The Abstractions of Critique: Alice Guillermo and the Social
Imperative of Art
Patrick D. Flores
Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia, Volume
3, Number 1, March 2019, pp. 125-142 (Article)
Published by NUS Press Pte Ltd
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The Abstractions of Critique:
Alice Guillermo and the Social Imperative of Art
PATRICK D. FLORES
The essay reﬂects on the practice of the Filipino art critic and art historian Alice
Guillermo. Surfacing in her practice are such theoretical concerns as the social
presence of art and the speciﬁcity of the artistic material in relation to its contexts.
This revisit to her work since the 1970s contributes to the study of art criticism in
Southeast Asia. It may be argued that this art criticism has signiﬁcantly informed
the writing of both art history and art theory. Furthermore, it sheds light on how
an art critic in the region has been able to circulate her discourse through inter-
secting platforms within and outside her national location. A focus of this essay is
the debate between Guillermo and the philosopher Domingo Castro De Guzman on
the political implications of abstraction in art history and socialist politics.
Alice Guillermo (1938–2018) once asked in a forum of a ‘people’s culture
festival’ in Manila: “But is there more to the work?” It was the end of 1983 and
the beginning of the fall of Marcos. By “more” she meant that which is not
reducible, the work’s meaning being a “totality, in the luminous structure of
value, thought, feeling, mood, atmosphere, and imagination”.1 In her writing,
meaning is meaningfulness in an extensive sense, indexing the “larger vistas
Southeast of Now
Vol. 3 No. 1 (March 2019), pp. 125–42
© Patrick D. Flores 125
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0
126 Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia
of human signiﬁcation”.2 The “human” is surely central, too, in her mind,
because it is the human as maker who signiﬁes the meaningfulness or value
of art. Inevitably, human value takes precedence in the conception of art’s
power to herald the “new liberating order”. This, for Guillermo, the human
fully deserves, stirred up by the resistance against exceptional refusals to
which this very same human is subjected.3
In a rare interview in the 1980s, Guillermo calls attention to the centrality
of values in the production of art and the critical appraisal of it. It is of
interest that the interviewer would unravel insights into art criticism as
she observes her subject’s domestic universe and picks out details like a
local ﬂower with the scent of ginger. In fact, the article includes images of
Guillermo posing in her living room, surrounded by paintings and baskets,
and her lush garden in her modest house in Manila’s northern suburbia.
Such a scenario may imply that values thought to accrue to art belong to the
abode itself of the critic, so that the personal and the critical, the intimate
and the social become in her words a “thought-feeling complex”.4 When
pressed for comment on the view that art blissfully suspends itself in some
rareﬁed ether, she would retort:
Art is not a laboratory one enters with sterilised gloves; it provides
an experience in which form and meaning are fused, which should
help us to better realise ourselves as total and sensitive persons in
our individual and social aspects […] I think that if one truly cares
for something, art in this case, one can ﬁnd true satisfaction only if
it engages one in a total sense.5
This “total sense” for Guillermo may be homespun ﬁrst before it can be
worldly, nurtured like plants in the garden or food in the kitchen or in writing
about something one “truly cares for”. This poetics of the critical raised in
the manner of a woman tending the home that opens into the grounds of an
ample social world reveals itself in the critic’s own aﬀection for the poetics of
the artist and the politics of its visceral form. This is poignantly glimpsed in
how Guillermo discusses Sidapa’s Yardstick (1986), an early work of Roberto
Feleo whose original inspiration she thinks is the “archipelagic dawn”:
Here the principal image is that of the indigenous deity Sidapa,
shown full ﬁgure, lying on a dark ground. To give the ﬁgure its
distinct appearance, the artist used an original medium consisting
of sawdust, acrylic, and emulsion lending itself to molding by hand.
The resulting form is quite unusual: a transparent vermilion ﬁgure
The Abstractions of Critique 127
in quasi relief—one marvels at the internal organs softly glowing
within its body […] There is still one more important element: on
the upper section above the glass is attached a guava branch (a
found object) which is equal to the length of the recumbent ﬁgure.
This branch cut from a living tree is the deity’s own yardstick by
which it measures the things of the world, including art itself: the
conﬂuence of the divine and the human, the essential vitality of the
handiwork springing from the energies of nature.6
Concomitantly, a conception of the artist and the critic as social beings, the
ethical tale of the creative and critical citizen itself, surfaces in an incipient
text of Guillermo on social realism. Here she portrays the artist as “setting
aside his accustomed middle-class conveniences to experience at ﬁrst hand
the life of the masses in the city as in the countryside in a mutual learning
process. He develops a fruitful interaction with the people and at the same
time acquires a truer understanding of the Filipino national identity more
than if he were conﬁned to the middle-class circuit. He becomes a totally
integrated person as his artistic and political personalities coalesce”.7 In
this operation, the subjective is never pitted against the objective; rather,
it is integrated or made to coalesce with a whirl of forces that suﬀuses the
ultimately political person.
As an attentive and diligent annotator of art for six decades, Guillermo
wrote cogently and with acuity. In so doing, her commitment to a certain
“horizon of meaning” or “cognitive mapping” may in retrospect appear
unerring. But a more careful consideration of her corpus should cast her
claims with more complexity: meaning and meaningfulness for her alludes
to a panoply of mediations. That being said, her work ceaselessly struggles
with the determinations of ideology, on the one hand, and the idiosyncrasies
of expression, on the other: “totality” and “structure”, yes, but “luminous” in
the same vein. This struggle cannot but always lead her back to the panoply,
which decisively foils the plot to reify, alienate and reduce.
