Antonio Martorell: Puerto Rico’s Prolific Painter

This contemporary painter has been at the forefront of Puerto Rican art for over half a century.

Antonio Martorell: What can you get out of an umbrella? To everybody, it's just an umbrella. You open it, to protect yourself from the sun, or the rain, or the snow. But no, umbrella is, you tear it apart, and you explore it. You learn what it is, to be an umbrella.

A consummate artist, Antonio Martorell, is one of Puerto Rico's greatest living cultural treasures. His life has been one of continuous experimentation, and new artistic materials and techniques: painting, printmaking, writing, and more.

Martorell: I feel as if I'm just beginning, because the more I do, the more I know I can do. What I learn in one medium, I apply it to the other. And when I'm doing one, I never miss the other. I wish I could be forever on stage, and when I'm working in my studio, I say, why, why bother doing a performance, when I'm having so much fun here? And when I write, the same thing.

And when Martorell started out, his creativity was expressed solely through a paintbrush. Then, one day, it occurred to him that a two dimensional object, on a gallery wall, could offer viewers only a small window into his mindset. Martorell wanted more.

Martorell: I don't want the people just to come into the window. I want to come out of the window, and embrace them. So, I began doing installations. And I found that it really involved people in much, a cozier way. Then, I would visit my installations, and see people relating to the objects, and enjoying them, and having dialogue with the objects. But I was out of it. I was the author. So, I say, "no, I want to be a direct part of that conversation." So, I went into performance art.

Performance art led to a more direct involvement in theater, as an actor and a director. And, from there, onto radio and television.

Martorell: It's all geared to the same thing: communication.

And Martorell is keenly aware that communication requires as much listening as talking. In 2010, his outlook on age shifted dramatically after a brief conversation with a patron, at an exhibition of his woodcuts in Connecticut.

Martorell: This Asian lady, about the same age as I was then—which was my early 70s—told me, "I love these prints! They're magnificent. But, why aren't there people like us, our age? All these bodies are young, and their gestures, and everything." I say, "Lady, thank you so much. Day after tomorrow, I'm flying back to Puerto Rico, and I'm going to do 15 more prints of people like us." So, there came Gestuario II, which is all about super adults, like ourselves, and the gestures and the body language that comes with age.

AJC: You've also described super adults, and children, as the most underrepresented sectors of our society. But surely, older adults, they vote. They have agency in that way.

Martorell: Not all of us. The super adults, in extreme distress—when they're in bed, and they lose the capacity to talk, or to move. They have no economic clout. They have no political agency. They're just like babies. And they treat us like that. The ones that I can't stand, you go up to the doctor, and they say, "Give me your little arm. Pull out your little tongue." And I feel like going... I behave, because I know they do it out of—they say it's caring, although it's really condescending. But it's both.

But in Puerto Rico, says Martorell, it's not only the elders who are feeling patronized. Beyond, is an unincorporated US territory. And with neither statehood, nor independence, Puerto Rico's growth has been stunted.

Martorell: I want my country to come of age. We've been children and teenagers for too long.

One of Martorell's most important contributions to this coming of age was a 1966 children's book.

Martorell: It was a joy, from beginning to end, to really get published. And it was accepted, as a textbook in the schools, primary schools, and then the government changed. The new party was a new progressive party, which has decided that it was some basic book, that it had to be taken out of the schools. So, they took out the books, stored them, threw them away. You know, things happen, but you overcome them.

And though, it's now out of print, and extremely rare, at least one copy of ABC de Puerto Rico survives, safely housed in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. These days, Antonio Martorell focuses less on the starkly political, but still finds that he can never completely turn it off.

Martorell: You tend to think of politics as party politics. That's not it. I mean, politics is about people becoming what they want to be, and that's art.

Now 85, the keenly observant Antonio Martorell is living everything, that life has shown him.

Martorell: You have to be very, very stupid, to grow old and remain stupid. You learn something on the way, and an artist learns all the time.