Helen Escobedo

Talent-spotted at 16 years of age, in Mexico City, by John Skipping, a visiting Royal College of Art sculpture professor, Helen Escobedo enrolled at the college the following year, 1951. She stayed in Europe for four years, primarily at the RCA Sculpture School, then led by Frank Dobson and staffed by, among others, Henry Moore, Jacob Epstein and Ossip Zadkine.

Back in Mexico City and just 27, Escobedo was appointed head of the Fine Arts Department at the National University, where she had a long and illustrious career as an educator and later gallery director. Twenty years after that she was technical director of the National Art Museum before a two-year stint in the 1980s as director of the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City.

It’s an extraordinary career and one that raises a regularly asked question concerning the potential for artists’ jobs to facilitate or to obstruct artmaking (in Escobedo’s case, sculpturemaking). Helen Escobedo died in 2010; her estate is represented by PROYECTOSMONCLOVA in Roma Norte. The gallery’s show “Helen Escobedo: The Potential of Sculpture” took place earlier this year and featured 75 drawings, collages, sculptures, maquettes and paintings produced from the mid-1960s until her death. It provides us an opportunity to reflect on her work whilst remaining cognizant of her other extensive professional activities.

If that CV is impressive, the work— particularly the maquettes—almost sparkles in the nacreous light of the MONCLOVA gallery. Most of them would fit in a hatchback (but not a suitcase). They are models for much larger scale sculptural installations. Escobedo’s wry comment—“my research has led me to propose sculptural solutions within a specific environment of which 10 per cent succeeded in executed works and 90 per cent exist as models”—states the facts and allows her to insist on the maquettes (and the photomontage collaborations with Paolo Gori proposing specific installations) in a way that asserts them as finished works in their own right.

Top: Helen Escobedo, Mecano doble, 1981, lacquered aluminum, 24.5 x 60.1 x 50 centimetres. Photo: Ramiro Chaves. All images courtesy of The Estate of Helen Escobedo and PROYECTOSMONCLOVA, Mexico City.

Bottom: Installation view, “Helen Escobedo: The Potential of Sculpture,” 2019, PROYECTOSMONCLOVA, Mexico City. Photo: Ramiro Chaves.

The maquettes are constructed from various materials, mostly aluminum, but also iron and lacquered wood. There are certain Escobedo characteristics we encounter repeatedly: a resistance to orthogonals and the establishment of massive volume that appears paradoxically transparent are two that predominate. The works tilt and tip, providing a sense of lightness and movement. In the realized public sculptures, these accompany structural and material choices that are, respectively, architectonic and industrial. In the maquettes, beautiful toy-like objects in their own right (playfulness persists as a characteristic in this show), it is necessary to project imaginatively in order to access the experience of those works in large scale.

In Meccano from 1981, the arrangement of forms is reminiscent of two, fanned, partial decks of cards placed facing one another. The full-scale work, like the maquette in a sharp red, is located at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana Iztapalapa. There, you inhabit the space that opens between the sets of beams. The maquette, on the other hand, provides the viewer a bird’s-eye perspective, an imaginative, rather than actual, experience of the space. The openings between the beams allow light to pass through, and, typically for Escobedo, this surprises us with more organic space in the midst of rigid geometry. The maquette for Coatl, perhaps her best-known work, functions similarly. The full-size Coatl, 1980–82, is on the UNAM campus. The maquette shows us 20 polychrome aluminum tilted squares on a wooden base—a base that anticipates and approximates a berm or modest elevation in the landscaping to set and articulate the forms in the full sculpture. The aluminum is painted a graduated set of hues from lemon yellow through to cadmium red—Escobedo’s notes and colour swatches are included in the exhibition. In fact, to see the drawings, the studies and maquettes, and to visit the work on the university campus, is a singular opportunity to investigate her conception and process of artmaking. The principal difference between the public sculptures and maquettes is, I think, that, in situ, the surroundings of the sculptures assist in the dematerialization of form Escobedo pursues through the transparency she creates, while the maquettes, on plinths in the gallery, exist in pristine isolation.

Escobedo was active in a particular historical period—one when the elevation of the significance of public space by adding large iconic abstract works was a social as well as an artistic project. It was a project with which she became disillusioned—and lampooned with the absurdity of the photomontage collaborations with Gori. Those are featured in the MONCLOVA show, but the emphasis is on earlier work, hence the maquettes. Later, ecological and socio-political concerns became increasingly important to her. The 1994 work By the Night Tide is located close to the US border in Tijuana. She installed wire mesh sculptures that looked a bit like ships, moored on the south side and armed with coconut-loaded catapults; as Rita Eder, Mexican art historian, has put it, “suggesting a defiant but quixotic counteroffensive against the Goliath next door.” Despite all of the pleasures of this show, that is one I would like to see. ❚

“Helen Escobedo: The Potential of Sculpture” was exhibited at PROYECTOSMONCLOVA, Mexico City, from February 2 to March 3, 2019.

Martin Pearce is a painter and the director of the School of Fine Art and Music at the University of Guelph.