In much of her textual work, Guillermo pursues the materialist imperative
by staging the brisk interaction between art and history. She emplaces them
as coordinates and therefore are made co-extensive and intersubjective, open
to reciprocal conversions. In this scheme, she stays with the tension between
the breadth of sensible life and the speciﬁcity of creative form. Across this
ﬁeld are her investments in the history of art, on the one hand, and the
history of culture, on the other. She confronts these demands to historicise
sensible life and creative form in various ecologies. And wherever she ﬁnds
them, she is keen to explicate the materialisation of work and the work
128 Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia
of materialisation, so that ultimately cultural work, in the sense of Mao
Zedong’s Yan’an Forum, and artwork, perhaps in the sense of the Frankfurt
School, may concretise in some kind of conjuncture.8
The problematic that emerges is the mediation of the critic. In this regard,
three modes tend to converge. First is the sensing of the image and the
production of meaning. Image is rudiment here as a device of distance that
allows the interlocutor to discern and interpret it through the semiotic. The
post-colonial critic’s relationship with the image is tricky: it is at once the
basis of colonial discrimination and the method of modern representation,
as it is with culture that is the construction of the colonial as well as the
impulse of the national and its identity-eﬀects. Guillermo’s critique of colonial
recuperation has been trenchant as may be gleaned in her rebuke of Culture
and History: Occasional Notes on the Process of Philippine Becoming (1988) by
writer (and National Artist) Nick Joaquin (1917–2004) and E. San Juan, Jr.’s
Subversions of Desire: Prolegomena to Nick Joaquin (1988). Underlying this
is her uneasiness over how Joaquin instrumentalises the concept of culture
and civilisation to endorse a “dominant Christian Filipino chauvinism” and
the “claim that the history of the Filipino begins in 1521”,9 when Ferdinand
Magellan, the Portuguese mariner under the auspices of the Spanish crown,
took possession of the islands to be christened the Philippines. San Juan, Jr.
brings to bear on the novels of Joaquin the heft of First World academic
theorising to recuperate a utopian allegory of a national synthesis. Guillermo
refutes this manoeuvre and instead contends that the “people’s drive towards
a free, just, and human order” thrives on the “real and humanly demanding
revolutionary enterprise in our all-too-real, speciﬁc, and immediate society”.10
Second is what Guillermo foregrounds as the “frisson”, the thrill, the
excitation of the aesthetic. And ﬁnally, the writing, the acumen of the critic
to intuit the elusive dynamic between art and its social world in the textual,
or the writerly. She elucidates:
My political view of art has always been interlinked from the begin-
ning with a deeply hedonistic feeling for art. Thus, art criticism
for me is not purely discursive but has always been infused with
the pleasure of discovering the serendipitous insight or the calm
felicities of contemplation, quickened on occasion by the frisson
Guillermo’s body of work in writing may be organised around three areas:
art criticism; art history; and cultural theory, or reﬂections on Philippine
culture. The ballast is shaped by reviews of exhibitions for newspapers,
The Abstractions of Critique 129
magazines, journals and catalogues. There was regularity in her output in
the 1970s through the 2000s; she was the most proliﬁc among the writers,
alongside Cid Reyes (b. 1946), who is also an abstract painter. And she had
the widest sympathies in terms of the forms with which she engaged. She
reviewed mainly the visual arts, but also ﬁlm, theatre and literature. This
exposure to the spectrum of the arts inevitably underwrote her ventures in
art history, speciﬁcally in providing a framework for particular modes of
making art. To cite a case, her work on social realism steadily morphed into
seminal volumes on political art in the Philippines through Social Realism
in the Philippines (1987) and her dissertation, Protest/Revolutionary Art in
the Philippines 1970–1990 (2001).12 Her hand in weaving the discourse of
social realism in the Philippines, as opposed to socialist realism elsewhere,
is unmistakable. The 1981 essay “How Can We Generate the Social Realist
Aesthetic Proper to this Country?” retroactively conceptualises the aesthetic
and political disposition of the manifesto of the Kaisahan (1976) whose
members in Guillermo’s estimation formed the core of the social realists. Her
intellectual interlocution through the rubric of social realism consolidates the
poetics of a political style, its material and social eﬀects, across history and
beyond the reckoning of practitioners who may have not fully appreciated
the encompassing vista, from the colonial period to contemporary time, of
the style. In other words, the sweeping nationalist and democratic desires of
artists for art that is “scientiﬁc” and “mass-oriented” would be subtended by
the program of social realism via Guillermo. The legacy of this nomination
has been lasting in art history and cultural discourse. All this would be
situated in a more copious survey of art history. The latter found its way into
catalogues of large exhibitions organised by the Association of Southeast
Asian Nations and the Japan Foundation; textbooks from universities; and
sourcebooks from cultural institutions.13
Guillermo, besides being an active writer, was also an academic. She
taught French, the humanities and art history for both the Fine Arts and
Humanities departments of the University of the East and the University of
the Philippines (UP), where she earned her doctorate in Philippine Studies
and retired as Professor Emerita. Her duties as a teacher prompted her to
constantly parse the language of theory and criticism to parlay it into the
more accessible pedagogies of both the humanities and politically aligned
cultural work. Art and culture would be remarkably meshed in the human
and the historical, and therefore, in the assuredly Marxist matrix.
