José Guerrero Between Two Worlds
by Juan Manuel Bonet
Once again I have the pleasant task of writing about José Guerrero, almost 50 years after the first time we met, in Cuenca, and 29 years after his disappearance in Barcelona, the city of the gallery for which I am writing these lines. Mayoral which, with its exhibitions, revisits our abstraction from the 50s, that prodigious generation which reinvented modernity, in the by no means easy postwar conditions. For the generation to which I belong, which learnt a great deal from that of the 50s, Guerrero, to be energetic and spirited like few others, was two different things. On the one hand, a true painter, who was capable of translating his experiences from Granada, Europe and the States into extraordinary paintings. On the other hand, a bridge between two worlds, the Spain without freedom of the decades which ended in 1977 with the re-establishment of democracy (and with the arrival in Madrid, in 1981, of Guernica) and the United States, precisely from where Picasso’s masterpiece returned. The first person to depict José Guerrero as a “painter in New York” was not an art critic or historian, but rather a great poet and teacher of our generation of 27, Jorge Guillén, whose Cántico (1928, and then, starting from 1936, successive expanded republications) had already been read by the painter in the prewar period, and who spent a large part of his exile in the United States, which is where they met at the beginning of the 50s. This is how the author of Cántico entitled the short but substantial text that he dedicated to him, playing very explicitly with another title, by a fellow member of his generation and close friend Federico García Lorca: Poet in New York. The text was reproduced as a facsimile (an occasion to admire the graceful and aerial calligraphy of Guillén), as a gateway to the portfolio Seis litografías (Six Lithographies), printed by Dimitri Papagueorguiu, and published by Juana Mordó in Madrid in 19671. Moreover, in the typographic version, it appeared in the catalogue of his second solo exhibition in the gallery, held in that year.
Trained in his home city, Granada, and in Madrid, Guerrero continued his studies in Europe as soon as he could, living successively in Paris (immediately after the Second World War during which there were, obviously, hardly any visits by Spanish artists to the French capital), and other European capitals.
A decisive meeting in Guerrero’s destiny was his Roman courtship, in 1947, and subsequent wedding in Paris in 1949, with the American Roxane Whittier Pollock, from Philadelphia, who, although living in the French capital, spent a season in the American Academy of the Italian capital (for his part, Guerrero was in the Spanish one), and who later became editor of the weekly Life. Following a short honeymoon in Spain, the newlyweds decided to cross the Atlantic, and settled in the bride’s home city. One year later, they moved to New York. On several occasions, the painter has described how overwhelmed he felt there, at the beginning, thinking about how difficult the struggle to assert himself was going to be, surrounded by so many talents, in what was fast becoming the artistic capital of the world, a title which, in the words of Serge Guilbaut, it had “stolen” from Paris, precisely the city in which our painter had begun his grand tour of Europe, and there he was very receptive to a painter who was very influential in New York, Matisse, whose painting Les marocains (The Moroccans) (1915-1916), which is currently in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), he had, for example, admired, in the joint exhibition of Galerie Maeght Sur 4 murs (1945). The first paintings that he painted in the United States, in 1950, were still figurative: see, for example, within his 1950 production, his Autorretrato (Self-portrait) (currently in the Guerrero Centre in Granada), clearly Matisse-like, and which we should consider as a “goodbye to all that”, and Lavanderas (Washers), with its now almost abstract spirals.
Jorge Guillén met Guerrero in 1951, in a New York in a certain way like Granada, the one established in the peaceful Riverside Drive area, next to the Hudson, around Federico García Lorca’s parents; his brother Francisco García Lorca, a teacher and likewise a poet, and his wife, Laura de los Ríos, the daughter of the socialist politician from Ronda Fernando de los Ríos (who died there in 1949) and Gloria Giner de los Ríos; José Fernández Montesinos, a philologist, whose brother Manuel, Mayor of Granada, married to Concha García Lorca, had been murdered, in the same year as the author of Poema del cante jondo; and so on… An environment in which there were other teachers: he mentioned, in addition to the above, Federico de Onís and Ángel del Río, who in 1929 hosted in the nearby Columbia University the author of Poet in New York, and indeed it was the second of these, accompanied by Francisco García Lorca, who took Guillén to Guerrero’s studio. An environment which warmly welcomed the painter, who had been, at the age of 15, among the spectators of a joint exhibition in Granada which displayed drawings by Lorca (in addition to works by Dalí, Picasso and Juan Gris, among others), and who, in the Alhambra, in Granada in 1935, had coincidentally met the poet, who advised him to leave Madrid and, he told him, to follow the steps of a young man from Huelva called José Caballero. 1935 was moreover the year of his meeting with a young German who was passing through, Hans Bloch, an apprentice painter, who showed him postcards and prints by Franz Marc, Paul Klee, and other expressionists, and who talked to him enthusiastically about the United States, and about jazz, at the time so full of prestige in artistic circles.
