Striking Balance: Fanny Sanín’s Process

Upon first glance, paintings by Fanny Sanín (b. 1938) look impeccably neat. Whether on paper or canvas, the decisive lines and solid colors of her geometric abstractions almost conceal evidence of the artist’s hand. The smooth, precise quality of her work may even evoke associations of computer-generated graphics. The works on view in the special exhibition Equilibrium: Fanny Sanín, however, reveal a different story. Sanín’s refined, finished works are accompanied by preparatory sketches. Through these studies, the viewer can glean insight into Sanín’s artistic process as one of the pioneers of Latin American geometric abstraction.

Fanny Sanín, Acrylic No. 2, 2011; Acrylic on canvas, 62 x 60 in.

Sanín places great emphasis on the role of drawing as a natural extension of developing a painting. “Drawings are the first and most important part of my creation…I used them to plan and reach the image that I would finally love to paint on canvas,” she says. “Color and structure go hand-in-hand in my work. It isn’t until they are both worked out in detail in my drawings that they can have meaning.”

Fanny Sanín, Study for Painting No.2 (1), 2011; Color pencil on paper, 20 x 18 in.

Through her drawings, Sanín closes the gap between a rough conceptualization and the polished, finished product. An initial work in her series of 11 drawings for Study for Painting No. 2, 2011, scarcely resembles the finished painting. Study for Painting No. 2 (1), 2011 contains a much lighter color scheme and is grounded by an hourglass shape in the center of the composition. Throughout these studies, visitors gain an understanding about how Sanín plays with recurring visual components, including her use of horizontal bands and eye-catching red shapes. It is through experimenting with variations on these motifs that she achieves optimal visual balance in both color and form.

Other works in the exhibition are accompanied by preparatory studies, though not as many. Five studies are shown alongside Study for Composition No. 1, each of them with much more similar visuals. The deep blues and bright orange remain consistent, while Sanín focuses on playing with distinct combinations of shape and form instead.

Installation of Fanny Sanín’s Acrylic No. 2 next to 11 of her studies for the work; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Above all, Sanín seeks to realize her own vision of harmony. Rather than embody or evoke representational subject matter, her forms exist on a plane of pure abstraction, an oasis from any social or political turmoil that may seem to define a generation. Sanín’s art-making methods result in timeless visuals that do not need to reference a particular time or place. Her bold experimentation with abstracted forms and colors shows her commitment to resolving chaos into harmony, finding a point of equilibrium that captures the ideal.

Equilibrium: Fanny Sanín is on view in the Teresa Lozano Long Gallery through October 29, 2017.

—Xiaoxiao Meng was the summer 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Reading Between the Lines: Fanny Sanín

The exhibition Equilibrium: Fanny Sanín, on view through October 29, 2017, presents studies and finished paintings by abstract artist Fanny Sanín (b. 1938, Bogotá, Colombia). The exhibition features compositions on paper and canvas spanning 56 years of the artist’s career.

Installation view of Equilibrium: Fanny Sanín

Installation view of Equilibrium: Fanny Sanín

Sanín began her artistic practice at the University of the Andes before attending the University of Illinois, and the Chelsea School of Art and the Central School of Art in London. She moved to the U.S. in 1971 and currently lives in New York and travels regularly to Bogotá.

Sanín’s practice focuses on geometric structure, color, order, and harmony; all elements she executes meticulously on both small and large surfaces. After her exposure to abstract art during her final years in school, she chose to pursue abstraction as a way to focus on color and form.

Fanny Sanín , Composition No. 1, 2016; Acrylic and pencil on paper, 25 1/2 x 40 in.

Fanny Sanín, Composition No. 1, 2016; Acrylic and pencil on paper, 25 1/2 x 40 in.; Courtesy of the artist

Through the range of works featured in the exhibition, viewers gain insight into Sanín’s artistic process—just as remarkable as her finished products. Creating between four and eighteen studies before working on a final composition, Sanín refines her color choices and structure, altering minute details to convey her intended meaning.

