Enrique Andrés Ruiz

Magazine issue: 
#4 2015 (49)

Dedicated to Emilio Vilanova Martinez-Frias

There must have existed some moment, all but forgotten now, when the expression "contemporary art" was still capable of alluding to a particular historical reality in the art world. That reality would have provided a sufficiently natural link of continuity between the ancient and modern historical - artistic account with a new chapter. But today we know - and above all feel - that contemporary art (and the idea of the "contemporary" in general) can no longer be just another episode in the wider story, despite the fact that museums and historians find their raison d'être in this "narrative inertia".

The art of the avant-garde, known as Modernism in the Anglo-Saxon world and titled "New Art" in Spain during a crucial period, has also preserved in written histories something of that historical narrative essence. Thus, as each movement was superseded, the dominance and legitimisation of the following one occurred, despite the fact that the leading protagonists themselves never stopped declaring that they and their works did not belong to the historical account of art, instead bursting on to the scene with the specific intention of putting an end to precisely that narration.

But then the worst possible thing happened for that very argument and its agents and institutions. Suddenly "contemporary art", which so naturally appeared to allude to a historical chapter, was revealed to have only simulated that state. Now it would not be quite so simple to write it - in others words, to insert the names of authors and link the facts about their works to the thread of a progression. With such an approach, it only appeared possible to do what historians of long-gone civilizations had done before them: accumulate and build up events and names in simple chronicle form, without any greater logical chain of circumstances connecting them.

In 1982, Rudi Fuchs, artistic director of the famous Documenta 7 in Kassel, decided on something unheard of: the exhibition of works and artists that year wasn't going to feature one artistic trend over any other as an historical trailblazer. Instead, the diversity of aesthetic and visual styles would be faithfully reflected in the exhibition. What this meant - "to put a date in a world where dates were rapidly losing their relevance" - was that from then on, the history of art was closed, its story superseded, its process taken as concluded. Perhaps this was what was called post-modernism, a term that seems useful for keeping alive a composition of time that takes for granted the end of linear time and cancellation of its meaning.

One of the new movements whose arrival in Spain during the 1980s excited a great deal of interest was the Italian transavantgarde, a term coined by the critic Achille Bonito Oliva. In truth, the only common trait underlying the artists and works lumped together under that promotional banner was the fact they came after the avant-garde narration and its argument, which amounts to the same thing.

But the argument existed and resistance to abandoning it was tenacious. During the 20th century, life seemed to be born anew each morning with a golden glow and a tremor of the future, simultaneously symptoms and reflections of a time of cataclysm and promise. However, once that time passed, the historiographical zeal was not eradicated from the universities: thus it still appears possible to use the expression "contemporary art" at times to designate a historical category more or less subsequent to the avant-gardes or late avant-gardes which preserved the dominance conferred on them by the cultural system following the Allied victory in World War II.

Looking at the catalogue of the first exhibition of the collection in the Queen Sofia Museum (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia), the most important Spanish museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art, in 1992, it is not surprising at all that at the very beginning of the first piece on the first work described - Picasso's "Woman in Blue", 1901 - the critic Joséfina Alix would write: "Contemporary art begins with Picasso in 1901." It is obvious that this only becomes true in an account whose argument had previously established that contemporary art is, in truth, avant-garde art, the art subsequent to the modernism that we are to understand included all the modern realisms, naturalisms and romanticisms that lie beneath its category.

At any rate, that eloquent syncopated sentence is found before all the explanatory texts about a collection that wanted to be international but also national, thus making it almost obligatory for the requirements of an account which not only provided the Spanish museum with its raison d'être but also a heightened importance, in which the contributions by Spanish artists were accorded a relevance appropriate to world protagonists.

And, that being the case, to the effort to establish that it all began with Picasso. We can see straight away how right Pierre Cabanne was when he so very exactly named his book "Le Siècle de Picasso" (published in English as "Pablo Picasso: His Life and Times", the literal translation is "The Picasso Century"). Because Picasso is the central axis, the node of the artistic argument of the 20th century, the name that came to personify it, and the demarcation point for the 20th century to make any connection to the chronology.

I mean that from 1914 to 1989, the 20th century had to make its effective borders line up within the time frame established by the World Wars. In short, the same chronological time period in which "modern art", "from the 20th century", or the "avant-garde" came to name the same reality, dominant over all the romanticisms and realisms, and before the "contemporary" arrived to show its colours with the outlines of something completely different. Picasso was, not without reason, the paradigm who served as the backbone for New York's MoMA, universally esteemed and influential from before the Second World War until well into the 1990s. He filled that role until replaced by the "Duchamp paradigm", whose validity as the principal support for an alternative account has never been fully confirmed, however. While it was au courant, the "Picasso paradigm" served as the hallmark for works that attempted - as almost all the avant-garde artists did - to place themselves simultaneously both on the margins of and inside the artistic tradition. Picasso was the point of reference who displayed the strange virtue of being inside and outside, for celebrating art and destroying it, like "The One" who, after tearing down the temple, said he could raise a new one in three days.