Guillermo obtained an education degree, after spending years as an
English major, from the College of the Holy Spirit (formerly College of the
Holy Ghost) in 1957 and took courses in Comparative Literature in UP.
130 Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia
She once conﬁded that a stimulating teacher at Holy Spirit brought her
to the world of art.14 She was a French government scholar of French art
history and literature at the Université d’Aix-Marseille in Aix-en-Provence,
completing the Certiﬁcat d’Études Littéraires Générales, the Certiﬁcat de
Séminaire d’Études Supérieures, with Honours (“avec la mention assez bien”),
with a study of the French nouveau roman (‘new novel’), “La Modiﬁcation par
Michel Butor: Thèmes et Structures”, and the Diplôme de Langue et Lettres
Françaises, also with Honours, in 1967.
Guillermo started out as an Assistant Instructor in English at the Depart-
ment of Humanities, College of Agriculture, at UP in Los Baños in 1963. She
moved to the Diliman campus to teach French in 1967. She was Assistant
Professor in Humanities at the University of the East from 1969 to 1978 and
Assistant Professor in Art History and Theory at the UP College of Fine Arts
from 1978 to 1985. In 1986, she transferred to the Department of Humanities
(later renamed Art Studies), which she chaired from 1991 to 1994. Previously,
she taught in the Manila campus for around a decade beginning in 1968.
Guillermo’s ﬁrst essay on art saw print in the Philippine Collegian, the
activist organ of the University of the Philippines, at the instance of the
consummate critic Petronilo Daroy. It was on the modernist Paul Cézanne.
Her ﬁrst art review was on the exhibition Salpukan! [Collision!], held at the
Red Gallery in Cubao. It was published in Graphic in 1972, on the eve of
the declaration of Martial Law. In the middle of the 1970s, she wrote on the
politically conscious artists Orlando Castillo (b. 1947) and Antipas Delotavo
(b. 1954), and contributed to the cultural magazine Archipelago. In 1976,
she was conferred an Art Criticism award from the Art Association of the
Philippines, an organisation of Filipino artists founded in 1948; and in 1979
she was recognised by a literary competition for the essay “Ang Kaisipang
Pilipino Batay sa Sining Biswal” [The Filipino Worldview Sourced from the
A review written in 1976 of books published by the Bureau of National
and Foreign Information of the Department of Public Information would
already suggest Guillermo’s anxieties about art’s salience and her persistent
pursuit of this. She takes issue with how in the book The Printmakers (1975),
fellow critic Leonidas Benesa (1928–84) puts premium on the international
validation of local art and how Benesa diminishes the printmaker Manuel
Rodriguez’s (1912–2017) endeavours to reach out to a broader public. According
But printmaking is meant […] to reach a larger audience. And
because of its wider circulation, the art of the print needs to be
The Abstractions of Critique 131
meaningful to the numerous people it can reach. Here, art is no
longer conﬁned to a single original canvas on a privileged collector’s
wall, but shared among a larger number. Benesa also gives much
space to participation in foreign biennales […] taking them as the
high points in Philippine printmaking […] giving the impression
that its history in our country is inextricably linked to if not depen-
dent on, foreign grants, biennales, etcetera.15
In the same text, she likewise calls out how Manuel Duldulao’s Philippine
Contemporary Art (1972) rhapsodises on the “art boom and its huge invest-
ment potential”. Such “glee” in her view should be consigned to “collectors’
magazines” as “art books should serve to guide the reader in the appreciation
and understanding of artistic and cultural values” and not perpetuate “the
elitist concept of art” and ratify the taste of a “small economically able class”.16
The ﬁnal cavil in Guillermo’s critique of Benesa’s and Duldulalo’s texts is
reserved for the common foreword of their volumes that, in her view, unduly
ﬁnesses the unnerving historical experience of the Philippine post-colony.
The foreword reads:
By force of circumstances a blend of East and West, Filipinos had
once tended to be either unduly proud or needlessly apologetic
about this ambivalence. That they are now beginning to accept this
ambivalence in a matter-of-fact way is a measure of the cultural
self-conﬁdence they have attained in recent years.17
To this Guillermo wryly counters: “Indeed, the centuries of colonial history
and political change in the Philippines are all boiled down to the little
phrase, ‘force of circumstances’”.18
In the 1980s, Guillermo submitted articles to Observer, Who, New Day
(later, Business Day ), We Forum, New Progressive Review and Manila Times.
In the next decade, she turned in essays for both the culture and opinion
pages of Daily Globe, and in the 2000s, she was a writer of Today, Business
Mirror, Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. The last two publications
allowed her to write longer pieces and extend to a foreign readership. Her
work in criticism eventually led to monographs onartists such as Jose Blanco
(b. 1932) (1987), Anita Magsaysay-Ho (1948–2012) (1988), Alfredo Carmelo
(1896–1985) (1990), Onib Olmedo (1937–96) (2007), Agnes Arellano (b. 1949)
(2008), Diosdado Lorenzo (1906–84) (2009), Duddley Diaz (b. 1962) (2009)
and Galo Ocampo (1913–85) (2013), among others. The critical essays were
anthologised in Images of Change: Essays and Reviews (1988), The Covert
132 Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern A rt in Asia
Presence and Other Essays on Politics and Culture (1989) and Image to Meaning:
Essays on Philippine Art (2001).
