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Back to Reviews 98

  letter from madrid

by Ysabel de la Rosa  

Duane Michals
The Painter de Kooning
Madrid's biggest summer art event was PhotoEspaña 98 (June 18-July 19), an international festival involving 15 institutions and 41 art galleries, all located on or near Madrid's grand Castellana Avenue. Artistic director Alejandro Castellote has put together an impressive selection, giving Madrid an impossible-to-ignore dose of the medium that has too long been an awkward art-stepchild in Madrid.

PHE 98 has its democratic dimension, too. A retrospective exhibition of 20th-century Spanish photography is in Madrid's train station, which holds more than 150,000 people at a time. Of the 250 photographers participating in PHE 98, there are five Americans with solo shows: Irving Penn, Arnold Newman, Sally Mann, Nan Goldin and Adam Lubroth. The opening exhibition is a Duane Michals retrospective at the Reina Sofía Museum.

Duane Michals
I Build a Pyramid
Duane Michals at the Reina Sofía
The Duane Michals show was the photographer's first retrospective in Spain. Among the 65 works, dating from 1958 to the present, is the world's best portrait of René Magritte, as well as strong photos of other famosos, including Madonna, Willem de Kooning, Jeanne Moreau and Joseph Cornell.

The exhibition also features a good selection of Michals' trademark narrative series, often captioned in his own handwriting. One example is I Build a Pyramid, in which Michals constructs a stone miniature on the sand in front of an Egyptian pyramid. More surreal is Things are Queer, where toilets become giants and nothing is where it "should" be, yet all looks neatly put in place.

Michals writes, "When you look at my photographs, you are looking at my thoughts. Perfect ideas outlive imperfect prints. Good ideas can change our lives." For Michals, these good ideas include religious freedom, tolerance and an awakened conscience. In Salvation, a priest holds a crucifix like a handgun pointed to a young man's head, a disturbing reminder that religion has had violent effects. In Fallen Angel, a winged "angel" flies into a city apartment through the window, makes love to a woman, mourns his decision, then loses his wings.

The photographer's prose accompanies such works as Christ in New York. Michals writes that Christ shared a dog-food dinner with a Ukrainian woman, defended a homosexual, then was killed by a mugger and no one ever noticed. His prose takes a decidedly lighter turn in There are Things Here not Seen in this Photograph, where the photographer ironically describes the unpleasant people and events missing from the image.

Michals' self-assessment is on target. His images carry their ideas with honor, grace, and imagination. The photographer's handwritten commentary needed checking, however -- misspelled words led to some misleading Spanish translations, which in the final analysis, incorrectly conveyed those "good ideas."


Adam Lubroth

Adam Lubroth

Adam Lubroth

Adam Lubroth
Adam Lubroth at Brita Prinz
PHE 98 prompted Brita Prinz Gallery to undertake the first photography show in the gallery's history. Photographer Adam Lubroth's show (June 18-July 11) was titled "Un paseo en verano," which refers to a summer walk or stroll.

Lubroth photographs what he sees on his walks through Madrid, where he has lived for many years (he was born in New York). His subjects include blue-collar workers at construction sites, woman sweeping their stoops, taxi drivers mid-route, crates of fruit held by muscular hands, and women wearing lunares, Spain's ubiquitous polka-dot.

Art photography of the working class can still be considered daring in Spain. Though Franco is gone and the royal family is as democratic as they come, Spaniards continue to place great importance on social position and matters of "class" ranking.

Like Michals, Lubroth works in multiple-image presentations. A personal favorite is his photo series of men wheeling stacked crates on dollies. Lubroth's photos of people in cars show the subjects surrounded by the rounded rectangular frame of the cars' front windows, like caterpillars in mechanical cocoons.

Lubroth uses a gum bi-chromate process, a very painterly method that achieves a mysterious brightness, much like the afternoon light in central Spain. "I chose gum bichromate," Lubroth said, "because I can manipulate it. It allows me to bring out what I'm interested in and to get away from the plastic sheen of regular color photography." Lubroth makes four-color separations from slides, and then prints his images color by color with watercolor-based, light-sensitive pigments. The process normally takes three days to yield a satisfactory first print.

