In 1962, Rafael Soriano fled his native Cuba for Miami. He had been among the leading avant-garde artists in Cuba — a superb colorist, a painter of geometric abstractions.
Artists had been hopeful after the 1959 Cuban revolution, but now the government, hardening into totalitarianism, leaned on them to make ideological work. Officials asked Soriano to paint a dove, a symbol that imbued Fidel Castro with intimations of the Messiah. He left.
He did not, could not, paint for another two years.
When he took up the brush again, his work changed completely. It grew into something spacious, odd, and highly original, something that contended with grief and darkness, but also found its way to the transcendent. His abstractions shimmer with light like lightning diffusing through nighttime clouds. While shapes curve and swell, they are diaphanous, as much space as form.
These are not paintings you look at. They are paintings you enter into.
Those later, Miami-made paintings make up a large part of “Rafael Soriano: The Artist as Mystic,” a luminous exhibition at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College, which runs through June 4.
The artist, who died in 2015, at 94, is well known in Latin America, lesser known in the United States, and he hasn’t had much exposure at all here in the Northeast. The unabashed spirituality of his work may have tripped up this Catholic painter in a post-modern American art world that shied away from the religious.
“The anxieties and sadness of exile brought in me an awakening,” Soriano said in an oral history interview. “. . . And I went from geometric painting to a painting that is spiritual. I believe in God, I believe in the spirit.”
Although the painter’s style changed dramatically in Miami, curator Elizabeth Thompson Goizueta, who masterminded the McMullen’s stunning exhibition spotlighting another Cuban, Wifredo Lam, in 2014, artfully structures the exhibition to demonstrate how Soriano always circled back to his early influences.
The crisp first gallery reprises, in part, a 1955 exhibition Soriano had with sculptor Agustín Cárdenas. Soriano’s clean, hard-edged geometries, such as “Juego infantil (Children’s Game),” with fanning diamond shapes pivoting against a crepuscular ground and hints of a grid, make a terrific foil to the knobs and protuberances of Cárdenas’s muscular biomorphic abstractions — a direction Soriano would follow years later.
Then Goizueta takes us back into the 1940s. Soriano, in his 20s, was painting seething, complex organic forms inspired by European surrealists, such as Jean Arp and Kay Sage. “Flor a contraluz (Flower Against the Light)” is part ember-red kiln, part totem — a looming icon drawing us with warmth.
Surrealism’s weird, sometimes bodily shapes and fascination with the unconscious made a seedbed for Soriano’s later work. Like many surrealists, he was an automatic painter, spontaneously channeling the intangible and evanescent onto the canvas.
But evanescence meant something different to Soriano from what it did to his European predecessors. As the theologian Robert S. Goizueta (the curator’s husband) points out in an eloquent catalog essay, European surrealism probed the psyche; Latin American magical realism reached beyond the self to the cosmos and larger mysteries.
In the 1960s and early ’70s, Soriano’s colors modulated. Volumes filled out, angles softened, but distinct shapes remained. In “La noche (The Night),” he hints at landscape with black horizontals. A dark triangle, glowing from within, expanding like a fan behind, sits on a platform against a moonlit sky. But the moon — its volume, its light — commands the painting, and the sky’s depth repudiates the triangle’s flatness.
Soriano, who worked by day teaching and, for a time, as an art director at Popular Mechanics magazine, painted at night. His later works can be seen as nocturnes, with atmospherics recalling J.M.W. Turner and tonal sophistication and moodiness that’s kin to Mark Rothko’s.
A more distant moon appears in “La soledad (Solitude),” dusky peach in a mauve haze above a pearlescent landscape — or is it a woman’s torso? — floating over drifting veils of violet and blue. The darkness seduces, as do the lustrous curves.
Many of Soriano’s paintings refer to the body — squirming intestines, torsos with no head, heads dissolving in vapors. We could see these as the lamentations of an exile, cut off from his homeland. That loss surely shaped his painting, as it shaped his life.
But Catholicism celebrates incarnation, and as a Catholic Soriano would have invoked the physical as a portal to, and indeed an embodiment of, the divine. With their nebulous forms and surrounding shadows, these paintings fuse not only form with space, but body with spirit. They convey suffering, but suffering does not confine them. They’re bigger than that.
Several large paintings fill the exhibition’s last gallery, each one vast and enveloping. In the tour de force “Espejismos de agua (Water Mirages)” gossamer forms in electric blue, purple, ocher, and red tangle like silk on a breeze. They waft off the surface, and they vanish into deep, internal space.
I see in it the underwater of sleep. It’s not clear whether such a slumber would prompt sweet dreams or haunting ones, but that’s why Soriano is so enticing. His mature paintings hold it all.
“Rafael Soriano: The Artist as Mystic” is the second exhibition in the McMullen’s new home, the former residence of the Catholic archbishop, which the Archdiocese of Boston sold to BC to raise funds to settle obligations in the clergy sexual abuse scandal.
The Roman Renaissance Revival mansion, built in 1927, has been renovated to include a glassy new atrium, a raised gallery roof, a large roof terrace, and an underground loading dock. It expands the museum’s space to a dignified yet airy 30,000 square feet, tripling the museum’s gallery space. It’s a vast improvement over the venue’s previously cramped housing, in Devlin Hall, which always felt a bit improvised.
It’s ironic that Soriano’s show, which channels his deep Catholic spirituality with an imaginative passion we associate with the best of that religion, has taken up residence in a small palace most recently inhabited by Cardinal Bernard Law.
Perhaps it’s cleansing.
RAFAEL SORIANO: THE ARTIST AS MYSTIC
At McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 2101 Commonwealth Ave., through June 4. 617-552-8587, www.bc.edu/sites/artmuseumCate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq