What was your decolonial moment? The question is central to artist Fernando Ruíz Lorenzo’s practice as he examines the history of power and conquest in Puerto Rico, from Spanish colonialism to present-day ambiguities around U.S. statehood and sovereignty. Ruíz Lorenzo’s paintings and sculptural installations feature urban and Indigenous iconography—as well as natural and industrial materials—to reflect on the complex economic and political relationship between the United States and its unincorporated territory. In doing so, he explores the inextricable cultural ties between New York and Puerto Rico and his personal connection to each place.
The artist’s most recent body of work employs raw grain salt extracted from Las Salinas—the salt flats—of Cabo Rojo as a “pathway to understanding our own internally compounded colonial subjectivity,” he writes. Using wood panels, Styrofoam, and other basic building materials, Ruíz Lorenzo has constructed post-minimalist pieces tied to a physical place and a liminal landscape of identity and cultural memory. Aerosol-emblazoned symbols recall Taíno petroglyphs and subway graffiti, fragmented maps reconfigure the mainland as an island, and tropical hues channel the beauty of a Caribbean archipelago continuously battered by storms.
This past spring, Ruíz Lorenzo showcased a selection of these salt-based works in a solo exhibition, A Grain of Salt / Un Grano de Sal, at The Boiler, a gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He and I recently had a chance to discuss the show, as well his life and work, including the weight of salt, empires and ruins, and the ways ideas crystalize when coming up through the cracks.
Barbara Purcell: Your practice reflects a dialogue between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, but also New York and Puerto Rico. What is the connection for you?
Fernando Ruíz Lorenzo: I’ve been going back and forth to Puerto Rico since I was a kid. I would go there for summers and actually lived there for a short stint in middle school. My mother is from Rincón, which is the western point of the West Coast, and my father is from Cabo Rojo, just south of Rincón. But they didn’t meet there, they met in New York, in a neighborhood they called Manhattan Valley, which is now the Upper West Side. I was born in Washington Heights and we moved to High Bridge in the Bronx when I was four. I grew up with this hybrid of culture because my family had been in the Heights since the 1960s and I was the one kid who was raised in the Bronx. And there were differences. The Heights is a lot smaller—that’s where Manhattan gets narrower—my aunt and her family lived on 167th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, in a largely Latino neighborhood. But the Bronx had it all: Ghanians, Panamanians, Cubans—it was a beautiful mix. I grew up going back and forth between the two.
BP: What was your childhood like in High Bridge?
FRL: I went to C.E.S. 114 Luis Lloréns Torres Elementary School, which was named after a Puerto Rican poet. I was taught by all Puerto Rican teachers, it was very pan-Latin, we recited the Puerto Rican national anthem in the mornings alongside the American anthem. That’s where I met my young, budding writers [graffiti artists]; we had markers, and we would write on trash cans, that kind of thing. Aerosol writing became the pathway to me becoming an artist—that and hip hop. My friends and I had access to certain publications that basically documented all of the aerosol writing in New York City, mostly from the late ‘70s and '80s. One was Subway Art  with Martha Cooper and the second one was Spraycan Art  by Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff. They became style catalogs or mini encyclopedias for us.
I went to Catholic school starting in 5th grade, and that’s when the rage began. I found another crew of young writers there, and we wrote all over the place—just bombing the High Bridge neighborhood. The priests were always trying to catch us, so I got into a lot of trouble because Catholicism is about authority. It’s about control. And this meant they had no control—so I got suspended for it, and that’s when my mother said “you’re going to Puerto Rico.” When I came back from PR, my old school wouldn’t take me back, it was too late in the semester. So I went to the parish in Washington Heights where my family had first moved to in the '60s, and where my brother and sister had gone. And I found another crew of writers. Most of the kids in Washington Heights were Dominican, they were all embedded in the culture of writing. They had their own style of writing as well. As I would find out later in life, Washington Heights was the beginning of all writing in New York City.
BP: How so?