Picasso travelled to Paris for the first time in 1900 after developing his craft in La Coruña, Barcelona and Madrid. In 1904, when he had already begun and ended his Blue and Rose Periods, he settled for good in Paris, where the art universe, according to the modern account, had its epicentre: it did not take long for Picasso himself to become the centre of that centre. He painted "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" and joined forces with Kahnweiler, his crucial art dealer. He imported for this new painting shapes which evoked African sculpture in the imagination, and art lost or disdained in the Western account. In 1911, when another Spanish artist, Juan Gris (José Victoriano González), who had established himself in Paris in 1906, began to explore Cubism after reviewing Cézanne's work, Picasso did the same - but never in the same way - together with Georges Braque. The Surrealists of the following decade paid homage to him; when he passed through Madrid in 1917 with Diaghilev's "Ballets Russes" with whom he worked, he was fêted at the literary salon of the Café de Pombo, presided over by Ramón Gómez de la Serna. (Ramón was a crucial figure in the world of Spanish avant-garde art, the author of books about the "Isms (Ismos)", Velázquez and Picasso himself, and the organizer of the first, scandalous exhibition of avant-garde art that took place in Madrid in 1915, "Integral Painters (Pintores integros)”) Picasso "dropped in" at all the right places, but did not stay in any of them. If he had previously reviewed, or revisited, Cézanne's work on account of Cubism, now it was Ingres and Flaxman's turn to serve as models for a new cycle of unrestrained productivity, this time more classical in nature, which dominated his work as the 1920s approached.

It coincided with, as a summing-up and new impulse of the avant-garde artists, what Jean Cocteau called "the return to order". The magazines Documents and Minotaure dedicated special issues to Picasso, and he travelled close to Surrealism while it served the interest of his productive activity. But Cézanne, Ingres, El Greco, Delacroix and Velázquez, from the perspective of the creatively fertile cycles of the 1950s and 1970s (when he created the "Las Meninas and "Painter and His Model" series), were only occasional stop-overs for someone who incarnated all the chapters of the avant-garde argument but was unadaptable to any of them, impossible as that seems.

Nothing prevents us from looking at Cubism today to realise it was not inevitable for that accomplishment alone to maintain Picasso's place in history. The same could be said of the classicist hangover of the 1920s, as reflected in Valori Plastici magazine or the magical realisms of Franz Roh, and with Surrealism, and constructive "-isms" such as Abstraction-Creation... Picasso is not essential for any of these historiographical chapters and yet he nevertheless is essential in order for 20th century art to be what it is, so that it can be "art" - and particularly so that painting in the 20th century would still be "painting" - before the expanded contemporary arts absorbed the "specific" arts into a new conceptual abstraction called, as it is today, "Art". Picasso was the privileged reader of that account and simultaneously its lead actor, the only protagonist who, simultaneously within and without, makes us understand his tremendous love for painting as a manifestation of a specific nature, sent and deposited in a concrete object.

Which takes us on to another leading figure. In 1918, the Dalmau Gallery in Barcelona, which had exhibited French cubist paintings in 1912, presented the first exhibition by Joan Miró, a key figure in European Surrealism. Like many other Spanish artists, Miró began his career by travelling to Paris first, taking up residence there in 1920. In his "Surrealism and Painting" of 1928, André Breton already viewed Miró as "the most surrealist of all of us" because by then the kind of hallucinatory myopia that led him to paint "The Farm" (1922) had given way to a painting style made up of empty spaces and weird creatures that added him - definitely and officially in 1925 - to the group of the Surrealists. Miró was already a renowned painter in the 1930s and exhibitions of his work were presented in Paris, Brussels, New York (MoMA staged his first retrospective exhibition in 1941, and would do so again in 1959). When the Germans invaded France, he went to live on Majorca. The painting, sculptures and ceramic works by Miró are part of the "iconic" repertoire of the century, one of the most recognizable contributions to it. The icons concerned act as backgrounds in the landscape, the backdrop for passages where sometimes we hear the songs of children ring out, or the echo of peasants, or stifled sobs and screams in the midst of some devastation.

