We often read about how this or that Filipino artist is influenced by a big foreign art movement. Now how about a Filipino who actually influenced the course of one international scene?
That would be none other than Leo Valledor who never actually stepped foot in the Philippines but whose very Filipino-ness helped shape the Soho gallery scene in the 1960s.
Valledor’s background was as Pinoy as you could get. He was the son of a fruitpicker who came “fresh off the boat” from Ilocandia. His father was a “GI,” or certified Genuine Ilocano, who was a member of the “Native Sons of Lapog.” Lapog, by the way, is a small town in Ilocos Sur, the province from where many of the first wave of migrants came. (The expat painter Macario Vitalis, who was also from Lapog, was part of that wave.)
Valledor could easily have been a character straight out of a mystery-thriller about California life, say L.A. Confidential. His mother ran card games out of her house and would eventually be shot (and subsequently die) for her trouble. His father, on the other hand, “followed the crops up and down the coast” but whose primary occupation was being “a playboy.” That father would disappear for long spells, finally abandoning his family for good when Leo was just a child. Valledor would thus be orphaned at age 12 — but because he was Pinoy, he would be raised by a community of “Manongs.” (He would rent them rooms in the house he inherited from his mom.)
And like every second-generation Filipino in the States, he would have an easy command of the English language and a quick grasp of Stateside culture.
Additionally, he would have a coming of age in an atmosphere of African-American zootsuits and the lifestyle of the Mexican rasquache (or low-rider culture.)
At about 16 and 17 years old, he began to paint, creating works in his house that were ten-by-ten-foot abstracts.
Valledor would receive a scholarship for the California School of Fine Arts—which opened an entirely new world for him and would eventually lead him to New York City.
There, he would become part of the nucleus that formed the Park Place Gallery Group, a trend-setting and influential cooperative of artists.
In Reimagining Space : The Park Place Gallery Group in 1960s New York, Linda Dalrymple Henderson would theorize that Valledor was a key piece in the puzzle. As a founding member of the Park Place Group, he brought with him his formative experiences in the melting-pot and Filipino ghettos of San Francisco’s Fillmore, where he would be imprinted with an atmosphere of art, painting, poetry, and music. This was further reinforced by the communal nature of those neighborhoods but also by his Filipino background which puts a premium on shared experiences.
Park Place would become an address from which alliances and creativity would flow — and its shows attracted attention almost as soon as the space opened. Its exhibitions featured paintings and sculpture together, revolutionizing the way that new, avant-garde artists could present their art in marked contrast to the more conservative Madison Avenue galleries. Its cavernous spaces invited the creation of large works and interactions with sculpture, music, and the spoken word.
That spirit, rooted in Valledor’s Filipino identity, would lead Park Place to become a significant part of the New York art scene until the late 1960s. It put a face on the city’s art scene for young artists and led the move to Soho as a center for happenings that would in turn become the lightning rod for a whole new scene. It made art blisteringly cool. Paula Cooper, who would go on to establish her own important and equally pivotal gallery, was its second director.
Leo Valledor is slowly but surely being recognized as a pioneer of the Minimalism movement that would dominate the landscape throughout the 1970s. Five of his works are in the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). In 2019, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York acquired two paintings by the artist for its permanent collection: Odelight and Serena, both from the year 1964, both acrylic on canvas and each measuring 35 15/16 × 109 ½ inches. They were a generous gift from Valledor’s fellow Park Place founder, the sculptor Mark di Suvero.
[Images courtesy of Leon Gallery. The Asian Cultural Council Auction 2022 is happening March 5 at 2PM. It is co-presented by ANCX.ph and Leon Gallery. To browse the offerings, visit the Leon Gallery website.]