It’s rare to be born to a father who’s an important artist. It’s improbable to be the son of two — yet Rio Rocket Valledor is exactly that. The fifty-four-year-old exhibition designer is the respective son and stepson of two pioneering Filipino American artists: abstractionist Leo Valledor, who died in 1989, and artist and longtime art educator Carlos Villa, who died in 2013. His mother is Mary Valledor — married first to Valledor, then to Villa — who co-manages the two estates with her son.
For years, Rio and Mary Valledor had been searching for the right home for these distinct yet interwoven legacies. When Silverlens, headquartered in Manila, opened a location in Manhattan last year, the first US gallery to specialize in Filipino and Filipino American art, it seemed like a natural fit.
At the Chelsea gallery’s opening reception last September, Rio Valledor approached Silverlens’s co-directors Isa Lorenzo and Rachel Rillo with an offer to represent both estates. The gallerists happily agreed, and one year later, on September 7, 2023, they opened the exhibition Remains of Surface: Carlos Villa & Leo Valledor, the first significant two-person show to present the lifelong friends together.
With a dozen pieces split between Villa and Valledor and displayed in pairs, Remains of Surface privileges lesser known and more personal works. Instead of hard-edge abstraction, for which Valledor was best known, we get softer, more curvaceous forms and works resonant with emotional meaning. His large, multi-panel canvas Between Heaven and Earth (1973), which greets visitors at the gallery’s entrance, hints at this direction. It’s an ensemble of geometric forms — a square, triangle, and two half circles — that seem to be playing musical chairs. Further inside the gallery, a constellation of oblique and incomplete shapes forms the work titled We Shall Overcome (1983).
Valledor’s most personal work in the show is The Blessing (for Rio) (1970), a luminous, round white canvas he made a year after his son’s birth. It cast a lunar glow over Rio’s face as he introduced me to the painting on the opening night of the show. I couldn’t help but remember the overflowing feelings of bliss I felt after the birth of my own child. Rio lost his father while he was studying in architecture school. “It was tough because I was finally able to speak about art and there was so much I wanted to talk to him about,” he said.
And if you’re looking for Villa’s fabulous feathered capes and cloaks like those featured in last year’s retrospective of his work Worlds in Collision, which traveled from New Jersey’s Newark Museum of Art to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, you won’t find them here. Rather, you’ll see several of his face- and body-print canvases, some created during live performances. These compelling works, which even now pulsate with Villa’s larger-than-life presence, are assertions of self and identity, records of his exploration of Indigenous rituals from the Philippines and other Pacific cultures. One untitled work made between1979-1982 is dotted with chicken bones crocheted in colorful yarns, while another features a bundle of dark hair at the top left corner of the canvas and a photo of the artist’s mother at the lower right corner.
As artists, Valledor and Villa are so vastly different in style and form that it’s only natural to wonder about the decision to put them together in one show. They weren’t even big fans of each other’s work, according to Mary Valledor. But the more I learned about the two artists, the less bothered I was by this mismatch. Their deep bond, and the incredible intersections between their biographies, is for me a good enough reason; this is an intimate exhibition that represents a story of love, family, and profound friendship.
Born a few months apart in1936 to mothers who hailed from the same small town in the Philippines, the two artists grew up in working-class neighborhoods not far from each other in San Francisco (Villa in the Tenderloin and Valledor in the Fillmore) and referred to themselves as “cousins” though they weren’t blood related. Their lives as young adults were also tightly intertwined. They both became artists, moved to New York, moved back together to San Francisco, and studied and later taught at the California School of Fine Arts (now the defunct San Francisco Art Institute, or SFAI). And of course, they were married to the same woman.
Mary Valledor (née Leahy) was seventeen when she met Villa at a party at his parents’ house in 1958. He was a twenty-two-year-old student at the California School of Fine Arts, recently discharged from service in the Korean War. The day after the party, Villa took her out on an informal date, which ended in a visit to Valledor’s house. “Carlos admired Leo, and was a bit intimidated by him,” Mary told me in a phone conversation. One look at the chiseled face of the slightly older Valledor and Mary was smitten. “It was one of those magic moments,” she recounted. A week later, she told Villa that she had started dating his “cousin.”
