Pierre Matisse and the Spanish avant-garde | Elise Lammer

Pierre Matisse and the Spanish avant-garde
by Elise Lammer

It is not rare today to witness the same artist evolving across multiple galleries over the course of their career. Typically an artist would enter a temporary symbiotic relationship with a small, emerging or local gallery. After exhausting mutual interest, and following economic Darwinism and a rule of opportunism, a more powerful gallery would take over, further breeding the artist’s conceptual and commercial worth, and so on. Multiple factors interact in such volatility, as the result of a rapidly evolving art world, whose dynamics are closely embedded within a social structure based on the market economy and political climate. One shouldn’t mind so much that behaviours are shifting; after all, art is one of the oldest and most reactive trades. It is often said, however, that when too short-lived, the relationships binding artists with their dealers can fail to support an art that not only creates taste but also history, contributing to a broad historical and political context. It may thus be useful to look closer at some examples where artists and dealers have been connected for longer periods of time.

The work and legacy of Pierre Matisse (1900, Bohain-en-Vermandois, FR—1989 St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, FR) make a compelling case for the long-lasting, mutually-beneficial alliances necessary for some of the postwar Spanish avant-gardes to establish themselves Europe-wide and in particular in the USA. At a time in Francoist Spain when most artists were only starting to envision for their own country how modernity could cohabit with the dictatorship, in the mid-1950s a younger generation of painters were drafting a revolutionary and uncompromised definition of the avant garde, one geared towards the outside world, while simultaneously trying to ascertain a new Iberian aesthetic. With works symbolically denouncing certain aspects of the political system, they were interested in situating themselves internationally in dialogue with French Art Informel and American Abstract Expressionism. The group El Paso, or “The Step,” was founded in 1957 in Madrid by Antonio Saura along with Juana Francés, Manuel Rivera, Antonia Suárez, Rafael Canogar, Luis Feito López, Pablo Serrano and Manolo Millares. Working closely together for as short a period as three years, the group, with varying members, announced its early dissolution in May 1960, and its members pursued individual international careers. Arguably, the split was the result of the unwanted political implication of the group in the government’s political strategies abroad, but also the will of various of its members to define their respective identity, when their work started to resonate abroad, driven by Matisse’s work in the USA.

The context of an emerging globalization of artistic exchanges from the 1950s onwards was partly the result of the attempts of the Franco regime to bring modern art to the fore in an effort to present the country internationally as sophisticated and dynamic. The dictatorship saw in the avant-garde a currency that could be used in its diplomatic efforts with the USA, going so far as to attempt to co-opt, through the work of the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Madrid, what some critics were then naming “the new Spanish movement”[1], by supporting the visibility and recognition of some of its most daring artists, including members of El Paso, through state-funded art initiatives, such as the Spanish Pavilion of the Venice Biennial in 1958.

Earlier, in the 1930s, the decade that witnessed the Spanish civil war erupting and Hitler coming to power in Germany, many European artists, gallerists, curators and intellectuals had migrated to the rest of Europe and to the USA (mainly New York), paving the way for the international vanguards. They included Pierre Matisse, son of Henri Matisse, who in 1931 opened the Pierre Matisse gallery on the 17th floor of the Fuller Building at 41 East 57th Street in New York City, where he presented over 310 exhibitions until passing away in 1989. Over the course of his long career, Matisse distinguished himself through the relentless correspondence he entertained with the artists he was working with, notably Joan Miró (1893, Barcelona, ES—1983, Palma, ES), with whom he exchanged hundreds of letters and organized 35 solo shows from 1933 until Miro’s passing. Pierre Matisse and Joan Miró met in 1930 through Miro’s Parisian dealer and long-term friend, Pierre Loëb. At a time when the world was enviously looking at the USA, Miró, then aged 40, and well underway with his career, saw in the young Matisse the opportunity to conquer a new territory and to channel and mediate the critical reception of the new Spanish painting in the USA. From the very beginning, Miró trusted that the experience of Matisse, through the relationship with his father and having grown up surrounded by artists, was a valuable asset in securing a long-standing ally, someone with a great understanding of the international art scene.