On the artistic side, it is nice to know that Guerrero took from Madrid a letter of recommendation from Karl Buchholz (the German bookseller and gallery owner on Paseo de Recoletos, where, thanks precisely to Bloch, he had exhibited, from 1945 onwards, with the Joven Escuela de Madrid) for Curt Valentin, a marchand in exile in New York, Buchholz being a partner of his gallery there. Buchholz organized, in 1950 (that is, when he was already living on the other side of the Atlantic), his first solo exhibition in Madrid, where he would pass almost 15 years without appearing again, until 1964, the date of the first of those that he held in Galería Juana Mordó.
His participation in the joint exhibition Contemporary Spanish Paintings in 1953, the year in which he was granted American nationality, was important in Guerrero’s establishment in the New York Hispanic community. This exhibition was curated for the Schaeffer Galleries by James Johnson Sweeney and by the great Catalan architect Josep Lluís Sert who, before going into exile in the United States, had been one of the two architects of the Spanish pavilion for the 1937 Paris International Exposition, the true centre of the pavilion being Guernica. The aim of the show was to raise funds for the Spanish Department of Barnard College. On the occasion of this visit, he met Sweeney, a very prestigious intellectual, of proven worth after his time at the head of the American edition of Transition, and at the time the all-powerful director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. A friend of Miró, and with good knowledge of European culture in general, and Spanish in particular, the critic and museum director quickly became one of the main supports of the painter from Granada. In that exhibition, Guerrero’s work is seen alongside that of José de Creeft, Dalí (who explicitly distanced himself from the political part, too “red” in his opinion, from this history whose main characters were indeed artists almost all forming part of the Republican exile), Julio de Diego, the surrealist Esteban Francés, Joan Junyer, Miró, Picasso, Luis Quintanilla, José Vela Zanetti, and Esteban Vicente, as well as, posthumously, Juan Gris, and the artistic side of Federico García Lorca. The prologue to the catalogue is written by Juan Larrea, known in New York as the author of a famous book, published in 1947, precisely by Curt Valentin, on Guernica. The prophetic Basque poet who, from 1939 onwards, lived in exile, first in Mexico and then in Córdoba (Argentina), was closely related to the genesis of this work. At that time, the coordinates of Guerrero’s painting were biomorphic abstraction, sometimes with Braque-like suggestions of birds. In addition to the influence of this cubist with such personal lyricism, there was that of two artists who had been close friends since the times of Abstraction-Création, Miró and Calder. The portable, transportable paintings and frescoes talk to us about all this, Guerrero mixing cement and silicate in them. One of them, Three Blues (1953), was exhibited the following year in the joint exhibition Younger American Painters (in it, Guerrero was accompanied by, among others, Baziotes, de Kooning, Diebenkorn, Gottlieb, Guston, Kline, Kenzo Okada and Pollock), held in the Guggenheim, which subsequently acquired it. Along the same lines, his work in the field of graphics reveals the influence of a famous British painter and above all printmaker, always fluctuating between surrealism and abstraction, Stanley William Hayter, the promoter of the mythical Atelier 17, which Guerrero then frequented profitably, like so many others before him, including precisely Miró, and where he coincided with Calder and Yves Tanguy, as well as with younger people, such as Minna Citron, Pierre Courtin and the Chilean Enrique Zañartu. In 1951, the Brooklyn Museum acquired one of his prints in its always very popular annual exhibition. In 1952, he held an exhibition of his prints and monotypes at the Smithsonian Institution of Washington. In 1954, one of his works was acquired by the Gloria Vanderbilt collection, and in the extremely active Arts Club of Chicago, whose rooms had been redesigned three years earlier by Mies van der Rohe, he had a joint exhibition (for his part, with paintings and portable murals) with Miró, whose graphic work was shown. A photograph of the exhibition moreover shows the presence of Red Petals (1942), a significant piece by Calder, especially commissioned by the institution: we continue with biomorphism.