"Madrid-Barcelona 1898-1998" at the Círculo de Bellas Artes
The exhibition "Madrid-Barcelona 1898-1998" at the Círculo de Bellas Artes was enlightening and funky, a great bohemian blend. The two cities have always been strange bedfellows. Madrid is the center of government, royalty and realism in the arts, while Barcelona is Spain's avant-garde center for art, design and literature. Barcelona is the birthplace of most world-renowned Spanish artists, including Picasso, Miró, Tapiés, and Gaudí.

The show included works by these artists, as well those by the lesser-known but equally gifted Catalonians Santiago Rusiñol and Josep Guivart. Also featured were posters (including the original art for a Spanish Civil War poster designed by Miró and distributed in France), cinema and literary excerpts, and two installation pieces. Constant background sound was furnished by two videos of Franco's triumphant entry into each of the cities. Madrid lost in the art contest but won with its cinema, despite one sappy sequence of chicas in a convertible singing about the glories of being Red Cross girls.

Nearly all the eye-catching art in the show hailed from Barcelona. My personal favorite was Tierra-Luz (Earth-Light) by Franscec Abad. Consisting of a mound of black dirt topped by six bulbous lanterns, glowing red, yellow and orange, the installation looked simultaneously mechanic and volcanic.

The Círculo de Bellas Artes hosted three PHE 98 shows this summer. Photographer Sally Mann's "Still Time" explores the territory of parent-child conflict in the child's quest for independence. Alberto García-Alix's first retrospective is a visual diary of this León native's personal, urban world. Nan Goldin's "Naples, Ten Years After" features images from her first visit to the city ten years ago, and from a second, more recent stay there.

Other recent exhibitions at the Círculo de Bellas Artes have featured art for CD covers, photos by Lewis Carroll, digital art from the U.S. and a show by Canadian photographer Larry Trowell. In May the Círculo was the scene of a marathon 48-hour reading of Cervantes' Don Quijote, a lecture by Nobel Peace Prize recipient Rigoberta, a conference on Lorca and a concert of Flamenco-Hebrew guitar music. Culinary art is also on the docket here, at the 1940s-style Bellas Artes café.


Sally Mann
Night-Blooming Cereus

Alberto Garcia-Alix
Three Females

L. F. Guirao
The Arabal

Walter Sickert
The Facade of Saint Marcos

James MacNeil Whistler
Nocturne: Blue and Gold

James MacNeil Whistler
Symphony in White #2
Minerva is the patron goddess of the Circulo de Bellas Artes (her visage is even on the bathroom doors), a temple of visual and performing arts described as the "freest cultural space in Spain." The museum is open late, from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. during the week, and from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekends.

Madrid 1898 at the Centro Cultural de la Villa
"Madrid 1898" at the Centro Cultural de la Villa proved so popular that it was extended for a second month. Highlights included portraits by Raimundo de Madrazo, an artist whose sleek renderings give fair competition for Whistler; intense etchings by Ricardo Baroja; an unusual, starkly modern painting by Jaime Morera of the Guardarama mountains; and an etched portrait of Velázquez by Bartolomé Maura, as haunting and evocative as a Rembrandt. The best discovery, however, was the prolific photographic work of one L.F. Guirao -- slightly primitive, well-structured, with rich, deep tones.

Whistler and Sickert at Fundación Caixa
Madrid's Fundación Caixa paired James Whistler with Walter Sickert in a 129-work show curated by Andrew Dempsey, former director of programming for the Hayward Gallery in London. Everyone knows Whistler, the famous expatriate American artist enamored of Japanese design and prone to thinking of his paintings as musical compositions. Sickert, the son of a Danish father and Anglo-Irish mother, was born in Munich and studied acting before going to London's Slade School of Art, where he became Whistler's pupil and assistant. The two quarreled and went their separate ways in 1897.

Sickert's work ranges from a painting of San Marco worthy of an elegant hotel lobby to a brilliant portrait of an Italian Whore at Home, which employs the tonal ranges of Whistler's Mother and is as wild as Mother is tame. "Taste is the death of the painter," Sickert said. "The plastic arts are gross arts, dealing joyously with gross material facts." Sickert's work included backstage drawings influenced by Degas, portraiture from photographs, and "police" paintings, such as his Murder in Camden Town interiors. Notable paintings in this exhibition include an expressionist-style portrait of Winston Churchill, a painting of a couple in a dreary apartment titled Tedium -- a work author Virginia Woolf found inspiring for its grip on dismal reality -- and a painting of a miner kissing his mate, varying tones of brown with flashes of red bursting through the narrow space between the couple.