The third Spanish protagonist of the avant-garde narrative - whether to the approval or disgust of the observer - is Salvador Dali, who ranks above other Spanish artists such as the painter Oscar Dominguez from the Canary Islands or the Galician Eugenio Fernández who were active in the surrealist camp. Proof that Surrealism found Spain fertile terrain is illustrated by the time many of its leading figures spent in the country, as well as their early meetings with Spanish artists. But no event was more relevant, perhaps, than the celebration of the second Surrealist Exhibition on Tenerife in 1935, promoted by Art Gazette (Gaceta del Arte) magazine complete with a visit to the island by André Breton, Jacqueline Lamba and Benjamin Peret.

The affiliation of Dali with the movement lasted from at least 1929 to 1938. But Dali had attended the famed Student Residence (Residencia de Estudiantes) in Madrid that was home to one of the most relevant groups from the so-called poetic "Generation of '27" (Generacion del 27), which included the filmmaker Luis Bunuel and the poet Federico Garcia Lorca. The "Generation of '27" itself was ceaselessly presented as a basic chapter in the avant-garde story, but that effort was preceded by the self-promotion of its own members, including the visual art created by the poets themselves. Lorca himself was the author of very individual surrealist drawings that correlated to his literary world; Rafael Alberti was a painter before he was a poet, featured in exhibitions, and years later wrote a magnificent, unprecedented book of poems articulated in the style of old artist treatises, fitting for a book titled "To Painting"; the somewhat older José Moreno Villa was a painter - of surrealist paintings, to be clear - as well as an art critic and historian.

The "Generation of '27", the painters (Vázquez Diaz, Francisco Bores, Benjamin Palencia and the young artists hailing from Murcia, Ramón Gaya, Juan Bonafe and Ramón Garay) should be linked with those who liked and promoted the poetry of Juan Ramón Jiménez. Lorca wrote his "Ode to Salvador Dali" in 1926. But Dali in 1927, after a few years of what we could call magic realism and objectivism in the Roh style, had already started with his surrealist paintings and became connected with the group in Paris the next year. He welcomed them to his home in Cadaques and later married Paul Éluard's wife, Gala. He illustrated the "Second Surrealist Manifesto" (1930) and conceived (retrospectively with respect to his creation of the paintings, in my opinion) what he called the "paranoiac-critical method" as a work formula.

Slowly but surely he was producing a "non-transferable" style combining the kind of technical attention to detail that had been called passe with the depiction of dreamscape images and illogical juxtapositions, which earned him a great many admirers and also many critics, including Breton. He was also abhorred for backing Franco, his knack for being a good writer and his - in this, Dali may be the only precedent for the post-modern artist - highly effective and profitable dedication to publicizing both his own image as the half-magician artist and his work in general. He had exhibitions in London and New York in 1936, and fled Europe at the outbreak of World War II for New York, where a retrospective exhibition was held in 1940 (he published his memoirs, the very strange "The Secret Life of Salvador Dali" there).

While all this was happening with the leading painters, perhaps only two sculptors attained a similar level of universality - Julio González and Alberto Sánchez, also protagonists of a key chapter of the Spanish avant-garde, one of the numerous searches for a vernacular identity. In addition to the need to address the complication of "the contemporary" with respect to what we can call "the modern", there is another imperative, concerning the existence (or non-existence) of an art that would effectively be able to tell us what it meant to be Spanish.

There are examples where the intent of strictly avant-garde artists involved adapting universal chapters of the modern art argument to vernacular forms as their main source of inspiration, both before and after the Civil War. Take Julio González, scion of a family of jewellers, who also left for Paris in 1900 and never had an exhibition in Spain. However, as a friend of Brancusi and the Surrealists much later as well as Torres-Garcia, González took part in many exhibitions initiated by Spaniards to whom he felt close. It can be said that his abstract work, sketching figures with primal lines in the air, was the starting point of all avant-garde sculpture work in iron. And, although the influence was reciprocal that went for Picasso as well, to whose techniques he was introduced by his old friend from their shared Barcelona days. However, despite these graphic works with their gravity-defying quality, the most characteristic aspect of González's work was the realistic vein he practised in the 1930s, driven by an urgent sense of birth memory, to create a wonderful series of vexed figures of peasant women. He named them collectively "Montserrat", including the famous one exhibited in the Spanish Republic Pavilion at the 1937 Paris Exposition Internationale.

Until 1937, leaving the personalities of its leading figures aside, Spanish art could display certain chapters and accomplishments that generally testified to a particular connection with the universal account of the first part of the century, the avant-garde. The true avant-garde, to put it more accurately, because if the difference between avant-garde art and contemporary art consists of anything, it cannot fall very far from the following point: contemporary art is going to be the avant-garde institutionalized, after the democratic public administrations - in other words, the political powers - assume control after the wars of the symbolic and critical capital the old avant-gardes had built up. They wanted to invest them now in the construction of a new cultural order (read: contemporary culture) that had to be presented as the descendant of those pre-war movements under the hypothesis, now consolidated as a truth, that the ominous old order has resisted the march of freedom. Those art movements and styles had contributed heroically to overthrowing the old order and the establishment of the new democracies of the post-war era.

