By Robert Hughes
Text- Barcelona 2002
Lluís Lleó, who is my younger friend and about whom I am not objective, comes from a family of painters. His great-grandfather, Joan, was a decorative painter who did ceilings in the old houses of Barcelona: “Clouds, Little angels, provincial Tiepolo – rich people used to love that kind of stuff.” His grandfather, Lluís, was a watercolorist who designed advertisements and posters, including some effective propaganda-posters for the Republican side of the Civil War. His father, Joan Lleó, who is still very much alive and working, is a painter whose work mediates between abstraction and figuration, a trait he bequeathed to his son.
Lluís did not go to art school in Barcelona. He vividly recalls how his father, who earned a living mainly as a teacher at the Fine Art School, sat him down to talk about his putative art education. “He said, ‘Lluís, if you don’t know how to paint already at your age (I was then 18) you are never going to learn anyway.’ He was always very frustrated with his students. They would arrive at 18 and know nothing about painting. He believed they should know a lot already, otherwise there was no point in trying to be artist”.
But of course, young Lleó had grown up completely immersed in the culture of painting, watching his father in his studio, cleaning and sorting the brushes, listening to the authority-figure talk.
Without altogether realizing it, he had something more like an intense traditional apprenticeship than a course of daily lessons, like a fisherman’s son learning to fish or a carpenter’s son how to cut dovetails, because that, quite simply, was the way of life.
He went to museums with his father, and to rural churches in Catalunya. There, in the stupendous collection of mediaeval frescoes up on Montjuϊc, which is still one of the greatest and least-known treasures of early European art, and in country chapels like Bohi and Taüll, he first came to grasp the special nature of fresco as a medium: that unique, neglected, vulnerable and yet miraculously durable medium of water-based paint chemically bonded into wet plaster, so that there is essentially no division between the support and the design.
Who did fresco, as far as he knew, when Lluís Lleó was a kid? Only some long-dead, mediaeval Catalans – and his father. As a result of these early experiences, Lleó’s art began to take on some of the character of fresco, even when it was not actually made of it. And another thing: one of its hallmarks became an extreme, almost morbid, sensitivity to the peculiar nature of flat, matte surfaces, thick or thin, powdery or absorbent.
He is not a dramatic painter. He never has been. The big flourish, the blur of thick paint, the glutinous shiny drip that invites rhetorical comparisons with blood, sperm or tomato sauce have never been part of Lleó’s pictorial language. He is an extremely deliberate artist whose work is hospitable to chance, but does not seek it.
As a result, he is not afflicted by one of the most irritating characteristics of some late modernist art, a rhetoric of false spontaneity. You know that what’s there on the surface is meant to be there, and this breeds a degree of confidence in the work. If there is one word that recurs often in conversation with him, it’s “authenticity” – meaning truth to self, deliberation, no feigned emotions, no excess.
In the eighties, naïve spectators used to think that, for instance, thick roiled paint equaled deep feeling. Hopefully, one knows better today.
To call Lleó a classical painter may summon up misleading images of marbles or Poussin. These don’t apply, of course. But for Lleó, deliberation, lucidity, slow development and calm are among the paramount virtues of the art of painting, and he sees no reason to pretend otherwise. In that general sense he truly is a classical painter.
He is 40 now, and spent most of his life in Barcelona; since 1989 he has lived and worked in New York. “I think really coming to New York was my beginning as a professional painter,” he now thinks – a common feeling among artist who, early in their careers, made it from the “provinces” to New York. No matter how much cultural energy a city may put out, there is always a feeling of inequality: not as severe as it used to be in 17th century Rome, 19th – century Paris or 1960s-70s New York, but still perceptible and felt by any intelligent, expatriate artist.
It was in 1989 that Lleó realized that he did not belong to any school or movement, whatever it might have been, in Spain – and still less, in Catalunya. “I had to make myself my own”.
There was a slight element of escape, too.
For Lleó, as for everyone else, the dominant figure in modern Catalan art was still Antoni Tàpies. It was the Picasso problem, reconfigured but essentially the same. “In Madrid you have many different painters (El Paso, the realist school, and so on). Even more so in New York. But in Barcelona there was only Tàpies, Tàpies and Tàpies. So everything you do would get related, by others, to Tapies. If you did white, it looked like Tàpies. If you did black, it looked like Tàpies. Whatever you do they compare you to Tàpies, because art criticism in Catalunya could be so provincial and self-referential.” But then, there wasn’t too much comfort in New York either: Lleó found out “That I was a very bad painter. You remember Picasso used to say that if your mother thought you were a good painter, then you weren’t. That was me.”
But at least, in New York, things felt more open.
As indeed they are, allowing art to be seen in its own qualities rather than through its supposed ancestry. The fact is that Lleó’s paintings are not at all like Tàpies and never were. They don’t even resemble them by opposition, as though he were trying not to look like Tàpies. Older Spanish late-modernists are hardly an issue for Lleó, any more than younger ones, like the omnipresent Barcelo, are. Probably the living artist who counts for most in Lleó’s work, and this is more a matter of independent attitude than stylistic resemblance, is the man who has come more and more to look like Spain’s best living sculptor, the tough-minded and sublimely elegant Xavier Corberó.
What goes on in his pictures ? They are, in a general way, abstract: which is to say, they don’t exactly look like pictures of real things out in the world, a wall, a figure, a stone. And yet they don’t exactly look like things not in the world. They are both delicate and ephemeral- seeming, and yet rather intensely concrete, strongly physical.
Lleó is not a Utopian painter.
In a way Lleó is conservative; or is the word cautious? No more cautious than any good craftsman, ébéniste or potter. “I try to look at my limits. To stay within the limits of being able to do something the right way. I think it is very important to be respectful to yourself and not to do things just because you feel like doing them. To see what is essential. And that, I think, is the only way to make your work unique. If you deal with yourself, your dreams, frustrations and fears, and you do it sincerely, you are unique. And that’s what I try to do with my work : I try not to look anywhere else. I try not to look at other painters: I try just to look at the material and the work.”
Some painters attract Lleó because their work “is so quiet that it’s almost anonymous.” Ellsworth Kelly, for instance. But the artists he feels closest to are sculptors. Notably, the American Christopher Wilmarth, whose suicide – at a moment when his reputation had only just begun to develop – was a terrible deprivation. “I love the way that you can be close to one of his most powerful pieces and yet hardly known it’s there, until you look really closely.” Martin Puryear he admires for the beauty of his relation to natural materials: wood, especially. “And Noguchi, too, of course. And certain architects.”
Critics like guessing. Perhaps we should not, but there’s something in the métier that compels us to, an uncertainty. If I were to make a guess about Lluís Lleó and his future significance in Spanish art, it would be this.
His work – along with the work of others, of course: no painter, no sculptor, is alone – signals a healthgiving shift away from art that is about other media, that is conceptual, not physical, that denies the body (including that fundamental metaphor of the body, so eloquently celebrated by Lleó, pigment itself).
This shift goes towards an art that is complex but nevertheless seeks a straightforward and anti-ironical link to the natural world, for irony, in an age ruled by other media, has become more our enemy than our protective friend.
I see Lleó as part of this process.
It is one that increases and puts us in touch with our sensuous extensions into the world. And so, one which gives us some of the truth we need. I think there is an excellent chance that, when we look back on him 20 years from now, we will think of his emergence as comparable in importance to that of early Tàpies, so long ago. End of guess.
Text also available in Spanish