In this exhibition with less-than-optimal lighting, I understood the original hostility toward Whistler's Thames and Venice Nocturnes, as they strain the eye by simulateously inviting and refusing the gaze. Consequently, I kept reaching for my glasses. The jewel of the show was Symphony in White #2, the portrait of Whistler's lover and model, Jo Hifferman, done in 1864. The portrait was originally meant to accompany a Swinburne poem: "She knows not love that kissed her. She knows not where. Art thou the ghost, my sister, white sister there?" There were various well-known portraits, mostly studies in blacks and greys, with luminous faces set like moonstones against dark grounds. The darkness there was brilliant and impossible -- much like the master himself.

"Whistler-Sickert" is currently at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Bilbao, Spain.


Paul Delaux
The Man of the Street

Paul Delaux
Delvaux and the Inaccessible Woman
Two exhibitions of the Belgian Surrealist Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) were on view in Madrid this spring, "Drawings of a Lifetime" at Fundación Carlos de Amberes and "Paul Delvaux, Paintings" at the Fundación Juan March. When it comes to Delvaux, all I can say is never underestimate the power of a wax museum. Pierre Spitzner's Grand Museum of Anatomy and Hygiene, installed early this century in a Brussels fair, was a major influence on Delvaux.

"This place," wrote the artist, "left a profound mark in my life that stayed with me ...a total turn in my concept of painting. . . . [I realized] painting could express drama without losing its plastic character." Judging from Delvaux's work, the expression came forth, but most of the drama stayed inside. His drawings of goddesses, nymph-like creatures and large-eyed maternal figures are as full and round as they are contained.

Delvaux's major influences include De Chirico, Dalí and fellow Belgian René Magritte, though his work has none of the shock value of Magritte and none of Dalí's famous 'paranoiac' method. It does however exemplify consummate Surrealist technique in the paintings and a gentle magnetism in the drawings. Most interesting is the drawing of a wax Venus in the Grand Museum of Hygiene that Delvaux found completely absorbing. Reclining inside a glass chamber, the wax figure was connected to an apparatus that made her appear to breathe. This waxy Aphrodite inspired Delvaux to paint versions of the inaccessible woman for the rest of his days.


Esteban Vicente

Esteban Vicente
Black, Grey and Green

Esteban Vicente
Esteban Vicente: Representative Anarchist
The Reina Sofia retrospective of Esteban Vicente, which brought together 113 works dating from 1950 to 1998, opened one month before the unveiling of a museum in Segovia devoted exclusively to Vicente's work. El Museo de Arte Contemporaneo Esteban Vicente contains 148 of Vicente's works and has an operating budget of 75 million pesetas, roughly $1.1 million.

Esteban says he does not believe in historical movements in painting, nor in any schools. "Historical movements are a calamity," he told the Spanish press. "I am an anarchist."

Despite this sentiment, Esteban's Reina Sofía show clearly places him as a member of the Abstract Expressionist generation, and specifically calls to mind works by Rothko, Frankenthaler, Still, de Kooning, Motherwell, Hoffman, et al. Esteban is one of this group, just as he is an individual with unique color-messages to deliver and an original depth and lyricism. These qualities are best revealed when the paintings have titles that hint at the artist's creative vision, such as Floating Forms, where an eerie orange square seems to push through the canvas; and Song, a masterful mix of colors which do not usually coexist so vibrantly -- mossy pale green, dusty salmon, grey-yellow and a mid-range blue-violet. Vicente manages to create an intriguing and slightly dissonant harmony that engages both eye and mind.

A prolific painter, the 95-year-old Vicente works every day of the year, including Christmas. The secret to his success and long life? "Garlic . . . and never letting ambition get in the way of his creative work," says his wife and long-time art collector Harriet Peters Vicente.

Work by Vicente can be seen at the Auditorio de Galicia in Santiago de Compostela through August 1998, at the Museo de la Pasión y Monasterio Nuestra Señora del Prado in Vallodolid, Oct. 8-Nov. 8, 1998, and a the Fundación Pilar y Joan Miró y Casal Solleric in Palma de Mallorca, opening next February.


