Audacity of austerity: The art of Arturo Luz

“Cities of the Past”
“Cities of the Past”

National Artist for Visual Arts Arturo Luz, who passed away on May 26 at 94, was known for his pictorial severity and muted elegance. His acclaimed paintings and sculptures are geometric and linear explorations that reflect his spartan but celebratory aesthetic. In his art is the audacity of austerity.

His initial works after his art training in the United States and France showed the influence of the Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991), the figurative abstractionist-surrealist whose early watercolors depicted elongated folk figures, much like what Luz did in “Candle Vendors” (1952) and “Street Musicians” (1951).

It is possible that Luz had imbibed the influence of Tamayo when, after his training at California College of Arts and Crafts, he continued his art studies at Brooklyn Museum in New York, where Tamayo and his wife had lived since the 1930s up to 1949.

Arturo and Tessie Luz in 2015
Arturo and Tessie Luz in 2015 —JILSON SECKLER TIU

Acrobats and architecture

But it is also possible that Luz was miming the folk or modern costumbrista style of Philippine art during his time, as shown in the fabulous works of Vicente Manansala, Romeo Tabuena and even Anita Magsaysay-Ho.

Between 1957 and 1964, Luz did such works as the “Carnival” and “Cyclist” series that now bore the influence of the Swiss-born German artist Paul Klee (1879-1940). He seems to have returned to his draftsman training in California, painting stark lines with a stylus rather than a brush. His subjects, such as bottles, acrobats and architecture, complemented his linear, pictorial bias.


During the same period, he painted his “Musikero” series, depicting roving ragtag bands of mendicant street musicians carrying cymbals and horn, clarinet and drum, playing a cacophony of sounds. The contrasting planes and lines between the musicians and the instruments they carried played again into Luz’s geometric bias.

“I was slowly beginning to realize that, for me, the subject was becoming less and less important, until, as a consequence, my paintings became simpler and simpler and I eventually wound up with a few objects, mostly still life,” he said. “It wasn’t the subject as such that interested me, but the shapes, the linear structure.”

The same austerity characterized his choice of colors, in which he was influenced by Fernando Zobel. From Zobel, he had gotten to know the Spanish modernist Antonio Tapies, who created works of profound severity in material and conception.

He told critic Cid Reyes: “What is important to me [in an artwork] is its conception and completion … I went through grueling years of almost nothing but design and color, doing literally hundreds of exercises. I suppose that at the end of such training, you develop this instinct for design. It becomes second nature to you … You can sit down and analyze all interrelations among the different shapes and colors if you wish. You can look at any object, any art, or building even, and analyze it purely in terms of design. But I don’t do this. Everything to me has become instinctive …”

“Untitled (Circus Performers)”

Geometric interpretations

Luz designed his sculptures to complement their environments. This could be seen with his famous geometric interpretation of the “Anito” that used to stand in the old Makati Commercial Center (now Ayala Center) and his collaborations with National Artist for Architecture Leandro Locsin, especially the latter’s Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), Philippine International Convention Center, Philippine Heart Center and Makati Stock Exchange.

His architectural paintings, such as his “Cities of the Past” series, reflect both his wanderlust ways and his pictorial bias. They aren’t landscapes but composites of images drawn from his many memories of cities and geographies he had been in.

His later series were drawn from memories of his travels around Southeast Asia, especially of the ancient Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Sukhothai in Thailand and Borobodur in Indonesia. He also visited Hindu and Buddhist temples and Muslim mosques in South Asia.

“They are imaginary landscapes, recollections of my Asian pilgrimage,” he said. “They have one common element: They are not literal, but rather composite images from memory. They are imagined, transformed, invented.”

“Ryu No. 22”

Arturo Rogero Luz y Dimayuga was born in Manila on Nov. 29, 1926, to Valeriano K. Luz and Rosario Dimayuga. His father was a career official of the Department of Commerce (later Trade and Industry) while his mother was an interior designer.

As a high schooler at San Beda College, Luz took up art tutorials under Pablo Amorsolo, with the latter’s brother, no less than the Fernando Amorsolo, occasionally taking over when his brother was late or absent.

In college, he studied fine arts at the University of Santo Tomas, where his teachers included Galo Ocampo, Diosdado Lorenzo and Ricarte Puruganan.

When the older Luz was appointed commercial attaché to the United States, the son accompanied him and took up further art studies in California and New York. He later went to Paris to study at Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris.


Sophisticated simplicity

A painter, sculptor and designer for more than 40 years, Luz was given the Order of National Artists Award (ONAA), the highest national recognition given to Filipino individuals who have made significant contributions to the Philippine arts, in 1997.

He “created masterpieces that exemplify an ideal of sublime austerity in expression and form,” said the ONAA citation. “From the ‘Carnival’ series of the late 1950s to the recent ‘Cyclist’ paintings, Luz produced works that elevated Filipino aesthetic vision to new heights of sophisticated simplicity.”Luz will also be remembered for his arts and design management. He helped professionalize the art industry through his Luz Gallery, which he operated and managed along with his wife Tessie Ojeda.

Through Luz Gallery, “[Luz] set a prestigious influence over generations of Filipino artists,” the ONAA citation said. “Luz inspired and developed a Filipino artistic community that nurtures impeccable designs.”

Luz was also executive director of Design Center of the Philippines, 1973-1987; founding director of Metropolitan Museum of Manila, 1976-1986; and director of Museum of Philippine Art, 1977-1985. The CCP habitues are familiar with the art of Luz because the performing arts center has been home to two of his masterpieces. His mural painting “Black and White” can be seen at the lobby of Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino (Little Theater), while his “Paper Clip” sculpture is located at South Lawn right across Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas and beside the Philippine Navy.

In 1978, the French government inducted Luz to the Order of Chevalier des Arts et Lettres. His French knighthood was elevated to “officiel” in 1987.

Up to his last years, Luz stuck to his guns, his aesthetic like a Zen koan.

“My work is relatively simple; there’s nothing complicated about it,” Luz said. “It involves the same problems except that I keep changing the medium. My work is linear and geometric and that’s it, essentially.” —CONTRIBUTED