The collection Covert Presence testiﬁes to how her criticism in art is
inscribed in her criticism of mystiﬁcation in general: it dismantles the appa-
ratus of the discourse of the 1986 uprising in the Philippines and exposes
it as largely an exploit of the comprador class. No other writer was able to
accomplish this all-important critique of culture and power in the midst of
the much-vaunted post-Marcos democratic space, which paved the way for
the vigorous return of the pre-Marcos oligarchy.
Guillermo wrote surveys on Philippine art in a range of formats including
Mobil Art Awards (1981), A Portfolio of Philippine Art Masterpieces (1986),
Art Philippines: A History 1521–Present (1992), The National Museum Visual
Arts Collection (1991), Tuklas Sining: Essays on the Philippine Arts (1992), the
CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art (1994) and Tanáw (2005), a book on the
visual art collection of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (Central Bank of the
Philippines). From this sprawling mapping of Philippine art, she would focus
on particular aspects of the history through essays that discursively supported
the exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila: Modang Modern:
A Change Begins (1990), which scanned the development of modernist art in
the Philippines, and From Anito to Assemblage (1990), a history of sculpture
in the Philippines before, during, and after three successive colonialisms.
These eﬀorts would then be channelled internationally through publications
like Modernity in Asian Art (1993) and Asian Modernism: Diverse Development
in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand (1995).
It was partly by way of Guillermo’s appreciable interests that the terms
of reference for visual arts expanded in Philippine art history. She spoke
at the ﬁrst two symposia on ASEAN aesthetics in 1989 in Kuala Lumpur,
Malaysia and in 1993 in Manila, prospecting the region’s cultural intelligence
via what may be acknowledged as indigenous and traditional aesthetics. Her
pioneering work on ‘traditional’ and popular culture includes considering
local comics or komiks as visual art in “Ang Komiks Bilang Sining Biswal”
[Komiks as Visual Art] (1990) and conﬁguring the lifeworld of colour in Color
in Philippine Life and Art (1993). Her work Cebu: A Heritage of Art (1991) is one
of the ﬁrst few to have gone further aﬁeld in terms of scoping the art of the
country across its islands.
As a working critic who wrote steadily and reviewed the scene with
inquisitiveness, Guillermo was tirelessly in search of “challenging” work.19
Equally challenging for her was the translation of academic and art-critical
language into the parlance of periodicals. She was patient in this vocation.
According to her: “While we seek to popularize the appreciation of Philippine
The Abstractions of Critique 133
art, still I think that it’s also important to become a venue for learning more
about art and art criticism. So gradually, one introduces certain concepts
and values which will later on be imbibed more naturally by the reading
public”.20 This wide-eyed curiosity and squinting astuteness about what is
amiss or afoot distinguished Guillermo even as she found herself working
on the material of a diﬀerent generation. Her reading of Manuel Ocampo’s
(b. 1965) punk lineage is telling in its mindfulness: “What makes Manuel
Ocampo distinct as an artist is that, like no other in recent times, he is
one who has eﬀectively disabled his superego, the mind’s censor that sifts
through images and concepts which would not pass the test of civilization
and social consensus”.21
Guillermo came into the scene of art criticism with a faith in art’s respon-
sibility and competence to catalyse transformation. Her modality of critique
diﬀered signiﬁcantly from that of her peers because it valorised the social in
conjuring the aesthetic without sacriﬁcing instinct, fantasy, jouissance and
frisson. The latter relay of stimuli possesses integrity and yet in the same
breath are threatened by instrumentalisation. Guillermo was aware of this
dreaded tendency and so tried as much as she could to delicately discipline
the surplus of both art and society. This was a tough act for her, one that did
not always yield the ideal ensemble of art/society. It nevertheless overcame
the temptation by her contemporaries to foster the connoisseurship of the
Philippine modern as introduced by the artist-writer Fernando Zóbel (1924–
84), who held sway among the tastemakers of the time like the patron Purita
Kalaw-Ledesma (1914–2005) and poet-critics Leonidas Benesa and Emmanuel
Eric Torres (b. 1932).22
Furthermore, as a woman critic in a substantially patriarchal system,
she had to mediate layers of social roles in the household and the art world,
symptoms of the distribution of masculine hegemonies across public life.
Indeed, the questions of woman and identity in relation to art and the modern
culture were carved in high relief in the 1970s. A fellow essayist, Carmen
Guerrero Nakpil (1922–2018), who passed in the same year as Guillermo,
likewise wrote on these concerns. An advocate of the emerging modernism
in Philippine art in the 1950s, Nakpil imbricated the discourse of art and
gender in the modernity of an assertive Filipino culture. In the essay titled
“Asianization”, she concludes: “It is a glorious apostasy indeed from the once
dearly held faiths in Spain and America. It will be a relief—when the change
is complete—to be able to turn at last from the feeling of being possessed,
of being a sham and a charlatan to being in command of oneself”.23
At the heart of Guillermo’s critique of art are the highly mediated ties
between image and meaning immersed in the social context that suddenly
134 Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia
turns into a semiosphere. To at once elaborate on and diﬀerentiate these
criss-crossing moments, the critic gathers the “meaningfulness of the sen-
sible” from the erstwhile “image and meaning” formulation in the semiotic.
