticas 46). One can see this in action within the parallels in styles and artistic consciences of both painters.

Although the images in Signs are charged with political and social significance and emotion, the overall display of the piece remains more politically conscious rather than demanding, a witness rather than an actor, an homage to a decade entrenched with mourning rather than a call to action. In this relation, Martínez’s piece differs. Taking place in Castro’s Cuba, the work of Martinez was at all times in dialogue with the political system and the society. 

Just a decade into the revolution, Cuba was in a period of mass optimism that is reflected upon this work. The Caribbean nation finally governed under its own rules after centuries of struggle under both Spanish and American dominance. The 1960s became a flourishing period for Cuban art, “Cuba’s film, photo-journalism and graphic arts became internationally celebrated” (Watson 8). Martínez reflects this celebration in Island 70 with the many heroes and symbols of the revolution including Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, José Martí, and the Cuban flag and star. But, although these heroes are important, their placement amongst ordinary people shows the importance of the Marxist ideology in which all people are seen on an equal plane, and each person impacts the progress of the nation.

In the scope of Latin America, Cuba was an island paradise and praised for becoming independent. The Uruguayan artist, Luis Camnitzer speaks substantially about Cuba’s role among Latin Americans: “Cuban art is interesting for Latin America as a model or as an alternative. . . . As Latin America deteriorated [through the development of the police state], Cuba became, more and more, a symbol of independence” (Camnitzer xxii). Cuba represented what Latin American could become if freed from the grasp of the United States and European nations. The greens, yellows, and reds in the painting certainly evoke a Garden of Eden-like tropicalia that feels very utopian when included with the free form of the structure.

The flat colors and lack of depth in the painting can lead one to believe in a singular interpretation of the piece. However, this is misleading, and what is said more quietly in this painting is what is more revealing. The Cuban art critic, Corina Matamoros suggests what is impressive about Martínez is his ability to remain subtly agnostic in his work on the subject and give the illusion of happiness and perfection: “If this art seems generally happy and balanced, nothing in it particularly convinces us of this: instead it gives us the anxious feeling of a question. His realist, representational canvases, seemingly overly explicit, . . . bear all the signs of an answer to the collective and individual harmony that only warn us of the question’s inappropriateness” (Matamoros 228). The optimism surging in this piece demands the audience to ask more.

Taking this idea into practice, one finds the object that is most prevalent throughout the piece but is possibly least notable – the sugar cane. This crop contains two very significant yet different meanings to the Caribbean nation. Sugar cane is historically the signature crop from Cuba. It made Cuba rich and defined Havana as a cultural powerhouse within Latin America and around the world. Sugar cane, though, also refers to the failures of the Cuban Revolution. In order to create profits and show off the success of the Cuban experiment to the world, Castro launched a goal for 10 million tons of sugar to be harvested within the first decade. However, despite all of Castro’s efforts, the challenge proved to be unfeasible, and, in 1970, the very year Martínez painted Island 70, Cuba came up short (Pérez-Stable 102).

Island 70 can be understood as pushing the boundaries and engaging in dialogue with other Pop Art pieces, both Western and Latin American. It can also be seen as a political and social commentary on Cuba’s place in the world stage and as an isolated entity. But, perhaps more strongly, it shows Martínez’s intellectual brilliance and comprehension, his ability to move between these thoughts, to stand over the experiences of his era in full view of the faces of the people so invested in the Cuban experiment, and sigh at the inevitable.

- John Victor Alencar 


Works Cited

Camnitzer, Luis. "Introduction." New Art from Cuba. First ed. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1994. xxi-xxx. Print.

Martinez, Raul. Isla 70. 1970.

Matamoros, Corina. "Cronology." Raúl Martínez: La Gran Familia.Ediciones Vanguardia Cubana, 2012. 244-252. Print.

---. "Ourselves." Raúl Martínez: La Gran Familia.Ediciones Vanguardia Cubana, 2012. 226-230. Print.

Pérez-Stable, Marifeli. "Politics and Society, 1961-1970." The Cuban Revolution: Origins, Course, and Legacy. Third ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 85-102. Print.

"Raúl Martínez." Arte Cubano.Consejo Nacional de las Artes Plásticas, 2001. 46. Print.

Rauschenberg, Robert. Signs. 1970.

"Signs, Robert Rauschenberg." National Gallery of Australia. 2010.Web. <http://cs.nga.gov.au/Detail.cfm?IRN=47248>.

Watson, Scott. "Form Against Content: The Project of a Revolutionary Cuban Art." Utopian Territories: New Art from Cuba., 1997. 7-16. Print.

Whiting, Cécile. "Introduction." A Taste for Pop. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 1-6. Print.