A Circular Kind of Movement: A Conversation About the Works of Carlos Villa: Mary Valledor & Sherwin Rio
February 05, 2021 12:00 AM

Leo Valledor and Carlos Villa goofing around in Valledor’s Manhattan apartment, c. mid-1960s. Courtesy of Mary Valledor.

Carlos Villa’s dedication to art and the concerns of his era touched many. His intentioned refusal defined what it means to be an Artist’s Artist, an expression commonly used today. Villa's integrity sequestered him to San Francisco, a city with an undercurrent for reform beyond the gaze.

It’s not easy to determine where to begin when introducing Villa's expansive legacy. The pleasure of getting to know an artist takes a lifetime and more. In lieu of a press release, we are pleased to share a conversation between Mary Valledor and Sherwin Rio. Valledor is an inspiring educator who heads the Estate of Carlos Villa. Rio is an interdisciplinary artist working between Brooklyn and San Francisco. This interview will be followed by a series of talks around the artist’s life and work, ahead of his traveling career-retrospective at the Asian Art Museum and his inclusion in the next Prospect Biennale.

Mary Valledor and Sherwin Rio on Zoom, January 28, 2021. Courtesy of Sherwin Rio.

SHERWIN RIO (SR): Mary, thanks for talking to me over Zoom (laughs)! We're a country apart, but I feel like I'm sitting in your house with you. Bringing us here together in conversation is Carlos, who is often referred to as an interlocutor. So what an appropriate way to be connected from so far apart, I mean, from snowy, Massachusetts to cold and rainy San Francisco, three hours apart.

MARY VALLEDOR (MV): It's actually great, you know, and I'm glad we’re doing it!

SR: Now, the works in this show span so many decades, so we’re going to jump back in time for a bit. To start off, how exactly did you meet Carlos?

MV: I met Carlos in 1958, when I was just about to graduate from high school. I was 17 and he was about 22 or 23. I was born and raised in San Francisco, and so was Carlos, and my sister's best friend was kind of like his cousin. He lived around the corner from me out in the Avenues.

He told my sister he was going to have a big party and have people over. So I ended up going around the corner to his party and, even then, he was very exciting. He had a lot of energy, surrounded by a lot of people from different walks of life—even then before he was an artist. We had a lot to say, and that was about all I thought about it. And then as I was leaving, he said, “Why don't we get together tomorrow? My cousin is having something printed for a jazz concert and I have to pick it up. Let's meet, and let's go over to his house. And I said, okay. So that was how I first met him. He introduced me to his cousin, Leo, who was an artist at that time also.

SR: So at this time was Carlos already a practicing artist? Was this before or after starting at California School of Fine Arts (CSFA; now San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI))?

MV: He had just finished his stint in the army and was getting ready to go to CSFA. He had done drawings along the way in his life, but he wasn't, you know, a professional artist or art teacher.

Carlos Villa, Walks of Life at Friends Indeed Gallery.

SR: So he introduces you to Leo at the time. Can you talk a little bit about the connection that Leo and Carlos had?

MV: Leo’s and Carlos' parents were both from the same area, Lapog in the Philippines, and Leo and Carlos were both born here when their parents came to America. They were both the same age, almost one year apart. Carlos had a little sister and Leo was an only child, but they were like brothers. Leo was older and kind of took on the role of being the older brother. So when Carlos visited him, Leo would always say, “Here, draw something, do something.” Leo was already always doing his own large paintings by then. Carlos said that Leo was a big influence all his life on how art seemed to give a purpose in life and meaning, and a philosophy of how to go ahead and become something. So that's kind of the beginning of art for Carlos—through Leo Valledor.

SR: Let’s look at the earliest works in this show: the early spiral drawings. They were created with crayon, marker, and pen during Carlos' time in New York City between 1964 and 1969, and to me this time period marks one of many shifts in Carlos' aesthetic. We see a shift away from the fiberglass, wood, and metal minimal modernist sculpture that he was making in New York that garnered him recognition there—exhibiting alongside the Park Place group and having a solo show at Poindexter gallery to name a few. You were there in New York at the time—Could you describe that energy and how it affected the artwork?

