CORRESPONDENCE: CARLES GUERRA AND ALFONSO DE LA TORRE

CORRESPONDENCE: CARLES GUERRA AND ALFONSO DE LA TORRE

Text published in the catalogue
RIVERA-MILLARES. ETHICS OF REPARATION
Barcelona: Galería Mayoral, 2021.

 

CORRESPONDENCE: CARLES GUERRA AND ALFONSO DE LA TORRE

By way of contextualization
By Llucià Homs

 

Correspondence between artists, or between artists and art scholars, essential to analyze the life and thought of creators in depth, has been lost to a large extent with the emergence of the new technologies and fast-paced living, full of commitments and urgency.

On the occasion of the exhibition in the Mayoral gallery on the work of two of the most important Spanish artists of the second half of the 20th century, Manolo Millares and Manuel Rivera, we wanted to create a challenge which broadens the outlook behind this project which has been forged over a couple of years, seeking that slow, reflective moment which exists behind letters.

The following text is the result of reflections in form of correspondence between the exhibition’s curator, Carles Guerra, and the author of the catalogue raisonné of the two artists, Alfonso de la Torre; an intellectual challenge which both of them immediately accepted. Following a long conversation, which I conducted, in which we established the conceptual framework, the imaginary field of play, according to which they accepted this challenge, Carles Guerra expressedin writing,  a series of ideas, intuitions, concordances, which he had gradually worked on while studying this exhibition project, and Alfonso de la Torre replied, contributing his view of the same.

In short, on the following pages you can read the classic correspondence between two professionals who, from the outset, declared that they had enormous respect for each other. Although they did not know each other personally, the intellectual connection was immediate, being able to summarize some of the key points of the career of the two artists with the precision and reflection which these tasks require, above all when it is a question of creating a shared narrative and explaining a fascinating historical moment which is essential to 20th-century Spanish art.

 

Correspondence

Carles Guerra (CG): Manolo Millares and Manuel Rivera are two artists who share work with genuine materials, one burlap works and the other wire mesh. In them, there is a materialistic search which in the 50s was codified as an informalist and abstract aesthetic. However, beyond the materials, they share an interest in the transformation of painting into object, “specific objects”, as the then art critic Donald Judd pointed out on visiting, at the beginning of the 60s, their works exhibited in the Pierre Matisse of New York. What does this observation suggests to you 50 years later?

Alfonso de la Torre (AT): They were also both weaver artists, who used thread (metal in the case of Rivera) as a form of writing. They were both constructors-destroyers, a salute to the process invoked by Duchamp or Jasper Johns, and declared practitioners of I Do, I Undo and I Redo, as Louise Bourgeois said. To sew is to live, to connect the fragmented body; sewing alleviates the pain. (The needle repairs the damage.)

And, thus, to seek, to investigate and to go further, was the sign of the times, what Millares called “the search for the lost dimension” and which, in Rivera, had its equivalent in the mention of the journey to the unknown, in the early 50s. It was an enquiring attitude with a desire to investigate other spheres beyond mere painting: if the former enticed the endless pits of mystery, in the words of the artist from Granada he tried to trap the unknown in the spider’s web of his matter. This anxiety, on being in painting and quickly moving away from it, led Millares to wonder what strange event was occurring when the burlap works —they seemed to be phasmas— descended from the visual plane of the painting to the installation on the floor. It should not be forgotten that, almost immediately, the arts of the object appeared in the 60s, the conceptual world, the arts of the poor, something of which they were both obviously precursors. It is well-known that the construction-destruction process undertaken by both artists resulted in its opposite, Minimal art, art equipped with the minimum content of art.

