Rafael Canogar: The Informalist Years
by Enrique Juncosa
This exhibition brings together an important group of paintings by Rafael Canogar (Toledo, 1935), produced between 1958 and 1963, at a defining moment of his career and when, still at a very young age, he became an important name in Spanish plastic arts. A little earlier, he had painted attractive expressionist landscapes, influenced by Vázquez Díaz, who was his master but, despite the sense of security that they already demonstrated, they did not anticipate either the ambition or the craving for experimentation that we find in the works displayed in this show. Here we have around a dozen paintings produced more or less during the years in which the El Paso group was active. Canogar was a founder and key figure of this group. The other original members of that group were the other painters Luis Feito, Juana Francés, Manolo Millares, Manuel Rivera, Antonio Saura and Antonio Suárez, in addition to the sculptor Pablo Serrano and the critics José Ayllón and Manolo Conde.
The El Paso group which, as Saura wrote in a second version of the group’s manifesto, wanted to show “a new spiritual state in Spanish art”, was launched in 1957, with an initial manifesto, drafted by Ayllón, and a striking exhibition held in the Buchholz gallery of Madrid, which moreover practically coincided with another historically important display. We are referring to Other Art, curated by Michael Tapié at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Madrid, with the participation of Canogar, Feito, Millares and Saura. The four of them displayed their work alongside American, European and Spanish artists, including Pollock, de Kooning, Tobey, Fautrier, Riopelle, Burri, Wols and Tàpies, this being the exhibition which presented both American Abstract Expressionism and European Informalism in our country. The artists from El Paso, joined in the following year by names such as Martín Chirino and Manuel Viola, achieved immediate both national and international recognition, ending in a certain way the isolation of Spanish art caused by the war and the establishment of Franco’s regime. This was also aided by the Catalan artists of Dau al Set such as Antoni Tàpies, and the new Basque sculptors like Eduardo Chillida. The participation of the Spanish artists in the most important artistic events of the time, such as the Carnegie International of Pittsburgh and the São Paulo and Venice Biennials, was accompanied by awards, favoura-ble reviews, and acquisitions for the collections of major international museums. However, despite its success and impact, the El Paso adven-ture came to an end in 1960 with an exhibition in the L’Attico gallery of Rome.
One of the critical concepts that triumphed at that time was that of action painting. The critic Harold Rosenberg, talking about the so-called New York School, described it as follows: “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act —rather than a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyze or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event. The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of this encounter”. This new form of abstract art did not replace the representational images with compositions of pure shapes and colours, but rather sought to depict tensions and conflicts which were inseparable from the artists’ biography, thus connecting art and life. Canogar’s paintings shown here reflect these ideas, forming a sort of record of the pictorial process which gave rise to them, including both the ideas existing at their origin and the actions which brought them to fruition, the latter often being spontaneous.
El Paso had a clear universal vocation, but it is interesting to recall that it arose at a very attractive moment in our cul-ture. To illustrate this context, we should think of films such as Plácido (1961) and The Executioner (1963) by Luis García Berlanga; Death of a Cyclist (1955), Main Street (1956) or The Uninhibited (1965) by Juan Antonio Bardem; El pisito (1959) and El cochecito (1960) by Marco Ferreri; Viridiana (1961) by Luis Buñuel, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, or the early films, so ground-breaking at the time, by Carlos Saura, Antonio’s brother, such as The Hunt (1966), Peppermint frappé (1967) or Stress is Three (1968). Viridiana, although achieving the award at Cannes, caused a considerable scandal and was initially banned due to blasphemy in both Italy and Spain, where it was not released until the disappearance of the dictatorship. The black and white of the majority of the films mentioned is the colour of that time, both for films and for artists related to Informalism, like Canogar. His work, like that of the filmmakers mentioned, is moreover the result of a craving for freedom and of contempt for the incumbent regime at the time.