FRL: Writers Corner was on 188th Street, which was the first wave of writers from the '60s to the '70s—that’s largely not documented. When you think of old-school writing you think of the 1980s forward, but that early experimentation period is where it all happened. In the 1960s, there was a writer called Julio 204 [204th Street] who people speculated was Puerto Rican. He was the primary reason why writing started in Inwood and Washington Heights. He was a young Latino man and he influenced a whole crew of Greek writers from the 180s. One of them was Taki 183 [183rd Street], who wrote all over the city. Taki was written about in the Times, so a lot of attention was then given to the aerosol writing movement. If you notice, I call it “aerosol writing and culture,” I don’t really refer to it as graffiti. I choose not to use that term, because it was largely used to criminalize the art form. Phase 2 used to call it the G word [laughs].
BP: Can you talk about Phase 2?
FRL: He was a legendary NYC aerosol artist who passed away in 2019. In my early 20s, when I was doing all these [gallery] shows on the Lower East Side, my reeducation started with Phase 2. We became friends and through him I met Coco 144, an artist from Harlem. And through Coco, I met some of those early writers from Washington Heights. You had waves of writers, including Phase 2 and Coco 144, who were a part of the UGA—the United Graffiti Artists—which was a guild that was partly founded by a Puerto Rican organizer. You could only be a part of it if you wrote on all the [subway] lines and were well-known enough. That guild became the main reason why you see aerosol writing in galleries because in the early 1970s, they made that transition from putting tags on a wall to a canvas. It was a space that I saw myself in eventually—all the symbols in my own work resemble motion tagging in the city, tagging on trains.
A lot of the iconography I use throughout my paintings, they’re not direct interpretations of Taíno language, but they’re certainly impressions from thinking about Indigenous culture in Puerto Rico. And doing it in aerosol, there is a speed—an unspoken language—it’s a way to continue that tradition of line art within my work. And it’s that one thing that feels like a bridge between Puerto Rico and New York—the development of aerosol writing and culture, which the Puerto Rican community completely contributed to. The paint that I use is largely acrylic aerosol paint. It was my first experimentation as an artist and it’s my pedagogical work, too—it keeps me moving and thinking.
But getting in trouble and writing on stuff led to me also accessing contemporary art spaces. I made it back to Sacred Heart Middle School after a couple of suspensions and had a teacher who completely changed my life—Sheila Bergman—she was responsible for inviting me to collaborate with William Wegman in 1993 for ART WORKS: Teenagers and Artists Collaborate on the Polaroid 20" x 24", an exhibition that opened at The International Center for Photography in Manhattan before traveling to The California Museum of Photography [Riverside], Photographic Resource Center [Boston], and Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art. Bill and I shot 16 photos at the Polaroid Studio on Broadway and Houston—I met his famous Weimaraners as well. It was the first time I had seen a professional artist, he had four or five assistants and these beautiful dogs running around. Bill was really nice, and he really gave me a snapshot into what that life might have been like.
BP: Did that plant the Skidmore seed? I should mention that you and I met there as students in the late 1990s.
FRL: That’s a good question. I had gone to a Cooper Union program in the summer of 1996, and I was on my way to art school. But my brother Ruben, who’s a second father to me, was telling me to try my hand at something else. I went to Cardinal Hayes High School, an all-boys Catholic school, where I had this great English teacher—I was inspired by literature. At Hayes, 95% of our class went to college, but we were from “at risk” neighborhoods. I had a friend there who was really preppy, he was in the golf club. One day he announced he was going to Skidmore, a school in Saratoga Springs, because they had a “dope golf team.” My brother also played golf—which was a bold move in the Bronx in the ‘80s—and I told him about my boy applying to Skidmore. So Ruben told me to apply as well.
After a couple of years I came back to the city, I worked at bookstores, I went to Columbia for a semester. I hung out with a friend from Cardinal Hayes at Harvard for a semester, I worked at a law firm in Boston. And then I went to Cali for two years. That’s where I met Ramón Grosfoguel, the decolonial theorist who was then at Berkeley; he was the first Puerto Rican professor I’d met at any university. Education institutions became anchoring spaces for me to have access to libraries and create my own undergraduate experience. I learned all this stuff while living out there—I went to California to create and just be free—but then I came back to New York in May 2003, and the world had changed. 9/11 had happened. And that was it.