But such institutionalization is nothing new: or, better expressed, it is new, since it hasn't been around for more than 20 or 30 years, but it was always something desired by the old avant-garde. It was simply a pretension that on certain occasions managed to be fulfilled. The art critic Santos Amestoy called this "the political utility of the contemporary aesthetic". It seems pertinent to speak of this when we reach 1937, in view of the constructive spirit of the "New Man", the "New History" or the "Definitive History of Humanity" that were being advocated everywhere by the ideologies in vogue during those years of the 20th century.

As for Spain, the movement of the more or less spontaneous associations that had started up in the 1920s to serve as the essential support structure for the arrival and spread of what was then called "New Art" were a prelude to what, 15 years later, would become governmental operations fully aware of that "political utility of the contemporary aesthetic". In fact, the formation of the Society of Iberian Artists (SAI, Sociedad de Artistas Ibéricos) was not the first Spanish contribution to the modern movement, nor was it confined to Spain. (The first, uniquely Spanish contribution to the avant-garde was the Ultraism movement which, fundamentally literary in nature, had little impact in the visual arts sphere, however. From 1918 onwards, Ultraism also stopped being the collective vehicle through which artists who played leading roles in the first modern moment, especially in Madrid, found an outlet, often as graphic illustrators.) But towards the mid-1920s, the emergence of the "Generation of '27" in the literary sphere and SAI in the artistic realm pushed aside the Ultraism movement forever. These were associations that were not ignorant now of that "political utility" and even less of the propaganda resources used to achieve success, undoubtedly understood as the entry of names into the histories or accounts in which the story of the progressive continuation of the eras was being formalised. That was something new in Spain, at least until Juan Ramón Jiménez and the poets of '27 arrived.

SAI's formation coincided with its 1925 public presentation in the Crystal Palace of the Buen Retiro Park in Madrid. It featured a little bit of everything: more or less traditional artists, militant avant-gardists, late Cubists, New Objectivity and "return to order" painters, regionalists, etc., in addition to Picasso, Miró, Dali, Julio González and Alberto. It also included critics and theorists (Manuel Abril, Garcia Maroto, Guillermo de Torre) because theory was another element in the new order together with promotion strategy. The truth is that SAI was already languishing shortly after its presentation, from a lack of institutional backers. When the Second Republic came to power in 1931, SAI approached the government for assistance, using the argument that it was already set up as the ideal tool for bringing modern art to Spain, and in reciprocal fashion giving Spanish art an international presence. The government agreed and provided SAI with the means to undertake a campaign promoting art, naturally meaning the art of the cultural modernity of the Second Republic. Exhibitions were held in Copenhagen in 1932, Berlin in 1933 and finally Paris in 1936 - "Contemporary Spanish Art" at the Jeu de Paume - on the eve of the Civil War.

In spite of everything, however, SAI was already mortally wounded a few years before that date. The new situation - a right-wing government taking over in 1933, the new Popular Front-populist dynamic opposing it, the imminence of war, the climate of open revolution - demanded from the Republic a more radical and effective instrumentalization of avant-garde art, and "New Art" no longer appeared sufficient for the task. The 1930s were marked by the appearance in action - the key term - of the new acronyms of many arts groups and associations: ADLAN {Los Amigos del Arte Nuevo, Friends of the New Art, organizers of the Logicofobista Exhibition in Barcelona in 1936 and retrospectives of Picasso in both Madrid and Barcelona the same year): GATEPAC, the Spanish architectural franchise of the international CIAM; UEAR (Unión de Escritores у Artistas Revolucionarios, the Revolutionary Writers and Artists Unión). The artistic climate no longer demanded paintings but instead posters and photo-montages inspired by German and Russian models, like those created by Josép Renau - the general director of Fine Arts at the height of the war - and exhibited in the Spanish Republic Pavilion of the 1937 Paris Exposition Internationale.

The German and Soviet pavilions in Paris shared many traits and a similar aesthetic that appeared to inspire the imaginary landscapes of both totalitarian regimes. The Spanish Pavilion, a modern work itself primarily designed by Josép Lluis Serf, exhibited, variously, "Guernica", a painting of difficult (and sometimes parodic) history that the government had commissioned from Picasso, that ended up depicting the German bombardment of the small Basque village of that name: a display case in memory of the poet Federico Garcia Lorca and his murder: a bust of a woman by Picasso and the caricature-like engravings of his "The Dream and Lie of Franco" series: and a mobile by Alexander Calder. The wonderful monolith by Alberto Sánchez "There Is a Way for the Spanish People That Leads to a Star" was the pavilion's totemic insignia (a life-size replica today graces the entrance to the Queen Sofia Museum).

