A Conversation between Carles Guerra and Agustín Pérez Rubio

A Conversation between Carles Guerra and Agustín Pérez Rubio

2 October 2019


Agustín Pérez Rubio (APR): The Francés case is the typical case of an artist who is totally undervalued in her context. Even though she’s had her exhibitions, even though she was in the Venice Biennale, even though she was in two international exhibitions like the Guggenheim and the Tate ones, the repercussions she’s had within Spain, she’s remained an “overshadowed,” isolated figure, often totally nameless: there are various bibliographic instances in which the El Paso group is talked about and her name isn’t even mentioned. It’s a very typical case, like so many others, within the art world. Part of my research as a curator has always been women artists and this case is very similar, for example, to what happened with Mirtha Dermisache, in Argentina, in Buenos Aires, with the Grupo de los Trece: the Grupo de los Trece was being talked about and twelve men were named. In the case of Juana Francés it’s always been known, but as later she had—and that is something intrinsic, precisely, to the evolution of her work—this idea that she was almost obliged to quit El Paso, etc. That’s to say, she’s remained totally “overshadowed,” she’s remained an artist… what was called, from this macho point of view, a “minor” artist, an artist who was “the wife of…”

I think there are three very strong points when it comes to understanding, from the socio-political point of view, how the machismo prevailing since the 1960s, and even up until now, has damaged her career.

We can say that recently work is being done in museums, galleries and academia on a rehabilitation of the feminist and the queer; but in actual fact if we start talking about quotas and numbers they still continue to be much smaller—not to mention, within the art market, prices. In the case of Francés I see three essential points. The first is the moment and the cultural context: Francoist Spain of the postwar period. We all remember the women of the Sección Femenina and of Acción Católica. Like it or not, even though we’re in the 50s and 60s and there’s a small shift, there goes on being a lot of that, of the role of the woman within the public sphere, within the sphere of power, of the power of opinion, and always shunted aside as a “sensitive” issue, as an “insubstantial” issue, undervalued because it only plays a role in the domestic world. So Francés’s case isn’t something strange, that’s to say there aren’t many women at that time in either the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando) or in other academies who are really developing an artistic career. Even though there are some, but be careful, they’ve had us believe they haven’t existed. That’s why it seems fundamental to me to do these rehabilitations and to do academic research in order to get back to rereading and also to saying who was present there. Because there were indeed women artists working.

What happens is that for many of them—let’s take it on a case-to-case basis—that machismo has led to them being marginalized as mothers or wives. It’s led to them being marginalized because the subject matter they were dealing with wasn’t the subject matter the art critics—predominantly male—took to be opportune. And so it gives the impression they didn’t exist. That’s why one of the functions of feminism is always to create a genealogy, and this is important and fundamental.

And Francés is in this genealogy, and is so as one of the “quasi-heroines,” that’s to say as a woman who had an international presence in the 60s, who was in the El Paso group and so forth, but then we get to see the problem. The second problem I see is the artistic context. The same as Francoist Spain, in the artistic context (which I’ve already explained, more or less). When rereading Francés’s biography there are some horrifying facts. Like, for instance, in the years that she was in the Academy of San Fernando a critic designated a group of women who were there as the “Grupo del Ovario.” “Ovary Group”! That is totally unacceptable, derogatory, biologicist…

And the third—which makes you a bit angry, but it’s a fact and is the typical case that’s happened to a lot of women—is her marriage to Pablo Serrano. On the one hand he already had an outstanding career as an international artist of repute, twenty years older than she was. She’s much younger: she’s always “the girl” in his circle (even though later Francés only survived him for five years). In that sense I think that—and it wasn’t her intention, far from it—when all the stuff about the El Paso group occurred, he showed solidarity with her and quit. But even so, the entire trajectory of the 60s, from this phase which extends from 1958 onwards, Juana Francés always boils down to “the wife of.” I’m tired of seeing this all the time in different contexts like, for example, the case in Buenos Aires of Lidy Prati, the wife of Tomás Maldonado. Lidy Prati was the wife of Maldonado, but Lidy Prati was an artist who was in the founding team of the Asociación Arte Concreto-Invención art movement. It happens continually, until well into the 2000s, that many of these women artists who formed part of collectives are only recognized as “the wife of ”, “the companion of” or “the girlfriend of.” And this is offensive because the woman is simply being pushed into the background. Her artistic ability is being underestimated. The Francés case is the replica of many other women artists, because it’s not the only one that’s occurred in international historiography and in Spanish historiography.


