Arturo R. Luz, in memoriam | Inquirer Opinion
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Arturo R. Luz, in memoriam

Arturo R. Luz (1926-2021) National Artist for the Visual Arts was like a father to me. His passing this week, from pneumonia rather than cancer that kept him bedridden his last years, has left me an orphan. The obituaries that trail in his wake have been unsatisfactory—just the usual rundown of his art education in the US and France, the Luz Gallery that shaped the taste of a whole generation toward modern and abstract art for over half a century, and, of course, the landmark paintings, drawings and sculptures that are now part of Philippine art history that justifies the singular honor as National Artist.

It is not well known that his grandmother, Segunda Katigbak, was Jose Rizal’s first love; his mother, Rosario Luz, was a pioneering interior designer long before its practice became a licensed profession; his brother, Alfredo J. Luz (1922-1989), was a postwar architect who pioneered Philippine modernism, and left his mark in notable structures like the World Health Organization Regional Office that straddles Taft and UN Avenues in Manila, the Ramon Magsaysay Center on Roxas Boulevard, and the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños. While we have a pair of husband and wife National Artists—Amado V. Hernandez (Literature) and Honorata “Atang” de la Rama (Music); Lamberto V. Avellana (Film) and Daisy Hontiveros Avellana (Drama)—we have yet to see National Artist siblings. Had he not migrated to Canada in 1967 perhaps Alfredo Luz would be National Artist for Architecture, a tandem with Arturo for Visual Arts.

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Luz’s art was an acquired taste. I initially preferred his sculptures over his paintings, mainly because these were underrated and cheaper. My first acquisitions were his “Performers” in sterling silver. These whimsical works masked a tragic history; he made many studies bringing one each day to cheer up a hospital-bound daughter fighting against cancer. Then I bought steel tubing painted with matte black automotive paint that was like a calligraphic line drawn on air. Studies for these sculptures were born from hundreds of paper clips bent to relieve the stress and boredom that came with his being director of the Design Center of the Philippines, the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, and the Museum of Philippine Art all at once. I called these elegant sculptures the “Paper Clip Series.” He corrected me and declared they are better known as “The Spaghetti Series.” Reaching a dead end after collecting his works in Philippine hardwood, Chinese granite, and plywood, I graduated from my study by curating a 2004 survey show of Luz Sculptures. Only then did I look into his paintings, collages, prints, and photographs to discover another world. A mind always at work, continuously innovating.

I never understood his fascination for India, but we did share a love for things Japanese. The unimaginative repeat the late art critic Leonidas Benesa’s assessment of Luz having a so-called “Mandarin sensibility.” Luz’s sensibility is more Japanese than Chinese and it was seeing Japan through his eyes that made me doubly appreciate living in Kyoto and Tokyo on academic appointments and fellowships. Luz taught me how to look, how to notice, how to see God in good design. This could be expressed in the simplicity of an ivory pluck for a Japanese koto, the craftsmanship in a bamboo tea whisk, the restraint in the contents of a bento box, or the deft execution in high-grade, fatty tuna belly or otoro sushi that delights multiple senses: sight, smell, touch, taste, and balance.

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When I first met him in 2002, he told me: “Do you know that I am the only Filipino artist who can draw a straight line?” I was too awed to contradict him at the time and saw my chance 15 years later when I caught him signing works with a ruler. I asked: “Aren’t you the only artist in the Philippines who can draw a straight line?” He looked up from his work table and declared: “Ambeth, I learned very early in life that the best way to draw a straight line is to use a ruler!”

Luz is the Spanish word for “light.” Dying did not extinguish his light, rather it continues to radiate in his art, and shines quietly in the lives of those he lighted up with his own.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Arturo R. Luz, Looking Back, Philippine history
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