After having unsuccessfully tried his luck with other important marchands, such as Charles Egan, Samuel Kootz and Tibor de Nagy, Guerrero finally owed his triumphant entrance in New York, in 1954, to Betty Parsons –whom he had met in the same year of his arrival, through Curt Valentin– with his first solo exhibition in her gallery. Initially a painter, and then a legendary gallery owner, who in 1953 was the first to exhibit a previously unknown painter there, Tàpies, Betty Parsons was above all the marchand for a quartetcomposed of Barnett Newman, Pollock, Rothko, and Clyfford Still, a quartet with which the painter from Granada dealt, as he also dealt, in inaugurations, or in The Club, or in the Cedar Bar, or occasionally in their studios, with de Kooning, Sam Francis, Philip Guston, Kline, Alfred Leslie, Conrad Marca-Relli, Motherwell (the most Francophile, but also the most Iberian of them all, in his capacity as author of the Elegies to the Spanish Republic), Ad Reinhardt, Theodoros Stamos and Bradley Walker Tomlin; with the illustrator of Romanian origin Saul Steinberg and with a unique character, the German-American Richard Lindner, both extraterritorial figures in the line-up of Betty Parsons; with Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Larry Rivers, the three main precursors of pop; or with painters from the second generation of abstract expressionism, such as Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell (“I met these girls with socks, very beautiful, they were extremely beautiful and I sometimes went out with them to a cafe”, we read in his 1980 conversation with Pancho Ortuño, published in the catalogue of his first important retrospective exhibition, held in the Casa de las Alhajas in Madrid) and the less well-known Ethel Schwabacher, so close to Gorky, and Ann Ryan, whose collages, of which he had a wonderful example in his Madrid house, he introduced to us. In addition to these names, with many of which he coincided, in 1954, on the walls of the joint exhibition of the Guggenheim Younger American Painters, it would be necessary to add, during his short period in Paris for part of the years 1955 (the year of his first Andalusian incursion following his departure, and the year of his very beautiful Tierra roja (Red Land), currently in the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Reina Sofía [MNCARS], and also the year of matter painting attempts which he never exhibited) and 1956, the Canadian Jean-Paul Riopelle, also living in the French capital, like his then wife, the aforementioned Joan Mitchell, and Sam Francis.
It is worth recalling 1958, when Leni Iselin, the French photographer resident in New York, took his portrait on a background of his paintings, as Guerrero’s great American year, for four powerful reasons.
The first reason is that a jury, made up of Mies van der Rohe, Sweeney, and the Swiss Siegfried Giedion, among others, granted him one of the prestigious grants of the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in Fine Arts, of Chicago (a city which apparently really counted for our painter), the other recipients of the same being the visionary Austrian architect Frederick Kiesler; a character who fascinated him; another three architects, the little-known American Thomas J. Houha, and two recent Pritzker prize winners, the Indian Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi, a disciple of Le Corbusier and his collaborator in Chandigarh, and the Japanese Fumihiko Maki; the Cuban surrealist painter Wifredo Lam, the German sculptor Norbert Kricke, a subtle illustrator in space in the tradition of Julio González; the Scottish philosopher Lancelot Law Whyte, and Eduardo Chillida. The result of this powerful combination of names was a joint exhibition in the headquarters of this foundation, focused on the relationship between art and architecture, a relationship in which, however, despite the already mentioned cycle of portable frescoes, and despite the mural vocation which pulsates behind his later work, the painter did not go any deeper, although precisely Sweeney highlighted years later, quite rightly, that in his paintings there is always “an architecture of painting”, making them tighter.