Carles Guerra (CG): The question is what does it mean for a woman in the 1950s to subscribe to a code like that of Informalism, which in her case we’re even lucky it’s allotted a more particular meaning as “aformalism”; yet which is basically a type of aesthetic and artistic practice that’s linked to what we know as “the Abstract Expressionist self.” As a result it’s an abstract self without a given gender. It’s a self which, in Caroline A. Jones’s analysis, is marked by the energy, strength, behaviour and performance typical of the male gender. This is something this author has described appropriately as the type of subjectivity that’s associated with and corresponds to certain artistic practices. I think that here Juana Francés deserves to be considered the exception. Not only because she was a woman but because as a woman she adopts a code that was held hegemonically by men. That would explain, in part, her strange departure from El Paso.


APR: That’s something which creates a lot of uncertainty in me… it’s something of a blur.


CG: All we can do is hazard a guess. I would say that Juana Francés somehow short circuits the register of Informalism and introduces an anomaly that becomes insupportable for her colleagues. It becomes insupportable for the art world itself, because who, seeing the aesthetic result, might know that this work is by a woman? Here in the gallery we can see a canvas from 1960, from that fantastic moment subsequent to her exhibition in the Ateneo in Madrid (1959), and it’s a picture in which one does not perceive, right away, a gender issue. One perceives, rather, the register that became international in a stunning sort of way and that could even be attributed to a register the international critics identified as a sign of Spanishness. Saura, Millares, even Tàpies, also fit in here. Albeit that in 1962 someone like Lawrence Alloway was already warning that it was necessary to reconsider this sober informal style of ochres as a mark of Spanishness, and was saying let’s take each case individually. Juana Francés collides head-on with these hegemonies, over and above the essential fact of being a woman.

It would be interesting to observe parallel cases like that of Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s partner—she’s had a wide-ranging show of her career this summer at the Barbican—and to understand that, really, the register of Abstract Expressionism, although it permitted this masking of gender, at the same time involved sheltering under a kind of umbrella that at the end of the day was also determined by a male hegemony. I find that Caroline A. Jones’s notion of the “Abstract Expressionist self ” very useful. I want to say that Abstract Expressionism is strongly connoted: when, in the case of Juana Francés, the energy of that Informalist kind of painting is spoken of, a critic was surprised that said energy didn’t seem typical of a woman. And it’s not because creating this type of painting requires special energy, it’s that this energy is connoted as an energy whose possession is exclusive to the male gender.


APR: That is precisely machismo…


CG: It’s what I’m saying: I’m seeking after terms that might enable us to understand how systematic machismo is involved, incorporated unconsciously and non-critically in the practice of art.


APR: Myself, in any event, when going over Francés’s career and seeing it in the light of gender studies—and I’m not going to venture to make a rereading, which can be done, above all in the final works: the figures with the heads as circles… that circular, non-linear way of thinking which has often been spoken of, as opposed to the male and the linear, the circular and the female—I’m not going to focus so much on that but on the different phases. It’s an issue that can almost be subjective (depending on how you read it), but I do see that her career starts, in the earliest works, for instance of the 1950s until 1953-54, with that hieratic figurative work, those figures of the mother with her children, of the couple, of the priest… it’s the typical painting you associate with the style of a woman in the Francoist phase. The themes are the still life, the family, etc. On the other hand I’d call it a phase of “submission,” of submission in the role of the woman and of the woman artist. But, however, after attending the famous Congreso Internacional de Arte Abstracto (International Congress of Abstract Art), in Santander in 1953 and beginning with abstraction, even though it’s a subjective matter for her and the theme of the entire El Paso group, seen from a feminist perspective I’d speak of a phase of identification, of feminism, of equality. That’s to say, “I place myself on the same level: I’m not going to differentiate myself on account of the subject matter,” but, on the contrary, it’s the feminism of “You do 50%, I do 50%; you do 100%, I do 100%.” I don’t know whether it’s a part—it’s obvious—she disguises and that she attempts to imitate the masculine, because there are traditions—this also occurs—there are lessons, a few in the ones we’ve all been programmed with since that epic masculinist aesthetic notion. So, admission into the El Paso group is, I reckon, a way of saying, “I can do it too, I’m 100% too.” But that later break in her career, namely her departure from the El Paso group, and already a bit the last few years around the sixties, I think she starts to delve into a question of difference that is going to be seen in the following correlation. It’s what’s called “feminism of difference.” From an analytical point of view, seeing those paintings, those heads, more with the El hombre y la ciudad (Man and the City) series, above all, with the towers: those executives, those leaders… they are structures of power. From today’s point of view we can say that they are male chauvinist powers. Who was running the ministries? Who was running the big companies? Who was running the governments? I’d have loved for there to have been women presidents, CEOs of companies or of councils, etc., in the 70s but that’s not how it was. Just as for her it wasn’t a straight question of gender because she talks more about loneliness, about technification… It reminds me a lot, this part, going over this phase of hers, of the painting of another Valencian, Anzo, with the machines: the loneliness of man isolated by technology. But it’s interesting that she goes on painting. Even the titles have to do with individuals: the leaders, the bosses, the secretary… And so, then too, you begin to really think what or what structure of power she’s referring to. I think that maybe because the issue of El Paso really crushes her for life… I don’t really know if she remains torn apart forever, but I think that from a feminist genealogy stance there’s an early moment of submission (in other words, of the female apprentice at a time in the Francoist postwar period and of submission and of the woman’s role), one of equality, one of difference and, now in the 80s, she breaks free and says, “I do my return to nature and to other things, and it’s all pretty much the same to me now,” which, on the other hand, does connect, the circular forms, with other moments of her expressionism.

