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    letter from madrid
by ysabel de la rosa
 
     
 
A concentrated look at a single museum's exhibition program can reveal much. This fall, the Reina Sofía took some real risks with several venturesome shows of unusual art. One major show was a zany but meaningful approach to Arte Povera artist Lucio Fontana; another was devoted to Alfonso Fraile, an artist whose biography measures all of three inches. The single survey show looked at drawings by 50 contemporary Spanish artists. Another exhibition marked the publication of a collaborative book by sculptor Eduardo Chillida and the poet Clara Janés. And the show of contemporary artist Elena del Rivero featured 1,200-plus diaphanous letters.
     
 
Spatial Concept
Spatial Concept
Lucio Fontana
1951
 
Spatial Concept
Spatial Concept
1954
 
Spatial Concept
Spatial Concept
1968
 
Spatial Concept
Spatial Concept
1965
Avant Police Guard: Fontana in Madrid

Uniformed and plainclothes police, three cars without license plates and two white vans arrived early one September morning at the Caixa Foundation in Palma de Mallorca. Police stopped traffic so the five-car caravan could proceed uninterrupted to the boat assigned to carry 81 works by Lucio Fontana to the Reina Sofía Museum. Some 30,000 people viewed the Fontana exhibition in Palma de Mallorca before it traveled to Madrid, insured for approximately $21 million.

Perhaps best known for his slashed monochrome paintings, Fontana actually made work that spans a wide range of media and ideas. The exhibition is mounted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Italian-Argentine artist, a joint effort of the Caixa Foundation and the Reina Sofía.

Fontana titled most of his paintings "Spatial Concept." With his rhythmic slicing and hole punching, Fontana did indeed emphasize that the canvas is not just a plate to fill with color, but also a space in all senses and dimensions. Fontana wrote that he wanted to "break material with color," but what he does in these works is break the color -- literally. His monochromes invite three-dimensionality to a place it had not been before. Half of them could look at home on a 21st-century spaceship and the other half in a 2000-year-old cave.

Once these works invited change into the future of modern art. Now -- and I know I'm committing heresy -- these works make great concepts but limited art. They make a point, and they do this well. The canvas does not have to limit the creator to two dimensions. Very good. End of story.

Fontana's sculpture, however, is another story. It sings. It's wild, natural, organic. Fontana makes ceramic figures covered with gold and colored mosaic tile, such as Gallo (Rooster), a bust entitled Teresita and a magnificent sunburst Medusa. Many of the ceramic works are polychromed, resulting in a shimmering iridescent effect that avoids kitsch and imbues the works with personality.

The curators went out on a limb installing the show. Its first five rooms are empty -- just clean, arching, tall white space, nothing more, as if to prepare the viewer for the "concepts" to come. The next gallery features black-light installation with tremendous fluorescent Fontana shapes hung from the ceiling and appearing to float overhead. Yet another space in the show is devoted entirely to books on Fontana, which one can leaf through under the eye of a museum guard.

     
 
La Indetenible Quietud
La Indetenible Quietud
Janés and Chillida
1998
 
La Indetenible Quietud
La Indetenible Quietud
Eduardo Chillida
1998
Gentle Words from Iron Images: Janés and Chillida

"I was seduced," said poet Clara Janés, describing her reaction to seeing an exhibition by Eduardo Chillida 25 years ago. The result was poems directly related to the Basque artist's monolithic iron sculpture. As Janés wrote the poems, she shared them with Chillida who, in turn, felt a resonance with the poet's words.

The idea of doing a book together danced back and forth between artist and poet for many years. At one stage, Janés composed music to go with the poems and made a recording of them. She also published a small collection of the poems without illustrations. The poetry and art book became a reality through the efforts of the Barcelona art-book publisher Boza Editor.

Last October, the book La Indetenible Quietud (The Unstoppable Stillness), with 32 poems by Clara Janés and six lithographs by Eduardo Chillida, was published in an edition of 100 copies. The book is printed on handmade paper, and a Chillida lithograph also adorns the cover. The book sells for approximately $10,500.

At the book's "coming-out party" at the Reina Sofía, Clara Janés commented that Chillida's work "reveals that which surrounds a great emptiness" and creates what she terms "sonorous space." The poet read a number of the book's poems, including this small jewel:

The line agonizes with the day
and enters into the black,
into the infinite collapse of the secret.