MV: Leo and I fell in love, and he joined me in New York. And then Carlos followed about a year later in 1964. At that time, it was kind of the culmination or the end of abstract expressionism being the avant garde. It was like a changing of the guard, which caused a lot of conversation, especially at a couple of places like Max's Kansas City, The Longview, and also the Ninth Circle, where Carlos worked—and several different bars that everyone in the arts would go to. And the energy was unbelievable! At Max’s Kansas City the pop-art-Andy-Warhol crowd had their own room; different crowds claimed parts of Max’s as their place.

Galleries were starting to show geometric and the beginnings of minimal work. The sculpture and painting had all become more hard edge and things weren't splashed all over. There were subtle or pastel colors, but also a lot of the colors that people were being attracted to were hard-edged colors that you would see in New York City—like the taxi cabs, street signs, and sign paintings. You also had Warhol and Lichtenstein, and a couple of people that were more ‘commercial artists.’ We didn’t think they were important. So, there were all these different groups and a lot of vying for what was real and what was fake. And I felt like the older ones who did expressionistic painting were the more boisterous ones, like fighting for their lives, you know? They were more philosophical and had rationales as to why things were changing. The older artists were saying, “Ah, this new stuff is no good,” and then younger artists were saying, “Ah, that's old.” Even not using oil paint was a new consideration. And it was exactly during that change when Carlos and Leo were there.

Untitled drawing, c. 1968, Marker on paper, 18 x 24 in. Photographed by Nora Roth. Courtesy the Estate of Carlos Villa.

SR: I definitely see a parallel shift in energy in Carlos’ work. From the densely layered abstract paintings Carlos was making when in the MFA program at Mills College before his departure from San Francisco, to once again the minimalist sculpture, and then to huge linear paintings on canvas and drawings before returning to the Bay, like what we see in this show.

It seemed that Carlos experimented a lot and also that community was central—it seems he had an ability to connect and introduce people. Could you talk a little bit more about the group that you all were around—the people you were running with, and going to shows with, and who had studios nearby? Who was the crowd?

MV: The mainstream of galleries were all on 59th Street and everyone wanted to show up there. And if you got into one of those galleries, you were pretty lucky and your name would be in the paper and you had a good start. You know, that was what a lot of people wanted. I happened to know Leo, Carlos and a bunch of other people that came from California. And what happened was a lot of the people that came from California had something to do with CSFA. They kind of gathered as a group, they would meet.

Carlos had a studio on West Broadway nearby from us. Leo and I had one floor in a building, Dean Fleming had another floor, Frosty [Forrest] Myers had a floor, and then the top floor was a studio for Mark di Suvero. These were all people from San Francisco, LA or California. And so they kind of got together and came up with philosophies and reasons for art and connections, and started a group called the Park Place group, named after the street it was on.

There were people that all lived in different buildings and some had shared lofts and everything, but there were no other art spaces around us. There were no art galleries downtown at the time. So what they did was made the top floor a gallery, and through Mark or— whoever else had influence—invited big collectors or gallerists to look at their work and they would have shows in the building. So that was really exciting.

And at the same time, a lot of those artists, Dean and Tony Magar and Frosty [Forrest] Myers, and Peter Forakis and Leo all played or loved music and mostly jazz. So they would also have sessions. They'd have music, they'd talk about their art. And, you know, it was a lot of noise and a lot of action, and a lot of big egos.

Carlos knew everybody, but he kind of had a little different take. He didn't come very much to the music sessions and he didn't officially become part of the Park Place group although he showed with them.

Paula Cooper started a gallery, which was still downtown on West Broadway and she showed the Park Place people and invited other people like Bob [Robert] Smithson and Bob [Robert] Grosvenor.

SR: Were there other artists of color in the group that you all hung out with?

MV: Not really, just a few. Not in the Park Place group, but there were a few. And if there were any artists of color, Brown or Black, they spotted each other since there weren't that many. Danny Johnson, Mel Edwards, David Diao, Mario Yrisarry, and Bob [Robert] Duran, who was also from SF.

SR: And when you all were there in New York, was that a conversation that you all ever had?

