Paper Abstractions: Virginia Jaramillo’s Social Theory

Virginia Jaramillo "Untitled," 1984. Linen fiber with hand-ground earth pigments. Courtesy the artist and Hales, London and New York. Photo: Stan Narten.

Perhaps more than any other recent survey of abstract art, Virginia Jaramillo: Principle of Equivalence reframes what abstract art is and can do, politically and aesthetically. Organized by Erin Dziedzic at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City last year, the show is now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Jaramillo’s consistent aesthetic interest has been in surface and depth, and, especially in the paper works in the exhibition, this play between surface and depth becomes a complicated exploration of political realities. With her handmade watermarks and compression of multiple layers of pulp into a singular sheet, Jaramillo questions what is hidden beneath the surface of everyday life and what the surface could not exist without. Whose underground labor makes everything run smoothly on the ground? And who tends to the literal ground beneath our feet—the earth that requires protection from pollution and corporate greed? These are questions of how a society is structured, and a social structure is ultimately another kind of abstraction. Systemic racism, for instance, is a concept that abstracts from individual cases of interpersonal discrimination and prejudice to identify the economic, legal, and cultural structures that regularize them. In using her abstraction to excavate these underlying structures, Jaramillo pushes even further, emphasizing the labor of making art and the potential of certain material substrates to analogize the labor of caring for each other and the earth—a stewardship the world needs but so often overlooks.

In the past decade, critics and curators have reevaluated the political impact of abstract art, especially that made by women of color in the wake of the civil rights and women’s liberation movements. Exhibitions such as Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today (which originated at the Kemper in 2017) and Latinx Abstract (at BRIC in Brooklyn in 2021) have enlarged the canon of abstract art while demonstrating how social concerns have consistently inspired it. And recent monographs by art historians have thickened our vocabulary for talking about that art, whether Phillip Brian Harper’s sense of “abstractionist” art that troubles the reality of abstraction’s social referents or the “abstract bodies” that David Getsy understands as pursuits of gender plasticity or Lex Morgan Lancaster’s sense of queer abstraction as an antinormative “drag.”

These curators and critics have frequently returned to the 1971 The De Luxe Show in their efforts to embrace the social underpinnings of abstraction. The exhibition, organized by the painter Peter Bradley, ran at the neglected theater also named De Luxe in Houston’s Fifth Ward. Bradley thought the Black youth of the underresourced neighborhood should be a primary audience for abstract art, because “they haven’t yet been indoctrinated by bad art, or ethnic art which I think is bad.” He continued, “There’s a chance that they can read the art better than most people who frequent museums.” As the art historian Darby English explains in his book about that show, “Bradley was proposing that [these youth] lacked the mechanisms of disavowal that would conjure whiteness from abstraction. Exposing children to modernist work would, he fantasized, prevent their consciousness from being colonized by nationalist pedagogy.” To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of The De Luxe Show, in 2021, the Menil Collection in Houston mounted a survey of Virginia Jaramillo, the only woman and only Latina included in the 1971 exhibition. Virginia Jaramillo: Principle of Equivalence is a much larger retrospective, and its arrival at the MCA Chicago comes only a few years after the museum’s 2018 retrospective of Jaramillo’s peer in abstraction, Howardena Pindell (another recent monograph on Pindell, by Sarah Louis Cowan, explores the artist’s “reclamation” of abstraction).

Virginia Jaramillo, Untitled, 1971. The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Frank Oudeman.

Featuring over forty works, Principle of Equivalence surveys Jaramillo’s career from the mid-1960s to the present. In one of Jaramillo’s best-known series, Curvilinear, the paintings snake crisp lines over fields of color on canvases that tower over human viewers. Although famously featured in The De Luxe Show, this series fittingly occupies only the first of four rooms in the MCA’s retrospective, which was organized by René Morales and Iris Colburn. Representing a short early phase of her career, the paintings make surface and depth one. As her work developed, however, Jaramillo steadily demystified the depths that support a social structure. For example, by the mid-1970s she had stopped using tape to guide her lines and filled forms on canvas. Shakier and rougher edges are more honest about their labor, not hiding behind the invisible supports of something else. In this way, Jaramillo makes the process of making the work the subject of the work, eschewing the smooth lines that help you forget the hands that made a finished product.

By the end of the 1970s, this interest in underlying supports logically drove Jaramillo to make the canvas itself her work, rather than a mere substrate for paint placed on top of it. She embarked on a decades-long partnership with the papermaking workshop Dieu Donné in New York, whose former artistic director Paul Wong once said, “No one has ever made handmade papers like Virginia Jaramillo. And no one has ever made anything like them since.” By iteratively pouring pulp into custom molds and compressing multiple sheets together, she experimented with the density of paper. Instead of the more frequently used cotton, she used linen pulp because it was more durable and more absorptive of the pigments in which she would wash the individual sheets. The pigments do not rest seamlessly on the surface but go into the paper’s inner depths. As with her departure from taping lines, the effect of a work like Mount Meru (2006, named for the mythological center of the world) is to make visible the underlying supports of a work (and by extension, a world), in this case the three-dimensional structure of the paper itself. In the political circles Jaramillo moved in during the 1970s, feminists had learned to explain that it is usually women who hold up the world. In turn, Jaramillo’s artwork paralleled the efforts of a demand like “Wages for Housework,” which made visible the hidden labor of raising and caring for the men visibly laboring under capitalism.