Villa took the news well. “He was too wild for me anyway,” Mary explained. “Carlos was a flamboyant guy who wore flamboyant clothes, and he’d walk into a room with a lot of noise.” Valledor, on the other hand, was a quiet, introverted man prone to solitude and introspection. “He didn’t feel comfortable talking to collectors,” Rio told me. “He stuck to his guns and wouldn’t play the game of the system.” Mary added that the late artist was “suspicious of the wealthy” as someone who had grown up without means. That stubbornness came at a cost to Valledor, who’s represented in the collections of several major US museums but never gained the art-world recognition he believed he deserved. A founding member of New York’s Park Place Gallery of the 1960s, he exhibited with contemporaries such as Sol LeWitt, Robert Smithson, and Donald Judd, who called him “one of the most important artists” of his time. He was an artists’ artist — admired by his prominent white peers though he never reached their levels of success.
Valledor’s frustration with his reception is part of the reason he returned to San Francisco in 1968. Another was his resistance to joining the cult of Minimalism that reigned over the New York art scene of the period. A third factor might have been the hostility of New Yorkers. During our conversation, Mary recounted how people who would see her walking with Valledor would approach her carefully to whisper: “Are you okay?” (Mary is white.) It happened several times, she said, adding that together with Villa, the three of them decided to return to their community in the Bay Area.
Valledor died at age fifty-three, from health complications soon after a benign brain tumor was removed. Villa, who’d remained a close friend of the couple, was there to support Mary and her son in their loss. They eventually got married, closing the circle, and remained so until Villa’s death at age seventy-six. “We had a wonderful life together,” Mary said about Villa, who had mellowed with age but held onto his exuberant personality. Several years after his passing, a cache of Villa’s works were discovered in the attic of his studio. Some of those pieces were shown in a small exhibition celebrating his legacy at SFAI’s Fort Mason campus. The modest show prefigured the 2022 exhibition at the Newark Museum, the country’s first-ever major museum retrospective of a Filipino American artist.
The renewed interest in Villa came at a moment of racial reckoning in the art world, sparked by the George Floyd protests of 2020. Scrambling to right their historical wrongs, museums are finally paying more serious attention to artists of color — something Villa fought for his entire career. A foundational experience, often cited in his biographies, occurred in 1958 when he was told by a professor at the California School of Fine Arts that “Filipino art history doesn’t exist.” Villa made it his life’s mission to prove that professor wrong. After returning to the Bay Area from New York (and abandoning abstraction along the way) he conceived a course about Filipino art history for the University of San Francisco.
At SFAI, where he ended up teaching for four decades, Villa became a local legend, influencing generations of artists. In the 1990s, he organized a series of symposia titled “Worlds in Collision,” hosting artists and scholars including Angela Davis, bell hooks, Ruth Asawa, and Guillermo Gómez-Peña. San Francisco’s culture of art activism and social justice organizing, along with the fact that the Bay Area was the birthplace of ethnic studies in the country, laid fertile ground for Villa’s projects.
His knack for connecting people extended beyond campus. “Carlos was convener and instigator,” said the Filipino American artist Jerome Reyes, who works between San Francisco and Seoul, Korea. “His studio was an important site for collaboration. He would bring people together, then step back and let them go on fire.”
Reyes met Villa as a student at SFAI and quickly became his teaching assistant and collaborator. “People would travel from across the country to learn about the idea of Carlos,” he added.
One of those people was Sherwin Rio, who moved from Florida to San Francisco around 2016 to study at SFAI under Villa. “I wanted to know more about Filipino American art and know where I fit in it,” he told me.
What the young student did not know was that his idol had passed three years earlier. Nonetheless, it was his first step in joining a tight-knit group of family and friends, people intent on building community and writing the next page of Filipino American art history. The group includes Villa’s former student and studio assistant Owen Takabayashi; art professor and curator Patrick D. Flores; and Smithsonian curator at the National Museum of American History, Theodore S. Gonzalves. As Reyes puts it, “Being a Filipino American artist is still a quest to find everyone.”
Rio ended up writing his MFA thesis on Villa, which is how he met Mary and Rio Valledor, who later hired him to work in the preservation and management of the two estates in San Francisco. (He also contributed to the catalogue for Villa’s 2022 retrospective and helped install the exhibition at Silverlens.) Together, their ambition is to educate the public, as well as young generations of Filipino American artists, about Valledor and Villa’s legacies. Remains of Surface is a significant moment in this effort, revealing facets of their singular, familial voices in concert with each other.
“We’re trying to make sure the legacy lives on, gets told, that the work is being seen and understood,” Rio Valledor said.
“I want people to know,” Mary Valledor added, “that they are important.”
Lead image: Rio Valledor stands next to Leo Valledor's The Blessing (for Rio) (1970). Photo: Hakim Bishara.