Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, April 13 – July 27, 2008
Antonio López García is the titular head of the Madrid Realists, a group of painters and sculptors little known outside of Spain. They are bound together by their commitment to working from direct observation, which many consider passé, if not altogether old fashioned and obsolete. Others in the group include the sculptor Francisco López, the painters Isabella Quintanilla, who deserves an international reputation, and Maria Moreno, who happens to be López García’s wife. They met when they were students at the Bellas Artes in Madrid in the early 1950s, when the Fascist dictator Franco ruled Spain with an iron fist, visible proof that the Allies had not been totally victorious in World War II.
López García (b. 1936) and Neo Rauch (b. 1960) are regarded as central figures of their respective groups—the Madrid Realists and the younger, hipper, better known Leipzig School—and although they work in very different ways, both men found a way to make aesthetics inseparable from ethics while studying art in a totalitarian regime. Their ingenious response is not something they share with other artists in similar situations, and it is vital to their singular achievements. Whereas Rauch has said that dreams (their open-ended premonitions) are the origin of his paintings, and that he is adamantly against the use of photography as an aid (an implicit critique of Gerhardt Richter and his followers), López García’s art also eschews the aid of the camera, but for different reasons. He is devoted to discovering how much one can know amidst time passing, as chronicled by changes in light. But how powerful can paintings and sculptures based on direct observation possibly be, particularly when their subject matter falls into traditional genres such as landscape, still life, interiors of rooms, and figures?
This wasn’t the question I had in mind when I went to the exhibition, but I got the answer from an unlikely source. Two well-dressed, middle-aged women were talking as they paused before a painting. I managed to block them out until one said in a loud voice, “Oh dear, the Easter bunny has lost his suit and he isn’t very happy about it.” And with that, they quickly left the exhibition. When I turned around, I saw what prompted this strange outburst.
Skinned Rabbit (Conejo Desollado) (1972) is a relatively small painting of a skinned rabbit lying in a fetal position on a glass plate. Its resemblance to an infant is uncanny and alarming, while the artist’s refusal to either blink or soften what he sees is astonishing. One literally senses the wetness of the rabbit’s exposed flesh, the milky liquid filling its clouded eye. For López García, being truthful to what he sees amounts to embracing what he knows to be true: time is devastating and unquenchable, and it devours us all. In the face of this awareness, his detachment is comparable to Jasper Johns’s reserve. Both López García and Johns focus on things that are anonymous and specific—Skinned Rabbit and Painted Bronze (Savarin Can with Brushes) (1960)—and they are insistently pragmatic as they gaze upon the ordinary facts of irrevocable change.
In the mid-1960s, in a series of hardnosed drawings and paintings, López García began to define the extent and depth of his project, his “impossible artistic adventures.” His move to a studio in a brand-new building inspired the change. In the catalog accompanying the exhibition, he states:
The sensation of standing before something new, surrounded by things that were totally new and without history coincided with a period in my own life in which I wanted to break with the past. The conditions were perfect for me to undertake this project. For about five or six years I focused on depicting this space, over which I had complete control.
López García recognized that in order to renew realism, he had to break with the historical past as well as his own without resorting to mechanical means (formally, this is what he and his American realist counterparts, such as Rackstraw Downes, Sylvia Plimack-Mangold, and Catherine Murphy have in common). In a series of related works, the artist single-mindedly investigated the studio’s bathroom—its interior and a view into it from just outside the door—and the studio itself, but never without at least a glimpse of the bathroom. These unlikely subjects enabled the artist to achieve some of the most powerful and moving works about absence and decay I’ve ever experienced.
Formally, both Sink and Mirror (Lavabo y espejo) (1967), and Toilet and Window (Taza de water y ventana) (1968-71), address the visual bend, a perceptual phenomenon that naturally occurs when one is standing too close to the object of attention—which in both works happens to be a tiled wall. In Sink and Mirror, the artist joins two distinct viewpoints (looking forward and looking down) along a horizontal axis indicated by a roughly painted band of tiles that blur the transition between the two. We look straight at the mirror, which shows the tile wall directly behind us, and then at the sink below. We are inside the space of the painting, but are nowhere to be seen. The mirror is indifferent to our presence because we are invisible and cannot animate its surface. It is the artist’s synecdoche for reality.