The act, said Rivera, worked on his senses at the same time as evoking Kafka’s concern in his “Metamorphosis”. And this somewhat surrealistic, shared touch also summoned them with other immediate formulations. Their burlap or wire mesh reliefs became objectual elements which were, also, true stagings, like a skinning, which in Millares was the stripping of skins (supports) and skeletons (frames) conceiving works, he said perplexed to Enrico Crispolti (the phasmas) “which are not paintings or sculptures”. From the words of Judd on Rivera I especially like that link to the drift of his searches toward the gentle precision of Villon, and I think of the circle of Puteaux with the presence of the disturbing Marcel Duchamp, the displacement of art toward another place, almost an interregnum, tremblingly beautiful. Such a dilemma, the drift of Millares led to that beautiful and long-lasting episode, the artefacts and other individual works that he undertook. For his part, Rivera based his endeavours on pure sculpture, if we think of the wire meshes, sculptural objects that he calls “Mutation”, in the mid-80s. It is understood by this that the artefacts of Millares are in an apparent gallery acontext, coinciding in 1967 in a ZAJ evening in the Galería Edurne. This was a good place, another territory of estrangement, in which to present the so-called Tres artefactos al 25. I believe that the drift of both of them is thus shown, a dual distance, an attempt to achieve their own truth through their creations and that, more than a “truth”, it was a proposal, they were condensations marked by a strong character of dispossession, as if resuscitated from any assignment, as scanned flashes, pieces of that which is invisible.

CG: The modernity that Spain assimilated in the 50s and its opening up to internationalization continue to raise many questions. The aesthetic modernity of the time could have satisfied a dual censure: first, the one imposed by the Franco regime, preventing any free public expression of ideas and of thought; the other one, that of modern painting which implicitly does not allow evident or explicit literary contents. An abstract art emerges from this dual censure, prepared to circulate both in the sphere of political bans and to meet the expectations of modernity demanded by the most important institutions of the new order which arose after the Second World War. How do you understand that this was experienced by Millares and Rivera?

AT: The art of Rivera and Millares, highly recognized at the time, operated within —but also completely on the sidelines of— official channels. This official context did not, however, last very long. It was a period of some four key years, which I consider to be limited to the Venice biennials of 1958, 1960 and 1962, adding São Paulo 1957 and 1959, in which their creations were presented internationally, although we should not forget that this was despite the apathy and absolute incomprehension of the Franco regime. Escaping from the command and control of Luis González Robles, despite himself he was curator of the modern world, and very sceptical about new tendencies, so grandiloquent. He did and he undid but, as Millares wrote, happily the world moved forwards, and both Millares and Rivera were unable to display their work in contexts in which they encountered, for example, the world of American art. This explains why the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) included Rivera’s work in the significant exhibition Assemblage (1965) and why the work of both of them was collected early by this museum. It also explains their joint acceptance in the Pierre Matisse Gallery, as occurred with the Cordier or Drouin galleries in Paris. They were able to see the repercussion of their work in the European context (we should not forget the influence of Michel Tapié in the exhibition Otro arte in Barcelona and Madrid) and in Latin America, since they displayed in national museums there very early. They had an unquestioned (op)position in relation to official art. In the case of Rivera it can be seen in the catalogue raisonné how he achieved a radical nature on the occasion of the exhibition of our art in the Tate Gallery, 1962, in which he firmly refused to participate, being “betrayed” by Daniel Cordier, who lent the works. It could be said that this conflict, well known and which affected our art in a generalized manner, represented the end of the journey with the official world. By the way, it is not just the position of the state which should be questioned. Little is said of the critical contempt with which the new painting was received or of the scorn with which society welcomed these artists about which Saura said that they worked in “silence” and “in the midst of the greatest misunderstanding”. It is sufficient to read the press of the day after the inauguration of El Paso (1957) to understand it; a great deal of irony, or even jokes.

A society which looked at our abstract artists with contempt, or even hurtful derision. José de Castro Arines received the first exhibition of the El Paso group although “do not expect too much from their splendid intentions”. Luis Trabazo, the critic and post-impressionist painter from Índice, mercilessly engaged in an acrid battle of words, differentiating between “other art” and “unique art”: “which is what matters”. Figuerola-Ferretti referred to the “ingenuous audacities” of El Paso, which represented, for Ramón D. Faraldo, a “new wave of abstracts” who were “fundamentally scarcely painters”, insisting on the occasion of another “sordid” exhibition by the group. Gaceta Ilustrada presented a letter: “gentlemen of ‘El Paso’! At some time we have all broken the sieve in the kitchen or the seat of our trousers, but it didn’t occur to anyone to frame the patches like the artists Rivera and Miralles” (sic). Carmen Debén, in Pueblo, offered her column to the “bellboy Emilio”, in order to give his opinion on the artists who were displaying in Otro arte, the mythical exhibition of Michel Tapié with Stadler and Gaspar. Moreover, Serafín Rojo painted his joke in La Codorniz, with utter disregard: the imitation of a painting signed “Rivera” and with the subtitle “Total stupidity”… Does anyone give more? This was thewelcoming committee” which received El Paso. This was the militantly backward atmosphere; beware of placing everything on the side of the state.

