I made a three-day visit to Madrid last week, thanks to an invitation to give a talk on "digital art" at the Crculo de Bellas Artes, a busy art center on the Gran Via not far from the city's famous museums and thriving gallery scene. The less said about the lecture the better -- it did run to an hour and a half! -- but it began with a picture of a young Bill Gates, presented as a cute new prototype for geek creativity, and ended with a few words about a nascent project by Bitforms gallery proprietor Steve Sacks, a pioneering website where "software art" can be purchased for $100 per work (in open editions). For this last, see www.softwareartspace.com.
The Circulo, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, is headquartered in a towering Art Deco structure built in 1926 by architect Antonio Palacios. Its arts programming is overseen by Alessandro Ryker, an energetic former journalist whose current exhibition is devoted to about 50 drawings by Maria Antnia Siza, an artist who died young in 1973 when she was 34 years old. She was the wife of the architect lvaro Siza. Done in a precise, querulous line, her drawings of groups of curious, expressionistic figures are reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley, Picasso and even Drer, whose works are on view over at the Prado (more below).
Meanwhile, the front page of Barcelona's El Peridico for Apr. 12, 2005, carried a story on a new cycle of paintings by Fernando Botero addressing the tortures at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. According to the AP, the figures in the new paintings "have the puffiness normally seen in Botero's works, but some have the physique of beefy body builders." The 73-year-old Colombian artist, whose usually cheerful paintings first turned violent several years ago with a group of works about Colombia's drug wars, is exhibiting the 50 Abu Ghraib paintings and drawings in a broader survey that opens at Palazzo Venezia in Rome in July and later travels to Germany and even the U.S.
Much of the talk in Madrid art circles is not about events in the Spanish capital, but rather focuses on the opening of an expansive new museum in León, in the northwestern section of the country. Headed by Rafael Doctor Roncero, the MUSAC Len -- the Museo de Arte Contemporneo de Castilla y Len -- has a striking gridded faade of multicolored glass panels designed by the architectural team of Mansilla + Tun. According to press reports, the museum cost $43 million to build and is buying art like crazy, courtesy of the local government. "It's a question of identity, you know," said Madrid dealer Luis Valverde Espejo of Espacio Minimo, not without some irony.
In any case, the rewards of Madrid's own museums are, as always, bountiful. At the Museo Nacional del Prado, Velazquez's Las Meninas -- which looks sharper and more authentic than ever in the wake of New York artist Eve Sussman's popular Hollywood movie-style recreation, 89 Seconds at Alcazar -- has been moved into a skylighted, oval gallery, followed by the crowd of viewers who regularly attend it, snapping pictures with their cameras and cell phones. Elsewhere in the museum is the special exhibition, "Durero, Obras maestros de la Albertina," Mar. 8-May 29, 2005, an installation of 85 prints and drawings by Albrecht Drer from the Vienna museum plus four paintings from the Prado's collection.
Among the works on view is the original for what is now a devotional chestnut, Praying Hands, a drawing on blue-colored paper that Drer made in 1508 after his visits to Renaissance Venice. Back in the early 1980s, I knew a young Catholic woman who had taken a small plaster cast based on this image, painted it gold and hung it on the wall turned 90 degrees -- a Duchampian gesture that converted it into Diving Hands.
In the spacious park behind the Prado are two pavilions given over to art exhibitions (programmed by MNCARS, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofa). At the Palacio de Velzquez, a surprisingly spacious pseudo-Moorish brick fancy built in 1887, is an extensive survey of super-large photographs of interiors -- unfinished, industrial, bare -- by Jos Manuel Ballester (b. 1960), who is, one might say, the Madrileno answer to the "Struthsky" photographers from Germany.
At the nearby Crystal Palace is a pared-down installation of 17 works by Gabriel Orozco (b. 1962), including the Mexican artist's well-liked sculpture that marries a ping-pong table and a lily pond, and his Caballos corriendo infinitamente, a 144-square chessboard set with nothing but knights (done in four different wood tones, as are the chessboard squares).
But most of the works are much more modest fabrications, like Semilla (2003), a little sculpture consisting of three white Styrofoam balls held in a topologically inventive twisted piece of window screen -- urban detritus as a kind of Trinity. Orozco has a real talent for finding bits of trash and, with a magical artistic gesture, creating a moment of portent, poetry or playfulness. All of which makes him a specifically Mexican heir to a European avant-garde that includes Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys and Dieter Roth.
