Lee Aguinaldo photographed by Wig Tysmans at the photographer's home in Baguio in 1983.
Culture Art

The rock star life and uncommon genius of the singular Lee Aguinaldo

From heir of a family fortune and toast of the society set to tabloid fodder, Lee Aguinaldo led a life that almost overshadowed his artistry.  
BY JEROME GOMEZ | Aug 30 2020

(Two works from Lee Aguinaldo’s landmark Linear period—"Linear No. 98" and "Linear No. 99", considered the equivalent of Jose Joya's iconic "Space Configuration"—are part of the highlights of the upcoming Leon Gallery Magnificent September Auction, which is co-presented by ANCX. In light of this, we are publishing this story which originally appeared in the June 2007 issue of Metro Society.)

 

When everything else is gone, someone once said, art will be all that remains. And in the small Quezon City room that Melba Arribas used to share with the artist Lee Aguinaldo, art seems to brim from every drawer, underneath closets and unopened boxes. On the walls, small works from Lee’s Linear period are interspersed with photographs and small collages, and beside a lamp hangs a framed photographic diptych by Wig Tysmans of a young Melba sexily reclining on a bed while the wild man Lee, all Stanley Kowalski in a fitted white shirt and light-colored pants, occupies a chair beside her. 

Before Melba sits down for the already impatient tape recorder, she walks slowly around the dimly lit room as if about to perform a ritual. The ex-fashion model remains a beauty, slim and stunning at 49. She opens a huge envelope and empties it of browning tearsheets and entire magazines made brittle by time. She lays them all on a bed whose headboard leans on a red brick wall, and whose old pillows and sheets don’t match. She opens clearbooks full of letters, boxes of old photographs. 

And just when you think she is about to sit down across me, she lights a cigarette and seems to ponder if there is still in fact a remnant of Lee she forgot to bring out. Finally, after putting on one of his favorite jazz records in the vinyl player, she sits down, switches on the lightbox between us, and brings out a rectangular carton of slides, photographic souvenirs of Lee’s works. 

Aguinaldo passed away in 2007 following his second stroke.

Lee Aguinaldo died in this room last January after his second stroke. He was 74. “It was like someone took a part of you,” Melba says. She speaks gently, betraying no trace of pain or longing, just a quiet, if sad, acceptance. “When you come home wala ka nang kausap. It’s hard when I come out and have to look for all his things. Sometimes I delay and delay and say ayoko na muna.” 

But she has had to face this task, the unloading of boxes and drawers containing his personal and career history—not just for this interview but also for the curators from the Ateneo Art Gallery. Next year is turning out to be a banner year for Lee. Apart from the major retrospective at the Ateneo, there will also be exhibitions at the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the Manila Metropolitan Museum. 

After more than half a century’s worth of contribution to Philippine art, the Ateneo show will be the first ever Lee Aguinaldo retrospective. His last show was 1992’s “Rembrandt Light Series” at the Lopez Museum which showcased intimate pen and ink drawings based on self-portraits of Rembrandt van Rijn, one of Lee’s favorite painters. It was his first show after more than a decade of absence from the art world. While it is true the Dutch master’s work echoes even in Lee’s largely abstract efforts, art critic Rod Paras Perez writing about the exhibition in August of that year saw beyond the two artists’ deft hands when it came to creating light and shadow. He saw the similarity between their lives—both experienced the glamour of wealth and celebrity that eventually led to poverty and isolation. 

 

Young, handsome, heir 

Leopoldo “Lee” Aguinaldo was born in New York in 1933 to Daniel Aguinaldo, campaign manager and “kingmaker” of President Ramon Magsaysay, and his Russian-American wife. Even as a young boy, he showed a strong interest in art, frequenting the Metropolitan Museum to see the works of Rembrandt and other Dutch masters. 