Things had changed very much in a very short time. When the Spanish government agreed to participate in the Exposition, its intention was - hard to imagine! - to promote cultural tourism. Once Largo Caballero assumed the presidency of the Council and entrusted direction of the Pavilion to Renau, the occasion took on very different goals, above all to spotlight the Republic avant-garde association. In fact, this was the first event of contemporization in the history of Spanish art, the first time government institutions at the highest levels appeared to have understood exactly that "political utility of the contemporary aesthetic". The year 1927, when Alberto had strolled around the white, sandy hills of Madrid in the company of Palencia, Juan Manuel Dlaz-Caneja, Ángel Ferrant, the poet Miguel Hernández and Maruja Mallo, seemed so long ago.

But nevertheless, those walks gave birth to undoubtedly the most interesting chapter of the Spanish avant-garde, only known as the "Vallecas School" from an interview during the 1960s in which Alberto related his memories of it (the artist went into exile in Moscow after the Civil War, living there until his death). On those walks with friends (without any institutional dimension, and therefore passed over), Alberto and Palencia imagined a truly Spanish new art, freed from what they considered excessive obedience to stylistic dictates propagated in Paris. Accustomed to leafing through books about cave-paintings and visiting the National Archaeological Museum (Museo Arqueológico Nacional), the two were captivated by the possibility of a primordial or primitive approach that almost naturally would rise from the land itself (in Alberto’s case, inspiration perhaps also came from his old trade as a baker). They certainly took Picasso as one source of inspiration, along with El Greco, Zurbarán and a few other “Spanish heroes”. Using such roots, they created a repertoire of very expressive atavistic forms, simultaneously anti-artistic and boasting a high level of aesthetic sophistication: Palencia’s surrealist ink drawings in the 1930s and the very beautiful archaic figures of Alberto are among the very best works of the Spanish avant-garde. For anyone seeking something truly Spanish in the works that emerged during that period, these two artists are the ones to seek out. Alberto later created lovely works in wood in Moscow, pieces which evoked that free and rugged past in Vallecas, conceiving such quixotic decorations before he died in the sadness of exile.

After the Spanish Civil War, it took the new regime approximately 10 years to understand “the political utility of the contemporary aesthetic”, meaning what is truly contemporary and instrumental to the modern art movement. Obviously there were more pressing concerns: there was trouble being admitted to the United Nations (which happened only in 1955), and establishing the famous trade and military treaties with President Eisenhower in 1953. In short, Spain finally moved from being symbolically associated with the defeated old world to being viewed as part of the new cultural order of the triumphant Allies. Many artists from the old avant-garde were in exile (Granell, Gaya, Esteban Vicente, Alberto, Óscar Domínguez), and others who remained in Spain were almost devastated emotionally (Ferrant, Vázquez Díaz, Palencia, Miró, the imprisoned Díaz-Caneja).

Perhaps the most notable episode illustrating the strange return of the modern in the post-war period after the Civil War was the foundation of the Academia Breve de Critica de Arte by Eugenio D’Ors (the most important critic during those years and probably the most prominent art world personality in the New Regime) and his invention of the Salones de los Once in 1943, which lasted until his death in 1954. If Ramón Gómez de la Serna and Ortega y Gasset had been the literary voices of the avant-garde, D’Ors would fill that role through an effort very characteristic of the new era. Of course, it was personal: the challenge of resurrecting a new classical order and formalist aesthetic from what he considered the ruins of the avant-garde. He wasn't able to sweep Picasso into his project, although that is exactly what he would have wanted. So a moderate version of modern art was promoted through the Biosca Gallery and the annual Salons, a style of figurative art that was generally familiar and polite. Rafael Zabaleta was among his favourite artists, with his "updating" of Picasso, his colour sense of the afternoon siesta, his rural innocence. D’Ors, in fact, had played a major role in the end of modernism during his younger days in Catalonia, having promoted a pre-war association, the SAE, in Madrid almost at the same time as SAI, and the fact SAE was more open and comprehensive doomed it. Mirroring the Republican Pavilion, he directed the Spanish Pavilion of the new regime at the 1938 Venice Biennial according to his preferences.

In a twist of fate, the death of D'Ors in 1954 coincided with the growing affiliation of the Spanish government to the new culture (he lived long enough to be aware of the initial efforts by the regime to integrate itself into the international neo-avant-garde by organizing the first Biennial of Spanish-American Art in 1951). To his regret, that was official blessing for abstract art. However, it is curious that some very young artists, who took part in the salons of D’Ors, went on to be leading figures in the dynamic of artistic groups which would provide an outlet for subsequent movements. That was the case with Antoni Tàpies, perhaps the last Spanish artist whose place in the global modern movement cannot be questioned.