The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, located practically across the street from the Prado, now boasts a $46-million, 86,000-square-foot new wing, filled with former beauty queen Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza's wide-ranging collection, as well as a temporary exhibition, "Brcke: The Birth of German Expressionism," Feb. 1-May 15, 2005 (part of the show is also on view at the Fundacin Caja Madrid). The survey is a great celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the group, including two galleries filled with arcadian nudes in the landscape, still echoing in the works of painters like Eric Fischl (though most of the other artists who revisited the style in the '80s seem to have faded from view).
Among my favorites are Otto Mueller's Three Bathers in a Lake (ca. 1912) from the Museum am Ostwall in Dortmund, painted in ochre, black, green and umber on what looks like rough burlap, and Emil Nolde's Exotic Figures (1912), from the Brcke-Museum in Berlin, a painting of a pair of primitivist statuettes obviously designed to resemble a couple of contemporary German burghers.
The Thyssen has built its extension, but the Reina Sofia is still at work on its great white whale of a structure, an $80-million, 312,000-square-foot group of three buildings designed by Jean Nouvel and resembling a huge red enamel version of Le Corbusier's 1955 Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp (of all things).
In a kind of preview, however, the museum has debuted a group of spacious new galleries in the new wing, granite-floored and louver-ceilinged, with "Eco: Arte Contemporaneo Mexicano," Feb. 8-May 22, 2005, a survey of 70 works by 40 contemporary Mexican artists that explores what catalogue essayist Itala Schmelz calls, alternately, "Mexicanism" and "the Tequila effect."
The show begins with a set of four black-and-white photographs by Santiago Sierra of his dramatically closed Spanish pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale, and includes Miguel Calderon's edgy Curriculum Vitae (1998), a large white rug printed with his resume and tracked with dirt, industrial-strength shop-vac standing nearby at the ready. But overall, the exhibition paints a picture of a broadly middle-of-the-road Mexican art scene -- perhaps now pulling back a bit after gaining avant-garde juice from its reputed lawlessness.
Most of Madrid's top contemporary galleries have set up within walking distance of the three big museums (and there is a handy map; see www.artemadrid.com). Among the Spanish artists on view are some Italians, some Portuguese and a few high-end U.S. talents. Galeria Javier Lpez is exhibiting new paintings by Peter Halley at both its apartment-style gallery and the new ground-floor space nearby. Halley is currently showing in two galleries in Barcelona as well, making a total of about 20 new paintings by the artist on the Spanish market. "We have no trouble selling Halley," said a gallery staffer. The paintings at Lopez are "classic" cell and conduit patterns in bright primary colors, and priced from $45,000 to $85,000.
At Galeria Helga de Alvear is an imposing new installation by Jason Rhoades titled "My Madinah, Pupp Tent, Puss Tent," a tent-shaped form covered with dozens of dangling neon signs, part of the artist's huge lexicon of synonyms for women's sex. Included on the scene are a cooker filled with fat, bundles and bundles of orange extension cords and a slipcased, leather-bound volume titled 1724 Birth of the Cunt with page after page of "Nice Slice. . . Nick in the Notch. . . Nick-Nack. . . ."
At Estiarte is an exhibition of prints by Kiki Smith, Louise Bourgeois and Nancy Spero, a nicely ferocious trio of women artists from New York. Bourgeois' drawing of eight people together in a red bed, done in 2002 in an edition of 40, is 3,000. The gallery has been in business 33 years -- "one of the oldest in Madrid," said gallery director Pilar Serra Bustamante.
Even more fun for an out-of-town visitor are the shows of works by Spanish artists. A stylized mix of beauty and violence is the stuff of Ana Laura Alez's exhibition "The Black Angel's Death Song," at Galera Juana de Aizpuru. In the front gallery are several color photographs of half-dressed models murdered in the bath or in the sheets, or pointing a hefty .45 or raising a butcher knife (this last role played by Alez herself).
