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Spirits in a Square: The Dramatic Paintings of Maite Nobo - Written By Bruce Helander

During this past winter I had the opportunity to attend one of Manolis Projects’ legendary openings during Miami Art Week/Art Basel Miami Beach, where I also was scheduled to address a packed house of art lovers and serious collectors. Having just arrived from Palm Beach and wanting to collect my thoughts, I searched for a quiet spot for a bit of solace and contemplation. It was in the galleries’ vacant reception area that I found the precise atmosphere I needed to take a seat on the sofa and begin a short version of concentrated meditation. As I looked up, I discovered a remarkable painting on the wall that both instantly grabbed my attention and assisted me through a blend of insular introspection and contemplative wonder. I put aside my notes and began gazing at the entire framed area of an unfamiliar mix of light viridian on an astounding magical mystery layered surface that suggested an unforgettable non-narrative composition. On further close inspection, I believe this artist to be one of my most profound and surprising artistic discoveries that I have made in many years as a nationally published critic, including reviews for The Huffington Post and ARTnews. My perpetual task and responsibility as an art journalist is to be on the lookout for genuine undiscovered talent in any shape or form, old or new. Often my greatest challenge is deciding what my own personal “pick of the litter,” whether it’s new works at the current Whitney Biennial in Manhattan or a Miami showplace, accompanied by an electrifying image that seems to stick with me long after my first impression.

Photograph by Patty Nash | @pattynashphotography

When I first encountered these painted canvases of Coral Gables-based artist Maite Nobo, my immediate reaction was an overwhelming desire to view more of the same, wondering out loud if any artist could continue with the consistency of brilliant, mystical picture-making that I had just seen. What could be behind these captivating, idiosyncratic artworks that transcend traditional color field into a distinctive, reverent, feminine, independent category of simplicity and elegance? One ingredient for most artists in developing a natural talent is a lively personal background with often extenuating circumstances, which seem to reinforce their determination to eventually utilize these early influences and sometimes highly unusual circumstances to support their artistic maturity.

Maite Nobo was born on Christmas day in 1959 to an aristocratic Havana family, and her fascinating early childhood was filled with political intrigue and drama that began earlier the same year on January 1 when Batista went into exile and the Castro regime took over. In the 1600s, Maite’s mother’s family had a warrior who received a title from the King of Spain after achieving victory during the 700-year “War of the Reconquista.” The celebrated soldier was granted a Marquis title and land in one of Spain’s colonies, Cuba. The family moved from Spain to Cuba and lived off the riches, land and jewelry for many years, relishing the impressive fortune that was bequeathed.

Five days after Maite Nobo was born to beauty queen and Cuban icon Margarita Senra Nunez de Villavicencio and Fernando Nobo, Batista was forced to leave office and exiled in Spain due to the uprising and brewing revolution. During the Cuban Revolution Nobo’s mother was a political prisoner in a woman’s jail, but was later released. When Maite was just a few months old her home in Havana was riddled with bullets as Maite and her nanny were hiding in a protective bathtub to survive the attack.

Maite Nobo, Trailblazer, 2020, Acrylic and Mixed Media on canvas, 48 x 84 in.

In November 1960 at eleven months old, Maite’s immediate family had to flee in the night to the United States, finally settling in Manhattan. During the journey out of Cuba by airplane, Maite was used as a “mule” to smuggle money and important documents in a special child’s coat with a double lining to hide the contraband. In New York, eleven people made one room their home and Maite was lucky to attend elementary school, where she later studied ballet and flamenco dance. In 1968, at nine years old, Maite moved back to Miami, where eventually she would finish high school. For the next nine years she is raised by her stepfather, a stern military man, an intellectual, idealist and artist, who taught her to captain a boat at eleven and drive a manual transmission car at twelve. Her stepfather became a pattern maker for women’s clothes, and it is here, at about age thirteen, that Maite starts to experiment with art using her stepfather’s cardboard patterns as a canvas for her work, expressing strong Jackson Pollock-style paint drips in backgrounds of color. Later Maite’s stepfather studies architecture at the University of Miami and opens his own company, instructing the young Maite everything about construction.

She soon becomes enthralled and obsessed with art, technical drawings and architectural history, specifically the Bauhaus movement, which heavily influenced her evolving career. In 1977 she attended Florida International University, earning a bachelor’s degree in interior design at the School of Architecture, which continued to influence her artistic discipline and love of drawing, especially from the Bauhaus aesthetic of integrity and simplicity in art and architecture. Later on, she did projects with Paloma Picasso as well as various modeling jobs, including some cover stories.

