Known as the father of Philippine conceptual art, Roberto Chabet passed away on Tuesday, April 30 following a cardiac arrest at the age of 76. According to relatives, Chabet was hospitalized Monday with a high fever and suffered a first heart attack on Tuesday. He succumbed to a second heart attack that same day. The country is mourning a teacher who inspired a generation of Filipino artists and curators.
Part of Chabet’s legacy is the 13 Artists Award, which Chabet initiated in 1970 as the founding museum director of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). The annual award, honoring the 13 Modernists in Philippine art history, recognize young artistic talent in the Philippines. Under his brief tenure, Chabet established CCP as a prime venue for artistic experimentation and collaboration, and also mounted his first large-scale sculptures and installations in this space. During this same period, he received the 1972 Republic Cultural Heritage Award.
For over thirty years following his term at the CCP, Chabet taught at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts (UP CFA), encouraging students to find their own meaning in their art practice. He became a father figure to many of the established and innovative artists in Manila today such as Nilo Ilarde, Juni Salvador, Pardo De Leon, Jonathan Olazo, Wire Tuazon, Yasmin Sison, Geraldine Javier, Louie Cordero, Nona Garcia, Ringo Bunoan and Poklong Anading. Arguably the most influential and well-loved artist-curator of contemporary art in the Philippines, Chabet organized numerous landmark exhibitions over his lifetime, often featuring works by his students.
Though visibly weakened from a previous stroke and often seen in a wheelchair, Chabet remained highly active in the art circuit up until his death. He exhibited his own work, provided curatorial counsel and continued to support other artists and former students. His last show, “China Collages, Ziggurats, & Other Unexhibited Collages,” ended last April at the West Gallery in Quezon City, and his work is currently on view in “The Mona Lisa Project,” a group exhibition at the CCP. In February 2013 at Finale Art File, Chabet exhibited a stunning show titled “Labyrinth.” The works included an actual labyrinth constructed out of hollow blocks covered with glass shards. In the two spaces above the ground floor labyrinth, a red nylon cord descended from the ceiling into tangles across the floor, and a series of red fluorescent lights in the shape of arrows pointed in all directions. It was impossible to be unaffected by this exhibition that was both poignant and playful.
Drawing from his background in architecture, Chabet’s work often revolves around the transitory nature of commonplace material. His visual language uses a series of recurring materials and objects, such as plywood, neon lights, shelves with metal brackets, crowbars, boats, parachutes, drums, harmonicas, tables, mirrors, canes, clipboards, maps–an inventory of anxious objects waiting to collide. In 2011, Asia Art Archive (AAA) and the Lopez Memorial Museum presented The Chabet Archive, a milestone research and digitization project titled “Roberto Chabet: Fifty Years,” with works touring galleries in the Philippines, Singapore and Hong Kong. From his first solo exhibition at the Luz Gallery in 1961 to his most recent exhibitions, the Chabet Archive is an unprecedented mapping of the artist’s body of work and his contributions to Philippine art. The Chabet Archive is now a precious resource for those interested in the history of conceptual art and the extraordinary role played by its founding father, as well as a starting point for young Filipino artists who will no doubt continue to be inspired by Chabet’s work.