Fanny Sanín, Small Study No. 4, 1973; Gouache on paper; Courtesy of the artist

Fanny Sanín, Small Study No. 4, 1973; Gouache on paper; Courtesy of the artist

In a series of four small studies from 1973, Sanín primarily paints vertical lines of different weights and colors, stimulating visual interest through the juxtaposition of complementary and contrasting colors. These studies mark a pivotal transition in Sanín’s art toward her signature color-blocking technique. Her more recent studies and finished paintings demonstrate the maturity of her color palette and her eye for symmetry, order, and balance. The exhibition also displays some of the artist’s early works in watercolor from 1960, 1961, and 1968, in which she worked in a more gestural abstract style before turning to geometric abstraction.

These non-objective abstract works by Sanín demonstrate her intellectual creativity and curiosity. Historically, women artists were judged to be most skilled at copying the natural world rather than inventing original compositions. Even in the field of abstract art, they have been seen as imitators or followers of their male peers. The significant and dynamic contributions of women such as  Sanín to abstraction have only recently begun to be fully recognized.

This exhibition explores abstraction from the preliminary stages of the artist’s process to the final works. Equilibrium: Fanny Sanín is on view in the Teresa Lozano Long Gallery of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Visit the museum to see Sanín’s works in person!

—Roseline Odhiambo is the summer 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Balancing Act: Fanny Sanín’s Paintings

Latin American art is often known for its brightly colored, fantastical works—most notably portrayed in Frida Kahlo’s Surrealist paintings—as well as its use of magical realism and folk mythology. However, the breadth of the region reaches into widely varied art forms, such as geometric abstraction, which originated in Europe and spread throughout Latin America between the 1930s and 1970s. Colombian artist Fanny Sanín became a pioneer of the geometric abstraction movement and a key figure in modern Latin American art.

Fanny Sanín, Acrylic No. 7, 1995; Acrylic on canvas, 52 in. x 48 in.; Gift of the artist, NMWA

Fanny Sanín, Acrylic No. 7, 1995; Acrylic on canvas, 52 in. x 48 in.; Gift of the artist, NMWA

Born in 1938, Sanín grew up in Bogotá, Colombia, and studied art at the University of Los Andes. Her emergence onto the art scene, along with contemporaries Jesús Rafael Soto and Raúl Lozza, coincided with post-war European influences of geometric abstraction. As a style rooted in orderliness and stability, geometric abstraction offered artists a respite from their volatile surroundings.

Installation view of Fanny Sanín’s Acrylic No. 7; NMWA

Installation view of Fanny Sanín’s Acrylic No. 7; NMWA

During the mid-20th century, many Latin American countries experienced extended periods of civil unrest, tumultuous government, and stalling economies. Geometric abstraction is based on systematic expressions of organization and structure that many artists’ lives and environments may have lacked. Although Sanín left Colombia to study at the University of Illinois in 1962 and continues to work abroad, Sanín’s paintings reflect her identity, rooted in Colombia.

To construct visual discipline in her paintings, Sanín explores spatial order through symmetry. Her Acrylic No. 7 and Acrylic No. 3, on view at NMWA, are representative of her oeuvre.

A prolific color field painter, Sanín repeats symmetrical design motifs characterized by blocky, simplified shapes consisting of two to five colors. Sanín’s paintings vary in size and composition, but each shares the artist’s unique aesthetic. Her cohesive geometric works evoke a sense of calm in their methodical construction.


Fanny Sanín, Acrylic No. 3, 1988; Acrylic on canvas, 45 3/4 in. x 40 in. x 1 1/2 in.; Gift of the artist, NMWA

Sanín’s paintings join other 20th-century abstract works in the museum’s third floor galleries, including colorful expressionist paintings by Elaine de Kooning and Joan Mitchell.

Sanín was one of the few female geometric abstraction artists, and she breathed life into the genre, particularly at a time when other artistic genres often overshadowed it. In the under-recognized field of Latin American geometric abstraction, it is important to note Sanín’s contributions creating artwork reflective of the political, economic, and social realities in Latin American history.

—Sophia Wu is the spring 2016 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.