In 1977, Esteban Valdés published Fuera de Trabajo, the first book of concrete poetry to be released in Puerto Rico. This work is fundamental to any understanding of the intersection of art, literature, and poetry in the Puerto Rico of the 1970s, yet for decades it was completely ignored. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Valdés’s poems found their way to a group of young artists participating in the M&M Proyectos residency program in San Juan. Since then, artists such as Jesús “Bubu” Negrón, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, and others have made a continuous effort to assign Valdés his deserved place in Puerto Rican art history.
The works contained in the book cover ten years of production, and range from word games to constructions based on typography and instructions for carrying out actions and making sculptures. A rarity among his peers, Valdés used images and words in pages and on public walls to create a poetry of liberation that is formative and politically engaged. Fuera de Trabajo is divided into seven sections, the poems grouped by theme and visual style. The category “Processes” is probably the most interesting of them all, presenting readers with instructions for public interventions and sculptures that were never built, meant as they were to remain in the realm of the conceptual.
“Processes” includes poems like “The process for attaining the signature of Pedro Albizu Campos in neon lights” (“El proceso para conseguir la firma de Pedro Albizu Campos en luces de neon”) and “Worker Solidarity 1973” (“Solidaridad obrera 1973”). These titles are clear allusions to the political preference of the artist for Puerto Rico—a colony of the United States since 1898—to be socialist and independent, while also remaining critical of the ideological dogmas of the left. Undoubtedly, Valdés’s best-known poem is “Sonnet of the Stars” (“Soneto de las estrellas”), in which the sonnet’s formal structure is respected, but the poetic syllables are replaced by 154 asterisks or “stars.” “Sonnet of the Stars” challenges the notion that there can be such a thing as recipes or formulas for poetic creation.
In Fuera de Trabajo, poetry moves away from being just words on a page and toward language that would, were its directives carried out, occupy a place in the physical reality of the interlocutor. Valdés proposes “poems” that demand not only to be read or proclaimed aloud, but also to be manipulated or constructed. Fuera de Trabajo effectively becomes a book that tempts, invites, and calls for the construction of the new reality contained within its instructions, while also leaving the outcome up to chance. It proposes an alternative way of being political through art.
Valdés became part of the Puerto Rican art scene again following an exhibition titled 94% (Homage to Esteban Valdés) that was organized by some of the artists participating in the M&M Proyectos residency. The artists, even without prior knowledge of Valdés, felt an immediate aesthetic and intellectual affinity for his work and sought its inclusion in Puerto Rico’s art historical record as one of the island’s most interesting creative experiments. Chemi Rosado Seijo’s reaction to Valdés’ work is echoed by many of his fellow artists: “We’re not orphans.”
The list of artists participating in this exhibition of reinterpretations of Valdés’ poems also included José Lerma, Jacob Charles Morales Marchosky, Lillian Yvonne Martínez, Ivelisse Miranda, and Marxz Rosado, whose excellent neon text realization of “The process for attaining the signature of Pedro Albizu Campos in neon lights” was the show’s most accomplished work. However, the exhibiting artists that have continued to work with Valdés’s poems are Santiago Muñoz and Negrón. In her video Pyotr (2008), Santiago Muñoz lets Valdés himself do the talking, and gives his life and work an anarchist context. Negrón, for his part, has made a number of reinterpretations of “Sonnet of the Stars,” first at the Over het IJ festival in Amsterdam in 2007, then at the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros in Mexico City in 2013, for an exhibition based entirely on the poem.
Following the rediscovery of Valdés’s work by the M&M Proyectos’s artists, the book, and Marxz Rosado’s neon work, were included in Inscrit@s y Proscrit@s: Desplazamientos en la gráfica Puertorriqueña at the Trienal de Arte Poli/Gráfico de San Juan (2004). Valdés also participated in the two subsequent editions of the triennial as part of the publication Number Zero (Número Cero, 2009)—he was invited to do so by Santiago Muñoz—and in the “beehive” project coordinated by Charles Juhasz Alvarado, which gathered artists and writers at the Casa de los Contrafuertes in 2012.1
The interest that Fuera de Trabajo has sparked in a new generation extends not only to artists, but also to researchers and curators who have continued the labor of making visible and disseminating Valdés’s work. In the opinion of poet Jorge Morales Santo Domingo, “Esteban was ahead of his time. Esteban’s audience is in the present. The book finally found its time: today.”
Marina Reyes Franco is an art historian and independent curator, as well as co-founder and director of La Ene, a museum-as-institutional-critique project based in Buenos Aires.
- I have organized several exhibitions featuring Valdés and the artists he influenced. These include Poesía desde la Oficina de Desempleo, La Ene, Nuevo Museo Energía de Arte Contemporáneo, Buenos Aires (2012); an exhibition at Phosphorus, São Paulo (2013); and Tráfico Gráfico, Museo de Arte Dr. Pío López Martínez, University of Puerto Rico at Cayey (2012) (about alternative graphic practices). ↩