The second reason to consider 1958 as a great year for Guerrero’s critical fortune is the inclusion of Gritos en el bosque (Cries in the Forest) (c. 1956), an especially happy painting, on loan for the occasion from Betty Parsons, in the decisive joint exhibition Action Painting, held in the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts. There, he shared the spotlight with Gandy Brodie, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn, Sam Francis, Adolph Gottlieb, Helen Frankenthaler, Richard Goodnough, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, John Little, Joan Mitchell, Jackson Pollock, Milton Resnick, and Jack Tworkov. Its modest catalogue, with the painting which it included by Gottlieb on its cover, and all in black and white (the one by Sam Francis, and the one by Guerrero himself are also reproduced), contains a conversation between Thomas B. Hess and Harold Rosenberg. The fact that our painter is among 16 representatives of the New York School, in an exhibition which was the result of the combination of the efforts of the always profound Hess, and of Rosenberg, the inventor of the term action painting, gives an idea of the path that he had already taken since his arrival in the United States nine years earlier. Furthermore, we should not overlook the fact that, in that same year, he participated in another three American exhibitions with huge visibility: Some Younger Names in American Painting, in the Worcester Art Museum; Annual Exhibition, in the Whitney Museum of American Art of New York; and American Artists of Younger Reputation, in the Rome-New York Art Foundation of the Italian capital (a city which, as we have already seen, was important in Guerrero’s life), a selection of Sweeney, again, together with another 22 artists, among whom we find Paul Burlin (a veteran paint-er who, in 1913, participated in the Armory Show!, recently converted, at the end of the 50s, to abstract expressionism, and for whom Guerrero cared greatly, as sensed by Rothko), Larry Calcagno, Diebenkorn (the photo of his painting is on the same page as Guerrero’s), Jimmy Ernst, the fellow writer John Glasco, Joan Mitchell, Kenzo Okada and Adja Yunkers. At the time, the Rome-New York Art Foundation, located on Tiber Island, played a very important role not just on an Italian, but also on an international level, both in relation to the plastic arts, and literature and music. Among the curators who organized exhibitions for it, in addition to Sweeney, it is worth mentioning the other Americans Lawrence Alloway and John L. Brown, the Italians Nello Ponente and Lionello Venturi, the British Herbert Read, and the French Michel Tapié, the theorist of art autre.
The third reason which obliges the historian to highlight the importance of 1958 for our painter is that he was selected in the extremely important exhibition of the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh, in which Gutiérrez Solana, Picasso, Vázquez Díaz, Dalí, Maruja Mallo and so many other Spanish artists had participated during the years prior to the Civil War. Among the photographs which document this presence, I have always liked the one which Clyde Hare, an excellent artist of the camera, as can be seen with his urban views of the city, took of the jury during a work session, in which we see the inevitable Sweeney, the French Catholic painter Jean Bazaine, and the art critic Adelaide Breeskin, and, as the background, Guerrero’s painting, together with another two by Palazuelo, and Kenzo Okada. The painter from Granada had very close relations with these last two painters: with the former he coincided in various joint exhibitions of the aforementioned Joven Escuela de Madrid, beginning with the founding exhibition, held in the display room of the bookshop Buchholz in 1945, and then, at the end of that decade, in the Colegio de España in Paris, while, with the latter, so delicately Japanese, already mentioned in relation to a couple of joint exhibitions and, to whom in 1967 he dedicated an extremely beautiful, extremely delicate painting in pink, blue and, once again, black, belonging to the Fundación Obra Social y Monte Piedad de Madrid collection, and present here, he coincided in the line-up of Betty Parsons. Chillida, close to Guerrero and above all to Palazuelo since they coincided in the Colegio de España, also participated in that edition of the Carnegie exhibition, his painting Mandala (1958) being acquired by the Institute. In the 1961 edition of the exhibition, the Carnegie Museum of Art acquired a powerful painting by Guerrero, Blue Depths (1960), which in the exhibition was hanging to the right of one by Kline, to the left of which there was a Soulages.
