At 84, Puerto Rico’s Most Celebrated Artist Will “Never” Stop Painting

Called “one of Puerto Rico’s greatest cultural ambassadors,” Antonio Martorell was recently awarded a National Medal of Arts.

Antonio Martorell standing outdoors, wearing with straw hat and blue-and-white striped shirt

Antonio Martorell has been working as an artist since the 1960s.

Photo by Herson Guerrero

This article is part of a series created by United Voices, a new AFAR immersion program that brings together local content creators and AFAR editors for workshops, reporting stories, and experiencing a destination together. We make our debut in Puerto Rico.

Painter. Printmaker. Writer, professor, illustrator, actor, sculptor, costume designer. Born in San Juan in 1939, Antonio Martorell has for decades been one of Puerto Rico’s celebrated artists; in March 2023, President Biden awarded him the National Medal of Arts, calling Martorell “one of Puerto Rico’s greatest cultural ambassadors.”

In April, we sat down with Martorell at his sprawling studio on Calle Salmon in Ponce, in a building that dates to 1815. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A jar of used paintbrushes of different sizes

At his sprawling studio in Ponce, Martorell also works with younger artists to help them develop their vision.

Photo by Herson Guerrero

What has been your inspiration for your art?

Everything that I like and that I dislike. But luckily, there is more of what I like than of what I dislike. What I dislike—I condemn it, and what I like—I celebrate it, with the instrument that I have, which is art. Various mediums, too, since the main motive of my work, besides the pleasure of creating, is to communicate. So, it’s taken me from fine arts to the media, to writing books, to television, to radio, to film, to drama. All mediums are valid, and in addition, tempting, to be able to reach [people] and to communicate even further.

Do you ever get ideas for painting from other mediums?

All the time! One advantage of doing different things—theater, movies, books, painting, sculpture—is that every time you go into one, you learn from doing that and you apply it to the other discipline you are taking up next. So, it’s a never-ending apprenticeship. And then everything an artist does, assists, or is subject to, whatever you read, whatever you see, whatever you hear, whatever you feel, becomes a source of the so-called inspiration. But I shy away from that word. I prefer “transfiguration” because you get an idea, but what ends up being art is doing it, working it, sweating it. And sweating it doesn’t mean “in pain.” You sweat in pleasure.

Do you consider yourself a Renaissance man? A person that does something of everything?

No. I only consider myself someone who wants to do things.

I love your work and have followed your trajectory since I was younger—my grandfather in particular, was also a fan of yours. How has the art scene in Puerto Rico—and the understanding of it—progressed in your time?

When I was growing up in the ’40s, there wasn’t a single museum in Puerto Rico. There had been great artists, like [José] Campeche y Jordán, [Francisco] Oller, [Ramón] Frade, Pou [Miguel Pou Becerra], and before them there had been the talla de santos [carving of saints], the Taino cemíes, the African influence on carving. But there was no place for one to see any of it.

It was in the ’50s that a group was established, a movement. Then the museums came, then workshops, then the Escuela de Artes Plásticas, then the universities integrated arts. What we have to be very conscious about is that we are all heirs of a tradition that is old as it is new. And we should feel free to take from it.

I remember when I did my first exhibit in New York, at El Museo del Barrio. There were critics that were surprised to see that I had a piece titled “Rilke’s House” after Rainer Maria Rilke, the great poet of German language, born in the 19th century. And they would say, “But what is a Puerto Rican doing . . . ?” And I would respond: “That is part of my heritage [as an artist]. Shakespeare is mine, Dante is mine, as well as Cervantes, and Díaz Alfaro, like René Marquez, all of it.”

Antonio Martorell shown in profile against colorful abstract painting

Martorell says he will never tire of producing art.

Photo by Herson Guerrero

In terms of inspiration, what do you say to future generations? Is it to stick to the basics of art and then let themselves discover? Or do you encourage them to just break all the rules they know?

It’s hard to give advice. But I can share my experience and my experience is: Be aware. Be as aware as you can. Feel. Listen. Read. Smell. Touch. Be aware of what happens here [in Puerto Rico] and elsewhere and respond to it. No matter what you do, you’re going to be different. So, don’t try to be different. You are different.

What writer or painter has inspired you?

Oh, it’s like a phone book, it would never end. But first and foremost, the two teachers that I had at the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture in San Juan: [Lorenzo] Homar and [Rafael] Tufiño. They, for one thing, taught me the relationship between a word and an image. When we use words, we create and give life to meaning, and that is inspiration.

What does art bring to the to the world?

Art opens up new visions, new feelings, new knowledge. You learn through art. Art is not just decoration. Art is not just information. It’s not just merchandise; it is not a brand that you pay for. Art is a way of knowledge, just as efficient and as profound as mathematics, science, writing, and reading. Art is learning and joy.

The more you learn, the more you know?

And the more you want.

The more you want.

It’s like eating carbohydrates.

Do you feel that it’s ever going to end, this urge you have to keep creating?

Never! I’m insatiable. Why would you want to end having pleasure and giving pleasure? Why? No other activity accepts the excess of art. I can work still 10 or 12 hours a day, without getting tired. Try any other activity, including the one you’re thinking of, for 12 or 14 hours. You can’t do it.

Herson Guerrero is a university professor and photographer. For more than a decade, he’s dedicated his life to documenting the immersive cultural experiences he encounters on his travels. Guerrero published the travel book El Buen Viaje and holds a degree in mass media, in addition to an MBA in advanced international marketing and a JD in law.
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