Guillermo’s work on the semiotic may have found watershed when she began
to converse with the ideas of the Russian semiotician Juri Lotman (1922–93)
in Semiotics of Cinema (1976). She reviewed this book (in “From Automatism
to Meaning”), where she quotes passages that may well delineate her own
annotations on the vicissitudes of the artistic text. For instance, she appears
drawn to how Lotman unhinges the artistic medium from “automatism”,
a procedure that may be cognate with how she herself comes to grips with
any form of mechanistic reduction or capture of meaning by technique or
technology. She quotes Lotman:
Art does not simply render the world with a lifeless automatism of
a mirror. In transforming images of the world into signs, it saturates
the world with meanings […] The aim of art is not simply to render
some object or other, but to make it a carrier of meaning.24
She is, in the same review, also attracted to Lotman’s notion of art speaking
in more than one voice, like a “complex, polyphonic chorus” in which it forms
part of the “struggles of the culture and art of its era”.25 With her alertness
to the material condition and sensitivity to the processes of making sense
of reality, Guillermo ﬁnds a fulcrum in the semiotic. It would aﬀord her the
latitude of relative autonomy, on the one hand, and the amplitude of aﬀective
indeterminacy, on the other.
While invested in the materialist imperative, Guillermo was able to
nuance her approach towards the artwork in relation to the inﬂections of the
socius, as well as her negotiations of the commodity and market functions
of the same work. It was thus quite striking that the philosopher and poet
Domingo Castro de Guzman would challenge this talent and this politics.
It all began when De Guzman, who staked out his philosophical career at
17 when the Philippines Free Press in 1968 published his essay “The Sophism
of Pseudo-Philosophers”, wrote a lengthy essay on abstract art. Guillermo
responded with interest.
De Guzman provocatively titled his essay “Abstract Art and the Masses”.
At the outset, he shares Guillermo’s insistence on the cultural character of
the critique of art: that art criticism is simultaneously cultural criticism
and that in turn cultural criticism “requires a philosophy of history […] an
articulated stand on all the fundamental questions of existence”.26 Further-
more, he remarks that “the social is the ontological structure of vision and
speech”.27 This is a rather daunting task cut out for art criticism, which he
The Abstractions of Critique 135
feels has been dissipated in light of the ascendancy of abstract art. For him,
abstract art, which is a generalising and not a historicised cipher of a speciﬁc
type of aesthetic utterance in the history of art, “deals exclusively with ‘pure’
aesthetic relations and correspondences” and as such has permitted “any
opportunist to pose as an art critic without even a hint of philosophy”.28
Clearly, De Guzman takes exception to abstract art as much as to the
enterprise of criticism itself. He deems this criticism, along with the art of
abstraction, to be politically bereft.
Guillermo carefully crafted a riposte to this essay in “Abstract And/Or
Figurative: A Wrong Choice”. Undoubtedly, both Guillermo and De Guzman
were struggling with a dialectic built around “abstract art” versus the
“masses”, and “abstract” versus “ﬁgurative”. Correspondences within this
binary for Guillermo are in the long term unproductive, superseded by
aesthetic processes in the history of art that may have surpassed the anti-
nomy. For De Guzman, however, it is praxiological, that is, fundamental in
claiming a “philosophy of history” and a political programme on “existence”
itself. In his view, abstract art is a “ﬂight from the real, from existence”.29
Its “ideal terminus is nihilism”.30 With this ﬂight comes the negation of the
real, of existence, of content. Absent the latter, the dominant order can only
be aﬃrmed through negation. Its necessity has expired, exigent only as the
“negative moment in a constructive, revolutionary dialectic, as for instance
in Picasso. It has no future because it is already exhausted, a carcass”.31
According to De Guzman: “Today, in this epoch of neocolonial exploitation
and critically exacerbated class domination, what is speciﬁcally demanded
of a progressive, humanist, liberationist aesthetic is ﬁrst of all the maximum
articulateness for the maximum articulation of the depiction, critique, and
denunciation of imperialist class oppression”.32 If the future is the progres-
sivist politics of art, the only present is the “progressivist artistic articulation
of socio-political reality”.33
Guillermo oﬀers a diﬀerent politics. She thinks such dualism to be not
“decisive in the matter of the politics of art”, mainly because it is not granular
enough to reference the “incipient or latent forces and energies within the
categories” and far-reaching enough to implicate the “historical dimensions
in which alone they assume full meaning”.34 This “wrong choice” may neglect
the fact that ﬁgurative art in fact has been enlisted by the ruling class: “The
history of art will bear out the fact that the Western despotisms created and
strengthened the classical Academy, as against spontaneous individualising
styles, because classical ﬁguration supported the image of the absolute and
the permanent that they wanted to project of their regime, which, through
art, would obtain the sanction of venerable tradition”.35 On the other hand,
136 Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia
to dismiss the form of abstract art is to fall into the “snares of formalism”.36
Her example here is Jackson Pollock, who in her calculation would resist
“formal abstraction typiﬁed by Neo-Plasticism” and posit “the values of the
spontaneous and personal gesture, the physical energy and kineticism of the
individual artist”.37 Pollock thus exempliﬁes a kind of defence against stasis
and structure to privilege the elusive and the unruly. De Kooning, too, is
foregrounded, his depiction of ugliness marked as disrupting the “common
expectations of the beautiful in art”.38 In sketching out these instances of
practice, Guillermo historicises the abstraction that De Guzman totalises
in his belief that the political resides in totalisation rather than in “discrete
appearances”, something to which Guillermo actually subscribes in pursuing
an analysis of “scattered phenomena”.39 In the political syntax of De Guzman,
“abstract negation” is the “rejection of history” and “concretely prevents
the crystallization of the revolutionary outlook itself, and where it already