The fourth and last reason is The Presence of Black, the third of Guerrero’s five solo exhibitions in the Betty Parsons Gallery, to which tribute was paid in 2014, in the retrospective of the centenary of the artist’s birth, held in the Guerrero Centre of Granada. “I did not want —he wrote much later— either Kline or Motherwell to have the monopoly of using something as important as black.” The titles of Guerrero’s paintings from this period, which lasted approximately until 1962, refer to the colour black, yes, but coexisting with other colours: The Presence of Black –with Red and Yellows, Presence of Black (Number 17) (1958), Yellow and Blue, Black and Yellow (1959), Black and Grey (c. 1958), Blue and Black (1962), and so on, especially insisting on the black-blue dialogue to which the last of the titles mentioned refers (that of a 1962 painting, tight, powerful, concentrated, which appears in this selection, like Black and Yellow, a first since until now we only knew his black and white photography, and like an extremely beautiful Untitled painting from 1961 in which black, red, blue and white coexist), and to the black-red dialogue, which culminated in another work present in the collection of the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español in Cuenca, to which I will refer below. At that time Guerrero, who had begun psycho-analysis which only concluded precisely in 1962, was working, already free from biomorphism, with very action painting gestures, and adopting a certain chaos (see, for example, in this selection, the two Untitled paintings from the years 1959-1960, and, in 1959, the striking The Followers, also with black as the main character, a central black, in dialogue with the red, again, and with the ochre of the land), in contrast above all with later paintings, with much greater serenity, and more constructive and full, such as those which appeared successively starting from the 70s. For Guerrero, black had always been a colour. In this respect, we should observe how different his attitude is from that of his future friends (some as close as Manolo Millares) from El Paso, so neo-98. We should also observe that, for example, the work of Gutiérrez Solana repelled him (“many things of the dead and funerals and all that”), and that, on the other hand, he always expressed his will to do “healthy” painting, “which breathes”.
In 1959, Signs and Portents (1956), an extraordinary painting in yellows and blacks, as if shipwrecked, and which for this very reason I have always found to have a somewhat Arshile Gorky side, a painting acquired in his Betty Parsons solo exhibition of the following year, by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, could be contemplated in the Inaugural Selection with which it inaugurated its spectacular new building on Fifth Avenue, opposite Central Park, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and one of the icons, from before it opened, of New York architecture. This presence is documented in two photographs by Leni Iselin, in which the painting in question appears near a ceramic door by Miró in collaboration with Llorens Artigas. Another image which is very expressive from the same year, taken by Irving Fitzig, is that of the hall of the mythical main New York HQ of Chase Manhattan Bank, with another of Guerrero’s paintings, Fire and Apparitions (1956), on the wall, in front of which executives rush past. We should moreover recall that, for the travelling exhibition Artists as Collectors (1959), organized by The American Federation of Arts, Guerrero lent, in addition to one of his own paintings, one by Kline, small and yet, as its owner said, “monumental”, which he had bought from him at a special friend’s rate; another by Ethel Schwabacher, probably resulting from an exchange since, as recorded in the catalogue raisonné, the painter owned the aforementioned Black and Grey (c. 1958), and an enhanced etching by Pollock.
Taking into account all these successes which Guerrero accumulated during the second half of that decade, which was vertiginous for him, as was the beginning of the next decade, during which he continued to participate in very visible joint exhibitions, I do not believe that he was especially concerned by not being included, in 1960, in Frank O’Hara’s joint exhibition for the MoMA, this dazzling poet and art critic being a member of its team. A central figure of his generation on both fronts, O’Hara had designed, in collaboration with Luis González Robles, a successful operation to launch the new Spanish generation, bringing together a few artists from El Paso (a group which dissolved in that same year), with another few from the already dissolved Dau al Set, with independent artists from Madrid such as Francisco Farreras and Lucio Muñoz, and the Basque sculptors Chillida and Oteiza. On the other hand, the curator did not consider any Spanish name from the schools of Paris or New York, and therefore the absence of Guerrero was in addition to that of Esteban Vicente, or that of Palazuelo, to mention two painters who have already appeared in the preceding lines. Action painters in their own way, except for Chillida and Oteiza, the Spaniards present in O’Hara’s joint exhibition could not miss the presence of their colleague and future American friend, simply because they did not know him personally, and they had hardly had the occasion to see his paintings. Despite the fact that the architect José Luis Fernández del Amo had acquired, in 1956, one (Composición [Composition] , now in the Reina Sofía) for the Museum of Modern Art in Madrid, of which he was the director, at that time Guerrero was not participating in the exhibitions of his home country. O’Hara had precisely come to Spain carrying the banner of action painting, as the person responsible for organizing, in 1958 (as we have seen, the year of Guerrero’s major triumphs), the decisive joint exhibition of Alfred H. Barr The New American Painting, which revealed the big names from the New York School to the public of the main capitals of Western Europe. This joint exhibition was celebrated by those from El Paso, and its catalogue, in its Madrid version, includes on the cover the black and white reproduction of a canvas by Kline, a painter with which the artist from Granada dealt a great deal over those years and to whom, in 1964, he devoted a posthumous tribute, revealing his admiration not just for the painter of such architectural black and white canvases, which were so powerfully organized, but also for the colourist.