And furthermore, what you were saying: the way in which Abstract Expressionism or Informalism had come about as something “European” (Burri, etc.) and, above all, as a mark of Spanishness. But it’s true—I see it quite a lot in terms of Latin America—the influence this group, even Tàpies, had in the São Paulo Biennale. And it’s been interesting, on the other hand, how it passed to different countries, such as Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay… All the same, it goes on being mostly men who, for the most part, pursued the essence of Abstract Expressionism in these Latin American countries. Then again the interesting thing is that all the women artists, all of them, had their Informalist period but then changed right away. I’ve got a huge list: Olga López, Marta Peluffo, Silvia Torras, Noemí di Benedetto, Lea Lublin, Sarah Grilo, Marta Minujín and Alicia Penalba in Argentina; Mira Schendel, Anna Maria Maiolino and Tomie Ohtake in Brazil; Mercedes Parra and Maruja Rolando from Venezuela; Feliza Bursztyn in Colombia, with her sculptures but she has something of Informalism; Olga de Amaral, with her textiles; Lidia Cerrillo; Amaral Nieto… and a whole load more. Meaning that the theme of Informalism and Abstract Expressionism in Latin America, along with those female figures, is a phase that disappears completely and on the other hand they form the beginnings of many of these women artists, who take something from it and then abandon it. A great many of them don’t continue and even go over to performance, go over to dance and many stop working.


CG: Going back to the specific case of Juana Francés and to those exhibitions of the 1950s and early 60s, like the three Hispano-American biennials, the Venice Biennale of 1954 and the 1962 exhibition Modern Spanish Painting at the Tate Gallery, it’s necessary to understand that today we might describe international Informalism, assumed by the paradigm of Abstract Expressionism, as a “transitional” style. Namely, a style that permitted the circulation at a planetary level of the art produced in Spain at that time. The repression of the dictatorship created a paradox of sorts, which consisted in connoting the work as political—because it was aligned with a progressive abstract practice—but without the need for disbursing or introducing literary content that was readily decipherable. Another thing I’d like to point out in that respect is that all the exhibitions Juana Francés participated in during those years, as Oteiza or Tàpies himself would participate, are today under suspicion of being events monitored by diplomacy, like the one headed by Luis González Robles, who utilizes this artistic practice—be it a man’s or a woman’s—to give an image abroad of a freedom that didn’t exist in reality. Thus there was generated the paradox of a free art produced in a country that was not free. That occurred until 1964. Tàpies, for example, gets off the train in 1962 and pursues a claim against none other than the Tate Gallery and the Spanish Government itself for exhibiting works of his that he hasn’t authorized in the exhibition Modern Spanish Painting. That period is also a period in which artists like Saura will admit they were used. All this adds, I think, a transitional character to this painting which—it’s true, I agree with you—was useful to Juana Francés as an exercise in the feminism of equality, as if she were to affirm, in this way, that “I, too, despite being a woman, can subscribe to this abstract aesthetic code.”

