Treasures from the Vault: Juan Sánchez

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Juan Sánchez, whose parents came to the United States from Puerto Rico, was born in 1954 and grew up in Brooklyn, in predominantly African American and Puerto Rican neighborhoods. Sánchez’s creative potential was noticed by an elementary school art teacher, who raised funds to send him to weekend classes at Pratt Institute. He attended the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan and then received his BFA from Cooper Union School of Art in 1977 where he discovered photography.

Inspiration for his socio-political art came from various sources during his formative years, many of which promoted Puerto Rican art and culture. As a teenager, Sánchez became aware of the Young Lords, a group who advocated for Puerto Rico’s independence and who were inspired by the activist group the Black Panthers. He encountered Taíno artifacts from Puerto Rico and African art for the first time at El Museo del Barrio.  While an art student, Sánchez met members of the Taller Boricua[i], a cooperative printmaking workshop located in East Harlem whose artists introduced him to the politicized work of Puerto Rico and Latin America. He went on for his MFA at Rutgers State University to study with Leon Golub and Melvin Edwards, both known for their politically charged works. As he was maturing as an artist during the 1980s, there were many groups, like Art Against Apartheid and Group Material, and exhibitions that were making strong social commentaries.

Sánchez explores his identity as an Afro Puerto Rican mainlander and Nuyorican in his art. He commented, “I had to find my way back to my culture, not for the sake of leisure, education, or memory, but for survival—to recoup my language and to understand the racial and cultural complexity of my heritage. Eventually my art became the vehicle for these investigations and also defined the political contexts that informs it.  What I’m trying to do in my work is to resurrect a lot of things that have been buried.”[ii]

Sánchez looks to his hybrid cultural roots, Puerto Rico’s history in relation to Spanish colonialism and Catholicism, African culture, and the Taíno Indians, the indigenous people of the island then called Borikén (land of the brave lord) to inspire his art. Puerto Rico, meaning rich port, has a complex history; in 1493 Christopher Columbus landed on the island and it became a Spanish colony. The Taíno people, who originally numbered around 30,000, were forced to work in gold mines. Much of the Taíno population was decimated, largely due to European diseases. By 1513 enslaved Africans arrived on the island and came in large numbers in the 19th century to provide labor for its coffee, tobacco, and sugar cane production. During the Spanish-American war, the U.S. annexed the colony in 1898.

Like predecessors Romare Bearden and Robert Rauschenberg, Sánchez combines photography, text, and appropriated images in a collage style. Rather than using maps, Sánchez prefers symbols and emblems representing nationality juxtaposed with imagery drawn from Taíno petroglyphs, Yoruba and Catholic religions, and contemporary life.

The print is arched and recalls the format of an altar or shrine, giving it a spiritual quality imbued from within the deep blue background. A spiral is prominently placed at the apex, a Taíno petroglyph symbol. A hand holds a Sacred Heart of Christ pendant. Filling up much of the space is currency from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba--all Latin American colonized countries. For the U.S. dollar bills, he superimposed the faces of important Puerto Ricans: Pedro Albizu Campos (1891-1965), the leader of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party; Juan Antonio Corretjer (1908-1985), poet and journalist; and Lolita Lebron (1919-2010), associated with Campos' Nationalist Party.
Juan Sanchez, American, b. 1954. The Economy of Class and Culture. Silkscreen, 2007. Gift of Gilberto Cardenas and Dolores Garcia, 214.23. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Sánchez described his works as Rican/Structions, a term coined by salsa musician Ray Barretto. The artist enjoys digging through the long forgotten past to reconstruct history in his art. His works bring together the bright colors, motifs, and traditions of Puerto Rico as well as universal themes of love, family, life, and death.

Sánchez’s expressive use of vibrant hues are inspired by the tropical countryside. This is seen in The Economy of Class and Culture (2007). A silkscreen created at Coronado Studios in Austin, Texas, the print is arched and recalls the format of an altar or shrine, giving it a spiritual quality. A spiral is prominently placed at the apex, a Taíno petroglyph symbol. A hand holds a Sacred Heart of Christ pendant. Filling up much of the space is currency from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba–all Latin American colonized countries. For the U.S. dollar bills, he superimposed the faces of important Puerto Ricans: Pedro Albizu Campos (1891-1965), the leader of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party; Juan Antonio Corretjer (1908-1985), poet and journalist; and Lolita Lebron (1919-2010), associated with Campos’ Nationalist Party.

Fallen Heart for Sam (2014) takes on a more personal note. It is a requiem to Sam Coronado (1946-2013); friend, printmaker, and owner of Coronado Studio, who was committed to promoting and providing opportunities to the Latino art community. The overall palette of the print is more subdued, drained of color, aside from the large red heart.

This print features a composition of 8 rectangles, each containing the Puerto Rican flag. Overtop four is a large, red heart that appears drawn on in crayon. With a subdued color palette of yellows, oranges, and blues, it looks almost like old photographs with a child's hand-drawn heart.
Juan Sanchez, American, b. 1954. Fallen Heart. Pigment print and oil pastel transfer on paper, 2014. Museum purchase with funds provided by the McMurray Family Endowment, 2014.332.14. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The Puerto Rican flag is used repeatedly in Sánchez’s works. It is a national emblem and is one that embraces all people, regardless of their political views on the island’s potential for statehood, independence, or remaining a self-governing commonwealth. The flag’s design was in banned in 1948. Although the colors may seem reminiscent of the U.S. flag, Puerto Rico’s flag design resembles Cuba’s and was created in solidarity with Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain. The flag represents cultural pride, but also has pro-independence sentiments. Today, the Puerto Rican flag is flown but must be accompanied by the U.S. flag for official purposes.

Currently, Sánchez teaches at Hunter College in New York City and has curated numerous exhibitions to expand the discourse and to provide opportunities for artists of color.  He has received the Pollock/Krasner Award, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Hispanic Academy of Media Arts and Sciences, and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.  His work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.


[i] Boricua comes from the Taíno word Borikén.

[ii] Miguel Luciano, “The Amnesia of History: A Discussion with Juan Sanchez,” National Forum 81, no. 3 (2001):29.

Leave a Reply