The weather in Madrid was wintry clear and cool as ARCO, Spain's international contemporary art fair, got under way last month, Feb. 11-16, 1999. A total of 233 galleries -- up from 203 in 1998 -- set up shop in two halls at Madrid's spacious and modern fairgrounds. Out of this total, 97 were from Spain, 15 from Portugal and 18 from Latin America. A total of 27 countries were represented.
The fair itself was richly programmed, with a special section dedicated to French galleries, 25 "project rooms" by individual artists, a group of seven East European galleries and a presentation of 15 non-Spanish "cutting edge" galleries. Dozens of art magazines had booths (or so it seemed) as did several regional museums and corporate collections. Coca-Cola is a big art buyer in Spain, and reportedly funded ARCO to the tune of 50 million pesetas, up from 30 million ptas last time (100 pesetas is about 65 cents).
Best of all, for the harried art professional, were the cafes that ringed the exposition floor. It was easy to get a quick, inexpensive snack -- Spain's trademark delicious coffee and ham sandwiches.
Not too many Americans were at the fair. A handful of galleries showed up, including CRG, Sandra Gering (who has a Madrid-based partner, Javier López) and Barry Neuman (who does business as Modern Culture) from New York, and Christopher Grimes and Patrick Painter from Los Angeles. Magazines too had stands, though high-profile New York-based ad-sales personnel -- Knight Landesman of Artforum, Kate Shanley of Flash Art and Lorrenda Newman from Art in America -- were awol.
Some New York editorial was on hand. Longtime Village Voice critic Kim Levin, fresh from the Cairo Biennial, was at ARCO in her capacity as head of the International Association of Art Critics, for a meeting between the Madrid and Barcelona critics' groups -- it seems they aren't speaking. ARTnews editor Robin Cembalist was there too, chairing a discussion between Spanish and U.S. critics on issues in art writing. Also on the scene were Michael Sand from Aperture -- the new issue of the magazine is dedicated to contemporary Spanish photography -- and Art & Auction staff writer Kaelen Wilson-Goldie.
For your correspondent, Spanish contemporary art was something of a mystery, since it has been less aggressively marketed in New York than similar fare from England and Germany. There's Tapies and Miró, of course, emblematic of the materialism of the Spanish earth and light (with nice galleries dedicated to their work, too, at the Reina Sofía). And there's Juan Munoz, who has been imported to New York at the Dia Art Center and elsewhere, and who is emblematic of what could be called, uh, Spanish melodrama.
But constructing a Spanish identity for the global art market requires a mano à mano with consumer capitalism. In short, Pop art from a distinctly Spanish point of view.
That means, first of all, bullfights. Needless to say, Picasso did bullfights throughout his long career, though you might never see them at his home-away-from-home, the Museum of Modern Art. As it happened, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza has a special exhibition of Picasso's bullfight scenes, Jan. 15-May 2, 1999. And Picasso is a Spanish artist, born in Andalusia, despite his most French insistence on staying in Paris during World War II, the subject of the current show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, "Picasso and the War Years."
Besides bullfights, there's Velázquez. One favorite at ARCO was Antonío de Felipe's colorful treatment of the Infanta at the booth of Galería Levy, whose home base is in Hamburg but also has a Madrid outpost. The beauty of Velázquez' young princess is enough even to overcome de Felipe's addition of Shell Petroleum icons.
An assortment of religious icons are used by Equipo Límite, a pair of collaborating women artists (both born in 1967) who go by the names of Cari and Cuqui. One smaller work shown here, Que Meabraso (Too Much Heart) goes for 300,000 ptas. Larger ones sell for around 850,000 ptas. They show mostly in Spain, and at the fair were presented in the both of a gallery called My Name's Lolita Art, which has branches in Valencia and Madrid. Gallery director Ramón García Alcaraz selected the distinctive name in reference both to Nabakov's novel and Marilyn Monroe's famous song.
One of the clear crowd-pleasers at ARCO was a sculpture at the booth of Galería Salvador Díaz by Javier Perez, a 30-year-old artist who splits his time between Barcelona and Paris. Called Smoke Man (1998), the empty suit of clothes gives off periodic puffs of smoke -- appropriate for such a smoker-friendly society. It's priced at 2,000,000 ptas.
Tomás March is one of the core Madrid dealers, and his booth featured Concha Prada's giant photo close-ups of the stormy yellow surface of eggs being beaten (for an omelette?) as well as media-influenced image painting by Rafael Agredano and Curro González. What caught my eye were the bright pop images done in heavily textured paint by Aldo Iacobelli, who also shows tightly wrapped bales of cloth on the floor of the booth. Now that's what I call sculpture. The 1997 painting Pacific goes for 950,000 ptas.
You can't talk about Pop art in Spain without mentioning Eduardo Arroyo, who was born in 1937 and is still going strong. A new, mural-sized painting about the death of Walter Benjamin was on exhibition at the promotional booth of El Pais, Spain's leading newspaper. Several Arroyo works were on also view at the booth of Metta, a Madrid gallery, including At Ouii (1998), which was priced at 5,000,000 ptas.
