The work of Freddy Rodríguez (b. 1945, Dominican Republic) blends emotionally and socio-politically- motivated themes with rigorous formal concerns. Over the course of his career, Rodríguez has employed abstract geometry, gestural figuration, collage, and vibrant color to address themes including the conquest and colonization of native people, the figure of the cimarrón, Catholicism, dictatorship, and baseball.
Feeling his life was in danger due to the local political climate, Rodríguez moved to New York City in 1963. There, he proceeded to study painting at the Art Students League and at the New School for Social Research; and textile design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Having now lived and worked in New York for more than five decades, Rodríguez’s oeuvre evinces his response to tendencies that shaped the City’s artistic milieu, including Hard-edge Painting, Geometric Abstraction, and Minimalism. At the same time, the Dominican Republic, Caribbean culture, and transnational concerns have continuously inspired the subjects and ethos of his work.
Rodríguez has exhibited work in numerous group and individual shows, including the following: The Illusive Eye, El Museo del Barrio, New York (2016); Caribbean Art at the Crossroads of the World, Pérez Art Museum, Miami (2014); Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. (2013); Unpredictable, Instituto Cervantes, Tokyo (2013); and America's Pastime: Portrait of the Dominican Dream, Newark Museum, New Jersey (2005).
Rodríguez’s work can be found in various public and private collections, including those of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; National Portrait Gallery, Washingtn, D.C.; El Museo del Barrio, New York; The Newark Museum, New Jersey; Jersey City Museum, New Jersey; Queens Museum of Art, New York; Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York; and the Museo de Las Casas Reales, Santo Domingo.
Rodríguez is the subject of a forthcoming monograph by E. Carmen Ramos, which is part of the A Ver: Revisioning Art History book series published by the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.
Rodríguez’s remarkable geometric works from the 1970s blend emotionally and politically-motivated themes with rigorous formal concerns—evincing not only the artist’s keen sense of color and composition, but also his shrewd engagement with relevant socio-cultural themes. While works from the Merengue series such as Princesa del Caribe (1974) utilize color and form to celebrate music, dance, and the mixing of races in the Caribbean, other compositions reference literature. Indeed, many of Rodríguez’s geometries from the 1970s constitute his visual responses to the literary works of esteemed Latin American writers including Gabriel García Márquez, Rómulo Gallegos, Mario Vargas Llosa, Pablo Neruda, and Julio Cortázar.
Within his 1980s abstractions, Rodríguez began exploring a strategic integration of refined geometry and expressive brushwork—thereby melding two artistic approaches often considered oppositional. Despite their lack of figuration, the artist’s rich palette and suggestive titles ground his visual lexicon in quotidian realities. Rodríguez created the painting ¿Sabrá FR Pintar? (1980), for example, in response to an article published in the Dominican Republic. In the article, a critic questioned whether Rodríguez—who energetically embraced abstraction despite a local preference for realistic figuration—possessed adequate technical painting skills.
Rodríguez’s Heart series features expressive brushwork and a distinctive, fiery palette to explore themes including Catholicism, voodoo, and dictatorship, while drawing from the bolero music tradition. Boleros—romantic, sentimental, and often performed with great emotion—provide a fruitful point from which to examine, and balance, darker historical subjects.
Rodríguez’s interest in Caribbean history and the African diaspora lead him to explore the plight of the cimarrón, or fugitive slave. Throughout this series of work, begun in 1985, the artist repeats certain symbols, including the human leg and the fish. To keep slaves from leaving their New World plantations, owners would sometimes cut off their toes. Rodríguez’s human legs with toeless feet depict this terrifying violence. By including gallery reviews taken from the New York Times and the MoMA calendar, in El Cimarrón Deja El Monte (1986), Rodríguez gestures towards the exclusion of artists of color from mainstream exhibitions in New York—combining both histories and present occurrences of racial inequity. Fish, meanwhile, gesture more broadly toward island life. In works such as America (1986), the artist’s symbols seem to exist in an aqueous, otherworldly realm; yet by embedding snippets from current newspapers and art magazines, Rodríguez tied his work to a contemporary, tangible milieu.
