A Bracing Retrospective of Carlos Villa Shows Just How Prescient the Artist’s World Making Is for Today’s Artists and Thinkers
When curators put together posthumous exhibitions for artists, an unaccounted painting or two is bound to come out of the woodwork during their research. So when a mass of work turned up in the attic of Carlos Villa’s studio, no less, two curators got to work organizing the late artist’s first career retrospective.
A major figure in the Bay Area art scene since the 1970s, Villa left behind a studio in the Mission District when he died in 2013 of cancer. His friend Mark Dean Johnson, a cocurator of the exhibition with Trisha Lagaso Goldberg, had a studio neighboring Villa’s, which after his death still housed a number of his known works put away in closets, with the main space sublet to another artist. In 2016, Dean Johnson called an electrician to fix some wiring in their building, but there was one hitch: “The electrician never got into the attic, complaining he couldn’t examine the wiring because the space was too crowded with storage,” Dean Johnson recounted in a recent interview.
That storage as it turned out, held over 50 unaccounted canvases by Villa. They ranged from Ritual (1970–71), an unstretched canvas with purple-and-blue airbrushed, snaking forms and a billowing blonde wing surrounded by a ring of chicken bones, to Excavation (1982), a composition of two full-body prints in white paint subsumed by printed hands and feet in yellow, blue, and red. On the other side of the country, deep in the Whitney Museum’s storage was their contemporary, My Roots (1970–71), which hadn’t been exhibited since it was shown in their 1972 Annual Exhibition and subsequently acquired. Adorned with hundreds of feathers, the mixed-media painting’s surface visibly ruffles when people pass; a quality Lagaso Goldberg describes as “responding to your presence, your breath.”
These pieces are emblematic of Villa’s wide-ranging practice, which Dean Johnson and Lagaso Goldberg have arduously worked to give renewed attention to. Their efforts resulted in “Carlos Villa: Worlds in Collision,” which debutedat the Newark Museum of Art this past spring and is currently on view, through October, in Villa’s hometown. The show spans two venues in San Francisco: the Asian Art Museum (AAM) and the San Francisco Art Commission (SFAC), which reside across from each other at city hall plaza. (The SFAC portion closed on September 2.)
Though Villa was a hometown hero whose work had been acquired at the height of his career, his significance was little known beyond the Bay Area, and the curators initially struggled to secure funding for the exhibition. When the duo first applied for one of the Andy Warhol Foundation’s prestigious exhibition-related grants, the organization hadn’t heard of Villa. The Foundation ultimately backed the show’s extensive catalogue, which includes essays by Patrick Flores, Lucy Lippard, and Margo Machida; in Lagaso Goldberg’s words, the Warhol Foundation’s team were “heroes” by supporting new scholarship regarding an overlooked figure.
Villa’s absence from the art historical canons of body art, performance, and abstraction during the latter half of the 20th century is likely due to his distance from New York, where art movements and artists have been historicized. Add to that that Villa was Asian American, and his identity was decidedly central to the art he created. Dean Johnson recalls Villa’s exuberant reaction to the expansiveness of the 1989 exhibition “Magiciens de la terre” at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, “Carlos said, ‘This is so fantastic because people are recognizing that art isn’t only centered in Paris and New York galleries. Art is a global phenomenon.’”
“Worlds in Collision” bracingly traces Villa’s return to San Francisco beginning in 1969 until his death; he lived in New York for a brief period, after graduating from the California School of Fine Arts (the predecessor to the now defunct San Francisco Art Institute, aka SFAI). Included in the exhibition is a non-objective painting he made fresh out of school: Untitled (1959), an amalgamation of gestural, morosely hued forms. While Villa’s address book was purportedly the “fattest in New York” during his years there—digits included friends Brice Marden, Sol LeWitt, and others, according to critic Paul Karlstrom’s oral history in the catalogue—Villa was ultimately unhappy in New York, his minimal paintings produced there were “…going further and further away from me and becoming something else,” Karlstrom recalls Villa saying.