In January 1963, Guerrero held his last solo exhibition with Betty Parsons, with a beautiful red and blue lithographic poster, the copy that we know appearing with the specific references crossed out. This has a tremendous explanation: the gallery owner sent him a letter on the day after opening the exhibition, announcing that he should look for another gallery and, rightly irritated (decades later, they reconciled), he curtailed the exhibition. He ended up holding it in November, in another gallery, that of Rose Fried, with a new red, blue and black lithographic poster, of which he later produced an unnumbered print-run, printed in Madrid by Dimitri Papagueorguiu, already mentioned in relation to the portfolio Seis litografías. This was his last New York solo exhibition until he rejoined that scene, with the 1970 exhibition in the framework of French & Company.
Numerous testimonies are conserved of Guerrero’s irritation with pop art, the up-and-coming movement at that time in the Big Apple, starting with the aforementioned conversation with Pancho Ortuño, in which he says that “the pop thing was very bad”, and immediately after refers to “all that rubbish about pop and so on”. It was this irritation, this sensation that a new cycle was beginning, which clearly pushed the painter toward Spain, where he came out with “all that nuisance about pop”. It is clear that he was obsessed by the subject, as was his close enemy Esteban Vicente (although in 2019 their respective foundations brought them together in a joint exhibition, displayed in Segovia and Granada, as well as in Oviedo, in the Fine Arts Museum of Asturias). First, there was an exploratory trip in the summer of 1963, which the family spent in the coastal Málaga neighbourhood of Churriana, of which there are still some Granada family photographs with his siblings. This trip left a profound mark on his work, in which his Andalusian memory began to reappear, and to play a key role, and in which the titles are filled with echoes of this south lyrically evoked in them: in 1963, Cruce (Crossing) (pres-ent here, started in 1962 and whose centre is a green which is pure brightness in the dark) or Generalife or Sacromonte or Alpujarra, and, in 1964, Calvario (Calvary), or Arco (Arch) or Andalucía aparición (Andalusia Appearance) or Andalucía sombría (Dark Andalusia) (the latter finished in 1965). Some of the first paintings from this cycle appeared in the aforementioned solo exhibition with Rose Fried. Someone who knows a great deal about Granada, and about its influence in painting, like Eduardo Quesada Dorador, very pertinently related what we could call the re-Granadization of Guerrero’s painting, at the beginning of the 60s, to the similar process experienced at the end of the previous decade by an exile from Jaén (and Granada by adoption), Manuel Ángeles Ortiz.
1964: a milestone in Guerrero’s return, already clearly under way, to the Spanish scene, was his presence, in March, in Madrid, in the inaugural joint exhibition of Juana Mordó, who in June organized his first return solo exhibition. Of Greek and Sephardic origin, the woman who became his main Spanish gallery owner (also, by the way, of the recently mentioned Manuel Ángeles Ortiz) had followed his work since the times of her arrival in Madrid, from Thessaloniki, in the immediate postwar period. Their professional contact only began in the previous year, when she was still at the head of the artistic direction of Galería Biosca. When she had already set up by herself in Calle de Villanueva, Juana Mordó invited Guerrero to join what became the main platform of our generation of the 50s. She managed to impose it from the commercial viewpoint, succeeding in building up a network of new collectors, who left behind their parents’ taste for the Escuela de Madrid, and became enthusiasts of the work of the abstract painters of El Paso and of others working more independently, including Guerrero. As a painter for that gallery, he became a good friend of the rest of the members of this generation, even being reunited with his fellow countryman Manuel Rivera.
1965: return of the family to Madrid, and establishment in a flat on Paseo de La Habana, not very far from the so-called “Costa Fleming”, Madrid’s most American neighbourhood, on being one of those chosen as the place of residence by many of the military from the Torrejón de Ardoz base.