At 14, his father sent him to Culver Military Academy in Indiana, a move to discipline the boy. While the four years he spent in the academy were extremely agonizing, this turned out to be the period he decided to become an artist. Without any formal training, the young Lee began by copying images from comic books. At 15 and sick with measles, he read “Lust for Life,” the book on the life of Vincent Van Gogh. It would fuel his spirit, but what would prepare him, perhaps unwittingly, for the career he will be most celebrated and remembered for, is the book “Five Hundred Years of Art and Illustration.” Lee spent all his unregimented time in the academy drawing and copying from its pages. 

His father’s plan to make a decent man out of his son didn’t stop when the latter finished military school. As soon as Lee arrived in Manila, he was forced to major in commerce at De La Salle University. He finished the course and began to live a double life, “corporate by day, hedonist by night.” Glenna Aquino, writing in Metro in the early ‘90s, describes that time in the artist’s life thus: “It was the prime of Lee Aguinaldo, young, handsome, heir to the family fortunes. (His family-owned business was among the top 50 corporations then.) He’d take the social set, which was buying his early paintings, out for night cruises aboard his 92-foot yacht. It was one fast lane of parties, private film previews, chi chi cocktails, orgies and the best cars.” 

A "selfie" taken by Wig Tysmans (behind Lee) together with Aguinaldo and Melba Arribas.

This life of privilege ended the day he told his father he wanted to quit the family business. Right there and then, Lee was carried out of the board meeting along with the chair he was sitting on. Without the stability of a job, he would live on a small apartment along the Pasig river. 

This was in the ‘50s and he was already joining group shows with the likes of Cesar Legaspi, HR Ocampo and Vicente Manansala. Lee’s early works were very much influenced by Jackson Pollock, and never would this be more apparent than in his first solo exhibition at the Philippine Art Gallery. Like the jazz music he so loves, his works were noticeably born out of improvisation and spontaneity rather than technique. They were filled with drips, squiggles and slashing strokes betraying a jumpy energy rather than tension and drama. Eric Torres, the renowned critic and curator, commenting on Lee’s works in a cover story of Asia Magazine said, “He allows his subconscious to play around with colors and shapes: scratches, gouges, punctures the thick surface of paint layers; abandons the painting, returns to it, gives it another work out until he arrives at a composition he would like to keep.” 

Another major influence on Lee is the Fil-Hispanic painter Fernando Zobel de Ayala with whom the former kept a series of correspondences. Fernando taught him “how to think about painting and not just to depend on chance or inherent instinct…but to take advantage of chance and instinct by improving on these with the conscious brain.” Fernando remained a friend and patron to Lee even when the social set had started to regard the latter an outcast after carelessly passing a joint in one private screening. 

As the cover story that appeared in Asia Magazine reported, Lee would often work till the early mornings in his studio under a mango tree a few meters away from his house. During his Pollock period, Metro reported that he “would mark time and motion spent on a painting by lining bottles of gin he downed while working.”

While Lee continued to embrace his Western influences—Robert Motherwell’s collages during his Galumphing phase (characterized by the fun and frolic the word suggests), for instance—it was also around the ‘60s when Lee renounced his American citizenship because of his disgust towards American parity rights and the bases pact. He was promptly declared persona non grata by the Embassy and the CIA.

Lee during his days in military school. Courtesy of Melba Arribas.

The Linear period 

A remarkable moment in Lee’s artistic evolution was his Linear period, during which he created his most significant contributions to Philippine art. It was during this time when all the impulsive energy of his previous works gave way to a more minimalist style of abstraction, giving rein to line and geometry—but strong and bold colors continued to be potent elements in his works. 

Color was also never absent in his life. In 1974, he was picked up and confined at the Camp Crame for 16 days, unfortunately having stumbled upon the girlfriend of a Cabinet official having sex with someone on a bathroom floor. When he was finally released the day after Christmas, he asked then General Olivas what he was detained for. All the general told him was: “Whatever it was you did, don’t do it again.” 