R. B. Kitaj
Kennst Du das Land?

R. B. Kitaj
The Hispanist (Nissa Torrents)
R.B. Kitaj at the Reina Sofiz
Next door to the Vicente show is a retrospective of 50 works dating from 1957 to 1997 by R.B. Kitaj, the American artist who after living in London for many years has now made California his home. The show is demanding and fascinating, offering a view of a highly personal universe created, sustained and haunted by a powerful intellect.

Critic Ulrich Krempel wrote that there are distinct phases in Kitaj's work where he attempts to "conquer the history of the individual Jew." Kitaj's Jewish identity leads him into predictable visual arenas. Once in those arenas, however, he produces unpredictable and highly responsive work. A striking collage that was in progress for 26 years combines an image of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns with books and magazines carrying such titles as The International Jew and The Jewish Question.

His painting Catalán Christ Pretending to be Dead (1976) shows a bearded man in a tomb made of a window. A green sea and a dark blue sky are to the left of the tomb, while a red sea beneath the gold light of dawn is on the right. An apple, a book and a spilled cup rest on top of the tomb. What are these elements doing together? Perhaps they are pieces of "the Jewish question," elements that Kitaj understands to be dually part of a "Christian question."

European themes of Fascism and Nazism and issues of identity are tightly woven into Kitaj's work, but to dwell on themes alone is to miss the point. Kitaj's work takes us inside his mind but never tells the whole story about anything. Though his work touches on the Holocaust, Fascism, the artist's loss after the deaths of his two wives, and his personal pain after a harsh response to his work at a Tate Gallery show in 1994 in London, he plunges into these areas of emotional and historical content without preconceptions and without overt plans. He uses surrealism, expressionism, realism, and abstraction -- but never predictably or with what appears to be forethought. The work goes straight from his core to his canvas, presents itself boldly, and then refuses perfect clarification.

The Kitaj show will also travel to the Judisches Museum Der Stadt in Vienna and later this fall to the Sprengel Museum in Hannover.


Javier Peréz
Hábitos by Javier Pérez in Espacio Uno
Basque artist Javier Pérez blends the technological with the organic in his show in the Reina Sofía's intimate Espacio Uno, a space reserved for up-and-coming contemporary artists. Upon entering, the viewer sees a white mask whose face was covered by a wig of long, black, very coarse hair. On the opposite wall ran a video of the nude artist with his body painted white, wearing the mask and tossing his head in a sweeping motion.

The video could have been spectacular -- the white man and his sweeping black shadow created images that could have commanded the viewer's attention. Instead, due to graceless, repetitive movements and a general lack of choreography, the video appeared to be an awkward, unoriginal piece that hurried me out of the room.

Fortunately, the next room was worth hurrying into. Here, the black wig reappeared in a transformational series of two-dimensional untitled images in the adjoining gallery, leading to the show's tour-de-force: A robe made of silkworm cocoons suspended from the ceiling. The robe changed as the silkworms progressed through their various stages. Beautifully and skillfully done, this piece could be ascribed to the realm of religious experience.


Antoni Gaudi

Advertisement for a bucket
with a mop-wringer

Andrés Nagel

Alberto Liévore
Manolete Chair

Javier Mariscal
Taburete Duplex, Stool
Spanish Industrial Design
The Reina Sofia's "Spanish Industrial Design: A Century of Creation and Innovation" begins with products from 1900-1930, including works by Gaudí and other precursors to modern industrial design in Spain. It continues by grouping material into four consecutive time periods: 1930-1960, 1960-1980, 1980-1990 and the 1990s. This last is considered Spain's international period, highlighted by its "coming out" parties, the 1992 Olympic Games and the 1992 World Expo in Sevilla.

The furniture, dishes, cars, motorcycles, lamps, tables, desks, lighting and machinery displayed in this show exemplify Spain's artistic genius. The show's curators emphasize the Spanish love of contained volumes, the penchant for angles sharp enough to bite, the use of very tight curves, the cult of simplicity and the enduring motif of the bull and the bull-fighter. In the newly-opened plaza in front of the museum stand Spanish aircraft and large vehicles, while urban street sign designs decorate the inner courtyard.

The 1960s and 1980s are the strongest decades represented in this comprehensive exhibition. Most surprising was the section devoted to contemporary design. With some wonderful exceptions, the design of the 1990s was fairly repetitive and unoriginal. The show's commissioner notes that by the 1990s, Spanish design shows a concentration on products whose designers, "opted for a more Minimalist esthetic ... based on optimization, cost-savings, and ingenuity." In spite of several exceptions, something was lost in this sensible process -- a disappointment after the breakthrough '60s and the imaginative '80s. A spiral 24-hour clock by Oscar Tusquets Blanca and a space-age magazine rack by José and José Luis Díez Blanco were particulary noteworthy.

