It is impossible to discuss Philippine contemporary art without beginning with Roberto Chabet, one of the most influential figures of the postwar generation and the country’s foremost conceptual artist, curator and teacher. Chabet, now 72 years old, became known in the 1960s and 1970s for his collages, drawings, sculptures and installations that feature ordinary and found material. Chabet insists on a less cerebral approach to conceptual art, a search for the sublime not in abstract ideas but the immediacy of the commonplace and the readymade. In his “China Collages” series (1980–90), objects stand in for symbols of space: maps that guide and reveal are mixed with envelopes that enclose and restrict. Throughout the artist’s career, familiar items such as these have reappeared in his work, like actors on a stage—all part of his inventory of anxious objects waiting to collide.
When avant-garde artist David Cortez Medalla left the Philippines for Europe in the late 1960s, many saw Chabet as Medalla’s natural successor as the preeminent figure in the local art community. Chabet held his first solo exhibition at the Luz Gallery in 1961, the year he earned his architecture degree from the University of Santo Tomas in Manila. Run by printmaker and sculptor Arturo Luz, the Luz Gallery was one of the first contemporary art spaces in Manila, and Chabet’s work immediately gained the attention of the burgeoning art scene. In his untitled 1964 ink- on-paper series, black stick figures interplay with geometric gray shapes in a form of dynamic expression that challenges the basic principles of grids and regularity characteristic of the Modernist movement.
Critiquing Modernism in the 1960s and 1970s also had its political implications in the Philippines, as it meant a shift away from the cultural pretensions and repressive regime of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, who ruled the country from 1965 to 1986 under mounting controversy. For Imelda Marcos, promoting Modernism represented a way to channel an aura of internationalism to the country; the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) in Manila, designed by the leading Filipino Modernist architect Leandro V. Locsin, was the epitome of her grand vision.
Through the recommendation of Arturo Luz, Chabet was appointed the founding museum director of CCP (1967–70) and was awarded a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, enabling him to travel to the United States and Europe from 1967 to 1968 to observe museum practices abroad before CCP opened. At CCP, he initiated the 13 Artists Award, loosely patterned after the influential survey “Sixteen Americans” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and also in honor of the pioneering 13 Modernists in Philippine art history. Under his brief tenure, he established CCP as a prime venue for artistic experimentation and collaboration. His work achieved official recognition when he received the Republic Cultural Heritage Award for the Visual Arts in 1972.
While Chabet was instrumental to CCP’s early development, and increasingly became an establishment figure, his art never lost its critical bite. For the group exhibition “Objects,” held at CCP in 1973, Chabet tore up a copy of a coffee-table book on Philippine contemporary art and placed it in a trash bin. The work, entitled Tearing into Pieces, was seen as a scandalous critique of the conventions of the art world; in her book The Struggle for Philippine Art (1974), collector and critic Purita Kalaw-Ledesma described the work as “anti-museum art.”
Chabet’s recent installation, 10,000 Paintings I Must Paint Before I Die (2009), shown in April at Mag:net Gallery—an artist-run space in Quezon City—was very much a reflection on the history of Modernism, but with a conceptual edge unique to the artist. A neon sign with the title of the exhibition, referring to the title of the art-history guidebook 1,001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die (2007), rested on the floor against the gallery walls, which were covered with dozens of small A4 paper-sized monochromatic canvases arranged in a grid. Painted in a color scheme of black, yellow, red, white and blue—reminiscent of work by the classic Modernist painter Piet Mondrian—the canvases are each affixed to clipboards. The arrangement evokes the idea of checklists, inventories and order, signaling that each canvas is modular and could potentially be rearranged somehow to escape a rigid and mathematical repetition of colors. There is no ideological heroism or internationalist aspiration in this deconstructed interpretation of abstract art and modernity, unlike that of the Marcos era, but an inclusive wit and meditative quality.
When asked what periods in his career have been most significant, Chabet has responded that he prefers “commas to periods,” perhaps to emphasize the fluidity between his different roles as artist, curator and teacher. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he held art classes and curated exhibitions for Surrounded by Water, Big Sky Mind and Future Prospects, all nonprofit spaces run by his former students. Through these exhibitions, Chabet promoted vanguard works by young artists and supported various alternative spaces and art galleries.
During his tenure as a professor at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts (1971–2002), Chabet did not teach his students how or what to paint, but instead invited them to explore their own forms of meaning and expression. He became a father figure to many who are now among the more established and innovative multimedia artists, such as Nilo Ilarde and Poklong Anading. Through his multifaceted work, Chabet’s vision of inclusive conceptualism has left a lasting impression on a new generation of Filipino artists.