1965, the year in which he painted Andalucía tierra roja (Andalusia Red Land), which is in the Museo Patio Herreriano of Valladolid, was moreover a decisive year for Guerrero, who visited his home town of Granada accompanied by Roxane, with a view to preparing a report for Life on the Andalusia of García Lorca, including the Barranco de Víznar, where the poet was murdered. She chose the route, obviously closely following the advice of her husband, and of the García Lorca family. They were accompanied by a photographer from Life, the all-rounder David Lees. The journey lasted two weeks. The resulting beautiful crop of photos, which can be consulted on the Getty Images website, in many cases has a flavour which recalls Guerrero: the dazzling whitewash, the geometry of the olive trees, a weather vane, a baroque Archangel Gabriel, a window open onto the Huerta de San Vicente, old women dressed in black who recall some of those who people some of his paintings from the 40s most impregnated with the atmosphere of his native land, in which we have always found a certain flavour of Lorca. Several important paintings emerge from the approximately 40 drawings resulting from this trip (among which I especially like those of the Cádiz salt marshes), the most emblematic of which, moreover the beginning of a trilogy (with a second piece in 1979, and a third and final one in 1989), is undoubtedly La brecha de Víznar (The Gap of Víznar) (1968), referring, with bold openness (seven years before Franco’s death), to the village of Granada near which the crime took place, and which the Guerrero couple visited with Lees. It goes without saying that, due to the existence of a cycle, and the common connection with the subject of Lorca, the Brechas, or a related canvas such as A la muerte de Sánchez Mejías (To the Death of Sánchez Mejías) (1966), inspired by the famous Llantoof Lorca, can be seen in conjunction with Motherwell’s Elegies.
1966 is, for Guerrero, like for many of those from his generation, the year of the inauguration of the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español in Cuenca, Fernando Zóbel’s great creation, where at that time he was represented by two paintings, Barrera con ocre y rojo (Barrier with Ochre and Red) (1963) and the painting that I referred to earlier, without expressly mentioning it, in relation to the cycle “The Presence of Black”, the powerful and emblematic Rojo sombrío (Dark Red) (1964), so rightly famous, the same as Rojo y negro (Red and Black) (1964-1966), which is in the “La Caixa” Collection of Contemporary Art, and which can be seen in this selection, in addition to another Untitled, produced precisely in 1966 (and which thanks to an exchange went to one of his colleagues with a house, like him, in Cuenca), a less well-known painting, but likewise with great power and at the same time of great subtlety, in which there is an extremely complex play of reds, yellows, greys, and that black which penetrates one of the reds, the darkest, a composition which reminds us of that which appears in two previous paintings, Black Penetration (1960), and Penetración (Penetration) (1961), owned by the José Guerrero Centre…
Zóbel, the Spanish Filipino painter, trained in Harvard, emphasized from the beginning the relationship of his Cuenca museum, located in the fabulous Hanging Houses, and which he ended up bequeathing, while still alive, to the Fundación Juan March, with the American artistic world. An initial milestone in this emphasis was the visit to the city, that same summer, by the photographer from the magazine Time, Eric Schaal, who took several emblematic photos of the city and of the recently opened museum. In one of them, several paintings can be observed, including one by Guerrero, at the door of the Hanging Houses. Another, the one most reproduced, documents a meeting of artists in the spacious living room of the house, on the Hoz del Huécar, by the painter Gustavo Torner, another of the artifices of the gallery. In it, in addition to himself, to Zóbel, and to its third promoter, among others the complete Guerrero family appears, and the educator Ángeles Gasset, the niece of the great philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, and one of the promoters of the Estudio School of Madrid. The statement by Alfred H. Barr, the founder of the MoMA, in 1967, is famous, when he says that Cuenca is “the most beautiful small museum in the world”.