Considering her subsequent works, those works you’ve defined as being “linear,” “circular”—those works from the late 70s which are exhibited in the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris—I think it’s there, in fact, where we begin to see the voice or the persona of Juana Francés being constructed as a woman with respect to a world in which whatever power structure is under a male sign. I think that this is the work that would enable us to see where a truly feminist awareness begins, although it’s very hard to do so because I get the feeling that we’re working retrospectively, with many gaps in our information, and with a mythical quality regarding her person which means that one feels uncomfortable saying even this, saying “Yes, in this moment it seemed that a feminist awareness began.” We can only accept it as a hypothesis, and let’s hope it was that way. I think that what is interesting right now is that we take her as a case in which even that apparent discontinuity of styles does no more than confirm a female condition which doesn’t find adequateness in the dominant aesthetic codes. That would have obliged her to try out different styles, forms and projects. This discontinuity, which has often been read as a problem or a handicap, is something we ought, rather, to demonstrate the value of in order to understand that it involves a discontinuity men cannot permit themselves. However, a woman, given the inadequate acculturation she suffers from regarding the institutions of art and their ways of transmitting knowledge, reveals that “inconsistency.”


APR: Yes, especially, too, the alternation she performs between figuration and abstraction according to the period, which in other artists would be understood as “slackness” (because it’s as if they couldn’t permit themselves it), and on the other hand, conversely, I think it’s also that female freedom of “I go my own way, I do whatever I want.” It’s also her inner search, because I’m absolutely certain that many artists who went on undertaking experiments and making proposals relative to that Abstract Expressionism have ended up exhausted: on the one hand they’ve created a language, but they are also constrained, almost as if they’d clipped their own wings. I think she, in that sense, instead of accepting it—as you’ve indeed said—as something of a loss of style, has, on the contrary, accepted it as a search and an investigation of her own, because someone else might have gone on repeating the same schemas. She’s a person who has different phases and has these interplays of research and has these transitions, which we see: there are pictures that are transitional. There’s a painting that seems almost abstract, Abstract Expressionist, but which has some little buttons that look like a face, meaning that it’s already going to form part of the following phase. I think it’s very important to understand her within this and above all, too, it’s very important to begin to read her as well from other points of view, pervaded by other disciplines and standpoints like the social, the political, gender, psychoanalytic, anthropological, etc. To begin to make other readings of her work. This is the way we’re going to see and discover other things. What occurs is that the Francés case has, I think, been symptomatic and she’s had various exhibitions in Alicante but, for example, I keep asking myself how is it that Juana Francés hasn’t had a major retrospective in a national museum. It seems very odd to me how almost eighty of her disciples (“disciples” in a manner of speaking, generational disciples), much younger, have gone on whereas Juana has remained stuck there, neglected.


CG: Here, if you’ll permit me, I’d issue a warning: what we are seeing is the incorporation of women’s names in the mechanisms of collecting, a recognition which, despite everything, is ultimately unsatisfactory. This frequently involves a partial recognition that elects a moment in the production as an emblem of a much more heterogeneous trajectory. I totally agree with you: what is still lacking is a consideration of the myths of the supposed coherence of an evolving artistic trajectory, and why a professional career in which ruptures and changes of direction emerge cannot be as coherent as another seemingly more homogeneous one.


APR: When we were talking precisely about that and I came out with the word “disciple,” there’s something very interesting: until feminism appears as an idea of sisterhood, of support—which was there before, of course, because I imagine, for instance, that the case of Francés, married to Pablo, is the same as that of Amalia Avia or that of so many other women—there are other women who were connected for sure and who had these relationships, be they of friendship, of visiting each other, or simply of the art world. But as well as this almost socialized idea of sisterhood, it’s interesting to verify the idea of “disciples” and of a “trajectory.” Why? Because the men create workshops and surround themselves with other people. And they always hold court—this isn’t the case, in that respect, with Pablo—there’s a sort of idea of evolution and of futurity in that relationship with the following generation. By way of contrast, the women, many of them, are not only forced to remain outside the professional plane, but those that can exercise their art are relegated to being on their own in their studios, thus ruling out the possibility of creating workshops and of a monitoring of their practice.


CG: Yes, it’s true. You’re speaking of something that’s very important: the transmission of the work through such teaching or of the possibility of creating an influential group, the workshop in the nineteenth century sense, a place where there are other people collaborating and subscribing to the same aesthetic, and the same politics associated with that artistic practice. It’s lamentable that the woman cannot accomplish that public exercise of transmission: she must frequently wait to be recognized. And will only be able to be recognized if she kowtows to the codes which enable a modern woman artist to be recognized in public space.


