Elena del Rivero’s Grids and Stains: Aesthetic and Political Site Specificity

Author: Prof. John Tyson, Art History

Side view of a red and white flag hanging from a railing.
Elena del Rivero (Spanish, b. 1949)
Letter from Home (Suffrage), 2019 
3.8 x 5.2 ft (117 x 150 cm)
Installation view, Grossmann Gallery, Healey Library, UMass Boston.
Copyright Elena del Rivero. Photograph by Jon Bakos.

Since the beginning of the semester, one of Elena del Rivero’s monstrous dishtowels, titled Letter from Home (Suffrage), has been on display in the Grossmann Gallery of the Joseph P. Healey Library at UMass Boston.  Visible from the fourth and fifth floors of the library, the flag-artwork is presented on campus as part of the Arts on the Point public art program, directed by University Hall Gallery Director Sam Toabe. Del Rivero’s flag is one of nineteen with an identical design (in a range of different sizes) that have been, are, or will be flying across the United States. The number of flags references the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which legislated women’s right to vote in 1920. Del Rivero recognizes the de facto shortcomings of the change in legislation and the ongoing issues of enfranchisement with the stained forms on her work.

In addition to referencing American politics, Letter from Home (Suffrage) plants a flag in aesthetic territory. The dishtowel-banner alludes to a longer history of geometric abstraction within modern art and architecture. The grid of Letter from Home (Suffrage) recalls the basic structure of the Brutalist architecture of the Healey Library where it is installed; indeed, by this redoubling, it prompts illuminating reflections on the host site. Curiously, the library’s architect Harry Weese links our Columbia Point campus to the infrastructure of the District of Columbia.

Weese designed many of the Metro stations in the nation’s capital. Even as the dishtowel shares the geometries of these institutional structures, it markedly contrasts with the cold, rigid rationalism they communicate. In contradistinction, del Rivero’s use of a more humbly scaled, besmirched matrix tacitly advocates for a distinct logic: she celebrates human use and interaction with the grid.

Furthermore, throughout the twentieth century many male artists, from Piet Mondrian to Max Bill to Jasper Johns, were heralded as “geniuses” for their employment of the grid as a central motif. By translating and transposing the form of a gridded dishtowel into the realm of (public) art, del Rivero underscores the fact that textiles used primarily by women–and considered to fall in the lower category of “craft”—formally anticipate “groundbreaking” innovations of the avant-garde. Her flag labors to wrest the grid from the hands of male modernists and suggest it is an emblem of fluidity instead. Equally, the stains on the flag recall the marks and techniques of modernist painters like Jackson Pollock, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, and Helen Frankenthaler, who infused their canvases with thinned-down paint. Thus, del Rivero’s project subtly asks us to revise the history of visual and material culture: Letter from Home (Suffrage) posits a reconsideration of gender binaries as well as hierarchies of cultural production between “art” and “craft.”

Beyond para-citing the grids of modern architecture and art, del Rivero’s dishtowel design also recalls the geometric bands and fields of actual flags. Most flags are condensers of a collective political or civic identity. Indicative of the weight of flags as symbols, we even pledge allegiance to the Stars and Stripes. Hence, in some sense, del Rivero’s banners unite the 19 diverse locations where they have been shown in a constellation of feminist politics. They ask us to dream of a yet-to-fully-exist (and perhaps always utopian) feminist political polity—as well as a corresponding imagined community who would rally around its flag. Nevertheless, raising a feminine-coded banner implicitly issues real calls to action too. Letter from Home (Suffrage) can be read as a reminder that engagement in our domestic politics is an urgent matter—a fact that increasingly rings true following the June 24, 2022, overturning of Roe v. Wade (1973).

Thus, the artwork calls attention to our nation’s broader aesthetic and political context as well as the specific site where it hangs, prompting curious audiences to consider United States history and investigate UMass Boston’s histories, herstories, and their stories.

