Rafael Alfonso Umaña Mendez (1908-1994), known to most as Umaña, created art for seven decades in New York, France, Spain, Florida, and Virginia, mastering numerous media including textiles; sculpture in marble, silver, and iron; painting and drawings in oil, watercolor, pencil, silver- and goldpoint; printmaking; and fine art book illustration. Born in Bogotá Colombia to a family of artisans, his father was an accomplished metal-worker and iron forger whose work was commissioned by churches, the government, and other wealthy clients. Both of Umaña’s parents died during his teens but left him an inheritance allowing him to continue his education. In 1925 at the age of 17 Umaña traveled to Madrid to study at the Academia San Fernando de Bellas Artes and the Royal Tapestry Factories. Where he remained until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil war in 1936.
From 1936 until 1979 Umaña lived and worked mainly in New York City. In 1936 the Alma Reed Gallery (Delphic Studios) hosted his first one-man show of paintings. Umaña was one of many Latin American artists introduced to the New York gallery scene by Alma Reed. Umaña also supported himself with his weaving skills, forming a professional and personal partnership with artist and textile designer Eve Peri, his first wife. Under the name Peri-Umaña, the couple designed textiles in contemporary motifs with Latin American influences. Umaña wove the rugs, fabrics and tapestries using traditional Colombian techniques. In 1938 Peri-Umaña showed their collaborations at the Reed Gallery and received commissions from the interior designer Robjohn Givens. Givens used Peri- Umaña fabrics extensively is his work in New York City and in the Hamptons.
In late 1943 Umaña enlisted in the United States Army and was posted to the Pacific Theater until 1945. His Army service allowed him to further his education on the G. I. Bill at the New School for Social Research from 1945-48. From 1948-50 he returned to his art studies in Paris at the Academie Julian showing paintings twice in exhibitions at the Salon de Mai and the Salon des Arts Nouveaux in 1950.
During the 1940’s Umaña also met a young dancer from Virginia, Helen McGehee, a member of the Martha Graham Company. Gehee, as Umaña called her, became Umaña’s second wife and chief collaborator for the rest of his life. In ’48-49 Helen joined Umaña in Paris where they were married in 1950 (his divorce from Eve Peri was finalized in 1949). Upon the couple’s return from Europe in 1950, Helen rejoined the Martha Graham Company and by the mid-1950s was lead dancer, taking over most roles originated by Graham. Through McGehee, Umaña furthered his association with the Martha Graham Company that would include photographing and filming the troupe in rehearsal and on tour, designing costumes for Graham dances including the Seer’s Mask for Night Journey, and sketching portraits of Graham and others associated with troupe. Many of the portraits and dance sketches are in the difficult methods of silver and goldpoint. By the 1950’s Umaña had also developed his signature painting style described by Leroy Leatherman, reviewing one of his many gallery shows during this decade:
"Umaña took his instruction from cubism, but like any other serious artist he uses it as his discipline, not his tyrant. He goes from abstraction to representation, and works all the intermediate stages with obvious authority and ease. The source of his authority as an artist is his sensibility, his feeling which goes directly to his canvas, the way all artists always pray it will. It rarely happens, but when it does, it is a delightful thing to encounter."
Through the 1960s, the Umañas lived and worked in New York. During this time Umaña achieved his greatest and most consistent success showing paintings, drawings, and textiles in galleries in New York and Florida. He continued to gain good notices especially for his much more abstract “Gate Into Space” painting exhibition in 1961 in celebration of John Glenn’s first space walk. In 1979 Umaña and Helen returned to her hometown, Lynchburg, where he continued to work and develop skills with new media, especially as a forger in iron sculpture. Umaña died November 20, 1994.
Umaña’s work is represented in the following museums:
Public Library, Birmingham, Alabama
Cincinnati Public Library, Cincinnati, Ohio
Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio
Butler Library, Colombia University, New York New York
Cornell University Art Museum, Ithaca, New York
Dallas Public Library, Dallas, Texas
Detroit Public Library, Detroit Michigan
Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Maier Museum of Art, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Lynchburg, Virginia
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey
New York Public Library, New York, New York
Philadelphia Public Library, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
State University of New York, New Paltz, New York.
Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Humanities Resource Center, University of Texas, Austin, Texas
Georgetown University Washington, DC.
Museum of Performing Arts, The New York Public Library At Lincoln Center New York, NY