It follows that there was not any problem then, state and foolishness united, concluding this question, moreover, I believe that Franco’s state was extraordinarily pragmatic and boastful, it did not understand metaphors or poetry, this being the only way to understand that the irrevocable and all-but-complacent word of Millares could circulate freely, phrases such as that in which he talked about the buds of new roses like fists in the mire, which I often cite, was in 1959. In that same year, he explained the work of Rivera as “rising up to the sound of war for a peace without any known doves”. And Millares counter-commemorated the 25 years of peace with his artefact-barricades, in the same year in which for Rivera “Spain hurt”. They were complete artists, and completeness, as Rivera recalled, entailed “risking everything for nothing”. Rivera talked about wounded voices, mirrors and metamorphoses, while Millares talked about flaps and transhuman beings. Their paintings arose from the beating of history.

I believe that, imitating Millares, they were “peace-wounded”. Rivera, an artist who saw the civil war, a witness to the devastating effects caused by hardship: his mother’s death in 1941, following the birth of a premature daughter who also died two days later. Also, as a child, 10 years old, he had seen groups of detainees on their final journey and he had experienced the bombings, crouching down terrified in the family house, warned by the tolling of the bell of the Torre de la Vela, all of which he recounts in his Memoirs. Pain, pain and pain, was the chant of both not very complacent artists, with Millares possibly more pained and biting, Rivera ecstatically tragic during El Paso, then from a deep lyricism which returned the sadness to a time of suspension, symbolized in the sheet of water, its dripping, in the fountains of the Alhambra.

CG: Beyond the participation of both artists in the El Paso group, it is interesting to embark on an exploration of some less well-known aspects of their aesthetic and interests. To talk about the idea of the object, to stop talking about paintings or sculptures, allows us to glimpse what we have called painting through another filter. The two showcases that Millares and Rivera produce for El Corte Inglés in Madrid in 1963 are a good reference to understand how their practices catalyze a much more complex three-dimensional space. How do you see these projects?

AT: If you will allow me, I prefer to call these projects interventions in the public space and not “showcases”. After all, in the 1963 project, which was radical and the first art intervention event in the Madrid street of which there was news, those spaces were emptied, they were moved away from the trade, remaining as empty boxes for the location of the works, like a theatre with scenes. Their singularity and strangeness explains the public repercussion that they obtained, their abundant bibliography, the commotion caused to the pedestrians of that demure Madrid of the 60s and the presence of the official news of the regime, the NO-DO, which devoted a report lasting more than two minutes to them offering, by the way, the first and almost only possibility of seeing the artists in movement, executing their works. The result of the work by Millares, entitled 125, can be related to works such as that of Christo. The city offered an empty space for the artists to use, the showcase was an essential place for art, proclaimed by the surrealists and what Walter Benjamin referred to as the centre of flânerie and, hence, as is well-known, of knowledge. It was a space which was referred to in the Surrealist Dictionary and in the 1924 manifesto as one of the places where revelations could occur. Interventions in these spaces were carried out by Dalí, Duchamp, Moore, Jasper Johns, Tàpies and Warhol (without forgetting Oldenburg’s “shop” The Store, 1961), among others, and it was not therefore a place unknown to art. Thus, when César Manrique, one of the artists with the most international information at the time, closely connected to the United States, proposed it, he knew what he was doing. For Rivera and Millares, it represented a fabulous possibility of experimentation with what is three-dimensional, with light, with ephemeral art (ash-art, we have sometimes called it) and even what is situational. Finally, it also gave them access to the possibility of undertaking large-format creation, and it is not surprising that much of the work by Rivera and Millares starting from this date was transformed under this influence (this also happened to Sempere). A return journey to the showcase, since behind the glass of an ironmongers Rivera had seen gadgets hanging in the meshes, and for Millares it represented the beginning of the possibility of assembling the artefacts, one year later. Millares’s link to KWY should not be forgotten, or the aforementioned works of Christo, 1962, in Rue Visconti in Paris, blocked with his barrels (Wall of Oil Barrels – The Iron Curtain, 1961-1962). Art in the street, I now think that these interventions (in which, in addition to those mentioned, Rueda, Sempere and Serrano participated) in a certain way anticipated that day in the street of the GRAV, Une journée dans la rue (19/IV/1966), in the streets of Paris, considering that a displacement of situation, an experiment, would go beyond the traditional relations between work of art and public.