Abstraction reigned supreme and the undeniable appeal of that period still lingers in the imagination. Tàpies began as a kind of invocation of Paul Klee, filling both his paintings and designs for wall-hangings with stripes, sgraffitos, and inflorescences. He would later venture into a darker extension of solitary material, imprinted with the tracks of anguished gesture. The painter José Guerrero moved to the United States in 1949, where he would maintain close relations, both personally and stylistically, with the Abstract Expressionists. The latter's experience did not match that of Esteban Vicente, exiled in America, although he also created a kind of Spanish version of American action painting. But back in Spain, the Dau al Set (literally, in Catalan "the seventh face of the dice") group was founded in 1948, with an initial surrealist and magical spirit from which Tàpies was not far removed, particularly in the company of Cuixart, Brossa and the exceptional poet and critic Juan Eduardo Cirlot.

1948 also saw the founding of the Altamira School, inspired by the Mexican painter and architect of German origin Mathias Goeritz, who would provide the impetus to hold the International Congress of Abstract Art in Santander some years later. Abstract art was now the "style of the era" with the government: it didn't skimp on its efforts to export it internationally, especially once they confirmed the potential stylistic relationship that might exist amongst the Spanish Informalists who (in spite of their gravitation towards a more French orbit: Fautrier, Art autre) displayed a gestural component familiar from the painters of the American cultural contingent.

The Portico group was founded in 1947; the Parpallo group in 1956; in 1957, the geometrically inclined "Group 57"; and finally, in Madrid that same year, El Paso. After that, Antonio Saura would abandon his initial surrealist direction and produce a highly individual gestural figurative art, while Manolo Millares, the group's other key figure, would likewise step back from his early primitivist approach to undertake one of the most eloquent bodies of work in the modern art movement. El Paso also proved a second attempt, following the Vallecas School of Alberto, at developing an indigenous aesthetic - black, dramatic, silent - that was in line with international forms. "Far from being a desert, the later post-war years in Spain were full of artistic manifestations of a radical modernity not exempt from strong national and racial characteristics," as the critic Damaso Santos Amestoy has written. At any rate, Spain experienced one of its pivotal artistic periods from 1955 to 1965: perhaps along with the fleeting early 1980s, it was comparable to the pre-war period when certain Spanish artists took the helm of the "historical vessel". Tàpies was awarded the prize of the Sao Paulo Biennial in 1953; Joan Miró received an award at the Venice Biennial in 1959; in 1957, the sculptor Jorge Oteiza, who had already left behind his experiences with archaic figures and moved in the direction of greater constructive purity (with his tributes to Velázquez and Malevich, his "metaphysical boxes") won the Grand Prize in Sao Paulo, as did Cuixart in 1959. Tàpies and Chillida were awarded prizes in Venice in 1958; in 1960, the "Spanish Art" exhibition came to MoMA; geometric forms, streaked with savvy inspirations, kept up a subtle seriousness in the work of Pablo Palazuelo, while Eusebio Sempere explored optics and kinetics. In 1965, the wealthy Spanish-Filipino painter and collector Fernando Zobel inaugurated the museum of his own collection as the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art in Cuenca.

But all good things come to an end, even more so in a system based on successive periods of time. By the mid-1960s, in reaction to the boom of abstract art, leftist critics, mobilized as a cultural extension of the Communist Party, considered it necessary to promote a realist turn in Spanish art, one capable of visually embodying social critique, with artistic equivalents of verbal messages, which appeared to be beyond the emotional instability of abstract art. The result of that operation was that a certain social realism - the Estampa Popular, for example - coexisted side- by-side over the following decade with the arrival in Spain of the Pop art movement and its uncontrollable iconic egalitarianism, represented in particular by the Equipo Crónica.

However, neither of those two realisms would be truly characteristic of the currents that emerged in post-war Spain. Despite not having anything to do with political intentions and occasionally having to accept criticism for similarities with the hyper-realism of the 1970s, the most individual realism was that of the painter Antonio López, a friend and colleague of the El Paso artists, whose mysterious style focused attention on faces and everyday objects, frequently extracted from a truly profound view of the inner life of Spain.