The long gallery has been converted into a theater with a kind of triptych projection of female sex appeal -- floor-to-ceiling images of the made-up faces of fashion models, their eyes painted with a raccoon-like black mask, slide by one after the other, alternating with images of their underwear-clad torsos. The photos, in editions of three plus one artist's proof, are 4,500; the five-minute-long video, with space-age musical accompaniment by Daniel Holc, is 15,000.
Glamour and violence are the subject as well of the Madrid artist Isaac Montoya (b. 1963), who applies the high-key effects of fashion photography to scenes of social trauma -- mass murders, fleeing refugees, burn victims. The effect is an odd one, but the artist's sincerity is demonstrated by his new series of brightly colored, trashy media images that, when viewed through a blue filter, magically transform into scenes of military conquest. The works are on view at Galera Espacio Minimo, located behind the Reina Sofa on Doctor Forquet street; photographs, made in editions of five, begin at about 5,800.
In the sleek, tiered spaces of Galera de Arte Soledad Lorenzo, one of several galleries located near Madrid's hip new Chueca neighborhood, is a group of large color photographs and two video projections by the Barcelona-born, Los Angeles-based artist Adri Juli. Titled "Continental Agur," or "Good-bye Continental," after the deluxe Lincoln automobile, the show is a semi-comic, semi-melodramatic meditation on Basque identity -- as articulated via a Basque restaurant in Vernon, Ca. In the front of the gallery, greeting visitors, Juli has installed a projection of a pudgy but energetic young actor doing a traditional Basque "welcome dance" in an anonymous restaurant space -- except that the dancer seems a little drunk, and the dance is something of a travesty.
The large photos show details of the restaurant dcor that somehow have the ominous cool disconnect of works by Gerhard Richter. The projection on the rear screen is indistinct, but restaurant clinks and clacks can clearly be heard on the audio along with the voice of the proprietor, who tells how he opened the establishment in 1960. The photos range in price from 1,800-15,000 in editions of three.
Galera Marta Cervera opens onto a small plaza around the corner from a huge government building, which seems a fitting venue for the Milanese artist Francesco Jodice (b. 1967), whose color photographs -- taken during the last eight years in more than 50 cities around the world -- trace "landscape as a projection of people's desires." A professor at the University of Bolzano in Italy, Jodice is a founding member of Multiplicity, an international group of artists and architects. The photographs are 5,500-8,000 in editions of eight.
Located on an interior patio (with piano music wafting through the air from a nearby studio), Elba Bentez Galera is presenting an installation by Carlos Bunga (b. 1976), a Portuguese artist who only finished school in 2003 and who was a hit in 2004 at Manifesta 5 in San Sebastin, Spain. At Bentez, over a month-long period, Bunga made a kind of dense, dark Merzbau from corrugated cardboard, inserting a new edifice into the existing gallery architecture. For the final stage, now exhibited to the public, the structure was cut away, leaving a sort of cardboard ruin that the artist painted in bright monochrome colors. Bungas work is included in "Things Fall Apart All Over Again" at Artists Space in New York in May.
Downstairs from Jason Rhoades at Galera Helga de Alvear is an installation titled "Es legal tu Mirada?" (Is your gaze legal?) by the Barcelona-based artist Pep Agut (b.1961), whose work was included in the "Aperto" at the 1993 Venice Biennale and in "Art Unlimited" at the 2004 Basel art fair. The two galleries are filled with several large, finely carpentered tables with plate-glass surfaces colored in bright monchromes and printed with Foucaultian koans regarding meaning and power -- "Say, silence" says one. "I speak, I lie," says another.
At Galera Salvador Diaz, which is located across the square from the Reina Sofa, is an exhibition of large Color Field abstractions by the Basque artist Josune Amunarriz (b. 1942). Patterned with organic shapes in several colors, the paintings could be microscopic or cosmological, or could provide a bridge, as the American critic Barbara Rose pointed out, between the Basque landscape tradition and the heroic romanticism of the New York School.
At Galera Elvira Gonzlez is a survey of ceramics, sculpture and drawings by the late Italian modernist Fausto Melotti (1901-86), including delicate, jewelry-like abstract constructions in golden brass from the 1970s and '80s that have a Calderesque delicacy and verve. In the rear space is a large, seven-foot-tall stone humanoid from 1960 called I Sette Savi (The Seven Sage), a metaphysical presence from a series that the artist first began working with in the 1930s.