In 1968, the Guerrero family decided to move back to New York permanently, to their house near the Hudson, but much further down than Riverside Drive, a house which for many of us, including Manuel Rivera, who says it with much grace in his memoirs, has that Andalusian air which Guerrero himself already saw in his previous house, in the Village, which we did not know. However, despite this return, they maintained their three Spanish homes for the summers. In Madrid, the bright flat on María de Molina which had replaced the one on Paseo de La Habana, where in 1980 he brought together several people from my generation with his old friend Motherwell, who was exhibiting, to popular acclaim, precisely in the neighbouring Fundación Juan March, and with his wife, the photographer Renate Ponsold, who the previous year had taken a portrait of both of them in Greenwich, in the author’s studio of the Open. In upper Cuenca, the little house on the Hoz del Júcar, purchased with the money that Zóbel paid him for the first two of his paintings which were included in the collection of the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español; the city and little house which he would show Motherwell and Renate Ponsold, who photographed the two friends in Calle de San Pedro in that 1980 trip. In the Málaga town of Frigiliana, near Nerja, the Cortijo de San José, renovated by the always faithful Fernández del Amo, and where, due to the closeness of the García Lorca family or, in the not very distant provincial capital, of Jorge Guillén, in a certain way he continued to be mentally in Riverside, circa 1950, and where, still along American lines, one of his neighbours was the great Austrian architect Bernard Rudofsky, trained in the Italy of Gio Ponti, then passing through modernist Brazil, and finally join-ing the New York melting pot, to whom, in 2014, the Guerrero Centre devoted an extremely interesting exhibition. With Guillén, in 1986 he prepared a new collectors’ book, again with six lithographs: the bright Por el color, published by the gallery owner Antonio Machón, a fellow countryman of the poet, and printed by Don Herbert. From then on, the painter did not experience his dual residence antagonistically, but rather it allowed him to navigate between two vital environments which constituted his circumstance, to create some of his great works, and also to progress in both markets, independently of turbulence such as that caused by the birth of pop. Still along American lines, which provide our compass in this text, with the Fundación Juan March we should note the lecture on his old friend Willem de Kooning, another European transplanted to New Amsterdam (as New York was initially called), which he gave in Alicante, in 1978, when the Caja de Ahorros del Mediterráneo housed an exhibition of the author of Women, with whom we see him in his East Hampton studio, in a couple of photographs from that time, during the filming of the interview (and which can now be consulted on the website RTVE a la carta) which, coinciding with the arrival of this exhibition at the Fundación Juan March, Paloma Chamorro conducted of the Dutchman for her television programme Imágenes. In 2001, the Guerrero Centre of Granada proposed a De Kooning / Guerrero exhibition, which was curated by María de Corral.
The fact that Marcelin Pleynet, the French poet and art critic, close to John Ashbery and other American colleagues of his, and whose writings on the work of Matisse, Joan Mitchell, Cy Twombly and Motherwell are absolutely memorable, and who used a Motherwellian gouache for the cover of his decisive book Art et Littérature (1977), was one of the collaborators, with a short but very intense text, of the catalogue of the great 1980 retrospective exhibition of Guerrero in the Casa de las Alhajas of Madrid, a retrospective acclaimed by the generation to which I belong, is very significant in the sensation that, as I mentioned at the beginning of these lines, Guerrero, “pink shirt and blue tie” (Quico Rivas dixit) was for us a bridge to the United States. At that time this country’s art obsessed our painters. Twenty years later, from this country another great critical text reached the team of the José Guerrero Centre, which had requested it for a publication on its collection, the text being by the late Dore Ashton, with which this great travelling companion from the New York School, the author of brilliant monographs on Joseph Cornell, Rothko, Isamu Noguchi and so many others, offered the first important American tribute to this painter with two home-lands in his heart.
Source: Galeria Mayoral, José Guerrero. The USA Influence. Works from 1959 to 1967 (exhib. cat.), Barcelona, 2020, pp. 7-29
Juan Manuel Bonet (Paris, 1953) is a writer and art critic. He has been director of the IVAM, Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS), and of the Instituto Cervantes. The author of several books of poetry, brought together in Via Labirinto; of the Diccionario de las vanguardias en España (1907-1936), completed with Impresos de vanguardia en España (1912-1936); and of numerous monographs on 20th-century artists. He has curated exhibitions devoted to the painting of poets, ultraism, surrealism, Polish constructivism, avant-garde Argentinian literature, and the Spanish Republican exile, in addition to retrospective exhibitions on, among others, Picasso, Juan Gris, Giorgio Morandi, Tarsila do Amaral, Henri Michaux, Esteban Vicente, Manolo Millares, José Guerrero, Alex Katz and Helmut Federle.