The older artists who had made the artistic continuity of the post-war avant-gardes possible had died (Ángel Ferrant in 1961, Daniel Vázquez Diaz in 1969). At Madrid's Universidad Complutense, the Calculus Centre incorporated a seminar on the automatic creation of visual forms, where they started from (still with Sempere as the model) the enthusiasm for bringing together art, mathematics and technology. Fifty years later, that seems like a completely natural thing. Works by José Maria Yturralde, Elena Asins and others have to be related to this seminar. The arrival of the waves of expanded art - body art, land art, video art, happenings, conceptualism - produced works like those of the Grup de Treball, Antoni Muntadas, the ZAJ group of Juan Hidalgo and Esther Ferrer, which culminated in the Pamplona Encounters (Encuentros de Pamplona) held in 1972. This was reportedly a major event: John Cage and Dennis Oppenheim came to Pamplona and a climate of intellectual and political provocation found its symmetrical echo in the police harassment there.

But Pop art, nevertheless, and the neo-figurative art that was part and parcel of its European version, did not go unnoticed after the Equipo Crónica. Despite the restrictive effect of the conceptual watchdogs on the material practice of the arts, the "specific" arts curiously found a refuge a little later in the hands of certain painters who were veterans of Pop art and the visually socialized new world, like Luis Gordillo and Juan Giralt. Even before the Pamplona Encounters, the critic and painter Juan Antonio Aguirre had started to give space to very young painters at the Sala Amadis in Madrid, who were influenced by Luis Gordillo and by English pop art, Hockney, the wild gestural paintings of José Guerrero (who returned to Spain in 1966), and early masters of the modern era like Matisse and Bonnard. But the water they were drinking from all these sources included a faithful love for painting, more than the "Art in General" that conceptualism and politics had conceived precisely to substitute over the last 30 years for the superseded and abolished "specific" arts, en route to its being considered as the only and exclusive "art of our times".

Pablo Picasso died in 1973. A few years before his own death in 1975, Franco had inaugurated the Spanish Museum of Contemporary Art (Museo Espanol de Arte Contemporaneo) in Madrid, the first institution among Spanish museums with that word in its title. The Juan March Foundation (Fundación Juan March) was also inaugurated that year, a private exhibition centre instrumental in showing the great landmarks of modern art before the Queen Sofia came into existence. In 1976, the Venice Biennial hosted "Spain. Avant-garde Art and Social Reality, 1936-1976". Some exiled artists returned, including the painter and extraordinary essayist Ramón Gaya, who came with his paintings and writings to give an unbiased rebuttal to the now-consolidated idea of an "art of our time": the Multitud gallery in Madrid dedicated an exhibition to him in 1976. So the cycle began of recovering the memory of the Spanish avant-gardes, coinciding with the process of the political Transition period, the official motto of which was to add and include, not exclude or take away. The painters whom Aguirre had exhibited in Amadis were maturing, projecting by the beginning of the 1980s an image - worldly, sensitive, quasi-euphoric - of a particular Madrid (to a lesser extent too, of a more general Spain). There were still a handful of good painters: Miguel Ángel Campano, Carlos Alcolea, Aguirre himself, José Manuel Broto, Guillermo Pérez Villalta, who painted the crowded generational group portrait, and others. Other artists who arrived on the scene a little later followed their example to renew an old acquaintance with painting: Ferrán Garcia Sevilla, Juan Uslé, Alfonso Albacete, José Maria Sicilia, Luis Claramunt, Xesús Vázquez... Various sculptors emerged from the 1980s generation, among the most outstanding Susana Solano, Miquel Navarro, Sergi Aguilar, Eva Lootz, Adolfo Schlosser and a refined conceptual installation artist, Nacho Criado, soon to be followed by Francisco Leiro, Cristina Iglesias and Juan Muñoz.

"Guernica", the painting the Republic had commissioned from Picasso for the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 Paris Exposition, came home to Spain in September 1981. Apparently, the historical archive of the Spanish avant-garde was now saved, completed - but also closed, in the sense of a closed circle. We have symbolically made our beginning coincide with that closing of the modern historical account as marked by the Documenta 7exhibition of Kassel. That same exhibition also welcomed Miquel Barcelo to the world art circuit, the latest Spanish painter to have turned into an international celebrity. It would appear that his work became recognizable for reflecting a certain intentionally indigenous tone - a certain bravura, fury, roughness - on the one hand, and a kinship with other European art stars from the neo-expressionist camp already certified on the circuit, like Sandro Chia, Kieffer or Baselitz. (It is still possible to remember the efforts of a handful of Spanish critics to convince Rudi Fuchs that Luis Gordillo would make an excellent representative of the new Spanish painting. It was all in vain, Gordillo didn't have what Fuchs was looking for: the scent of race, the land, the right image.)