Virginia Jaramillo, Visual Theorems 1, 1979. Linen fiber with hand-ground earth pigments. Courtesy the artist and Hales, London and New York.

Jaramillo’s turn to paper coincided with her coediting a special 1979 issue of the feminist art journal Heresies on “Third World Women: The Politics of Being Other,” in which she also included a photograph of one of her papers. As the collectively written editorial statement explains, one aim of the issue was “to break the isolation of racial/sexual tokenism experienced in college, on the job, in the women’s movement and in the ‘art world.’” For Jaramillo and her coeditors, the capacious category “Third World Women” became another kind of powerful abstraction—not leaving behind the specificity of being “Asian-American, Black, Jamaican, Ecuadorian, Indian (from New Delhi) and Chicana,” but abstracting from that diversity something they held in common: their collective marginalization by empire. Jaramillo presented her semitransparent paper Visual Theorems #170 (1979) in a section titled “The Other Portfolio”—a portfolio of othered artists. If, for Peter Bradley and The De Luxe Show, it was important to break the associational chain that went from abstraction to universalism to whiteness, for Jaramillo it was important to offer a new associational chain that went from abstraction to otherness to coalition.

Although she is of Mexican descent, Jaramillo has more often been included in shows primarily designed by or for Black audiences, from The De Luxe Show to, more recently, We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85, which ran at the Brooklyn Museum in 2017. Indeed, Jaramillo has said that her interracial marriage to the Black artist Daniel LaRue Johnson ostracized her from the Chicano community in the 1970s, whereas “in Los Angeles, the Black artist community—and we’re talking about musicians, writers, painters—they usually embraced me.” This categorization of her art perhaps persisted for so long because of what is at stake in her work: less the expression of a particular identity than the formation of a coalition. More important than articulating some singular “Chicano” or “women’s” subjectivity was articulating the structural position of “the Other,” and how the rich and imperial nations of the world rely on hiding the exploitation of the “Third World.” Surfacing the underlying depths of an artwork, as in Jaramillo’s Foundations series of cotton papers with hand-ground earth pigments, is an analogue for surfacing the underlying supports of global capitalism—a foundational support system for which Jaramillo and others in her coalition were disproportionally conscripted.

Virginia Jaramillo: Principle of Equivalence (installation view ), 2024. MCA Chicago. Photo: Robert Chase Heishman.

This is not to say Jaramillo did not draw upon tropes specifically from her Mexican heritage. The signature of her sculptural papers is her watermarks, created by marking off sections of one of her custom molds so the pulp forms a thinner layer in designated lines and shapes. In her series Teotihuacan Studies, these watermarks take the shapes of triangles and squares that allude to pyramids from the titular Aztec city or a bird’s eye view of it. Throughout her life, her handmade pigments also brought the alluvial materials of dust and dirt and sand onto the canvas, reflecting a kind of earthly stewardship. This stewardship, along with Jaramillo’s coalition building, demonstrates the power of abstraction in her hands, how she reached for a kind of universality not in the tradition of secretly encoding white maleness as universal, but instead in the universal and literal common ground of all human experience: the earth.

“Virginia Jaramillo radicalizes Mother Earth,” the art historian Matthew Jeffrey Abrams offers in the exhibition catalogue for Principle of Equivalence. “Jaramillo’s primary political concern is not yoked to any particular class or identity, but to earth in its totality.” This is true, and yet Jaramillo’s site-specific references to materials (dirt from here, not there) and her culturally specific references to historical motifs (not just any city, but Teotihuacan) suggest how, although the earth is universal, the labor of its stewardship is not evenly shared. Earthwork—the labor of working the earth—has fallen disproportionately and exploitatively to brown people.

In a March 2024 paper, the professor of Native political thought David Myer Temin adapts the feminist demand of  “Wages for Housework” by calling for “Wages for Earthwork.” Temin contends that “Indigenous peoples have disproportionately contributed to the stewardship of the natural world, beyond simply not damaging the planet” and that “restitution is also owed to Indigenous peoples for the ecological debt they have incurred.” Jaramillo’s paper works give form to hidden and undervalued labor—the labor of reproducing human communities and the lands on which they reside. As Jaramillo says of her practice, “negative space has to speak.” And in her paper works, she speaks of the invisible structure of a social system that needs her labor, and the labor of earth-workers, but so often hides its neediness beneath the surface.

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