CG: In this respect, the collaborations of Millares with the Argentine artist Alberto Greco are also important. The objects which arose from this project have been lost; we only have some photographs, the Artefactos para la paz (Artefacts for Peace) of 1964 survived, very similar constructions to the paintings, but decisively three-dimensional. As for Rivera, following the strict exhibition conditions that he established, the works were treated as objects which ultimately produced a “flat photograph”. In both cases, would you agree that these observations accentuate the phenomenological experience of the work at the time of exhibiting it?

AT: I believe that the seriousness of Millares (the man that he had known who took life most seriously, Elvireta Escobio would tell us) was disturbed by the presence of Alberto Greco, with whom he shared a space in the so-called Greco private gallery, in Avenida del Manzanares, Madrid. This is where he created one of the first “artefacts”, almost an intervention conceived with an armchair, a cage and an imprisoned cushion. And the shadow of the hilarious aunt Ursulina, by the Argentine, was displaced toward the word of Millares. They both signed an impossible dialogue, published by the Galería Edurne (1965), full of enigmatic loopholes and of profound proclamations, sheltering between a surrealist and teasing language, not free from sadness and melancholy. It was published, as I already said, despite its poetical political air. They talked, they will say, about the white wound, hanging from the void, shouting out the rubbish of time on its knees. It is obvious that the extremely brief encounter with Greco, his emphatic and ephemeral stay in Spain, was essential for Millares. To the contained drama of Millares’s pictorial action, Greco added his interventionist audacity, an anarcho-surrealist touch or a recognized quality to act on objects. Also, his passion for the heteronomy of the Vivo-Dito, the praise for street art, the adventure of what is real, signalling what takes place on the pavement or, to conclude, the mark that is made on the object, not so much ennobling it as highlighting it. The meeting with Greco, obviously also the one which occurred on a par with ZAJ, impelled the presence of the artist from the Canaries into the world of ephemeral art, non-durable art.

This leads to “arte-fact”, a meta-artistic art, “arte-factus” (made)-with-art, a rejection of illusion since, in the end, the objects grew from the development of artistic mediation. They were volumes which clearly looked inwards, forgoing any fiction, tautological, with something of a fundamentally anthropomorphic nature: they were barricades, but they also had something of subjects with the latency of bodies descended to the ground, shadows of human redemption, on speaking with Millares. Rivera also considered the artistic object to be essential, and his way of showing it, producing permanent meta-artistic appreciations for this. It is not in vain that a good part of his works were annotated on the back, explaining how they should be hung, especially the wire meshes from the 50s, separated from the wall, for which he provided separating brackets, and indicating that they should be illuminated with indirect light to avoid shadows. The creative act, according to the artist from Granada, worked on his senses. In a certain way this gives rise to the ancient “shadow theatre”, the one which is performed using only the intangible material composed of light and darkness. His first works with wire meshes, which he began at the end of 1956, were produced without stuttering or hesitation, working in a way forgoing the traditional elements of painting and avoiding what is conventionally known as “support”, that is the plane on which the artistic phenomenon occurs. A true leap into the void, the wires and wire meshes disown the background, the void and the wall behind them being essential. They both exercised a certain ready made, in the use of materials manufactured by industry (meshes and sacks), which could be classified as cultural, like the minimalists, using elements from industry; we are thinking of Donald Judd, with his metals, or Carl André, with lead or firebricks.

