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September 16, 2022

Acquisition: Freddy Rodríguez Painting Examines Life in the Dominican Republic under Dictatorship

Freddy Rodríguez, 'Paradise for a Tourist Brochure'

Freddy Rodríguez
Paradise for a Tourist Brochure, 1990
acrylic, sawdust, and newspaper collage on canvas
overall: 152.4 x 167.64 cm (60 x 66 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Gift of Funds from The Ahmanson Foundation, and Patrons’ Permanent Fund

Celebrated for his hard-edged abstract and expressionistic paintings, Freddy Rodríguez (b. 1945) explores Caribbean and Latinx history, often focusing on the Dominican Republic’s indigenous and colonial past as well as its history of enslavement, turbulent contemporary history, and the migration of Dominicans to the United States. Rodríguez’s artistic practice and subjects embody his commitment to aesthetic and political freedom. The National Gallery of Art has acquired Paradise for a Tourist Brochure (1990), an important work from a series devoted to unmasking the tactics of the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961.

Among the most ambitious works in this series, Paradise for a Tourist Brochure features a large butterfly suspended over a painted and collaged background of full-sized rectangular sheets of pages from the arts section of The New York Times. Begun during the exposure of the United States’ involvement in Central America during the late 1980s, the series was triggered by the U.S. intervention in Panama in 1989. For the artist, butterflies symbolize silent witnesses to the atrocities of life in the Americas since the Conquest. Underscoring this connection, the artist transcribed the word "paradise" in hand-painted script 44 times over the surface of the painting. This repetition, and the title that conjures the superficiality of tourist paraphernalia, suggest the duplicity of Trujillo’s rule. Three painted bullet holes dripping in red paint evoking blood and handprints on the lower register suggesting the scene of a crime disrupt these idyllic references. The painting’s title is also a wry reference to how tourists often view the Caribbean as paradise and overlook the region’s violent past.  

Since the early 1980s Rodríguez has used ephemeral materials linked to the New York art scene to comment on the racial and social exclusions of the mainstream art world. Working between foreground (painted elements) and background (collage), Rodríguez equates Trujillo’s dictatorial regime to the power wielded by art galleries, museums, auction houses, and critics who decide what is worthy of being sold, displayed, collected, studied, and preserved. The collaged elements function as a time capsule circa 1990, highlighting galleries, artists, and terminology that once held sway. Even though several ads and articles mention African American and Latin American artists, including Benny Andrews (1930–2006) and Frida Kahlo (1907–1954), whose self-portrait Rodriguez surrounds with rays of red paint, they are dwarfed by the references to American art and its major established figures, including Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011), Franz Kline (1910–1962), and Jackson Pollock (1912–1956).

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