BP: Is that when you started curating shows at bOb Bar down on Eldridge Street? I think I attended a couple of those openings.
FRL: I hung out a lot there from 2003 onwards and participated in a group show sometime between 2003 and 2005. Then I did my Emperial-Since 1898 show there in 2007. I did all of my shows from 2007 to 2011. A lot of writers hung out at bOb—there was a strip of stores on that block that were owned and run by aerosol writers. The whole industry was there. I wasn’t just curating, I became an art dealer, too—and I learned a lot, it was like a little laboratory. There were days that I made great money as an art dealer, and days that I didn't—so I decided to finally wrap up my degree at The New School. I started teaching part time at a middle school in the afternoons, and eventually went full-time at a charter high school.
BP: And you just finished up an MFA this past spring?
FRL: Completing an MFA program in your mid-40s is tough—part-time MFAs in visual arts are almost unheard of. SUNY Purchase had a great program, I did it in four semesters, but I was in between working and providing my mother with hospice care. She passed away last year from cancer, so I was in the middle of this program getting my Grief MFA, you know what I mean? It’s been a lot, but at the same time, I feel like my work has opened up in a different way.
BP: Have you been spending more time in the studio as a result? Your studio is upstate, yes?
FRL: Yes, in the Chatham/Austerlitz/Spencertown area.
BP: Near Ellsworth Kelly’s place.
FRL: I’m literally up the hill. When we’re there, I’m in my calm state. Teaching or coming from a full day’s work—it can be funny going into an art studio. But I have this space now where I can just go and rest, wake up and have one to two days of productive work that I’ve been thinking about all week. Even just walking the streets in New York is part of my process. Before we bought upstate, we’d been thinking about a second home in Puerto Rico—and we almost did it. But to get on a plane every week and go to PR, that’s not as quick as getting on the Taconic from the Bronx and ending up in the mountains. To me, all the green reminds me of Puerto Rico, it’s almost like a portal for me. The only missing thing is the ocean.
BP: How did you get interested in raw grain salt as a medium?
FRL: I was with my wife Judy and son Diego in PR one summer, I think it was 2014, and we stayed for 32 days. We’d go by these salt flats—they’re right by the lighthouse in Cabo Rojo—and see them shift in color throughout the day. These salt flats have been there since 30 BCE. The Taínos used them and when the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s they eventually made it into a commercial enterprise. I had this idea to create some pieces, and I bought two packs of salt from the research center Centro Interpretativo Las Salinas in 2018. I put them in bowls and every once in a while I’d walk by them and just start sifting and experimenting. I wanted to create a series of mini crystallizers—these really minimalist, conceptual pieces painted on the flip-side of wood panels. But pretty soon, I wanted to go bigger with the pieces, and immediately I knew I needed more of this salt. And then it became a struggle to get the salt, I didn’t have access like I thought I did. So I found this company that contracts with Las Salinas and kept trying to contact them, but I never heard back. I thought they might have gone out of business, post-Covid, post-Maria. Finally, after a year and a half, I found this distributor in Mayagüez that got it in droves from that company. But they wouldn’t ship to United States—it’s a very complex, expensive economic relationship—so I called my cousin in Rincón and said I had this weird request:“I’m doing this exhibit, and I need 200 pounds of salt.” This is just bizarre to a family of small business people, but he just said tell me where you need me to go. So he picked up these 50-pound bags of raw salt for me, and I told him to send them through the U.S. Postal Service, but they wouldn’t since it’s a corrosive material. Back in 2018, I had no problem sending those first two small packs through the mail. I’d gone to a tiny post office—the guy was an old New Yorker who had retired to PR—he sent it and didn’t ask any questions.