The wall stopped being a passive place on which the paintings were hung for centuries, in order to become a new, mysterious scene of shadows, in the space in which the illusion of shapes emerged. Rivera proposed questions from a concept of painting where space occupied a fundamental position, thus investigating the wall, another side. This relentless search, that of the painters of the 50s, that of the unknown pictorial space. The appearance of the longed-for third dimension for which the flatness of the painting had fought for centuries pierced the canvas with a flame or a blade, like the artist from the Canaries, or creating surfaces with meshes which sometimes appear to be suspended in the void, represented asking the question about appearances, about the space which is found behind what is real. An old passion, that of artists to cross over to the other side.

Constructing paintings by calling their surface into question, recreation, performed in the 50s, from meshes and wires crossing the firmament like metal trails, the plane of the vision, was, without hesitation, extremely disturbing and the result of an extraordinary finding, in the end disclosing is an operation of restlessness, agitation and openness. Like eyes in the wild, their “action”, a term in fashion at the time, was not so much a constructive action, although it was, as a proposal which generated voids, the elevation of superimpositions driving limits and visual illusions, before the concept of unerring signs, of resounding certainties, something so commonly used at the time by some of their fellow painters or artists. To a certain extent, their proposal reminds us of the thoughts of Oteiza, whose work Rivera promptly knew. Like him, the artist from Granada concluded that the destruction of the physical space and, therefore, the provocation of absence, the void, is an integral part of creation. Paintings and objects by Millares or Rivera which, referring to the vision, were protected against changes of direction, could talk about destruction and loss, thus becoming a paradox and, from this loss, they question us, we could say that they besiege us.

CG: Alberto Burri’s influence on the two artists at the end of the 40s and beginning of the 50s is important not just in view of its aesthetic impact as an emblem of dramatic and expressive art, with a strong material presence, but also on being an emblem of postwar reconstruction in Italy. Both of Burri’s and Millares’s sacks are, in my opinion, the sign of an economy subsidized by the Marshall Plan which, beyond the economic aid, imposes an ideological and political framework which will be common to the countries of southern Europe, despite the different regimes. Do you understand that, although many essays have explained the socio-economic influence, there has been a lack of an in-depth analysis of what Burri’s aesthetic means?

AT: Citing Burri obliges us to begin with Millares’s burlaps. The burlaps of Millares begin in The Canary Museum, where he sees the aboriginal mummies and is fascinated by their burlap covering. From there, to their sarcophagi, homunculi and to their burlap wrapping, actionism revealed in the film by Alberto Portera (1966), another essential madman about whom we should talk one day. In any case, Burri (I’m also thinking about Pollock) was a painter of surface phenomena, clearly on the fabric, removing the illusion, burlap as collage, superimposed, burned or painted, while Millares and Rivera were artists who investigated the painting as an object and its relationship with the observer, the encounter of the pictorial plane with the wall, with the so-called lost dimension, those infinite pits of mystery, in the words of the artist from the Canaries, proposing the already mentioned journey to the other side. But beware, burlap was not exclusive to Burri; it had been used by Paul Klee, Arthur Dove, Marcel Duchamp, Miró, Picasso and, closer in time, by Monjalés and Tàpies, among others. Millares already began to use it in his Walls, collages of burlap, sand, ceramic or wood, until, in 1955 (I hear the hissing of the blowtorch), he decides to burn it and go beyond it. In this respect, I believe that the thinking of these artists, Rivera and Millares, was closer to Fontana than to Burri. The Fontana of the knifings, the phenomena which affected the plane of the painting, the hole or the fissure which pierce the pictorial plane… Burri was, obviously for Rivera, the discovery of another attitude as an artist, since the latter was one of the first painters to know of the existence of the former; this occurred in 1948. Sandra Blow, a painter who came to Granada and who had been Burri’s partner, revealed the existence of this painter who paints with asphalt and burlap, wow! in his memoirs, Rivera talks about the “unrest” that discovering Burri’s work caused him and, in 1950, he becomes fully abstract. In any case, farewell comparisons, I will stay with that of André Pieyre de Mandiargues; they were mystical artists.

