The late painter Leopoldo “Lee” Aguinaldo is remembered as much as a pioneer in Philippine modernism as some sort of a rascal in high society. Anecdotes of his idiosyncrasies are just as remarkable as his works.
During Martial Law, the late Arturo Luz—before he became National Artist for Visual Arts—mounted an exhibit for Lee and invited First Lady Imelda Marcos to cut the ribbon. Not a fan of the Marcoses, Lee was a no-show. Offended by the snub, Mrs Marcos bought the entire collection and distributed the paintings to her favoured Blue Ladies.
Photographer Wig Tysmans looked up to Lee as mentor and critic for his black-and-white. They had such a rapport that Lee could be brutally frank about Tysmans’ work and still ham it up for the latter’s camera. At age 52, a lean Lee gamely posed alongside one of his large paintings for a frontal nude portrait. This was in the mid-1980s.
Entrepreneur Vince Revilla recalls that he bought ten paintings from Lee’s uncle, Francisco, some 40 years ago. Decades later, he wanted to let go of a few, among them Lee’s self-portrait titled Grotesque, which Revilla said had scared his wife. A prospective buyer wanted it authenticated. When the art brokers brought it to Lee, he demanded a commission from the sale on top of the PhP10,000 authentication. The brokers argued that the painting was no longer Lee’s property. Miffed, the artist declared the piece fake, although it had his signature on the back.
His is the quintessential life story of the starving and eccentric artist. Lee was born in New York City on September 5, 1933, to Daniel Aguinaldo, who came from a socially prominent family, and the Russian Helen Leontovich.
Daniel had supported Ramon Magsaysay’s presidential bid. As a reward, he received logging concessions in Mindanao. He proceeded to make a fortune on other endeavours—a pearl farm in Samal Island, Davao del Norte; a mining company in Pantukan, Davao del Oro; a marble factory in Palawan; real estate developments; and the family’s eponymous department store, Aguinaldo’s.
Like most privileged children of his time, Lee was sent to boarding school—in his case, the Culver Military Academy in Indiana—to learn discipline. During his free time, he devoured art literature and taught himself drawing by copying comics and art manuals.
In the late ‘40s, Abstract Expressionism, essentially post-war innovations in art, was emerging. Influenced by pioneer Jackson Pollock, Lee rejected traditional art tools and took to dripping and splattering paint to create interesting textures. “Young artists go through this imitative space,” says art critic Cid Reyes. “They create in the style of predecessors that they admire, before eventually developing their own.” Lee’s evolution led to his “Flick Series”, for which he used the palette knife to strike and graze paint onto the canvas, and through which he achieved more recognition.
Another of his definitive phases was his Linear Series, works characterised by planes of solid colours. While other artists painted on canvas or lawanit (coconut husk wood), Lee used the toughest marine (moisture-resistant) plywood. The Linear Series consisted of simple planes and gradient colours that meant nothing beyond the title.
Representing the Philippines, Lee exhibited his “Linear Series” at the 1971 Sao Paolo Art Biennale in Brazil. Last September, half a century later, the diptych displayed at that art show was sold at Leon Gallery’s major auction. A discriminating collector acquired Linear 98 and Linear 99, both made in 1969, for the world record of PhP42 million. The auction catalogue notes that Linear 98 and Linear 99 manifest Lee’s “powerful chromatic contrasts and genius geometric articulation”.
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