MV: Leo and I spoke about it but you wouldn’t hear that conversation at any of the dinner parties. It was predominantly white, and as far as a lot of people were concerned that didn't exist.

SR: And they were mostly men, too.

MV: Right, mostly men. And I would say not so much the Park Place group, but a lot of them had gone to college and came from families that supported them. Sure, some were working class. But guys like Sol LeWitt, Bob [Robert] Smithson, and Don Judd-- they were all college educated, middle-class white guys.

SR: When Carlos returns to SF we see such an explosive change in his work that seems to be seeded from a departure in NY.

MV: Well, the Civil Rights movement and the Black Panthers were happening right then. So when Carlos came back a lot had happened as far as civil rights, and the conversations were much more established.

Ritual performance at the Farm in SF, 1980, Photo by Lars Speyer. Courtesy the Estate of Carlos Villa.

SR: His artwork shifts to a more personal, cultural exploration—looking into the sources of his identity as a Filipino-American and also incorporating his findings into his artwork. He revisited having been told ‘there was no Filipino art history’ by his art professor Walt Kuhlman during his younger studies at CSFA. This time period is noted for, not just the spirals that stem from the NY drawings, but his body impression paintings and the shaped feathered canvases. Often under-recognized, though, I think is the performative aspect of this work—and even his performances in general throughout his career, which he often referred to as ‘actions’ along with related ‘actions’ like organizing symposia and educational curricula. We have performances like The Gorilla from Manila (1990), Manong with Al Robles (1990), and one of his performances highlighted in this show, Ritual (1980) at The Farm in Potrero. You attended this event, right?

MV: I did, Leo was playing music and I was with Leo at the time. The whole art community was invited, including everyone that had to do with the school [SFAI]. It was a beautiful sunny day at The Farm. They called it that because it was a big hill with many different animals, like goats and chickens that were being raised there. A lot of people came and there was excitement in the air. I had a little kid, so I was more focused on making sure he didn't get lost in the crowd or something like that!

What Carlos was doing was something that was like invoking his ancestors. I thought, “Wow, what is that?” I didn't know what it was. It wasn't a dance, although he did move methodically and with energy. Carlos did Tai Chi, so I saw that some of his movements reflected his practice, but they were more like just kind of some kind of a trance type of dance. It wasn't like a frenzied, rhythmic dance. It was much slower. It was tranquil although there was music going on with lots of drums. The music was free form, which Leo was really into. This was around the time of Ornette Coleman so there were a lot of free form jazz references, with rhythmic bongo drums. But it wasn't like a tune. Leo played a very high-pitched saxophone and right into the air, this was all out in the open.

Carlos moved slowly. And some of my relatives were like, “Oh my God, he's naked!” We never knew Carlos to do that! Everyone there was watching like a hawk to see what was going on as he went through his performance and actually laid down on the surface of the canvas and made marks. And that was the first time I remember ever seeing those kinds of pressed face marks, on his paintings. Maybe he had done some before but I think that all happened kind of at the same time period. He was invoking his ancestors and sure enough, like he said before, when he pressed his face into the canvases, he saw faces of his mother and himself and Filipino references.

SR: The artwork in this show spans two decades of Carlos' artwork and includes drawing, performance, sculpture, and painting. In your opinion, Mary, what's the through-thread for Carlos' works, in this exhibition and in the various stylistic and thematic changes that expand beyond this exhibition?

MV: Well, I know a lot of people are familiar with the feathered pieces. And then there are other people who are familiar with his spiral drawings, and there are other people that have seen more of the grids. We're only going to see a certain amount in the show, but he was a very prolific artist. Almost every decade, Carlos did a new series. So a lot of times people see one thing and think that's his work. And then they see another thing and can’t believe the two works are from the same person. With his work, he found issues or topics and just went so deep into it, that it looks like it's one thing, but actually it's combining what came before and what could come after.

Artist’s Feet, 1979-1980, Paper pulp and feathers; Each approx. 7 x 5 x 15 inches. Photo by Jay Jones.