The shaving brush, razor blade, razor, shaving lotion, tweezers, scissors, light blue toothbrush, and greenish-blue plastic hairbrush lined up on the glass shelf beneath the mirror are evidence of the daily effects of time passing, the need to refresh and renew ourselves. In the lower half of the painting, we see the sink and wall tilting forward. All the surfaces are grimy, in need of a good scrubbing. On the sink’s left side is a used bar of soap, while on the right there is a rusted razor blade. Time, it seems, is a constant accumulation of waste and dirt; and we can never be clean enough to escape this state. Not only has the artist made the surfaces of the tiled wall and floor tactile, but he seems to have painted the very air itself.
It is in this and Toilet and Window that López García began seamlessly introducing a metaphysical component into the act of looking at the most ordinary and familiar of things. Both spatially and tactilely the paintings make us part of the experience of the room, thus subverting the emphasis on the ocular that has been central to Western painting since the Renaissance. The artist’s depiction of grime is new; it is not something we see in the work of great Spanish realists such as Velasquez and Murillo. The other central aspect of the paintings López García finished in the late 1960s through the early 80s is the degree of control he exerts, the resulting precision he achieves, and the ways he subsequently surrenders his control in order to be more precise about changing light and time passing. This is what makes his art so contemporary, so resonant and full.
In a street view of Madrid, Gran Via (1974-81), the artist continues to explore how far his ability to manage and render a complex view will take him, and the results are nothing short of mind boggling. But by the early ’90s, López García recognized that his virtuosic abilities could devolve into an illusionistic relationship to time and light, implying that his technique could contain their unruliness—two fundamental problems with photorealist painting (another being its privileging of sight over the other senses).
In Nevera Nueva (New Refrigerator) (1991-94), and his largest landscape, Madrid desde la torre de bomberos de Vallecas (View of Madrid from the Vallecas Fire Tower) (1997-2007), López García registers the time’s inevitable unmanageability. In New Refrigerator, which is nearly eight feet high and more than six feet wide, and thus life-size, López García depicts a well-stocked modern refrigerator with its door wide open against a tile wall and floor. In comparison to the meticulousness of earlier paintings, such as Sink and Mirror and Skinned Rabbit, New Refrigerator has areas of surprisingly rough brushwork.
Formally, the refrigerator’s stacking of foodstuffs is a departure from a traditional still life’s display of food spread out on a table. On one hand, the appliance’s design determines the placement of the food, but the compartmentalizing of the items, and the way they are painted (from precise to broad) can also be read as López García’s taxonomic cataloguing of his vocabulary, from rough and open to meticulous and nearly closed off, like the freezer door. While a refrigerator can slow the decaying process or, in the case of the freezer, halt it (which, in that regard, makes it comparable to painting), the artist is still aware of the passing time. In the painting, the refrigerator door is open, with the appliance’s warm light illuminating the chicken on the top shelf. The bottles on the door shelves are loosely painted in—they are the most exposed to heat when the refrigerator is open, and thus the most vulnerable to decay in Garcia Lopez’s worldview.
In View of Madrid from the Vallecas Fire Tower, a six panel painting, López García brings into play so many different ways of seeing that the scene is both straightforward and disorienting. The shadows on the painting’s far left and far right convey the artist’s determination to register the sun’s passage, and changes of light, over a wide stretch of the city. There are areas that are roughly painted next to passages in which every building has been meticulously rendered. There is a vertiginous feeling to the foreground; it’s as if we could topple over the railing into the cement staircase below. We feel as if there is nothing but air between us and the city spreading out before us—and we can sense the places where the air is clear and where it is dusty.
The middle ground contains both precisely rendered minutiae and brighter, sun-drenched buildings offering fewer details, but the contrast between them struck this viewer as being as absolutely true to the difficulty of focusing on something bathed by bright sunlight. In the background, the innumerable details emerging from Madrid’s urban sprawl applies a lot of pressure on the viewer. The artist doesn’t give us a way out; we are caught inside the painting, our eyes moving here and there, our physical position precarious. The fragile and the solid sit beside each other. Can we take in everything that is before our eyes, even as the changing light forces us to constantly readjust our focus? And if so, how? By making paintings that embrace these difficult, ultimately philosophical questions, López García both renews and reviews realism. This is more necessary, more challenging and more contemporary than any institutionally approved conclusion about the end of painting.
Cheryl Brutvan, who previously organized a retrospective of Sylvia Plimack-Mangold for the Albright Knox, organized the exhibition. The show did not travel, and it is unlikely we will see a large group of López García’s work in America in the foreseeable future. (For anyone interested in learning more about López García, the best source is Victor Erice’s film, El sol del membrillo—poorly translated as The Dream of Light, 1992—chronicling his struggle to paint a quince tree in his backyard.)