By Sheryl Nonnenberg

Odds are you have never heard of Leo Valledor and Carlos Villa, Filipino American artists who were born and raised in San Francisco in the 1930s. Today, their lives and art are being considered with renewed interest in an effort to place them within the ranks of West Coast artists. They were impacted by the abstract expressionist movement, but then forged their own paths, inspiring others along the way. Their tale is one of familial love, mutual respect and lives inextricably linked, fit for a Hollywood movie.

Valledor and Villa were cousins, born in America (a few months apart in 1936) to parents who had immigrated to the United States from Lapog, Philippines. As the elder, Valledor was like a big brother to Villa and the one who encouraged Villa to express himself through art.

Leo Valledor (left) and Carlos Villa in a New York City apartment in 1967.

By all accounts, Valledor’s early life was extraordinarily difficult. He lost his mother at a young age and his father left the City not long after. He absorbed the cultural influences of the time, especially the jazz music that was so prevalent in his neighborhood. A bit of a child prodigy, after high school Valledor received a scholarship from the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). At 19, his large-scale abstract paintings that were inspired by jazz harmonies and Beat poetry were shown in a solo show at the Six Gallery. He soon became part of the Beat scene, which included artists Joan Brown, Manuel Neri and Jay DeFeo. Though he never completed his degree, Valledor continued to pursue his artistic muse. In an interview with artist Maria Bonn years later, Villa would marvel at Valledor’s courage, both as a youth and a person of color, saying, “Where is he getting all of this impetus? As a young kid who is finding out about all of this stuff visually, visually informing himself.”

In contrast, Villa had a more traditional upbringing that included both parents and a sister. Villa would credit Valledor as his first art teacher, introducing him to the etchings of Henri Matisse. After serving in the military, Villa enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he earned a bachelor’s degree. He then pursued his master’s degree in painting from Mills College.

Leo Valledor’s Desire, 1971, is a 96-by-60-inch acrylic on canvas.

In addition to their mutual love of art, Valledor and Villa were connected by a woman who would play a major role in both of their lives. In 1958, Villa met a young woman named Mary Leahy at a party he held at his home in the Avenues of the City. They hit it off immediately, and Villa then introduced Mary to his cousin. Valledor and Mary fell in love and, in 1961, Valledor joined her in New York City, where she’d relocated after high school to “see more of the world.” In 1964, Villa arrived and the three became part of the fabled ’60s art scene, which was in the throes of major changes, something Leahy, who now goes by Mary Valledor, recently described in an interview with artist Sherwin Rio as “kind of the culmination or the end of abstract expressionism being the avant-garde.” The three transplanted San Franciscans rubbed shoulders with the luminaries of the time at such places as Max’s Kansas City and the Longview Country Club. It became clear, however, that the angst-ridden, gestural paintings of Jackson Pollock were a thing of the past; the new style was all about hard-edge geometry and minimalism. 

Ritual, 1970-1971, by Carlos Villa, mixed media on unstretched canvas.

According to Mary, there was a contingent of California artists in New York at the time, including sculptor Mark di Suvero. For both Villa and Valledor, who opened studios, their art was enormously impacted by the changes around them. Valledor began working with bright, bold colors in reductive planar shapes and, often, on shaped canvases. It was the beginning of a lifelong quest of geometry and color, similar to what Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland were doing, but Mary notes, “Leo was in the frontier, an inventor, not a follower.” He joined the Park Place Gallery in Soho, along with Sol LeWitt and Robert Smithson. Villa also showed his art with the group, but never formally became a member. One thing that united the cousins was the fact that they were the only artists of color in the mainly white middle-class and college-educated group.

By 1968, Valledor had decided to pursue an academic career and accepted a teaching job at the San Francisco Art Institute. He, Mary and Villa all returned to San Francisco, where Valledor continued to make art, though it was largely ignored in the last decade of his life. Villa, in contrast, thrived in the wake of the social and cultural changes brought on by the civil rights movement. His art now reflected a more personal, cultural exploration and included drawing, sculpture, painting and performances that celebrated Pacific tribal art traditions. Villa also became an activist, promoting cultural diversity through the use of Indigenous materials and ritual objects in his work. He joined the faculty of the San Francisco Art Institute in 1969, and went on to teach there for 45 years, becoming a highly regarded educator and passionate advocate for women artists and artists of color.

When asked if the two men were always supportive of one another, Mary says, “They always encouraged each other and were interested in what was going on in the studio. There was never any competition for attention, although Carlos always said he felt intimidated to be in the same show with Leo.”

Valledor died in 1989, and 10 years later Mary and Villa were married.  “After Leo died, Carlos was very helpful to me and our friendship grew over the years,” she shares. “We bought a house together in 1992 and got married in 1999.” Mary and Valledor had a son, Rio. Mary notes that the family’s artistic legacy continues with her son, who is a project manager and museum designer in New York City.

After Villa’s death in 2013, Mary, a lifelong educator, became director of his estate. She is working with the Asian Art Museum on an upcoming retrospective (planned for 2022) titled Carlos Villa: Worlds in Collision. It will include 14 multimedia paintings and constructions that reference non-Western sources. A concurrent exhibition of two dozen works from the 1980s to 2013 will be shown at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Valledor’s work can still be found on both coasts. One of his shaped canvases, Skeedo, is one of seven paintings in the permanent collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. And the David Richard Gallery in New York continues to present solo exhibitions of his work from the 1980s. Locally, his work is featured at Brian Gross Fine Art in Potrero Hill, including an exhibition earlier this year. Brian Gross says that in recent years, numerous museums have acquired works by Valledor, including the San José Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. He adds that Valledor’s major works can command upward of $200,000.

Pacificon, 1981, an 108-by-48-inch acrylic on canvas by Leo Valledor.

Comparing the personalities of the two artists, Gross notes, “While Leo’s arena was formal painting, Carlos’ work was more personal. It involved explorations of identity and culture, and took many forms, including painting, sculpture, assemblage and performance. Leo was very serious about his work and spent most of his time absorbed in the studio. Carlos was naturally outgoing and was a much-beloved teacher and community leader, in addition to being a brilliant artist.”

What would the two men say about the current interest in their art?

Mary Valledor says she believes that “recognition of their work as pioneering Filipino, Asian American artists is still only growing. The world is catching up to their work.” As for her former husbands, she adds, “Leo would probably say, ‘The most important thing is the work and I’m glad more people are appreciating it and have the opportunity to see it.’ Carlos might say, ‘It’s about time.’”

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