Furthermore, the literature of the time included A modo de esperanza (1955) by José Ángel Valente; El Jarama (1955) by Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio; Behind the Curtains (1957) by Carmen Martín Gaite; Metropolitan Diary (1957) by Carlos Barral; Las brasas (1960) by Francisco Brines; Time of Silence (1962) by Luis Martín-Santos; Marks of Identity (1966) by Juan Goytisolo; and Moralidades (1966) by Jaime Gil de Biedma. A return to reality and its problems occurred at that time, but it took place in a form which was not instructive, and which in a voluntarily objective manner translated positions of anger and irritation toward repression and injustice. A common characteristic between these literary works and the work of Canogar and the artists from his generation is a prodigious respect for the medium with which they work, far removed from the irony and cynicism of much contemporary art. It all really seems to be a question of urgency, even of life or death.
In short, these were convulsive times in which political and social conscience was accompanied by a desire for formal innovation and a break with tradition. We feel that this example is totally relevant to the age in which we live. It is true that now, again, there is a great political conscience which leads to activism, but it is being led from the apparatus of power, taking us to a dystopian situation which favours a new form of moral and intellectual repression which does not tolerate dissidence. In the 1950s and 1960s, the struggle was to be different, culminating in the famous demand which wanted all power for the imagination during the French May ‘68. Now, however, different opinions are not allowed, and we hear great non-sense with worrying regularity, which comes, at least in part, from what Harold Bloom called the “school of resentment”. The enthusiasm provoked at the time by the work of authors as controversial as Genet, Mishima, Burroughs, Anaïs Nin and Nabokov; of filmmakers like Pasolini, Bertolucci, Buñuel, Fassbinder or Kubrick; and of painters such as Balthus, or the artists of the El Paso group, seems typical of a remote era.
This is why we feel nostalgia, on seeing the freshness main-tained by these early works of Canogar, for that craving for freedom that we are losing with the excuse of defending it. That craving did not ignore commitment, but rather quite the contrary, as we mentioned, and indeed Canogar himself, despite the immediate recognition received by his works in this initial abstract informalist style, decided to change in the mid-60s, integrating socio-political ideas with greater ease, on resorting to representational images. When asked about the paintings from the time of El Paso, Canogar tends to say that there came a time when these works led him to what he felt was a dead end, and that he needed to construct a form of contact with a broader public. Abandoning abstraction at that time, although episodically, showed courage, since in those years it was still something like the emblem of modernity, even considered by many as their greatest achievement. For Canogar, the artist’s activity requires honesty and responsibility, and is both the result of taking a stand and the demonstration of a critical conscience.
Read today, many of the writings which accompanied Informalism sound rather pompous. The famous historian Yve-Alain Bois, a Harvard professor, said that literature on the subject “is generally deplorable, full of packaged generalities and metaphysical goo, sticky with adjectival and metaphorical superfluity, puffed up with rhetorical noise and wind, and, above all, lacking even the slightest attempt at historical analysis”. Bois is specific in his attacks and disparages the writings of Michel Tapié and Jean Paulhan, for example. Although partly right, it is not all like that. On re-reading writings from the time, and without going very far, it may be those signed by Juan Eduardo Cirlot, a figure who each year which passes seems to gain in stature, which best reflect the novelty represented by Canogar’s paintings at the time. Cirlot describes the general syntactic characteristics of his work with great lexical wealth and detailed attention. We should not forget that the ideas of structuralism were disseminated in the 60s. This was a revolutionary approach of social sciences which arose at that time and which sees systems and organizations everywhere. Cirlot describes the shape and spontaneity of the stains, lines and brushstrokes; the viscosity and density of the matter; the lyrical and dramatic shapes which are constructed together with empty, white spaces; the expressive tensions suggested by the images, dynamic and magmatic; or the use of colour, dominated by black, which serves a dual purpose, both in view of what it symbolizes, the night, death or a burnt landscape, and due to its relationship with Spanish painting, from the backgrounds of the crucifixions by Zurbarán and Velázquez, and the clothing of Philip II and his court, to the black paintings of Goya and Solana.
