Guido Llinas and los Once After Cuba

Florida International University

The Los Once Group and Cuban Art in the 1950s
The group of Cuban vanguard artists known as Los Once (The Eleven) is one of the most often mentioned and least known movements in twentieth century Cuban art. Although it is widely agreed that this group of painters and sculptors introduced new ideas and practices into Cuban art at mid-century, namely non-figurative art, its existence is barely recorded in a handful of catalogues, some journalistic articles, and brief entries in a few books on Cuban art. Considering the lack of a coherent narrative of this group's development and the absence of a discourse on its significance in Cuban art, the following is an art historical sketch of Los Once with comments on its contributions to contemporary Cuban art.1

Around 1950, a new generation of artists emerged in Havana, many of whom joined the international trend towards abstraction following World II. These young artists entered an art world that was small and crowded. The art scene in Havana at mid-century was dominated by modernist artists from two congenial generations, one that emerged in 1927 and the other around 1938. The modernists had replaced a weak academic tradition with a more original and dynamic art, which actively appropriated European artistic models to interpret Cuban culture. In the process they succeeded for the first time in inserting the art of the island on the international cultural map. As expected, they were privileged by most of the few art institutions, spaces, and critics of that time. The rest of the reduced artistic scene was occupied by the academic artists, who controlled Cuba's official art school, known as the Academia de San Alejandro, and exhibited at the Cf rculo de Bellas Artes. The need to open a space for themselves in these circumstances provided the initial impetus for the formation of Los Once.

The genesis of this first organized movement in Cuban art is a matter of debate. Nevertheless, its origins can be traced to three exhibitions in the early 1950s. One of the leading organizers of Los Once, Guido Llinas, brought together in 1952 a number of emerging artists like himself, Antonia Eiriz, Manuel Vidal, his brother Antonio Vidal, and Fayad Jamfs, organizing an exhibition entitled Young Art. The exhibition was held at the cultural center of the Confederation of Cuban Workers, a space, which like this group of artists, was on the fringes of then Cuba's high culture. From that exhibition, Llinas, Antonio Vidal, and Jamfs went on to become founding members Los Once, while Eiriz and Manolo Vidal, who followed different artistic paths, became "honorary members" of the group. The Young Art exhibition was soon followed by a drawing show entitled Fifteen Young Painters and Sculptors, held at Sociedad Cultural Nuestro Tiempo, the most progressive cultural association in 1950s Havana. This exhibition, organized by the sculptor Tomas Oliva and the poet Rolando Escard6, already included most of the artists who would integrate Los Once. Not all of the fifteen artists who were invited to participate sent works, so the title of the exhibition and the catalogue do not correspond with the actual number of artists in the show. This is prophetic of things to come. Only the original exhibition, which gave the group its name, had eleven participants. Contrary to its name, the actual number of members in the group constantly fluctuated.

The formal launching of the group took place in April 18, 1953 with the exhibition Eleven Painters and Sculptors at La Rampa, a commercial center in Havana. The exhibition, which was organized by LI i nas and 01 iva, was sponsored by the Di rectory of Culture, an agency of the Ministry of Education. The exhibition included the painters Rene Avila (b.1926), Jose I. Bermudez, Hugo Consuegra (b. 1929), Viredo Espinosa, Fayad Jamfs (1930-1988), Guido Llinas (1923), and Antonio Vidal (b. 1928) as well as the sculptors Francisco Antigua (b.1920-?), Agustfn Cardenas (b. 1927), Jose A. Diaz Pelaez (b.1924-?), and Tomas Oliva (1930-1996). A modest catalogue with an introduction by the art critic Joaqufn Texidor accompanied the show. Texidor, who became the group's first champion, lauded the new abstract artists as being "happily far from naturalistic representation, which allows them to be part of their times and of the future." Here was Cuba's new avant-garde.

