The artist Roberto Chabet, who died after heart failure on May 1, mentored generations of artists who revered and loved him not just for coaxing out of them the ability to look at and make art in a new way, but also because of the awe for his work, which, through the simplest of forms, could have cosmic sweep at the same time that it could express such tender humanity.
He was 76.
For 30 years, Chabet, as he was known as an artist (“Mr. Chabet” or “Sir Chabet” in the art world, “Bobby” to peers) held court at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts.
He was the founding museum director of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, where he instituted the 13 Artists Award recognizing talent in young artists, an award that continues to this day with undiminished prestige.
He was among the pillars of later Philippine Modernism, closely allied with Fernando Zobel and Lee Aguinaldo, all practicing a rigorously intellectual art.
Chabet espoused the conviction that the idea behind the artwork is more important than what it’s made of or how it’s made.
Of realistic oil portraits his students were working on in another class, he said: “Why not just take a photograph?”
The ability to draw or manipulate paint or marble was unimportant to him.
He did not study art. He graduated with a degree in Architecture from University of Santo Tomas, though he never practiced.
The bulk of his work was installations that had a vocabulary consisting predominantly of construction materials: plywood, lumber, house paint, shelving brackets. He used clipboards, too, the kind you might find an architect bringing around a construction site.
At the same time he was revered, he was also reviled by traditionalists and social activists alike, derided as un-Filipino, “New York-centrist,” effete, bourgeois, reactionary.
Some of his own students would part ways from him based on ideological grounds, being drawn more by art seeking to provoke political and social consciousness, rejecting what they considered to be art for the elite, art made for its own sake. For a long while, the division was sharp and the camps hostile.
It seems less so now. It seems now artists can be taken on their own terms rather than from some absolutist point of view.
And, certainly, despite divergences in views, those Chabet mentored cannot deny their appreciation of him as an artist and a pedagogue.
One of the most successful of those who chose to focus on politically activist art, and himself an influential artist, Emmanuel Garibay, says: “I don’t know anyone who has had such an enduring influence on Philippine contemporary art as Mr. Chabet. He had a compelling presence in his art and person.”
Although working in an entirely different tack, Garibay is goaded by the figure of Chabet.
“It is because of him that I keep striving to raise the level of my work,” says the artist of his late teacher. “His consummate and deliberate process is what I admire most.”
From 2011 to 2012, to mark his 50th year as an artist, a group of Chabet’s students including Ringo Bunoan, Nilo Ilarde and Mawen Ong mounted an unprecedented yearlong round of retrospectives and exhibitions of new work by Chabet in the country’s top galleries and museums, as well as in Singapore and Hong Kong. The most comprehensive retrospective was held at the CCP—on all four levels.
At the time of his passing, they, those who were closest to him, were too distraught to speak. They begged off from being interviewed by the Inquirer.
Fiercely punctilious, Chabet repudiated many an honor he felt compromised.
And yet no one could have been more keenly self-aware. Asked once, “Is it the desire of the artist to live the life of a hero?” Without pause, he answered: “Yes.”
Like his peers Aguinaldo and Zobel, he, too, was well-born. He was the grandson of the statesman Eulogio “Amang” Rodriguez.
Arturo Luz, at whose prestigious Luz Gallery Chabet began to show as a young man, suggested that he drop his actual surname in favor of his mother’s maiden name. “He said there were too many Rodriguezes in the art world already,” Chabet recalled in 2011.
Arguably, Chabet acquired his cultural sophistication in the US where he spent some time as a young man. But once he returned to the Philippines, he never left the country. It was as if he had made a vow.
“I didn’t feel the need to leave,” he said. “There are many ways you can keep abreast of what’s going on around the world, books, magazines.” And he was always on top of the latest. Even when Modernism turned into Postmodernism, he was in on it.
He was a keen user of Facebook, which he used as a platform for continuing what seemed an inherent drive: mentorship. It delighted him no end to be able to engage people from all over the world.
While he was still in UP, however, he was greatly feared. Taciturn and imperious, he could cut down any pretender with just a few choice words that bore all the weight of his convictions.
“Would you, please, take that down so you don’t offend public consciousness,” he would snap at a student, referring to a work, or maybe even an attitude behind it, he found contemptible.
In 2011, he recalled: “There was a time when I felt my work was not appreciated. That was a very difficult period for me.”
Perhaps it was this sense of alienation from a culture of shallower delights that made him so angry. Or maybe it was just an ingrained sense of the extent of human capacity that made him so contemptuous of short change.
Whatever it was, his students eventually came to be grateful for his strictness. Because it made a definite, palpable, visceral effect on their artistic approaches.
Ridiculed in other schools, Chabet’s pedagogical technique included having students copy images from magazines in paint on canvas with no prescription of any criterion or point of the exercise.
As a former student now puts it, it was a process of “unlearning,” of ridding oneself of preconceived notions of the work of an artist. It was a rote employed in the method of Zen practice, to induce an awakening.
Chabet did practice Zen meditation and yoga and drew on paper often throughout the day as a form of meditation.
In his work, he made references to Buddhism and Hinduism. Virtually unknown was his practice of Catholicism in daily life. He went to Mass and prayed the Rosary every day.
He survived two strokes, which fortunately impaired his intellectual and creative faculties not in the slightest, though they did take a toll on his body.
It seemed he was pondering his mortality in a series of shows he mounted in 2009, beginning with “10,000 Paintings I Must Paint Before I Die.” He filled the gallery with clipboards holding up small canvases, all arranged on a grid.
The title is, in part, a send-up of the notion of a bucket list, the idea that there is some number of experiences that qualify a life as having been well-lived.
Chabet continued making new works in epic scale, filling up the cavernous Finale Art File, possibly the largest gallery space in the country.
Only this February, he unveiled “Labyrinth,” consisting of three parts: neon lights in one space, nylon rope in another, and, in the largest space, a labyrinth evoked by rows of hollow blocks cemented together and topped with glass shards in the manner used by Filipino homeowners to secure perimeter fences.
It was a work of characteristic wit, elegance and vigor, promising so much more to come.