SR: I agree—there's a lot of synthesis built upon decades before in his work. For example, in the 1980s we see a combination of formal shapes, like the spirals and dense abstract-expressionist application of paint, with a collaging of different mixed media materials like feathers, bones, hair, cloth, and paper pulp body casts. These casts come from an earlier body of work around 1979-1980 like that of Artist’s Feet (1979-1980) in this exhibition. Even with his work into the 2000s with his gridded panels and canvases, although they look different formally, there's a synthesis of ideation and process-based mark-making that reaches all the way back to 1960s New York.

MV: To answer your question, the thread that I see in this work would be the linear spiral and the high energy, but on a larger scale it is movement—a circular movement. I recognize in a lot of his drawings and sculptural pieces, he had references to the slinky. And I think that you can still see that reference even into his last works. There's that aspect of movement, and also circular motion. It is an action.

Mask/Unmask (Improbable Mask Series), 1977, Airbrushed acrylic and feathers on unstretched canvas; 66 x 36 inches. The relief was included in Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981, a seminal exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 2012. Courtesy the Estate of Carlos Villa.

SR: Do you see this circular kind of movement, tied at all to Carlos as a person?

MV: Oh, I'm a very linear person. I try to keep it simple. I'm down to earth, all those things. I relate well to very minimal work and geometric shapes and primary colors. And so, all along my relationship with Carlos has always been kind of in awe or wondering what it's all about: How Carlos could be so… opposite of linear.

I remember during a class I was teaching at SFAI during the summer sessions, I invited him to come in as a guest speaker. I thought “I hope he stays on the subject, I hope he does a good job!” because I was married to him at the time (laughs). I told him what I wanted for the class. He would start with something I had suggested, and depending on the situation, took it out of where I thought it should go. He could go completely far out. I would never think he would even come back! And then he would come right back to the central question, and tie it all in. I found that to be something really special. I think he was great at that.

That was also the way he dealt with negative agitations, ego, or frustration. He would confront it but turn it into something positive. And that's what I think he did with his ‘actions’ like the multidisciplinary exhibition Other Sources: An American Essay (1976), the Sources of a Distinct Majority symposia series (1989 - mid-1990s), Worlds in Collision multi-part class/book/symposia/web project (1988 - 2005), and website-symposia art and oral history project Rehistoricizing the Time Around Abstract Expressionism (2010). He did so especially with these conversations about being left out, who deserves what, and who thought they were better than someone else, or all these things that were very raw. Some people were put off by it. They didn't want to be called racist or not-inclusive. Carlos found ways to include all the discord, but came up with the movement to find a way forward. Amazing.

SR: Mary, why do you think it's important for people to see Carlos' work? And why now?

MV: Carlos taught for 45 years and in his classes, he reached so many students along the way from all over. I don't think I've ever really met anybody that said they didn't think he was pretty special. We've gone through so many things, starting out with say Black Panther movement and Civil Rights and trying to change things in this country; Admissions for people who haven't had access to family or money or anything else to let people come into schools and give them a chance and everything— all of these things. Right now we're at another kind of milestone. Paradigms are shifting completely right now and people are very, very aware of inequality, inequity, and not having access given societal, political, financial, racial, and/or familial privilege. I think right now all of those questions are open again. You know, we thought maybe we solved all the problems in the sixties. Well, we didn't. I must say that the people your age and younger have a different perspective. It's not all white. Anyone who thinks it's all white, hasn't looked at statistics or their environment.

So now's a perfect time to see that, some of the things that Carlos was saying back there in the sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties are relevant and people are still trying to solve it. And I don't know if art can solve the problem, but it brings up and shows people the existence of it. Art carries it to another level.

SR: There's a lot to learn and build from, from Carlos' artwork and his practice as an artist-teacher-organizer. So I'm really glad that these works are up and available for people to see. Thank you very much, Mary. This was very informative, especially with understanding the contexts of works made decades ago that have now circled to the forefront of the present.

Many thanks to Micki Meng, Janette Lu, and the rest of the team at Friends Indeed Gallery, and a big thank you to Lindsay Howland for transcribing. Co-edited by Sherwin Rio and Mary Valledor.

Carlos Villa: Walks of Life on view February 8 - March 26, 2021