According to the eleven photographs printed in the catalogue, about half of the works had sti 11 traces of figuration while the other half was completely non­figurative; the latter works being those of Avila, Consuegra, LI i nas, and Vidal. As a movement, they went further into abstraction than the two previous generations of modernists artists. Those generations had assimilated a gamut of modern European art, but they did not care for non-objective art. Up to 1950 Amelia Pelaez, Wifredo Lam, and Mario Carreno, the Cuban modernists who had ventured the most into abstraction, had not gone beyond cubism. The 1950s generation, and Los Once in particular, experimented with different forms of post-cubist abstraction, including adaptations of abstract expressionism, informal ism and concrete art. The shift in modern Cuban art towards abstraction at mid-century responded to a number of external and internal factors, including the influence of international (mostly North American) artistic trends, the exhaustion of traditional Cuban narratives and symbols, and a turbulent political situation. The last two factors-inheriting over twenty years of intense exploration of national themes and symbols in art (1927-1950), and living through one of the country's worse political crisis-seem to have encouraged introspection, a look at the self rather than at the nation.2

The exhibition Eleven Painters and Sculptors was well received in the local press. "They are experienced, lack in naivete, and are struggling to assert themselves... They have come to substitute, in the discussions of [our] small art world, the values of the 1937 generation ... They are what is actual," commented Luis Dulzaides Noda, in the periodical Gente.3 "The exhibition in its totality is admirable and we find among its participants those figures who will set the character of our art in the near future," wrote Gladys Lauderman for El Mundo.4 Cuba's first magazine dedicated solely to the arts, Noticias del Arte gave it a supportive feature article, reproducing all of the works in the exhibition catalogue.5 With La Rampa exhibition and its press coverage, Los Once achieved their initial goal of making themselves known as a new force in Cuban art. This was reinforced by the fact that almost simultaneous with the exhibition in La Rampa, they had a drawing exhibition in Galerfa Matanzas, making their debut in two cities at once. The Matanzas exhibition, for which Texidor also wrote the introduction essay, included fifteen artists, underscoring the ever changing membership of the group.

The momentum gathered by these exhibitions consolidated the group effort and led to six more collective shows in the next two years.6 The most ambitious of these were held at the Lyceum, in which Raul Martfnez (1927-1995) replaced Bermudez who went to live in the United States, and at the Cfrculo de Bellas Artes. The Lyceum exhibition took place in November 1953, with Martf's statement "A revolution of forms is a revolution of essences" as its leitmotif. The implications in this statement for the leading role of art in radical social change was not lost to Los Once Interestingly, the group made its debut three months before the historic date of July 26, 1953, when the revolutionary movement of that name erupted in the national scene with a bold attack on the Moncada military barrack. The Lyceum, founded in 1929 by a group of progressive women, was Havana's oldest and most respected alternative cultural space. Since its inception it acted as the primary exhibition venue for modern Cuban art and to some extent it was the bastion of the older modernists. Los Once's exhibition there represented their arrival at the center of Havana's vanguard cultural elite. Like their previous exhibition at La Rampa, this one was widely and positively commented in the local press by Dulzaides Noda, Lauderman, and Adela Jaume.

Whereas their representation at the Lyceum was not that surprising, given that institution's customary support for new art, their 1954 exhibition at the Cfrculo de Bellas Artes was unexpected because of that association's entrenched conservatism and close ties with academic art. According to Consuegra, they wanted to exhibit there because the building was "in the heart of the city, much more accessible to the people ... than the elite who frequented the Lyceum," and they also 11thought that it would be symbolic to present the extreme vanguard in the sanctuary of the rear-guard."7 Be that as it may, he asserts that it was "the most ambitious exhibition of the group, the most numerous in works of art, and the best organized until then," except for the absence of Oliva1 Diaz Pelaez1 and Viredo.8 The first two were traveling in Europe at the time of the exhibition, and Viredo failed to send works at the last minute, which caused his expulsion from the group. The poet Jose A. Baragafio wrote a brief, roundabout essay for the catalogue, beginning his collaboration with the group. Like in the case of the Lyceum exhibition, this one received wide press coverage with enthusiastic articles by Mario Carreno, Antonio Hernandez Travieso, and Rafael Marquina

Although Los Once was a group apart, it did participate in collective exhibitions with other artists. Three worth mentioning because of their magnitude and inclusiveness are the Homage to Jose Martf exhibition at the Lyceum (1954), the inaugural exhibition for the permanent art gallery of Sociedad Cultural Nuestro Tiempo (1954), and the First University Festival of Contemporary Art (1954). The last one was sponsored by the University of Havana's Student Federation, a very active group whose concerns, historically, had gone beyond academia and the campus of Universidad de la Habana. Artists from all generations and groups were represented in these exhibitions; the Homage to Martf show and the First University Festival were also polemic in that they were protest exhibitions against the II Hispanic­American Biennial.