subsists, weakens it. It rejects rational-historicist totalization both directly
and through its rejection of totalization itself”.40
Guillermo’s history of art and art history frustrate De Guzman’s philosophy
of history. She presupposes that “since art continually evolves, there are
always redeﬁnitions and syntheses, as new aesthetic issues are raised which
at the same time convey values of direct or indirect political import”.41 For
both, no critique of art or art criticism can survive or anticipate a future
without this relationship to history. It is a history that in the calibration
of Guillermo is textured and dense, more complex art historically than
De Guzman’s philosophical assumptions about abstraction. For instance,
she points to how Russian artists of abstract inclination would respond
discrepantly to industrialisation: the suprematist’s “purely hermetic exercise
without any socio-historical dimension and outside the larger arena of human
experience” and the constructivist’s “progressive politics which gave full
support to the Revolution […] with the cooperation of artist, architect and
The exchange between Guillermo and De Guzman demonstrates
the spirited discourse in the Philippines on art and its historical context,
and how this discourse is made to mutate in the larger atmosphere of the
socialist project sustained by popular movements and the armed revolution.43
Furthermore, this materialist thinking in art complexiﬁes the “cultural” and
the “conceptual” and, to some extent, thwarts the mystiﬁcation of culture as
identity and art as libertine experiment. With this materialist mediation, the
desire for the Filipino and the international would be re-signiﬁed through
art criticism that is nimble enough to move between academic and activist
registers, grappling with the vagaries of the market, the regulations of the
The Abstractions of Critique 137
state and the exigencies of everyday life. Guillermo was fully convinced that
it is the “national democratic articulation of the concept of national identity
which alone can bring together the rich pluralities of the people’s culture,
the ethnic, the linguistic, and the religious, to a true unity and solidarity.
The key to the meaning of national identity lies in a politicised and decolo-
nised consciousness fully self-aware, critical, and engaged in the pursuit
and praxis of national liberation”.44 Such conviction found a place in the
widespread discussion of culture that was Filipino however this term was
considered philosophically and politically. For Guillermo, this Filipino is
nationalist but not nativist; international but surely not solely Western and
deﬁnitely contra-imperialist. These declensions of the national played out in
various ways in which the Filipino would be theorised and made to ramify
in anthropology (Filipinology through Prospero Covar), historiography (For
Us/By Us Perspective through Zeus Salazar), psychology (Filipino Psychology
through Virgilio Enriquez) and art (People’s Art through Felipe de Leon, Jr.).45
In this respect, Guillermo might have been in dialogue with T.J. Clark
in his investment in the ‘modern’. She recognises it as a paradigmatic shift
comparable to Einstein’s theory of relativity “in its new interpretation of
the universe and reality as against the static and mechanistic concepts
of Euclid and Newton”46 in her assessment of the likes of Paul Klee. She
reveals that her fascination with art was “awakened not by Amorsolo and his
rural genre […] but by the artists of the School of Paris, the impressionists,
the surrealists, the expressionists, and the cubists, who oﬀered new and
fascinating imagery”.47 Clark for his part asserts that modernism “wanted its
audience to be led toward a recognition of the social reality of the sign (away
from the comforts of narrative and illusionism, was the claim); but equally it
dreamed of turning the sign back to a bedrock of World/Nature/Sensation/
Subjectivity, which the to and fro of capitalism had all but destroyed”.48 It is
uncanny that Clark would consider Cézanne and Pollock the “touchstones”
of this zeitgeist, ﬁgures who were vivid in Guillermo’s own art historical
archive. It is uncanny, too, that Clark would assert that socialism “occupied
the real ground on which modernity could be described and opposed”.49
At this point, the frisson returns to stage culture more urgently as a ﬁeld
of battle, this time as a catalyst of contestation that charges the “terrain
in which take place the ideological battles corresponding to the conﬂicts,
dissensions, and schisms at the material base”.50 The problematic of culture,
therefore, transposes into a programmatic of change: “The new culture is
certainly no longer passive reﬂection, but, as it is seized by the masses,
a potent material weapon for historical change to which we are all both
witness and participant”.51
138 Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia
It should be ﬁtting to end this exposition of Guillermo’s critical practice
by revisiting her essay on the artist Federico Aguilar Alcuaz (1932–2011),
who was, so to speak, ambidextrous, that is, adept at both the ﬁgurative
discipline and the abstract idiom. In this passage, we see the critic evoke an
allegory of the life form itself: the enchantment and allure of appearance; the
materiality of its condition; and the writing that performs the melancholy
of tracing its presence. In the response to De Guzman, Guillermo would
imagine Vermeer’s interiors to be structured by geometry, light and shade;
and a baroque precursor to a paramount abstractionist in Mondrian: “We
can only surmise how much these interiors with their precision and clarity
provided the basis for Mondrian’s balances”.52 In limning Alcuaz’s room that
is verisimilarly a still life, she homes in on the desiccation of a fruit’s ﬂesh,
the humbling attrition of its valiant nucleus:
A side table holds a shallow wicker basket containing a variety of
fruit, but again not fresh and plump with a juicy ripeness, but dry
and sere, months even years old. What was once a living orange
has become surprisingly weightless, a tough, wizened, and leathery
purplish shell concealing an unseen stone—how it rattles discon-
solately within its empty space where none, insect or human, has
ever intruded. Alcuaz picks up a dried macopa to show me, his eyes
glinting with an odd pleasure, how the fruit has shrunk to less than
half its size, but has kept its bell-like, dimpled form.53
As the critic asks what is more to the work, so does she come to terms with
what is left of it.