So this past February, I got on a plane to PR with four large collapsible bags with little wheels. My cousin had the salt waiting for me, wrapped up in yellow rope and blue FEMA-like tarp—which was like an installation itself. My mom had passed at this point, and it was my opportunity to go back and visit her remains. I wasn’t there with my family, so I got to walk around the town and go to the beach, and just reflect on this place that I have so much history with—going back and forth my whole life—and a place that represented everything being right for my mom. She was rooted in Puerto Rico. In New York, her identity never really shifted, she spoke Spanish to the very end. And so doing work that was connected to the land, working with salt, was a big deal. It wasn’t only a place where I could connect to my family and our history, but a way for me to make sense of my own identity and critique my experience within American culture, and the American empire. So it’s very personal and very political. Connecting to that material was really important to me because it’s an actual physical part of the archipelago. And that’s a radical act in itself.
BP: You recently had a solo show at The Boiler in Brooklyn, where you showcased a number of salt-based works. Can you describe the site-specific floor installation that was in the center of the gallery?
FRL: It was based on my 2015 aerosol painting Decolonial Moment—a black-and-white map of the archipelago of Puerto Rico at the center, with the United States as a cluster of islands. The floor installation at The Boiler was Decolonial Moment 2, made out of salt I had brought to the gallery just weeks before from that trip to PR. The fragmentation of that map is key—the only thing that connected all of the works in The Boiler show was the salt itself. And although it appears as a unified whole, it’s made up of all of those grains, which is a decolonial critique. I had been dropping salt on the ground for a while, but this was the first large version and was kind of a remix of what I had done in that first painting—but instead of just the mainland, and Hawaii, Alaska, I added the Spanish peninsula in the corner, after the cluster of Hawaiian islands. So decentralizing European mapmaking, and doing it in actual materials that come from the archipelago, which for me, felt so…right.
BP: Salt is a deceptively simple material but it plays into colonial, even industrial narratives.
FRL: I started to think of these pieces as small decolonial moments: salt crystallizes, thought crystallizes—so do ideas and epiphanies. And it’s interesting because salt is a healing property, but it’s also destructive.
BP: So it’s a bit of a prompt.
Yes. I actually did a workshop and asked people: what was your decolonial moment? And there was just silence. It’s assumed that we don’t have to deal with coloniality, but that’s an American reality. There is a whole history of decolonial thought in the Caribbean with the Negritude Movement, from Frantz Fanon, Édouard Glissant, and Aimé Césaire. People in the workshop had a hard time thinking about things that were upending their ideas of American identity. I add myself to that equation—I’m not saying that I’m living outside of this moment or historical continuum, and that I’m creating these pieces to make you feel some kind of guilt. We need more work that challenges us to question ourselves. I’m not only interested in Puerto Rican culture but the cultures of the diaspora from all over the world. That’s part of being a New Yorker, down to eating a bagel.
So the work calls into question freedom: what does that mean? How are we linked in a really deep way, other than all the ways we think are. There’s a deep coloniality at play here that I’m just trying to highlight. If you learn something about Puerto Rican history and culture, in this present moment, in a colony, that, for the most part is swept under the rug, you can learn something about yourself. And you can call into question what it means to be an American.
BP: I saw two works that you recently posted online, one featuring a nuclear power plant and the other, a lighthouse. Can you talk about the significance of this pairing?
FRL: Those were in a P.S. 122 group exhibition I participated in called Silvering. That’s the lighthouse in Rincón, which was built in the late 1800s by the Spanish right before they lost the Spanish-American War. They built these systems of lighthouses to try to hold on to the empire they had lost. To the right of that lighthouse, on Domes Beach, is a now-defunct American nuclear plant that they turned into a science museum. I made two small crystallizers that I had painted silver and I cut out these images and propped them on a few points of salt. These are two symbols of coloniality in Puerto Rico that I had a personal experience with. Now they’re tourist attractions, but when I lived there, they were places you didn’t go—the dome was completely rusted with a gate and a couple of dogs that looked menacing. I would ask my uncles what was behind that dome, and they would say the Americans stocked weapons there, maybe even a bomb. There were all kinds of speculation. These are places I associate with my childhood but they were also spaces that represented these two discourses that met in 1898. So I’m trying to deal with 520 years of Spanish colonialism and American imperialism, and explore them in a personal way…then bring it all home to New York.
BP: There is this theme of weight in your work: the weight of grief, the weight of history, and the weight of carrying something heavy from your father’s hometown to your own.