That effectively ends this account of modern art in Spain. Because what has come since - institutionally, legally - is more properly and precisely contemporary art. That is, an art that strictly speaking does not have, nor can have, a history written in the same fashion as that composed after events. It doesn't have one, but the logic of the favoured political argument will always consider that it does. From then on, a kind of war existed to decide (as Boris Groys explained in "On the New") what has to be included in or discarded from the historical archive - the institutional contemporary museum - as an expression of the Zeitgeist that should be our own. That means to write history at the same time as the event itself is created, as Napoleon wanted. This supplanting of what is by what should be takes place within the closed space of the museum.

After all, that was to a large degree the pretension that contemporary art inherited from the old avant-gardes. Its imaginary realization was the inauguration in less than 15 years of an entire constellation of contemporary art museums and centres in Spain. They were provided with very generous public funding - while there were still public funds - and undertook the task of deciding officially, institutionally, what the history of our successive presents should be.

The old avant-garde acronyms have returned, but in a governmental manner, often like the Marxist farce that follows tragedy. The first edition of ARCO, the Spanish contemporary art trade fair, was held in Madrid in 1982, when the cultural belief that the character of such fairs historically as events proclaiming the historiographical succession of movements was still commonly held. The Queen Sofia Museum was inaugurated in 1986, initially as an Art Centre. IVAM in Valencia and CAAM in Las Palmas were launched in 1989, followed by the CGAC in Santiago de Compostela (1993), MEIAC of Badajoz and MACBA in Barcelona (both 1995), and CAAC of Sevilla (1998). In 2002, it was ARTIUM in Vitoria and MARCO in Vigo. And to all those must be added many other museums and private centres, or institutions dedicated to a single artist (the Ramón Gaya Museum in 1990, Esteban Vicente Museum in 1998, and the José Guerrero Centre in 2000, to name a few). The map of contemporary museums became densely packed, their interiors far from always occupied by collections that justified their existence.

However, there are also benefits due to the exaltation, and mutation, of contemporary art. The effective blurring of the lines of the historiographic account made (could make/ should make) possible a clean, unbiased view of works by artists who were never included, neither before nor now, in that privileged narrative. Their fate was confused with the stragglers and misfits who could not, or would not adapt to the movement of time in its inexorable advance towards a summit. That is the case with José Gutierrez Solana, an excellent painter of a sombre, godforsaken and irredeemable Spain - Espana negra (Black Spain) - and the infinitely subtle Luis Fernández, from Paris, with a tangential relationship to the geometric abstract groups of the 1940s, with his roses, skulls, his Normandy beaches. And with Ramón Gaya himself and his return, after time in Mexico and Italy, to Velázquez, to Spain and his "feeling for painting". Not to mention the great Daniel Vázquez Diaz - a teacher of painters from various generations including Diaz-Caneja, Cristino de Vera and Rafael Canogar - and his students like Caneja, with his absorbing, musical transformation of the Castilian landscape into subtle paintings laced with post-cubist evocation.

The revolutionary dream of capping history with the artistic fabrication of a summit, in spite of its imaginary nature, is tenacious, ineradicable and preserves the epic prestige of the avant-garde historiography. Shortly after that euphoria of the 1980s and the supposed critical rebellion (which proved academic, in fact) against painting itself made it complicit in what appears to be a worldwide reactionary crusade. Painting and sculpture are left condemned, cast outside the walls of the new museum. Artists working in those forms began to consider themselves deserted, pushed aside.

The political orientation of those who claim the conceptual criticism of 30 years ago as their own survives to the present day in the performances and works of artists like Francesc Torres, Rogelio López Cuenca, Fernando Sánchez Castillo, the Cabello-Carceller team, the Democracia collective and Santiago Sierra. Meanwhile, the younger brothers of the 1980s painters - Dis Berlin, Antonio Rojas, Maria Gómez, Damián Flores - continued on with the material practice of their art even when any institutional reception was non-existent, particularly given their focus on figurative art. The painter Dis Berlin - an artist known for iconic proliferation on the surface area of the visual field - undertook to link these artists in several strictly private exhibitions titled "The Prodigal Son". More recently, the debt to Pop art has given rise to a kind of ingenious art which believed it found in the ironic manipulation of images - most prominently with Ángel Mateo Charris - a conceptual letter of safe conduct to circulate in the new institutional world of Art. On the abstract side, Alejandro Corujeira, Charo Pradas and Alberto Reguera prolonged, following Harold Rosenberg, "the tradition of the new".

But that inexplicable, almost miraculous joy felt by the aficionado can be found in encounters with works of "unabashed" painters who, in spite of the silence around them, continue to paint untainted by conceptual mandates, far removed from everything associated with any obedience to forcing reality into a grid. If we want to evoke, in a single name, painting that will live on in these times of "Art", then let us close with Miguel Galano, a painter for everyone, just like in another lifetime...





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