Patrick D. Flores is Professor of Art Studies at the Department of Art Studies at the
University of the Philippines and Curator of the Vargas Museum in Manila. He was
a Visiting Fellow at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1999 and an
Asian Public Intellectuals Fellow in 2004. Among his publications arePainting History:
Revisions in Philippine Colonial Art(1999);Remarkable Collection: Art, History, and the
National Museum(2006); andPast Peripheral: Curation in Southeast Asia(2008). He
was a grantee of the Asian Cultural Council (2010) and a member of the Guggenheim
Museum’s Asian Art Council (2011 and 2014). He is the Artistic Director of Singapore
The Abstractions of Critique 139
1 Alice Guillermo, “The State of the Visual Arts”, in The Politics of Culture: The
Philippine Experience (Proceedings and Anthology of Essays, Poems, Songs, Skits,
and Plays of the MAKIISA 1, People’s Culture Festival, December 28–30, 1983,
Dulaang Raha Sulayman, Fort Santiago, Intramuros, Manila), ed. Nicanor G.
Tiongson (Manila: Philippine Educational Theater Association, 1984), p. 44.
3 Alice Guillermo, “Abstract and/or Figurative: A Wrong Choice”, Who (24 Aug.
4 Guillermo, “The State of the Visual Arts”, p. 45.
5 Pet G. Cleto, “Alice Guillermo: The Critic’s Eye”, Celebrity (15 Oct. 1981): 45.
6 Alice Guillermo, “Roberto Feleo: Connecting Myth and History”, in Image to
Meaning: Essays on Philippine Art (Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press,
2001), p. 120.
7 Alice Guillermo, quoted in Cristina P. del Carmen, “Method and Message: Art
Critics Tell Us How They Pan and Praise”, Who (11 April 1981): 19.
8 See Patrick D. Flores, “Lineage: Leonidas Benesa and Alice Guillermo”, Pananaw
6 (2007): 8–15.
9 Alice Guillermo, “In Praise of Conquistadors”, Daily Globe (29 Jan. 1989): 10.
10 Alice Guillermo, “Subversions of Desire as Metatext”, Daily Globe (23 Oct.1989): 13.
11 Alice Guillermo, Image to Meaning: Essays on Philippine Art (Quezon City: Ateneo
de Manila University, 2001), p. ix.
12 See Patrick D. Flores, “Social Realism: The Turns of a Term in the Philippines”,
Afterall 34 (Autumn/Winter 2013): 62–75.
13 See, for example: Yeo Weiwei, ed.Realism in Asia: Volume One(Singapore: The
National Art Gallery, 2010).
14 Alice Guillermo, interviewed by Karen Galarpe, “Alice Guillermo”, The Art Manila
Newspaper 3, 2 (2002): 6.
15 Alice Guillermo, “The BNFI Art Books: ‘The Forces of Circumstances’”, Cultural
Research Bulletin 1, 4 (Feb.–March 1976): 23.
17 Quoted in Guillermo, “The BNFI Art Books”: 24.
19 Guillermo, interview with Karen Galarpe, 6.
21 Alice Guillermo, “Reviving the Punk Scene”, Today (31 Aug. 2003): W8.
22 See Patrick D. Flores, “To Rear the Philippine Modern: Purita, Zóbel Arcellana, and
the Circulation of Discourse”, in The Life and Times of Purita Kalaw-Ledesma, ed.
Purissima Benitez-Johannot (Quezon City: Vibal Foundation, 2017), pp. 51 –83.
23 Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, A Question of Identity (Manila: Vessel Books, 1973), p. 66.
140 Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporar y and Modern Art in Asia
24 Juri Lotman, quoted in Alice Guillermo, “From Automatism to Meaning”, in Image
to Meaning, p. 73.
25 Ibid., p. 75.
26 Domingo Castro De Guzman, “Abstract Art and the Masses”, Who (15 June 1983):
27 Domingo Castro De Guzman, “Abstract Art and the Masses: Part II”, Who (22 June
28 De Guzman, “Abstract Art and the Masses”: 34.
30 Ibid.: 35.
31 Domingo Castro De Guzman, “Abstract Art and the Masses: Part III”, Who (6 July
32 Domingo Castro de Guzman, “Towards an Aesthetic of Liberation: Part I:
The Discourses of Silence, or Why Abstract Art is a Weapon of Oppression”, Who
(21 Sept. 1983): 39.
34 Guillermo, “Abstract and/or Figurative”: 30.
36 Ibid.: 31.
39 See “Kaisahan Declaration of Principles”, in Alice Guillermo, Protest/Revolutionary
Art in the Philippines 1970–1990 (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press),
40 Domingo Castro De Guzman, “Towards an Aesthetic of Liberation: The Fetish of
Spontaneity or the Ideology of the Instant (Part V)”, Who (19 Oct. 1983): 41.
41 Guillermo, “Abstract and/or Figurative”: 32.
43 For further reading, see: Jose Maria Sison, Philippine Society and Revolution (Hong
Kong: Ta Kung Pao, 1971), and Patricio Abinales, The Revolution Falters: The Left in
the Philippines after 1986(New York: Cornell University Press, 1996).