The Spanish are a sensual people (like everyone else). There's something especially carnal about the Castillian lisp, a high-class way of speaking Spanish that requires the regular meeting of the hard teeth and the soft tongue. This came to mind as Paula Sanz Caballero showed me her embroidered needlepoint scenes -- many of them depicting teens in domestic settings or a kind of interaction that fetish websites refer to as "femdom." These works, on view at the booth of Postpo from Valencia, are mounted on aluminum sheets; Untitled (1996) is 120,000 ptas. "I make it while I watch tv," she said.
Spain has its share of abstract painting, even of the postmodernist variety, needless to say. At the booth of Carmen de la Calle, a gallery from Jerez de la Frontera-Cadiz, were some abstractions by Juan Àvila, who is perhaps better known in Spain for Pop images. The works here are pastels displayed behind translucent glass, giving the effect of a blurry, synthetic surface. A set of 10 small works had sold for 40,000 ptas; a larger work, Triptych, is priced at 174,000 ptas.
Madrid dealer Soledad Lorenzo, who opened her gallery 13 years ago, had new works by various Americans on view in her booth -- Ross Bleckner and Julian Schnabel among them. She also had some new abstract paintings by Luis Gordillo, a veteran of Spain's art scene who has some works from the 1970s and '80s on view at the Reina Sofía. He may well be showing his abstractions in New York at Mary Boone next year. Perspective Elastic, 1999, is priced at 10,500.000 ptas.
There was an artist hanging out at the booth of Oliva Aruna, another leading dealer from Madrid. He was video-maker Antoni Abad, whose Love Story, a video projection on a three-minute loop of rats eating the word "love" off the icing of a heart-shaped cake, was playing in a little room. For $6,000 you get a DVD and instructions.
He was standing in the front of the booth, though, presenting his new web project, launched in time for Valentine's day. One Million Kisses, it's called, an endless proliferation of kissing lips. His lips. I asked Antoni if the work helped him get girlfriends. He just laughed. It's at http://aleph-arts.org/1.000.000.
One Spanish photographer whose works were at several booths at ARCO is Alberto García-Alix, a member of the Almodovar generation whose works document the Movida, or post-Franco democratic cultural flowering. (Spanish voters, apparently in search of fiscal constraint, have recently elected a conservative president -- who rushed through the fair on an official visit, surrounded by sycophants and photographers as well as bodyguards). In any case, García-Alix's vision is erotic and provocative, sort of like a Spanish Catherine Opie or Richard Kern.
Speaking of photography, a new work by Sophie Calle was on view at Galerie Solertis from Paris. Called The Complete Journey Spent under the Sign of B, C and W, the work consists of a set of four photographs and four text panels. It seems that the author Paul Auster used Calle as a character in his book Leviathan, making up a few Calle works on his own. She returned the favor and made the works he described, which included the masquerade pictured here of Calle as Brigitte Bardot and the Beasts -- this would be Calle under the sign of "B." It's 3,500,000 ptas and is produced in an edition of 10, five in French and five in English.
Another gallery from Paris, Jennifer Flay, featured several interesting works by artists who aren't well known in New York. One is Claude Closky, whose wall-sized Midnight Dip uses images of the beautiful aliens clipped out of fashion magazines for a sexy, poetic collage. It's priced at 35,000 francs. Closky actually has a web piece at the Dia Art Center site, and was included in a show of new French art on view at the Madrid cultural center.
Leyendecker is a gallery in the Canary Islands, a Spanish possession off the coast of Africa. Dealer Angel Luis de la Cruz, who has had the gallery since 1979, has the brilliant idea of showing artists who visit the sunny vacation spot. Thus, in his booth, works by artists who must be good company at the beach -- Peter Schuyff, George Condo, Giri Jorg Doukoupil, James Nares and Rob Scholte. On view are new works by Scholte, the Dutch artist who famously lost his legs in a car bombing several years ago. The "model series" features computer filtered painted images of Pamela Anderson, Sharon Stone, Michelle Pfeiffer and other celebrity beauties, works that are priced at 1,400,000 ptas a piece.
No discussion of contemporary art in Spain would be complete without a visit to Marlborough, which boasts of galleries in New York, Madrid, London and Tokyo. On view were several paintings by the late Antonío Saura, whose black and white graffiti-style figures clearly predate the work of Basquiat and Haring. The artist Juan Genovés was on hand, posing for a photographer in front of one of his works -- a set-up that yours truly was able to also use. Genovés, whose elegant imagery seems to capture specifically the country's crowds of people in open squares, showed works on paper in New York last year. Also on view in the Marlborough booth were some works by Pelayo Ortega, a painter who lives in the north of Spain and who is about 40. He has just joined the gallery, and an exhibition of his works, in which paint is used rather like frosting, is coming up this year.
Finally, a brief mention of Joan Prats, the gallery run by Joan de Muga in the former shop of Prats, the hatmaker and friend of Miró and Calder. On the outside of the booth is a large work by Fabian Marcaccio called Emotional Abstract Coalition (1997-98), priced at 3,700,000 ptas.