From Franz Sorilla IV
May 28, 2021
Lee Aguinaldo, an outsider of Filipino high society, lived a full life as an artist. When he passed away in 2007, he left many wonderful memories for his long-time partner, former model Melba Arribas. Today she shares her well-tended treasure of his modern masterpieces with the world.
When they first met in 1977, Melba Arribas had no idea that Lee Aguinaldo was a prolific visual artist with contemporaries like Cesar Legaspi, Hernando R. Ocampo, and Vicente Manansala. Who could blame her? His rock-star evil looks preceded his extraordinary talent, which only becomes apparent when you display your masterpieces in the Metropolitan Museum or the Philippine Art Gallery.
Leopoldo “Lee” Aguinaldo was born in New York in 1933 and was the son of prolific business magnate Daniel Aguinaldo, best known today as the “kingmaker” of former President Ramon Magsaysay. He came from a powerful family related to Emilio Aguinaldo, the first President of the Philippines, who could have catapulted him as the country’s political or entrepreneurial figure. After World War II, his father forced him to attend a military school in Indiana. But as fate would have it, he discovered his talent as an artist and decided to become one. When he came home to the Philippines to study at college, his domineering father again forced him to take a degree in commerce from one of the best universities in the country. At the height of his youth, his rebellious side became more prominent. After graduating from college, Lee would be known as a notorious party-goer and after the luxuries of life.
Things changed dramatically when Aguinaldo finally decided to turn his back on the family business. And it was for the sake of art.
After Arribas’ model stay in the USA, she returned to the Philippines in 1980 and suddenly crossed paths with Aguinaldo at a party in the Hobbit House. “The two eventually developed a close relationship, fell in love and have never been separated since then,” says the catalog for the spectacular half-yearly auction of the Leon Gallery, which took place on June 5th.
His death in 2007 left her with such great sadness. For over a decade, she held onto the masterpieces her partner had left behind in her Quezon City home. She never would have thought that the day would finally come for her to let go of the pieces after some enlightenment from her closest friends.
“With a lot of trust, confidence and admiration” Arribas awarded the Leon Gallery the very private and most cherished works of the self-taught master of modernism who contributed to the Philippine art scene for more than half a century.
Best known as gestural, minimalist, sharp-edged and colorful, Aguinaldo’s style enlivens the modern abstract movement of the Philippines. As part of the first generation of Filipino abstractionists in the 1950s, he was one of the pioneers of Pop Art in the local art scene, as his work with pictures from fashion magazines shows. The autodidact was heavily influenced by artists he admired, such as Rembrandt van Rijn, Jackson Pollock, Johannes Vermeer and Mark Rothko.
Cid Reyes asked him in a 1973 interview with Aguinaldo how important it was to have an idiosyncratic Filipino perspective on art. Aguinaldo replied: “I don’t think it’s really that important. What matters is that Filipinos create art that can compete in quality with the art of all other countries.”
Aguinaldo turned out to be one of the most sought-after artists of the 50s to 90s for his avant-garde, linear lines and drip-style paintings. He was known for incorporating the acrylic method into the technique of the professional artist when oil and watercolor were popular materials. According to art critic Leonidas Benesa, he was “an extremely difficult artist to appreciate” who turned away from the traditional standards of painting.
Another characteristic feature of Aguinaldo’s work is the perception of light and its circulation. Art critic Alice ML Coseteng said: “[His] Two-dimensional surfaces reflect light when they shine in brilliant tones or are opaque. In this special piece, the harmonious mixing of the complementary shades of red, yellow and orange creates expressive brushstrokes that demonstrate the refined art of Aguinaldo. Its ‘color field’ passages of intense colors radiate a cosmetic atmosphere. Aguinaldo’s way of emphasizing the subject triggers a response that can only be generated by recognizing his avant-garde virtuosity. His style must be recognized for his ability to “encapsulate the glow, reflection and change of light as if on the smooth and shiny surface of a fender”.
In 1985, he and his siblings not only lost their father, but also his fortune through a debacle with their father’s executor. Aguinaldo was broke and in debt and continued to struggle with his art, even when he was driven from their ancestral home. It was a traumatic experience that haunted him into the twilight years.
Aguinaldo indeed lived a full life with all the glitz and glamor, the pits and the falls. And yet there remained Arribas great works of the renowned artist, which reflect his skills and extraordinary talent. Though flawed in the eyes of the tabloids attempting to manipulate his reputation, Arribas and their children, as well as their trusted friends and loyal patrons, remember him for his passion, love, and devotion. The pieces, which will be auctioned at the Leon Gallery on June 5th, bear witness to his ingenuity and fearlessness as an artist. The private works give us a glimpse into the artist’s journey from traditional Abstract Expressionism to a style entirely in keeping with his own.
The Lee Aguinaldo personals from Melba Arribas’ private collection are part of the Leon Gallery’s spectacular semi-annual auction. The upcoming auction lots can be seen from May 29th to June 4th at the Leon Gallery in Makati. Visit leon-gallery.com for more details.