Outside of Havana, Los Once exhibited in the cities of Matanzas, Camaguey, and Santiago de Cuba, projecting their art beyond the capital. As a group they held more exhibitions in the interior of the island than their predecessors, tacitly acknowledging the importance of regional centers usually overshadowed by the capital. The sheer number of exhibitions in the brief life of the movement: 1953-55, suggest an intense level of activity on the part of Los Once and an unexpected degree of success in opening a space for themselves in the Cuban art world of the 1950s. Commercial success aside, Los Once were able in a brief period of time to attain a high level of exposure through varied exhibition venues, which fact undermines their legendary outsider status. Their roster of exhibitions and press coverage also suggest that in Cuba the ideological lines of separation between generations, and even between modernist versus academic artists, were often drawn in the sand.


More difficult to assess than Los Once 's emergence and presence in the Cuban art world, is the group's ideology and aesthetics. Initially they did not follow a definite set of ideas or style. However, their reunions at the cafe-bars Las Antillas and Americas in the center of Havana, and at Martf nez' house-studio in Carlos Ill avenue, led to a free exchanged of ideas and strategies. In ti me, these reunions contributed to the formation of a certain collective ideology and aesthetics. Not the least interesting part of this process or group dynamics is that the main characters-Cardenas, Consuegra, Llinas, Martfnez, Oliva, and Vidal-were extremely varied in social, and in some cases ethnic backgrounds and personalities. The group also included painters and sculptors, who, in Cuban art, had rarely collaborated with one another.

Like their predecessors, they associated with I iterary friends, who included at one ti me or another Escard6, Baragano, Severo Sarduy, Pepe Triana, Abelardo Estorino, Carlos Franqui, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and Edmundo Desnoes. Baragano, Sarduy, and Desnoes contributed introductory essays to their exhibition catalogues and articles to the press. The group also kept a friendly relationship with a number of outsiders. From their own generation, they were close to the "honorary members" mentioned earlier, and from the preceding generations, they respected Pelaez and Lam. Among other things, they liked the art of "Amelia because of the artistic transposition that she made of her house. Wifredo, for his unique interpretation of surrealism, mixing African, European, and Asian cultures."9  

The relationship of Los Once 's to the rest of the Cuban art world is more complex, fluctuating between accommodation and antagonism. As their participation in the aforementioned collective exhibitions suggest, they interacted with a wide gamut of artists on different fronts. However, they could also be hostile to their modernist predecessors and their so-called School of Havana. They believed that early Cuban modernism (1927-1950) was a mere extension of the School of Paris with a superficial Cuban subject matter. They rejected its mostly idealistic, colorful, and poetic view of Cuba.

At times, the tension between Los Once and their modernist predecessors went from the expected generation gap to open animosity. One such instance was ignited by Martfnez's catalogue essay for the 1955 Galerfa Habana exhibition: "Until recently one could not properly speak of a true movement of painters and sculptors in our fine arts. A movement that would respond truly and forcibly to the needs of an ample and spontaneous art, in contrast with the Cuban painting still called new and that is now many years old." This outright dismissal of the preceding modernist movement and the categorization of them as the old guard did not go well with the older artists. A major point of contention with Los Once was the term "Cuban painting" frequently used by the critic Jose Gomez Sicre to denominate the art of the 1940s. Los Once were striving for a more "universal" expression in art, in tune with international trends at mid-century, thus their skepticism to the notion of a narrowly define national art. The dissenting position of the group in regards to their predecessors' notion of "Cuban painting" is best expressed by Llinas' ironic observation: "I have never seen a tube of Cuban paint."10