Villa’s return to San Francisco resulted in his turn to making art that directly addressed what the curators call, his “creation story”: an SFAI teacher reportedly once told a young Villa “there is no Filipino art history” after he inquired about the lack of Filipino artists in the school’s curriculum. He sought to change that, and that anecdote grounds both presentations of Villa’s retrospective. While this biographic framing could be limiting for an artist, especially one with a penchant for abstraction, it is precisely his experience of being a Filipino-American moving through the world in a particular place and time, experiencing rampant anti-Asian racism in the U.S., that reveals what exactly he meant by embodiment in his art making. His art is one that claims visibility, representation, equity, and, most importantly, value for Filipino-American art and artists.
In the early ’70s, Villa gained access to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s ethnographic collections of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. He studied these objects, like Hawaiian ’hu’ula feather capes and Tapa (bark) cloth from the Pacific Islands, closely. Combining these trans-Pacific influences with his training in action painting, Villa pursued works that reference his own body: his monumental feather-and-taffeta-adorned painting on a semi-circle unstretched canvas, Painted Cloak (1971) was sized to his measurements, while Art’st’s Feet (1979–80) and Art’st’s Head with Bone Dolls (1979) are casts of his extremities in paper pulp and feathers. Likewise, First Impression (1981) is a grid of prints of his face in white paint on black paper, which takes up an entire wall at the Asian Art Museum. At SFAC, Villa’s full-length Untitled body cast (c. 1980) was positioned on a low plinth, as if lying down, corpse-like, with the black-and-white feathery Kite God (1979) suspended directly above.
Using his body as material, Villa pursued the project of, according to the catalogue, “becoming Filipino-American.” To do this, he drew widely from disparate influences from the vestments of his Roman Catholic upbringing to the repetitive tubular forms found on Oceanic objects, which he replicated onto his canvases with strokes of an airbrush. In a catalogue essay, art historian Margo Machida describes Villa’s building of a fictive trans-Pacific history, and his place in it, as a prescient act of world making. This is a term prevalent in recent discussions, that, in Machida’s words, is “[a] critical formulation cited in contemporary Asian art and art history to move beyond partisan presumptions of universality that had long dominated Western art.” Given his trailblazing status in this regard, Villa’s absence from the discourse around other practitioners of so-called body art from the same era—Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, Ana Mendieta come to mind—proves that so much of art history is still to be written to accurately reflect those who have long been cast to its margins.
Villa wasn’t only engaged in a vibrant studio practice, his impact of training the next generations of artists—he spent for over 40 years teaching at SFAI—is also essential to understanding his art making. The exhibition also focuses on his work as an educator and activist, as Lagaso Goldberg stressed that he didn’t separate this role from his identity as an artist. A space at the Asian Art Museum presentation is dedicated to the work of Villa’s pupils, including Paul Pfeiffer and the collective the Mail Order Brides. Numerous contemporary painters he taught, including Sarah Cain, Eamon Ore-Giron, Alicia McCarthy, and Kehinde Wiley, also cite his impact on the careers they pursued.
Studying with Villa beginning in 1992, Ore-Giron said in an email, “Carlos gave me the confidence and permission to pursue my vision out of what Western pedagogy was emphasizing, which was almost exclusively rooted in European history.”
Cain, who was his T.A. in 1999, added, “His connection with students was beyond what most faculty engage in. He operated on a very deep human level.” She recalled him giving her vitamins when she was an overwhelmed undergrad, and his artwork fortified her too, saying “I first encountered his work Art’st’s Feet in the office of his good friend Moira Roth, and it stopped me in my tracks.”
In July, SFAI’s board confirmed what many had long expected that the state’s oldest art school would indeed close its doors. Jeff Gunderson, SFAI’s longtime librarian, said that the school is still navigating what will become of the many important materials, including Villa’s archive, it was meant to steward in perpetuity.
Despite SFAI’s unfortunate end, “Worlds in Collision” has shed light on just how much of an influence Villa continues to have. This is likely just the beginning of new scholarship on this understudied artist and his many ripples of influence. As Ore-Giron fondly recalled, “Besides being a great teacher and role model for young artists, he was a great friend. I still feel the warmth of his smile when I remember him.”