For more information, contact Boza Editor, Rambla Catalunya, 50 pral 1°, 08007 Barcelona, Spain.

     
 
Untitled
Untitled
Eduardo Chillida
1966
 
Big-Head
Big-Head
Antonio Saura
1964
 
Spiral
Spiral
Adolfo Schlosser
1998
 
Sinos III
Sinos III
Paolo Palazuelo
1998
 
Dibujo para Luz y Metales
Dibujo para Luz y Metales
Juan Navarro Baldeweg
1976
 
Erased Light
Erased Light
Chema Cobo
1998
Germinal Drawings

The exhibition titled "Nerve Endings, Beginnings and Pathways to the Artistic Mind: Germinal Drawings of 50 Spanish Artists" gives contemporary Spanish drawing its day in the sun. This exhibition is not about sketches that lead to paintings or sculptures, although that is the case with some of the drawings. Rather, "Germinal Drawings" shows the essential connections between artistic thought and its primal expression in the drawing.

Eduardo Chillida's dark, compact abstractions, all untitled, are outstanding. Curro González's series, "The Temptations of San Antonio," are highly detailed and suggestive of Aztec art. Joan Ponç's drawings are high energy.

Rafael Agredano's series of drawings is a great mind-bender: 12 drawings on 12 separate strips of computer print-out paper (yes, he left the holes on both sides). On these "casual" panels, one finds an angel whose upper torso is composed of four fingers; a man whose head is a paper scroll in the process of unwinding; a hand holding a blue eye between thumb and middle finger while a graceful flame extends from the forefinger.

Soledad Sevilla douses her square works of criss-crossing lines in spring colors, pale greens and yellows. She writes in the catalogue of "creating a magic environment, both involving and mobile."

The pair of large horizontal drawings by Zush could be from Surrealism, science fiction, the asylum or all of the above. Titled What I did not expect to see , these horror-vacui works writhe with figures, faces and sea-plant shapes. Adrián Morales writes of these paintings, "Look well at these creatures and the face of the black river; they carry all the wisdom I ignore. The conviction that the World can have its way with us, while our soul rocks us. . . a lucid epilepsy." Well, no one ever accused the Spanish of lacking in intensity.

What may be most interesting about this show, however, is not its intensity or the skill and creativity displayed in the drawings -- all qualities present in spades. I would expect no less of Spanish art and artists. What I did not expect to see was the deep and recurring connection to literature and the written word in these drawings. Many contain literary or poetic phrases which are central to the piece, such as Chema Cobo's Lightening the Erased Drawing to Draw the Erased Lights, a mixed-media work done in 1998, with images of the African continent at its center.

Xisco Mensua's pencil series "Flash Art Summer" has a literary magazine feel. The drawings look like proposed publication layouts in their structure and include "captions," phrases and titles such as Elastic Realities, Andy Warhol Guns and Another Difficult Sunset.

The show, as is typical for the Reina Sofía, has a dramatic arrangement. To enter the show, one literally walks through a drawing by Manolo Quejido, a figurative piece in primary colors which has been transferred to the four walls of the show entrance.
"Germinal Drawings" is like listening to Wagner: it makes demands on the spectator. If you like a good art work-out, one that really burns those brain calories, you can't beat this one.

     
 
Abrepiernas
Abrepiernas (Open-Legs)
Alfonso Fraile
1978
 
Ilustrísimo
Ilustrísimo (Illustrious One)
1983
 
Number 3
Diptych of One,
Number 3

1985
 
Pegote
Pegote
(Patched Up)

1986
Last Dance: Alfonso Fraile

Alfonso Fraile was a quiet man. His own wife said she might have taken him for being Swiss, except for the fact that while he was painting, he would break his concentrated silence with bursts of flamenco song. Fraile was born Jan. 25, 1930, in Seville, studied art in the Escuela de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid from 1931-48, and received the title of professor of drawing. He was awarded the National Award for Painting in 1962 and the prestigious Critics' Award from Madrid's Ateneo Institute in 1963, among other prizes. Despite these acknowledgments of his talent, Fraile had only one significant solo museum show in his entire career, in 1985 at Madrid's Contemporary Art Museum. He died in Madrid of cancer, one day short of his 58th birthday in 1988.