Paradoxically, this group of abstract artists took a strong political stance against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, who came to power through a military coup in March of 1952. They were in the first ranks of the aforementioned Homage to Jose Martf exhibition, also known as the Anti-Biennial. This exhibition was meant to protest the II Hispanic­American Biennial of 1954, which they and many other artists boycotted because it was organized by a fascist government (Franco's), hosted by a dictatorship (Batista's), and to make matters worse, held as part of the festivities to commemorate the centenary of Martf's birth. The indignation on the part of Cuban artists and their allies motivated a number of counter exhibitions, beginning with Homage to Martf and culminating in the First University Festival. Later, after Los Once disbanded, the core of the group (Consuegra, LI i nas, Martf nez, 01 iva, and Vidal) also refused to participate in the Ill Hispanic-American Biennial (1956), and boycotted the VIII National Salon of 1957. To protest the latter, held at the National Museum of Fine Arts, they participated in a counter exhibition held across the street from the museum's entrance.

As part of their opposition to Batista's regime and its cultural politics, the core artists of the group also renounced participation in state-sponsored scholarships and the 1 % Art in Public Places program. Given the climate of political corruption and strong commercialism at the time, the leading members of the group believed that artists were better off earning a living through other means than their art, for the art market (to the extent that it existed in Cuba, either public or private), exerted a compromising influence on artists. During that decade, Consuegra worked in an architectural firm, Llinas taught in a public school, Martf nez worked in an advertisement firm, 01 iva worked as assistant to the sculptor Jose Sicre and others in the making of public monuments, and Vidal worked as a commercial artist.

As suggested earlier, the motivation behind the group's formation was an act of mutual support to confront an inhospitable artistic environment. Initially they had no specific aesthetic credo, other than an open ended commitment to abstraction, which may account for their lack of a coming-out manifesto. In time, however, abstract expressionism became the dominant aesthetic creed of the movement. The United States pervasive influence in Cuban life of the 1950s and in particular its exportation of the New York School's abstract expressionism as part of the Cold War's cultural front, had its impact in Cuban art of that decade.11 Moreover, the rise of New York as the new art capital of the Western world following World War II also turned the eyes of Los Once from Paris to New York. In fact, many of the artists of the group visited or studied in the United States during their formative years. For the first time, a Cuban avant-garde came forth inspired by an American movement as opposed to a European one. In this case, Los Once set a precedent for much of contemporary Cuban art. It should be added that also for the first time a Cuban vanguard movement was synchronized with the international avant-garde, setting the pace for contemporary Cuban art.

Their aesthetic creed can be approximated from critics' and artists' statements. Texidor wrote in the catalogue for La Rampa exhibition (1953) that their abstraction: "Looked out upon the world through a window which opens on liberty, confronting the old, the stale, the tired, the superficial, with integrity and valor." Echoing the rhetoric of non-objective art at mid-century, and particularly that of the New York School, Texidor associated their abstraction with the concepts of personal freedom, artistic integrity, and the assertion of the new in avant-garde fashion. More precisely, Marquina defined the artistic trust of Los Once 's abstraction as "A certain longing to arrive, through the ways of abstract art, at the concrete expression of "concreteness", entering through the door of abstraction into the magical world of objectivity."12 The work and ideology of Los Once seem to agree very much with Marquina's modernist (Clement Greenberg's inspired) view of the end of painting and sculpture as illusion. Instead, promoting the idea of truth to materials and the view that paintings and sculptures are autonomous aesthetic objects. In his customary succi net way, LI i nas put it this way: "In the philosophy of Los Once, a painting does not represent anything. It is a direct expression. Something that must be felt through its color and form."13 This was a new idea in Cuban art, which until 1953 had always retained a measure of illusionism and fluctuated between the paradigms of narration and symbolism.