APR: And in the end the only thing this achieves is that succeeding generations are forever sidelining that artist’s expertise because she’s always been “the wife of,” for this facet alone, without really being able to be circumscribed, on the basis of a feminist or some other kind of reading of gender. Publicizing another type of work in the magnitude of the overall oeuvre of the woman artist. Not simply—as you were saying— the “little chromo” that happens to speak of such and such a year, of what occurred, etc., but it’s that chromo in relation to the entire trajectory of woman artist X, from which standpoint we conceive the notion of taste and of artistic quality. In terms of which parameters? Because they go back to being parameters that are laid down by a tradition, and there it’s necessary to make a turn.


CG: All those words like “quality,” “trajectory,” “coherence,” “style,” etc., do not reach us load-free. They reach us intensely connoted, laden with implicit content that fabricates the male figure of the successful artist. And this means that the figure of the woman does not exist. It’s these terms that fabricate the exclusion and the impossibility that a woman artist might emerge. So, when the woman artist really does emerge, she cannot be coherent.


APR: And when she does emerge she shows the wolf her claws, so they throw her out. So she’s nowhere. This is very symptomatic, because clearly the Francés case is very strong… I don’t yet know absolutely everything about the story, but it’s clear it was subtended by questions of quality, of lyricism… I don’t know, I imagine so. Maybe it was something else. But above all that’s the legacy and behavior of machismo.


CG: The effect of living in a society marked by fascism means that retrospectively it’s impossible to get to the bottom of a lot of things. When we witness the international successes of Oteiza, of Tàpies, of Saura, even the presence of Juana Francés in the Venice Biennale, above and beyond their innovative character and their ability to be in tune with globalized modern art, one cannot avoid the idea that their international reception benefited from the diplomatic action and the cultural promotion that accompanied it. There was, then, a deliberate cultural policy on the part of the government of Spain that those works should circulate internationally.


APR: Initiatives from all quarters, above all from the university, from the educational sphere, from museums, but also from collectors, etc. Everyone has to start doing their bit and to rethink, to deprogram what they believed in order to reprogram it.


CG: Exactly. I think there’s an important task which consists in unlearning what a woman artist is in order to reconstruct the possibility of being a woman artist under other conditions.


APR: Absolutely! Because in the end all of us, even gays, are also constructed and are programmed according to the same yardstick of masculinity. So we have to doubly unlearn, because we don’t relate to that either. But at the same time, too, often—and it’s something I see—in both artistic and non-artistic sectors there are extremely macho reactions within the queer or gay sector with regard to women, or macho comments. Unfortunately they also exist within the female world. They’ve programmed us to have and to stipulate this idea that is being perpetuated from the religious, the political, the maternal realms… And this involves years of work. I think it’s the young, the new generations are the ones who are increasingly more clear about it when it comes to tackling new ways of doing things and new forms of utterance.


CG: Yes, but what I find fascinating right now is that in a museum gender politics can be something that concerns us as a matter of priority. It may be that quotas are an instrument, but not the only one, it seems to me. I think that every time a case like Juana Francés’s presents itself the interesting thing is not only to do justice to that case but to revise the entire system that sustains our evaluations and our judgments. Including our more emotional reactions to the observation of art. These cases oblige us to undertake a wider and more systematic critical exercise with the art system as a whole.


APR: I totally agree, from the particular to the general. Those comings and goings that we learn about every time that such a case presents itself, and the manner in which to nibble away at and gradually overthrow the machismo that’s intrinsic in each of us.


CG: For me the importance of the quota does not reside in the quantitative issue. On the contrary, it seems necessary to me to guarantee that the feminine is presented publically with a degree of heterogeneity sufficient for it not to be essentialized. Because the perverse effects can mean that the feminine may be easily reduced to a caricature of itself. In an institution like Tate Modern there arrives a moment when you no longer know if what you’re seeing is an act of justice with a female figure rendered largely invisible or an act of political correctness. I understand that there goes on being an urgency to do justice, but this is why I insist that it’s not so much a question of quotas but that there be a sufficient number, whatever, to also permit that female condition or gender to deploy its heterogeneity without restrictions of any kind, so that no one can say “being a woman is this” or “it’s that”; “or being a woman is being Lee Krasner” or “acting like Juana Francés” or “acting like Judy Chicago,” but that there are, rather, cases irreducible to their actual gender condition.


APR: Yes, I agree, but quotas are important because unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world, but a macho, patriarchal, misogynist and capitalist one, which repeatedly sells the role of women short in all facets of work.


“A Conversation between Carles Guerra and Agustín Pérez Rubio”, Juana Frances: Informalism Was Also Female, exhibition catalogue, Barcelona, 2020, pp. 58-68