LEO VALLEDOR, Skeedo, 1965. Acrylic on canvas, 152.4 × 325.12 cm. Photo by Katherine Du Tiel. Courtesy the artist.

Pio Abad on Leo Valledor

Also available in:  Chinese

In 2006, Mitchell Algus Gallery in New York City presented an exhibition that traced the Philippine roots of minimalism through two painters: Mario Yrisarry, who was born in Manila in 1933, and Leo Valledor, born to Filipino parents in San Francisco in 1936. Both artists were active in the New York art scene in the 1960s and ’70s but then disappeared. Yrisarry stopped painting in 1977 while Valledor moved back to San Francisco, where he persisted with a largely unheralded career—one that is now rightfully being reconsidered—up until his death in 1989.

I first encountered Valledor’s work last year at SFMOMA, not realizing our shared heritage. His 1965 painting Skeedo, a large, irregularly shaped canvas of orange and blue-gray angles and yellow lines, exemplified his fascination with hard-edged asymmetry and his deft exploration of the spatial dimension of color. Over the past year, I have returned to San Francisco a number of times as part of my ongoing residency with Kadist where I’m researching American narratives of empire and erasure. Valledor’s life and work place the mechanisms of empire squarely within the space of the avant-garde and its influence on contemporary art. 

Not unlike David Medalla in London, Valledor was an omnipresent figure at a time when different cultural expressions occupied a singular social milieu—in this instance, jazz music, Beat poetry and abstract expressionism. Valledor grew up in the Fillmore District of San Francisco, in the 1940s and ’50s. After his mother’s early death and his father’s subsequent abandonment, 12-year-old Valledor became the landlord for a house full of errant bachelor manongs—recently immigrated Filipino men looking for work, whose struggles are vividly portrayed in Carlos Bulosan’s novel America Is in the Heart (1946). The Fillmore, at that time, was the epicenter of jazz on the West Coast, and its soundtrack provided a respite for the young Valledor. This early immersion in  jazz would shape his obsession with the kinship between music and color, as he referred to “harmonic ideas” as the basis for his visual explorations.

Throughout his life, Valledor witnessed key moments that defined the American avant-garde. After receiving a scholarship to study at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) in 1955, at the age of 19, he had his first solo exhibition at the Six Gallery, the legendary space where Allen Ginsberg first presented “Howl” that same year. In 1961, Valledor moved to New York City, where he became one of the founding members of the Park Place Gallery Group, the Lower Manhattan venue credited for establishing the SoHo art gallery scene and launching the careers of artists such as Sol LeWitt, Eva Hesse and Mark di Suvero, as well as the gallerist Paula Cooper. It was in this company that Valledor defined his artistic voice.

An ongoing choreography of omission and retrieval has defined art history. Yet I kept wondering how someone ever-present at such defining moments could be forgotten. Race, inevitably, played a part in this erasure. As the art critic Jim Long points out in the Brooklyn Rail, Valledor was well aware that, as a Filipino, he would never be fully assimilated into the New York art scene, where abstraction was considered the purview of white artists. This gave him freedom to experiment and to absorb radical ideas of painting without subscribing to the agendas set by Clement Greenberg or Donald Judd, but it also led him to fall into the cracks between these delineated trajectories of abstract painting and minimalism.

His muted presence in Filipino-American and Asian-American scholarship might also be explained by way of analogy with the marginalization experienced by African-American abstract painters from the same era. These artists were not just neglected by the white establishment, but also criticized by fellow African-American artists who accused them of evading issues of political representation. In the case of artists from the Philippine diaspora, an exploration of indigeneity, as a way of dealing with conflicting cultural identities, remains the privileged form of discourse.

Valledor’s artistic path also provides an interesting counterpoint to the conflicted history of minimalism and conceptualism in the Philippines. Around the same time that Valledor was exhibiting in a three-person group show at Park Place Gallery with Sol LeWitt and Robert Smithson, artists Arturo Luz and Roberto Chabet were laying the artistic foundations for the Philippine avant-garde at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in Manila—a site where the vernaculars of modernity were being cannily co-opted by Imelda Marcos to resemble internationalism in the midst of an oppressive regime.  

In order to map a more compassionate transnational history of the avant-garde, Leo Valledor’s role bears further examination. As an artist navigating postwar America, he simultaneously experienced the artistic freedom that this new era enabled and the marginalization that came with being a Filipino American in a white man’s milieu. His art encapsulates those cruel and beautiful paradoxes.

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