The exemplary relationship between Matisse and Miró lasted 50 years, and allowed them to write their own chapter of art history while firmly establishing the international presence of Spanish Informalists in the USA. If Matisse was crucial in securing Miro’s institutional achievements in America, notably by means of his first major museum retrospective at the MoMA in 1941, a ceramic mural commissioned by Harvard University’s Graduate Center in 1950, and the Guggenheim International Award in 1958, Miró in turn played an influential role in Matisse’s strategic decisions. Acknowledged as a predecessor of Spanish Informalism in the USA, Miró used his position to endorse the work of the members of El Paso in the USA.

Following Miró’s advice, in January 1958 Pierre Matisse visited 4 Pintores del grupo El Paso, the group’s inaugural exhibition at Sala Gaspar in Barcelona. In March 1960, Matisse replicated the exhibition at his gallery, showing works by Millares, Canogar, Rivera and Saura. A very timely operation, Four Spanish Painters opened shortly before major collective exhibitions[2] that included the work of members of the group, confirming the importance of the group in the USA and kick-starting the careers of many of its members.

They included Manuel Rivera (1927, Granada, ES—1995, Madrid, ES), whose work had started to attract international attention after his participation in the IV São Paulo Biennial at the Museu de Arte Moderna in 1957 and the following year at the Venice Biennial. Composición 8 (1957) was part of a series of 10 “metálicas”; wall works composed of metallic grids mounted on white backgrounds in box frames. Conceived as paintings, the works achieved their fullest potential when hung on a wall. In this way, the shadow cast by the wire on the white background revealed the empty  space between the wall and the pictorial surface, while stretching painting far beyond its traditional parameters. In his words, Rivera intended to “cancel the border between sculpture and painting, in order to convert the two into something unique and unprecedented, into an art-object that would synthetize the two problematics”.[3] In resisting the traditional definitions of sculpture and painting, Rivera was arguably anticipating painting as an expanded field, while attempting to create an ontological space lying beyond aesthetic and economic commodification. This position became clear when he refused, following a request by the curator of the São Paulo Biennial, to exhibit other more “traditional” paintings alongside the “metálicas” series. Besides, with Composición 8, Rivera demonstrated his thinking of painting as an abstract and physical structure rather than a surface. Indeed, no trace of pigment is to be found in this work, only roughly cut pieces of metal grid assembled to one another. And yet this absence conjures up a very painterly space, with a transcendent composition that evokes movement and three-dimensionality. The taming of a poor and inert material to create a dynamic composition did not fail to evoke the existential concerns of the painter, in an attempt to translate, or trap, a pure lively gesture in times of great social repression.

If Rivera’s monochromatic palette, often dominated during this period by shades of grey, pointed toward existential concerns, the lack of colours was possibly also a tangible manifestation of the ghostly fear induced by the dictatorship among other members of the group. Antonio Saura (1930, Huesca, ES—1998, Cuenca, ES), who co-founded El Paso in 1958, similarly used black and white as a way to translate, by means of violent painterly gestures, a deep emotional turmoil. Besides, Saura’s blacks and whites affirmed his conceptual affiliation with the Spanish masters, including Diego Velázquez, Francisco de Goya and Pablo Picasso, with whom Saura often claimed a strong connexion. With Nule (1958), it is very easy to read, or rather to feel, how Saura’s canvases were experienced by the artist as “battlefields”[4]. In this work, one candeduce the presence of a figure that has been abstracted, distorted, literally manhandled with existential fury. Here, Saura, who had regularly been travelling to Paris since 1952, may have been echoing important aspects of French Informalism, where gestural abstraction was at times conceived as a means to express, without words, the unspeakable violence of an era tainted by what seemed insolvable nationalist struggles and never ending economic hardships. In fact, Nule recalls the gestural abstraction of some of Hans Hartung’s small ink and oil works from the same period, whose raw, black strokes expressed the painter’s postwar trauma.