Rather remarkable is the 'Madame Pompi-dûr' chest of drawers by José Juan Belda. A double column of rounded drawers made of tropical mahogany, the Pompi-dûr chest is a play on words -- and shapes. In colloquial Spanish, the word pompi(s) means "buns," and in French dûr means "hard." Living up to its name, the chest looks like two thighs leading into buttocks, and yes, they are "covered in drawers."

Also worth noting is a special selection of designs combining art with industry, including a Dalí lamp, a Miró chair and a wardrobe by Tapiés. My favorites included a "poem object" by Joan Brossa. The Sweat of the Chair, as it is called, is a seatless chair made of water pipes with a faucet on one side. Also notable is a silver oil-and-vinegar set designed by Guillermo Pérez Villalta, whose cylindrical vessels fit into a replica of a mythical boat on wheels.

"Spanish Industrial Design: A Century of Creation and Innovation," is installed at the Reina Sofia through the end of August.

Adolfo Barnatán at Galería Metta
Formerly known as a painter, Adolfo Barnatán has found the proverbial métier as a sculptor. Using his daughter as his model, Barnatán has set himself a particularly romantic project -- to recreate the face of Aphrodite. After seeing headless Venuses in museums in Paris, he decided to return to the goddess what time had taken away from her. The result is rewarding and intriguing, achieving a rare confluence of Greco-Roman, African and Egyptian influences.

Florencio Aguilar at the Museo Español de Arte Contemporáneo
Aguilar's work offers clear proof that Spain's famous realist, Joacquin Sorolla, still exerts a strong influence over contemporary painters in Spain. Aguilar's father, also a painter, worked closely with Sorolla for a time, which perhaps explains why Aguilar's handling of light reflects lessons from the master. Aguilar, now 51, says he lives and paints fast, wanting his work to convey the fever of a moment. His goals are to keep painting fast and to never, ever accept a commission.

José Guerrero at Galería Guillermo de Osma
This small but carefully selected exhibit of the work of José Guerrero (1914-1991) presents beautiful, enduring pieces by one of Spain's better-known "colorists."

Cola Cao Goes Contemp
Cola Cao is the Ovaltine of Spain. Drink it hot or cold. According to the commercials, it can send you into orbit, make you fall in love and keep you happy in your old age. Now it has become inspiration for artists. Works devoted to the theme of Cola Cao are on display in the Centro Cultural Galileo.

The Ring Through the Lens
Bullfighter Curro Romero, Spain's most famous toreador de arte, advised bullfighter Cristina Sánchez that to "torear is to caress." The images of photographer Isabel Muñoz, showing at the Fórum de la Fnac, prove Romero right. In a city where bullfight images are less than a dime a dozen, these are a treat.

Auction House under Investigation
The Sala de Subastas, the auction house founded in 1969 by Fernando Durán, is reportedly under investigation for tax fraud to the tune of 2,000 million pesetas (approximately $30 million). According to the Cope news agency, the auction house is suspected of doing business with dinero negro, black-market money, and without providing price information on receipts of purchase.

Durán management issued a statement suggesting that allegations of tax fraud were false and made by their new competition.

The "black economy" in Spain is said to account for between one-quarter and one-fifth of Spain's economic activity. It is estimated that between 3,000 and 4,000 billion pesetas are currently stuffed under mattresses and hidden in safe deposits (150 pesetas make $1). By the year 2002, all this money has to be changed to Euros -- and all money changing is recorded, official and imminently taxable. One of the most popular ways to "convert" this money in 1998 is through the purchase of real estate and art -- or at least, so rumor has it.

New Director at Barcelona MCA
Former director of the Tapiés Foundation, Manuel Borja-Filla, was recently named director for the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Barcelona (MACBA). He succeeds Miquel Molins, who resigned in February.

Medal for Sebastiao Salgado
The Portuguese photographer Sebastiao Salgado, best-known for his gripping black-and-white portraits of workers, has been awarded the prestigious Príncipe de Asturias medal for the visual arts. The award marks the first time that the medal has gone to a photographer.

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