The press conference for the show was like attending a family reunion. Fraile's widow and daughter were there, Gloria Ocharán and María Fraile, as well as various friends and associates of the artist. Lamberto García Lujan of Rafael García Gallery in Madrid remembers working with Fraile when his gallery hired the artist to do several commissions, including interior murals. "He had a great deal of integrity," García Lujan said of Fraile. "He was pure, simple, and deep."

Artist Mil Lubroth, a personal friend and co-exhibitor with Fraile in several shows, commented, "Alfonso was very kind and quiet, not a stereotypical bohemian or attention-getter, and his work always ran deep."

Fraile's last years were prolific, when he found himself consciously painting against the ultimate deadline, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

The 56-piece show features works from 1960 to 1987. Many of the works are mixed media. Fraile used oil, charcoal, gouache, pen and ink -- in short, a little of everything. His use of mixed media gives the works a tactile look, makes them more approachable than they might be otherwise. Fraile's humor also adds greatly to their approachability. Two wonderful examples of his humor are Expensive Picasso, a great visual parody; and Ilustrísimo. Illustrísmo is a title reserved for a well-born or well-elected few in Spain. This baroque appellation is still used today, and may the social gods help you if you address a letter to an Excelentísimo who is actually an Ilustrísimo. Fraile's "illustrious" one has a silly smile on his face and enormous encumbrances on his head. These paintings are dated 1982-83.

The artist grows more serious and contemplative in 1984 and stays that way until the end. The figures in these paintings blur the boundaries between male and female, between movement and stillness. Limbs are subtly replaced and rearranged with an absurd grace. In Diptych 1, No.2, the large female figure has three buns, breasts on her kneecaps, and three-fingered hands. With a heavily cross-hatched face, she looks away -- away from the viewer and away from the horizon, the horizon that is ever-present in Fraile's later works.

In Trio of Six, three bald figures with male faces and female bodies have an eerie peace about them, as though they were an abstract-expressionist representation of Buddha.

Fraile's steadily approaching death kept him without illusion, but never without fantasy, and in this lies much of the magic and appeal of his work. One stark painting, with a figure in ghostly white and a line of floating number 23s, serves as an uncanny prediction of the painter's death, right down to the date. Many others, however, dance with color, energy, and compositions that hold strong despite an apparent disregard for the vertical. The work moves, not like any familiar exercise, but like a spontaneous dance, a dance with life in the face of death, the dance each one of us must do. The exhibition is on view for a few more days, till Jan. 11, 1999.

     
 
Letter Sent
Letter Sent (Yes, yes, yes)
Elena del Rivero
1997
 
A Life in Letters: Elena del Rivero in Espacio Uno

Elena del Rivero wants to "create that strange mirror which mixes reality and fiction, that (mirror) which is necessary in order to know if one is truly alive." The artist chose letters as the medium to create her mirror and worked for more than two years on this Espacio Uno exhibition entitled, "Five letters withheld, a sixth unfinished, a seventh sent, plus an eighth received."

The title is an "original borrowing." In 1996, del Rivero received a book in the mail, Marina Tsvietaieva's Florentine Nights. The book is subtitled "Nine letters, a tenth withheld, plus an eleventh received."

At the time this Russian writer's book landed in the Spanish artist's New York mailbox, del Rivero was working on a literary project titled Letters to the Mother. Already headed in a correspondence direction and inspired by Tsvietaieva's unusual subtitle, del Rivero brought her blended background of art and literature to bear on what soon turned into a highly visual project, rather than an exclusively literary one. Now, the fruits of those letter-labors are on view at Espacio Uno, the Reina Sofía's space dedicated to emerging artists.

The first work in the show is Letter Sent (Yes, yes, yes). It measures about two by two feet, and the "lines" of the letter stretch out from the canvas and halfway across the exhibition space, their needle-point ends arching into a fan shape on the floor. The most complex piece in the show is Unfinished Letter, which consists of 1,200 papers, each carefully "written," either with words, silver or colored thread, pearls or other small thread-able objects.

The show is inviting, ethereal and less abstract and cerebral than it sounds. I went straight from the show to the post office and bought airmail stationery.

YSABEL DE LA ROSA is a writer and artist living in Madrid.