44 Alice Guillermo, The Covert Presence (Quezon City: Kalikhasan Press, 1989), p. 35.
45 For further reading, see: Zeus A. Salazar and Ramon Guillermo, “The ‘Pantayo’
Perspective as a Discourse towards ‘Kabihasnan’”, Southeast Asian Journal of
Social Science 28, 1 (Jan. 2000): 123–52. Prospero ReyesCovar, Larangan: Seminal
Essays on Philippine Culture(Manila: National Commission on Culture and
the Arts. Manila: Sampaguita Press, Inc., 1998). Felipe de Leon, Jr., “The Roots
of People’s Art in Indigenous Psychology”, in Indigenous Psychology: A Book of
Readings, ed. Virgilio G. Enriquez (Quezon City: Akademya ng Sikolohiyang
Pilipino, 1990), pp. 31–327. De Leon’s essay was originally a paper delivered at
The Abstractions of Critique 141
the Continuing Education Seminar conducted by the Ministry of Education and
Culture and the Asian Center, University of the Philippines, in Sept.–Dec. 1981.
46 Guillermo, “Abstract and/or Figurative”: 31–2.
47 Guillermo, Image to Meaning, p. vii.
48 T.J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1999), pp. 9 –10.
49 Ibid., p. 9.
50 Guillermo, The Covert Presence, p. 11.
51 Ibid., p. 40.
52 Guillermo, “Abstract and/or Figurative”: 32.
53 Alice Guillermo, “Federico Aguilar Alcuaz: A Portrait”, in Image to Meaning, p. 182.
Abinales, Patricio. The Revolution Falters: The Left in the Philippines after 1986.
New York: Cornell University Press, 1996.
del Carmen, Cristina P. “Method and Message: Art Critics Tell Us How They Pan and
Praise”. Who (11 April 1981): 18–20, 26.
Castro De Guzman, Domingo. “Towards an Aesthetic of Liberation: The Fetish of
Spontaneity or the Ideology of the Instant (Part V)”. Who (19 Oct. 1983): 41.
. “Towards an Aesthetic of Liberation: Part I: The Discourses of Silence, or Why
Abstract Art is a Weapon of Oppression”. Who (21 Sept. 1983): 39.
. “Abstract Art and the Masses: Part III”. Who (6 July 1983): 41.
. “Abstract Art and the Masses: Part II”. Who (22 June 1983): 38.
. “Abstract Art and the Masses”. Who (15 June 1983): 34.
Clark, T.J. Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism. New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1999.
Cleto, Pet G. “Alice Guillermo: The Critic’s Eye”. Celebrity (15 Oct. 1981): 45–7.
Covar, Prospero Reyes. Larangan: Seminal Essays on Philippine Culture. Manila:
National Commission on Culture and the Arts. Manila: Sampaguita Press, Inc.,
Flores, Patrick D. “To Rear the Philippine Modern: Purita, Zóbel Arcellana, and the
Circulation of Discourse”. In The Life and Times of Purita Kalaw-Ledesma, ed.
Purissima Benitez-Johannot, pp. 51–83. Quezon City: Vibal Foundation, 2017.
. “Social Realism: The Turns of a Term in the Philippines”. Afterall 34 (Autumn/
Winter 2013): 62–75.
. “Lineage: Leonidas Benesa and Alice Guillermo”. Pananaw 6 (2007): 8–15.
Galarpe, Karen. “Alice Guillermo”. The Art Manila Newspaper 3, 2 (2002): pp. 6–7.
Guerrero Nakpil, Carmen. A Question of Identity. Manila: Vessel Books, 1973.
Guillermo, Alice. “Reviving the Punk Scene”. Today (31 Aug. 2003): W8.
142 Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporar y and Modern Art in Asia
. Image to Meaning: Essays on Philippine Art. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila
. “Subversions of Desire as Metatext”. Daily Globe (23 Oct. 1989): 13.
. “In Praise of Conquistadors”. Daily Globe (29 Jan. 1989): 10.
. The Covert Presence. Quezon City: Kalikhasan Press, 1989.
. “The State of the Visual Arts”. In The Politics of Culture: The Philippine Experience,
Proceedings and Anthology of Essays, Poems, Songs, Skits, and Plays of the
MAKIISA 1, People’s Culture Festival, 28–30 Dec. 1983, Dulaang Raha Sulayman,
Fort Santiago, Intramuros, Manila, ed. Nicanor G. Tiongson, pp. 44–7. Manila:
Philippine Educational Theater Association, 1984.
. “Abstract and/or Figurative: A Wrong Choice”. Who (24 Aug. 1983): 3–32.
. “The BNFI Art Books: ‘The Forces of Circumstances’”. Cultural Research Bulletin
1, 4 (Feb.–March 1976): 22–4.
de Leon, Felipe Jr. “The Roots of People’s Art in Indigenous Psychology”. In Indigenous
Psychology: A Book of Readings, ed. Virgilio G. Enriquez, pp. 311–27. Quezon City:
Akademya ng Sikolohiyang Pilipino, 1990.
Salazar, Zeus A. and Ramon Guillermo. “The ‘Pantayo’ Perspective as a Discourse
towards ‘Kabihasnan’.” Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science 28, 1 (Jan. 2000):
Sison, Jose Maria. Philippine Society and Revolution. Hong Kong: Ta Kung Pao, 1971.
Yeo Weiwei, ed.Realism in Asia: Volume One. Singapore: The National Art Gallery,
Southeast of Now Vol. 3 No. 1 (March 2019), pp. 125–42