A year later, Rafael Canogar (1935, Toledo, ES) painted Zona Erógena (1959), whose evocative title allows a straightforward interpretation of a motive roughly reminding of a vagina. Saura’s notion of battlefield may be useful to grasp the intensity of such a work. Although not explicitly, the ruthlessness of the brushstrokes and the brutality of the colours, expressed in a bold layering of black, white and red paint, points at a harsh vision of Canogar’s erotic vocabulary, while proving that abstract and sexual intentions could coexist.

Manolo Millares’s Cuadro 195 (1962), also included in the exhibition, makes similar use of violently expressive painterly gestures. In his efforts to establish the critical importance of the new Spanish painting to the American public, Pierre Matisse organized Millares’s first solo exhibition in America, in which Cuadro 195 was included, almost immediately after the inaugural El Paso exhibition at the gallery, which pioneered critical attention from the New York press, ahead of the MoMA and Guggenheim exhibitions. The raw abstraction of Millares (1926, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, ES—1972, Madrid, ES) went a step further in expressing trauma with the incorporation of found elements, including pieces of torn burlap, in dramatic three-dimensional collages. In line with Manuel Rivera’s exploration within the expanded field of painting, Millares was using “poor” found material that he proceeded to tear, stitch and glue directly onto the surface of the painting, resulting in broken contours and patches of pigment and fabric that seemed to erupt from the pictorial surface. This work echoes Ocre sobre gris-verd (1959), a work on view at the exhibition by the Catalan master Antoni Tàpies (1923, Barcelona, ES—2012, Barcelona, ES), who pioneered mixed media painting in Spain and was known for incorporating found and iconoclastic materials into his works. From the viewer’s perspective, such a technique can spark great sensual empathy with the raw violence on display, somehow preserving intact the exact moment the work was created, yet in a certain way managing to transcend the particular political time and geographical space in which the work was conceived, in an attempt to produce a universal language.

The time when Antonio Saura painted Nule arguably marked his closest affiliation with abstraction. From then on, his work evolved towards a more figurative type of Expressionism, where the reminiscence of a figure or motive belonging to a commonly recognizable visual vocabulary provided the starting point for a more subtle work of abstraction.

Besides a clear interest in artists whose formal expression was challenging canons and norms, it is hard to claim with certainty what the driving force was behind what proved to be one of the most successful art dealing careers Western history will remember. It may be inspiring, however, to acknowledge Pierre Matisse’s almost unlimited dedication to the relationship he entertained with the artists with which he was working. The vast correspondence Pierre Matisse left behind provides a direct testimony to a work etiquette that is closely linked to the very contemporary notion of care, arguably paving the way, starting as early as the 1930s, for an ethics of art labour. Care, from such a perspective, involved the well-being of all parties involved, not only financial, but mostly through contextualization and research, creating narratives that would outlive their creators in history, able to inspire and intrigue viewers up until this day.

Elise Lammer, Basel April 24 2021


[1] Natalie Edgar “Is there a new Spanish School?” Art News, vol. 59, #5, New York, 1960, pp. 44-45

[2] “New Spanish Painting and Sculpture” 20 July-25 September 1960, MoMA, New York; “Before Picasso, after Miró” June-16 October 1960, Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York

[3] Natalie Edgar “Is there a new Spanish School?” Art News, vol. 59, #5, New York, 1960, pp. 44-45

[4] “The canvas is the battlefield. It is here that the painter in a tragic and sensuous hand to hand fight, transforms by his gestures some inert and passive matter into a cyclone of passions, cosmogenic energy.” Millares, Canogar, Rivera, Saura. Four Spanish Painters. Pierre Matisse Gallery (ed.), New York, 1960. pp. 10-11

Photo in header: Exhibition view of « Four Spanish Painters » at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 1960. Rafael Canogar Archives.