Cirlot understood that these paintings celebrated the medium and the matter, the evocative power of the gesture and even, although rarely, also of colour, as in Raza (Race) (1958), in which a sumptuous yellow dominates. Some of the works displayed here have neutral names, such as Pintura (Painting) (1959), but others have names which suggest broader meanings. The most ambiguous titles, such as Dintel (Lintel) (1958), the aforementioned Raza, Toro de fuego (Fire Bull) (1959), Gallo (Rooster) (1960) or Barbecho (Fallow) (1963), confirm in a certain way that the paintings are not just formalist but also open to metaphor and interpretation. In general, the paintings are vibrant, passionate and energetic, possible attributes of bulls and of roosters, or even of fire. Dintel refers to space and architecture. It is an extremely beautiful painting which suggests a large white opening under a black arch which is only held up on the right-hand side. Painting as a threshold and as strength, and also as a metaphor for spatial and semantic depth. Raza also has something of a door or entrance. On the contrary, the majority of the paintings that we are discussing are more dynamic, with less constructive and more dramatic or gestural brushstrokes, reflecting magmatic and angular movements, displacements, and conflicts of forces and impulses. Canogar, and in general also the painters from his generation, wanted to break away from the classic ideas of composition in order to depict a state of mind related to existentialism. Their new abstract imagery moreover referred to conceptual processes and approaches, ideas which would lead to the radical developments of art in the 60s and 70s, which wanted to put an end to the objectuality of painting. One of the criticisms of action painting was that what ended up hanging on the wall was not an action but rather a painting.
People have sometimes spoken about Canogar and the im-portance of Castile in his work. One of his most well-known paintings is Toledo (1960), in the collection of the Fundación Juan March, which it is tempting to compare with the view of Toledo painted by El Greco in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The image of Canogar’s painting has something of a head, with eyes, nose and ear, as if he had his home town and the expressionism of El Greco impregnated in his brain. Another painting from these years, Zona erógena (Erogenous Zone) (1959), vaguely suggests a vagina, although rather than its representation like in Courbet’s famous painting L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) (1886), it refers to painting as an act of love and a mapping of desire. Again, this is a position far removed from contemporary cynicism and dogmatism.
Canogar has a very long career behind him. After more or less a decade of figurative work, which includes hybrids of painting and sculpture, he returned to abstraction in 1975. The constructive aspect dominates in these serene and meditative works, although without forgetting his early interest in matter and its expressive potentiality. Later, he alternated these possibilities, abstraction and figuration, even more, faithful to the concerns which characterized his work right from the beginning. This to and fro is again the result of that initial desire to transmit a state of mind and confi-dence in the possibilities of the medium with which he works. Subsequently, with a constant and exploratory concern, Canogar completely adopted both the generational ideas of his beginnings and others arising from artistic practice and his social and individual conscience.
Enrique Juncosa (Palma, 1961) is a poet and a curator. He was director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art between 2003 and 2012, a task for which he was granted the Order of the Civil Merit. Before, he had been Deputy Director of Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS), Madrid and Institut Valencià d’Art Modern (IVAM), Valencia. He has organized more than 70 exhibitions in museums all over the world, including Tate Britain, London; Hamburguer Bahnhof, Berlin; Kunsthal Rotterdam; Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB), Barcelona; Spanish Pavillion at the Venice Biennale; or Museo Guggenheim Bilbao. He has published eight collections of poems, the last one being Estrella rota (2021); a book of short stories, Los hedonistas (2013); and many art essays. He is co-editor of the magazine -normal. Currently, he is organizing a survey of Miquel Barceló’s work for four Japanese museums and a show of Joan Miró for Museo d’arte della Svizzera italiana (MASI), Lugano.