In discussing his Paradise series, Rodríguez mentioned a letter sent from Christopher Columbus to the Pope, in which the explorer described the New World as “paradise.” For native populations, of course, the arrival of European colonizers was just the opposite—bringing illness, war, and cultural practices that would decimate their civilizations. According to Rodríguez, the tropical flora—beautiful, silent, and innocent—stood witness to these atrocities, and therefore becomes a fraught symbol in his paintings. The paintings comprising the Paradise series are dense and multifaceted, with collaged New York Times and printed images seeping through to their surfaces.
Within his Colonization series, Rodríguez employed the tondo to reference the earth in its entirely, which European explorers set out to “discover.” Upon coming into contact with undeveloped lands and preexisting civilizations, these explorers sought to gain control by enforcing European structure and religion. The artist depicts this determination to cleanse and order the “unwieldy” New World by superimposing pristine geometry atop canvases covered with earth. According to Rodríguez, his use of crushed glass in many of these works alludes to the violence or punishment experienced by indigenous communities at the hand of the Catholic Church. This series is the first in which Rodríguez utilized shaped canvases.
As is apparent from the series’ title, Rodríguez’s Vestment works address the human embodiment
of Catholicism. Triangular in form and adult-sized in scale, these works immediately conjure the human body—expanding upon the artist’s previous explorations of shaped canvases, while imbuing abstract geometries with narrative content. Smaller triangles and suggestive openings reference genitalia, thereby encouraging viewers to consider the sexual regulations implicit in the religion, including the ways in which celibacy preserves power. At the same time, Rodríguez’s pristine geometries, crisp edges, and evocative palette recall the hierarchy, ceremony, and formality of the Catholic tradition.
A work from Rodríguez’s Vestment series is held within the collection of the Newark Museum, New Jersey.
In the 1990s, Rodríguez pivoted toward a complex, highly precise vocabulary of overlaid, interlocking rectangular forms. The resulting, rigorous compositions vary in density, and feature exuberant colors that, together, produce a mesmerizing viewing experience. Here, Rodríguez again responded to social, cultural, and political occurrences in his personal milieus. In the Best Doctors series—named for a New York Magazine article—for example, Rodríguez comments
upon a lack of transparency in the United States healthcare system. Simultaneously, many of
these works evoke urban architecture, as well as our increasing engagement with technology. Indeed, one can easily recognize, in Rodríguez’s forms, the digital systems we navigate on a daily basis and the multiple windows layered across a computer screen.
Rodríguez conceives of baseball as a defining element of Dominican culture; the sport has become a symbol of national pride, and has had astounding social and economic repercussions for the small island nation. At the same time, baseball has contributed to the visibility of Dominicans in the United States, and acts as a channel through which US citizens learn cultural and historical information about the Dominican Republic. Rodríguez examines the theme of baseball through sculptural works, installations, and paintings, which often combine text and image. One of Rodríguez's best known baseball series involves painted images of celebrity players such as Alex Rodríguez. To create these works, the artist sources photographs of players from the New York Times, and converts the images into silhouettes. Rodríguez has suggested that the silhouette speaks to racial equality; accomplishment, rather than skin color, is what garners fans’ respect. Many of these silhouette works measure forty by forty inches—the dimensions used by Andy Warhol in all of his celebrity portraits. By adopting these dimensions himself, Rodríguez gestures towards the expansive nature of these players’ fame; they are embedded in a collective popular consciousness that transcends the realm of sports.
Works from the Baseball series are held in collections of El Museo del Barrio, New York, and the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Most recently, Rodríguez has pursued a series of paintings that explore the scientific origins of gold, as well as the history of gold in art and society. In order to conduct research for the series, the artist sought and was awarded a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship (SARF), which facilitated travel to and study within the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The resulting works address economics, politics, and corruption. At the same time, Rodríguez suggests that gold lust is something that unifies humanity, regardless of nationality, class, or party affiliation. Furthermore, he posits that visual art is the new gold—offering opportunity for investment, and in turn conferring status upon the owner.