It was also in the Seventies when Lee explored gambling, at one point selling one of his Linear paintings for P15,000 at a casino. Before the decade ended, the artist and his son Leo were thrown out of their rented Patio Madrigal studio on Roxas Boulevard. He owed back payments for the space, and so he also had to part ways with six of his own paintings, plus a mosaic table by Arturo Luz, a portrait of Lee by his friend Fernando Zobel, and 60 primed canvases. All these were confiscated. A friend would offer him room and board at Rene Knecht’s Hotel Frederick which would become his home for three years until the establishment was foreclosed. 

It was during his Hotel Frederick days when he met the model Melba Arribas. By this time, Lee’s wife, the Italian Elvira Campiglio who he married in 1960 and with whom he has three children, had already left him. Melba had been scared of Lee the first time they met in one of those shows at the Hyatt. She left for the US soon after for a fashion show and decided to try her luck there. Three years later, in 1980, she returned to Manila and a friend introduced them again. They were at Hobbit House in Ermita and he was playing pool. “I was so attracted to him,” Melba tells me. “Sexy siya noon. The first time (we met) talagang takot na takot ako because I was so young then. Three years after, ‘Wow, who was this guy?’” On that second meeting, Lee immediately told Melba to sit beside him. “’Dito ka!’ sabi niya.”

Tall and possessing an athletic-built, Lee exuded that sexy, dangerous air of Brando’s role in "A Streetcar Named Desire," one of the artist’s favorites among the actor’s cinematic characters. He favored the same fashion, too, being partial to form-defining shirts and high-waisted trousers. Even approaching his 50s, he was a magnet for women and was often surrounded by them.

Soon after Lee and Melba met, she was living with him in his small room at Hotel Frederick. They would grace a lot of art openings (he liked talking to students, Melba recalls, and never ran out of stories). While she says living with Lee was easy, there was a period when she struggled with his alcoholism and substance use. She would tell him it didn’t matter that he produce anything, finish a painting, so long as he stopped his alcohol and drug intake. She eventually gave up. “[I thought] What do you want, hindi siya magwo-work? Madedpress naman siya (kaya) magda-drugs (din) siya, pareho lang.”

Lee at home in V. Mapa, with Tysmans in 1983. Photo by Lito Tesoro. Photo courtesy of Wig Tysmans.

The letters he wrote 

If there was anyone who truly understood Lee and everything that came with the persona, it was Melba. “A lot of people say it’s hard to live with an artist but then he was very simple. The only thing he wanted was the truth. If you tell him the truth, tapos na. If you keep hiding it from him, he will continue searching you for it. That’s why a lot of people think makulit siya." This obsessive search for truth is most apparent in the many letters he sent to friends, to government officials, to people who borrow his paintings and fail to honor a promise—they would return them damaged, and sometimes they won’t return them at all. Someone once said he has probably written a letter to every president of the Philippines. His anger and frustrations were mostly channeled into his writings. His passion in writing would show in his own edits of letters in his own handwriting. 

At no other time would Lee’s energy and concentration be taken up by too much letter-writing and paperwork than in 1988 when he was again being evicted—together with his then 75-year old mother—this time from his ancestral home in Sta. Mesa where he transferred after being forced to leave Hotel Frederick. Days before the eviction, their supply of electricity was cut, and there were threats of violence from outside—the slashing of his mother’s throat among them, the bashing of his skull, and finally that Lee would be shot. Their plywood walls, yakal flooring, electrical wirings and bathroom fixtures were stolen. Rocks were thrown at his roof from midnight to morning. 

It was reported that Lee’s father once had assets amounting to $700 million but he squandered it in an attempt to stay in good standing with the Marcos government and its cronies. When Daniel Aguinaldo died in 1985, more than 90 percent of the remaining assets had been deemed of no value. Lee got locked in a legal battle with the executor of his father’s will, former Senator Dominador Aytona. While Aytona had been selling the estate of his father as the will provided, Lee alleged that Aytona was selling it at a price remarkably lower than its worth. When Aytona sold the ancestral home, the heirs were allegedly not consulted nor informed. Broke and saddled with a P2.5 million debt, Lee and his belongings were literally kicked out into the street. 