CG: I understand that critical Spanishness, to use an expression of Juan Manuel Bonet, is another point of connection which, beyond formal differences, allows us to link Millares and Rivera. I’m thinking about the huge visibility that they had as a result of the diplomatic initiatives implemented by Luis González Robles in the São Paulo biennial in 1957 or that of Venice in 1958, in addition to subsequent exhibitions in London and New York at the beginning of the 60s. However, in 1964, the Franco regime “celebrated” the 25 years of peace, marking a turning point in the critical attitude of the artists who openly reacted to a campaign which wanted to whitewash the regime. What is your reading of works such as Artefactos para la paz, 1964, by Millares, or Me duele España (Spain hurts), 1964-1966, by Rivera, in this context of protest stemming in practice from abstract art?

This was partly answered in previous words. In this Mayoral gallery, we had an ethical photograph published in the catalogue of the Millares exhibition which was devoted to him in 2017, a message in a bottle issued from El Pozo del Tío Raimundo, reaching the sea shore of Consell de Cent. It was that photo discovered by Moreno Galván’s family of the poster for the “Week for peace” (1963) which the university students of Barcelona requested from Millares, in the end not published. The abstract artists responded to a backward art which had become established in the 50s in the heart of the most symbolic Madrid, through the so-called Escuela de Madrid. Maybe the symbolic exhibition of those years was Arte de América y España (1963), an imperial vision prior to the 25 years of peace displaced internationally, mainly toward (South) America. Neither Millares nor Rivera participated. They did, however, participate in clearly responsive projects. For example, in this context I position the complicity of Millares with the editions of Ruedo Ibérico, or his participation in Amnistia (que trata de Spagna) (1972).

CG: If we delve into the archives, it is interesting to assess what it means that both Millares and Rivera exhibited regularly in the galleries of Pierre Matisse in New York and of Daniel Cordier in Paris and Frankfurt. These two galleries are international mediators of a modern art which resumes the vanguards interrupted by the Second World War at the same time as positioning them beyond the Spanish borders. It is true that it was a short period and that the world changed rapidly during those years but, do you understand that closely analyzing the philosophies of the respective galleries would be one way to understand the practices in which they both participated?

AT: Definitely. Pierre Matisse’s intention, advised by Joan Miró, was to displace the best European art toward the United States, especially during the postwar period in Europe; we should not forget projects such as Artists in Exile (1942) or the legendary surrealist exhibition. “Pierre Matisse: the best modern paintings and sculptures” was the advertisement which appeared back in 1931, with an early commitment to our art, symbolized in the dissemination that he granted to El Paso, exhibiting it in New York in 1960 (and 1987). Rivera had solo exhibitions in Pierre Matisse in 1960 and 1966, while Millares did in 1965 and 1974. The Catalan link of Matisse, in addition to the path of Miró, should recall his presence in Barcelona in 1959, where he was able to view the El Paso exhibition in the Sala Gaspar, a project that he “exported” to New York. Cordier and Matisse were also important on incorporating both into international exhibition projects and it could be written about both that they were the last passionate gallery owners, collectors and patrons, heirs of the lineage of the Vollards or Kahnweilers… They were atypical gallery owners; Cordier always mentioned that he selected Millares because Françoise Choay told him that his painting was a call upon the forces of the night. Are there still gallery owners who experience such turmoil?

Allow me to add one last digression. When thinking about this interview I recalled something that I think I should mention: one artist from Granada, another from the Canaries, from Las Palmas, both unique territories inhabited by the age-old stories of ancient peoples. A launch pad for an art which begins by looking, as occurred with a good part of artistic modernity, to the ancestors who, in their case, had a strong magicist component. Gazing upon the past, exercising what is universal while contemplating in order to reinterpret what is immemorial and thus fly far, investigating their roots, in the history of their people and of other peoples, light will come in; radical knowledge is that which goes to the origin.