The pioneering effort of Los Once at forming an organized group, one which surpassed the loose and inclusive bonding of so-called generation affinities, was short lived. The lack of such a practice in Cuban art as wel I as political, economic, and aesthetic differences worked against it. On the artistic front, members of the group developed their art at different paces, some producing little, and not all favored abstract expressionism. Politically, as the opposition to Batista's regime increased at mid-decade and the 26 of July movement became the main oppositional force, some of Los Once took a strong political stance in the latter's favor and others did not. A major flashing point was the decision by the core of the group not to participate in state-sponsored exhibitions and to reject any state-funded scholarships and awards. Some did not go along with these measures, including Cardenas, whose acceptance of a scholarship to study in Paris created a definite rift in the unity of the group. Soon thereafter, on June 6 1955, they published a note in the newspaper Tiempo en Cuba, announcing the disbandment of Los Once by mutual agreement. It was signed by Antigua, Avila, Cardenas, Consuegra, Diaz, Llinas, Oliva, and Vidal. The note suggest that the change was to allow freedom in the pursue of individual action. Actually, the main figures of the group had solo exhibitions, traveled, and pursued to some extent their own paths while a part of Los Once. Conversely, five of them continued to exhibit together after the demise of Los Once. Los Once became, in the word of Llinas, Los Cinco (The Five). In both cases, these groups represent, notwithstanding the constant change in number of participants and their brief duration, a first in Cuban art and the precedent for future artistic integrations.


Los Cinco -Consuegra, Llinas, Martfnez, Oliva, and Vidal-continued to meet and exhibit together until 1963. This was a more mature group which pursued abstract expressionism to a greater extent, took their abstract art into the international scene, and began to integrate their work with architecture. An early example is the 1957 project by Llinas, Oliva, and Martfnez in collaboration with the architects Hugo de Acosta and Modesto Campos at La Roca restaurant. As a group they held five exhibitions, three of which set new parameters for their art. 14 The December 1955 exhibition Contemporary Cuban Croup, held at the Galerfa Sudamericana in New York, took the Cuban version of abstract expressionism to the metropolis, where it was well received by a number of American critics, including Dore Ashton, who was then art critic for the New York Times. The 1957 exhibition Abstract Cuban Painting in Venezuela, held at Galerfa Sardio in Caracas, introduced the Cuban abstract movement to one of the capitals of Latin American art. The exhibition was equally well received with affirmative reviews in the local press; one of Caracas' major newspapers, the Nacional, gave it a full page review, with photographs of each artist's work, and the title: Five of the Best Cuban Abstract Artists.15

Also worth noting is their last exhibition, entitled Abstract Expressionism and held at Galerfa Habana in 1963. This exhibition is significant in a number of ways. Most importantly, it was a large show of forty­seven art works with the most complete catalogue ever, which included an introductory essay by Desnoes, a list of works in the exhibition, a few reproductions, and a I ist of collective exhibitions in which the groups (Los Once and Los Cinco) had participated. Paradoxically, this only exhibition to refer in its title-Abstract Expressionism-to these artists by their aesthetic creed, included some who did not practiced that artistic language. The exhibition presented eight artists (even Los Cinco were not always numerically correct), at least two of whom, Eiriz and the photographer Mario Garcia Joya (Mayito), had other artistic preferences. Although the Revolution was supposedly not friendly towards abstraction, the art of the bourgeoisie, this exhibition was sponsored by one of the cultural agencies of the Revolutionary government, Consejo Nacional de Cultura.

Los Cinco sympathized with the 26 of July movement and welcomed the Revolution. Some took positions in the Fine Arts Department of the Ministry of Public Works, headed by Consuegra. From there they worked at the integration of art and architecture with limited success. Los Cinco also continued to exhibit until the 1963 Abstrac t Expressionism exhibition, however, abstraction did not thrive in Cuban art after them. In the course of the 1960s, LI i nas, Consuegra, and 01 iva became disenchanted with the Revolution and, with no space for dissent, followed the beaten path of Cubans into exile. This effectively ended a decade of collaboration between the five artists at the core of Los Once and Los Cinco . The fact that the artists of these groups have I ived on different sides of the Cuban political divide may explain the lack of exhibitions and literature on them. In any case, a full retrospective of Los Once, whose paintings and sculptures of that time are practically invisible today, is long overdue.