But through it all the artist remained defiant. “He kept on painting on the day the sheriff came to eject him from his ancestral home,” Rod Paras Perez would recall of that day. “With surrealistic detachment, he noted how one by one his furniture was hauled away as he sat painting. Finally, they went for his brushes. He would put one down and it would disapper, till nothing was left—not even the canvas he was working on.” 

Lee’s struggle not to be evicted from the ancestral home was covered closely by both the tabloids and broadsheets of the time. To Abner Galino of People’s Tonight, he would say “I would shoot it out like Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, or I will just blow my head off like Papa Hemingway.” To Manila Chronicle, "I can have a little war here. I want to die like Marlon Brando in Viva Zapata.”

 

His last days 

After the eviction, Lee would move to an apartment in San Juan where he did his Rembrandt series, until finally, three years before his death, circumstances would lead him to this rented house in Quezon City. The pursuit to claim the pieces of what was rightfully his consumed Lee up to his last years. Apart from the properties, there were the paintings. He would write to a TV actor after seeing a newspaper photograph of him with his painting in the background. Lee never got a reply. Last Christmas, when Melba attended the reunion of the Hyatt models at Chito Collantes’ residence, his only reminder to her was to tell the society maven to return his paintings. 

It was also later in life that he wished to be reinstated as a U.S. citizen, as evidenced by the last letter he wrote, dated September 5, 2006, adressed to George Bush’s office at the White House. Someone had typed the letter for him in a computer; he had signed it only with his thumbmark. 

An ad for the Sao Paulo Biennale where the "Linear No. 98" and "Linear No. 99" were among the representative pieces.

“I am now 75 years old and suffered a stroke two and a half years ago, rendering me incapacitated to paint as an artist,” he wrote. “My two sons have been complaining about my giving up my citizenship. My daughter Liza went to the US and acquired US citizenship. I object to the State Department declaring the persona-non-grata in the very country I was born. I find the State Department vindictive.” On the bottom of the page, he wrote, “If you cannot grant me my request of reinstatement, at least, please remove the persona-non-grata status slapped on me.” 

His first stroke had made it difficult for Lee to move around, and so his last two years were spent inside this modest home in Quezon City. He spent his last days watching local television, sitting through teleseryes and even variety shows. He became impatient and would shout orders to the help if he wanted anything. “He was not able to get over the trauma of his eviction,” Melba says. “Everytime he would think of it masakit, because he cannot do anything.” 

What does she miss most about him? “Marami. His presence, his voice. His wit, his sense of humor. I could tell him honestly what’s in my heart. He knew how to appease me.” She tells me about Lee’s ritual before retiring to bed: he would fix himself a martini, and then put on a Miles Davis CD. These days, Melba says, when she listens to the old records, no one’s there anymore to tell her who is playing the saxophone, or the bass, or the guitar. Tonight in their room, surrounded by memories of Lee, Chris Connors is singing “A Cottage for Sale” from the turntable, struggling to be heard against the sudden downpour outside. “A little dream castle/With every dream gone/Is lonely and silent/The shades are all drawn.”

product image
Leon Gallery

Linear No. 98 and Linear No. 99 by Lee Aguinaldo

Signed and dated 1969 (verso) acrylic (aqua-tec) on marine plywood 38” x 38” (97 cm x 97 cm) each. Starting Rate Bid Below.

Php 8,400,000 Register now to bid!

The León Gallery Magnificent September Auction 2020 is happening this September 19 at 2PM. It is the second major alliance between León Gallery, the country’s most trusted auction house and ANCX.ph, the urban man’s guide to style and culture, the online lifestyle site of ANC, the ABS-CBN News Channel.  

View the online catalogue as well as register to bid now at www.leon-gallery.com. For inquiries, call (02) 8772-8343 or send an email at info@leon-gallery.co