This background of Maite Nobo is important because not only does it relate in many ways to the historic interaction between Havana and Miami but illustrates the circuitous route the artist traveled and the valuable professional encounters she experienced that obviously aided in developing her art.

Maite Nobo, big. x 2, 2021, Oil on canvas, 9.5 x 22.5 in

Maite joins an illustrious band of minimalist-colorist pioneers whose mission was to present expressionist compositions with their own signature technique that was lyrically direct and distinguished. During the genesis of experimental works that were shockingly non-narrative (without a story or perceptible shape), abstracted forms began to take shape and the challenges of color field experimentation brought rewards of a new form of expression. As artists began to harness the concept of pouring shades of pigment directly on the floor (see Jackson Pollock), of stained raw canvases (Helen Frankenthaler), of reducing color to feathery squares (Mark Rothko), of tossing paint into the air (Lawrence Poons), of creating pure white reflective paintings (Mary Corse), of all black pictures (Robert Rauschenberg), they found that this new territory of ambitious painterly surfaces proposed a brand spanking new opportunity for invention and recognition.

Josef Albers, who taught at the Bauhaus and later at the Yale School of Art, wrote the bible on color, “The Interaction of Color.” Albers chose a single geometric shape that he repeated as a design and insisted that it was devoid of symbolism to systematically experiment with the “relativity of color” of a square within a square, a concept that he investigated throughout his lifetime.

Mark Rothko was an eminent color field painter who maintained a never-ending pursuit of the alchemy and spirituality that can be crafted within a square. Others who mastered an idiosyncratic minimalist method included Barnett Newman, Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, Jules Olitski Grace Hartigan and Clyfford Still. These forerunners were able to narrow down a tradition of narrative imagery and icons into their own private visual language, most often producing breathtakingly beautiful color harmony and engaging surfaces.

Photograph by Patty Nash | @pattynashphotography

Maite Nobo has spent years perfecting the interaction of built-up color with an appealing, nearly supernatural, energetic surface. The artist has reduced pigment to its purest form, mixing in her own secret recipe (that includes powdered cement) for an extraordinary exterior platform that is successful on every occasion. Her recent works are delightfully striking and unabashedly handsome, often celestial and sublime, as the canvas soaks up pigment like a street corner after a rain. And then comes the rainbow; then comes the sun!

Rather than examine each painting individually it is more informative to review her most recent artworks as a group. Each picture carries with it a decipherable DNA where the ingredients yield a phenomenal exterior surface that is consistent with each work. The images, like the artist, are soft spoken, reverent, immaculate and confident with a character that is built up often with over forty layers of foundation. This novel procedure honed by patient trial-and-error introduces a practical landing strip for color field painting at its purest dimension without pretention or commercial gimmicks. What you see is what you get with Maite Nobo’s wonderful, heavenly presentation.

In all aspects of the artist’s disciplined life, her personal tone and quiet confidence along with a distinctive simplicity and an appreciation for seemingly effortlessness finished surfaces makes her unique. Nobo performs a marriage of omnipresent minimalism fused with multi-layered translucence and honest immaculate depictions of inherent beauty that all seem to transfer directly from her soul to imbue an imaginary angelic spirit into her canvases. The common denominator in Nobo’s work is an innovative interpretation of a single hue that is gracefully mixed with other pigment that is used as an accent. There is a clear power and transcendent force that seems to take over her compositions as if a universal message and private dialogue that may be hidden just under the surfaces is being offered to the viewer. One can imagine an unearthed Pompeian living room wall having a direct relationship to the faded surfaces and ageing process devised by Nobo. While some of the paintings are generally a single color such as rusted orange, a purplish brown, a dreamy blue, or a pinkish saturated square, all carry a rare trait of astonishing, natural, quiet splendor. On my first encounter with the artist’s work, I felt the need to touch the surface with both hands. The feeling was comforting but somewhat delightfully baffling as I felt a certain authentic energy that seemed to gently draw me physically and emotionally into the canvas. It was a purely enchanting experience that was equal to some of the great works of art I have encountered up-close and personal. This is an exhibition not to be missed.

Maite Nobo, Inner Peace, 2022, Mixed-media on canvas, 20 x 20 in

Bruce Helander is an artist who writes on art. He is a member of the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, a former White House Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and the former Provost of the Rhode Island School of Design. His latest book, “Magic in a Square,” is about the inherent beauty of vintage handkerchiefs, and his book “Chihuly – An Artist Collects” is a national bestseller.


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