FRL: Beautifully said. I wrote about my trip coming back from Puerto Rico, about the weight of bringing back those bags. My uncle—a fisherman who’s straight out of The Old Man and Sea—took me to the airport and picked up one of those bags and it was just 50 pounds of dead weight. I told the young woman at the airport’s USDA office that I had 200 pounds of salt—and an invoice if she needed to process it. She talked to some people behind the counter then asked me why I was carrying this. I told her I was an artist and it was “Las Salinas de Cabo Rojo.” So all four bags got through and they put the USDA stickers on. Then I went to TSA where one of the guys took it to the back, and his boss came out. The boss took one look at me and said he knew my cousin. I asked him how he knew we were related and he said I looked just like him—then he let me go through [laughs]. The point is, that whole experience was a piece in and of itself: the struggle to get the salt, picking it up and packaging it, interacting with my family there, getting back to New York, putting it in a cab and going home.
BP: It was something of a pilgrimage.
FRL: It was. Similarly in the way that I’ve been making meaning by flying back and forth ever since I was a child. That’s a part of my identity formation and my rootedness even here in New York. But all that back and forth was basically preparation for this moment. And it’s in that kind of exchange of flying, in the air travel that it all kind of, crystallizes, right?
BP: Your crystallizer paintings have a minimalist aesthetic, but up close, the salt takes on an almost visceral topography. Does that somehow reflect the landscape of Las Salinas?
FRL: I stayed by the salt flats for a couple of nights, and it was a horrific experience because of the wind. It was post-Hurricane Maria and lagoonish, which is how the salt flats started—before the industry stepped in. And the smell of sulfur and wildlife, the stench really freaked me out, you could almost taste it. I tried to stay there four nights in a row and I couldn’t. At night, the sea winds were so strong that I was like, I don’t know if I can do this. I thought the air was poisoning me.
BP: So then where do these tranquil colors come into play? And do you apply aerosol paint directly to the salted surfaces?
FRL: It’s more of a mist. The salt has a luminosity to it that I don’t want to cover with too much paint. I want the light to bounce off the salt crystals.
BP: Like the sun reflecting off the salt flats.
FRL: Yes. Because I think that captures Puerto Rico—PR has kind of a palette. When I started creating these pieces I was remembering the turquoise water as well as a light pinkish coral hue to the dark reds. I also use some artificial colors, but for the most part, I’m trying to capture that beauty. My favorite panel is the turquoise map with the salt rectangle at the top. And the salt ball with the USDA sticker.
BP: What inspired your use of Styrofoam in some of the works?
FRL: It’s a material that would have never made sense to me outside of Hurricane Fiona last September . I was in the Purchase studio building at that time and found a piece of Styrofoam. Añasco, which is the town over from Rincón, was completely covered in water, and I could’t stop thinking about the elders in my family. I started to connect my worry to this material, which happens to float: what would my relatives do if they had this piece of Styrofoam in an emergency situation? So the choice of matching a building material with the salt was very intentional. I even did a piece where I took notes on a panel about the uses of styrofoam during hurricanes. I didn’t treat the Styrofoam as carefully as other pieces—I was packing it with the salt, which at times formed dents. Styrofoam is obviously not a precious metal, but there’s this whole idea of what is precious—in Western art, for instance.
BP: Styrofoam can be very sculptural.
FRL: Yes. And then when you paint it, it’s actually looks like metal or stone. So it goes back to weight.
BP: And the city.
FRL: Absolutely. You know, at one point I thought maybe this is cheesy, talking about empires and ruins. My dad was born in Puerto Rico in 1941 and I was born in Manhattan in 1978, and raised in the Bronx. And the Bronx was like, ruinous, you know what I mean? Walking on the salt flats, there’s this kind of clayish feeling like you’re walking on the moon. I couldn’t not help thinking about the ruins of the Bronx; the buildings and cracked sidewalks of New York. The idea of corrosion—this piece of land that’s breaking—and coastal erosion. Cracked sidewalks and pavements, something crumbling…all these things come into play.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.