University Archives and Special Collections houses construction photographs of Healey Library and the Columbia Point campus. Substantial holdings documenting feminist politics in Boston and Massachusetts include:

Elena del Rivero’s Letter from Home (Suffrage) Asks Us What It Means to Fly a Dishtowel Like a Flag

Author: Prof. John Tyson, Art History

Beginning on August 22, 2022, one of Elena del Rivero’s monstrous dishtowels, titled Letter from Home (Suffrage), will be on display in the Grossmann Gallery of the Joseph P. Healey Library at UMass Boston. Visible from the fourth floor of the library, the flag-artwork will be presented on campus as part of the Arts on the Point public art program, directed by University Hall Gallery Director Sam Toabe.

Three flags fly on a flagpole with trees and blue sky in the background
Elena del Rivero, Letter from Home (Suffrage), 2019. View of installation at Rocky Mountain College (Photo: Todd Forsgren).

Del Rivero’s flag at UMass Boston is part of a broader multi-site project celebrating women in politics. Elena del Rivero: Home Address has been convened by Professor John A. Tyson of the Art and Art History Department. The project began as a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which gave women the right to vote in 1920. Home Address is ongoing and will place nineteen identical flags (in a range of different sizes) in various locations across the country, including: the Consulate General of Spain, Henrique Faria Fine Art, and the Hispanic Society Museum and Library in New York City, Tulane University and Xavier University in Louisiana, Rocky Mountain College in Montana, Sun Valley Museum of Art in Idaho, Tampa Museum of Art in Florida, and the University of Wyoming.

Elena del Rivero is a Valencian-born, Spanish-American artist. With studios in New York and Madrid, she regularly exhibits her projects on both sides of the Atlantic. Her artworks are in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Harvard Art Museums, and the Colby College Museum of Art in the United States as well as the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, Spain. Additionally, del Rivero has been the recipient of many of fellowships and awards, most recently a Joan Mitchell Award and residency at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans, Louisiana (2017), a Guggenheim Fellowship (2019), and the Anonymous Was a Woman Award (2020).

Elena del Rivero, Letter from Home (Suffrage), 2019, Nylon, 3.8 x 5.2 ft (117 x 150 cm) 

Photograph showing flag on a railing in a gallery
View of installation of Elena del Rivero’s Letter from Home (Suffrage) in the Grossmann Gallery

“Del Rivero takes a familiar form—a ‘feminine-coded’ interior textile—and shifts it from the domestic realm into the public sphere,” explains Tyson. “Her banner is intended to be an allegory for women’s changing role in society. Like many of del Rivero’s artworks, it is characterized by openness and generatively dialogues with its surrounds.” The stains on Del Rivero’s flag evoke a range of concepts. “One of the artist’s key concerns is emphasizing the imperfections in the history of American democracy,” Tyson continues. “For example, despite technically winning the right to vote in 1920, many women of color were in practice disenfranchised until the creation of subsequent legislation, perhaps most importantly the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The recent expansion of restrictions on access to ballots in states such as Texas, Florida, and Georgia means that suffrage continues to be a relevant issue.”

Please look out for information about related programming and a blog post by Professor Tyson in the fall semester.

More information about Elena del Rivero and Home Address can be found at this web feature created by the Rivers Institute for Contemporary Art & Thought and a video recording of a conversation between the artist and Professor Tyson presented by the Tampa Museum of Art in April 2021.

For questions about the Home Address project, please email JohnA.Tyson@umb.edu.

University Archives and Special Collections in the Joseph P. Healey Library at UMass Boston collects materials related to the university’s history, as well as materials that reflect the institution’s urban mission and strong support of community service, notably in collections of records of urban planning, social welfare, social action, alternative movements, community organizations, and local history related to neighboring communities.

The Archives welcomes inquiries from individuals, organizations, and businesses interested in donating materials of an archival nature that that fit within our collecting policy. These include manuscripts, documents, organizational archives, collections of photographs, unique publications, and audio and video media. For more information about donating to the Archives, click here or email library.archives@umb.edu.