How can we know the dancer from the dance? On Manolo Millares
Secretly seated on a balcony of a big room we use for critical studio practice, I saw a huge Matisse-like painting. Not far from it, on a very well-made white pedestal, a Picasso cat vase. The room is big enough for different works to be displayed separately, and they seemed to stand alone until the moment when the group moved towards the corner, where they formed a semi-circle around the Matisse and the Picasso vase. The young artist giving the tour is a well-known rapper from Queens. He starts talking about his work in the gallery: a huge piece of wood —more than five meters tall by three wide— in the corner of the building. “Abandoned” when he found it, he simply took it. It was really dirty, used, with the markings of tools on its surface as well as those left by harsh weather. He sanded it, and began working on it until the miracle of the object-becoming-a-surface happened again. The huge scale of the wood painted white —not only on the front, but all over since it was damaged all over— made an impression in that big room. This alone is not an easy task. The room has a strange scale, with big ceilings and columns and that balcony off to one of the sides, the one I am peering in from at the sight of the visitors. The architecture has nothing to do with the activity of that day; it was built for the wagons carrying goods inside the room some centuries ago when the place was a free zone. The rapper continues, saying he sees himself as a musician, or still as a musician, but needed to find a way to also affirm himself as an artist. The method came to mind while remembering the emotion he felt when —by chance almost— he saw the Henri Matisse show The Cut-Outs in 2014. Right before the Second World War Matisse found himself in an empty studio and in radically severe economic and physical conditions. He had always lived with his work ever since he was a poor art student, moving from one rented place to the next, carrying nothing with him but his paintings. However, a dispute with his wife and a subsequent legal quarrel meant that, by late summer in 1939, everything on his studio walls had been taken down, crated, and stored in bank cellars for lawyers to fight over. France entered the war in September of the same year, and it was then when Matisse cut-out a figure from white paper and pinned it to a canvas for the first time: The Fall of Icarus.
George, the name of the artist here, continues reporting; I seem to be the only one listening attentively. Matisse’s “Blue Nudes” are much smaller than that huge canvas they’re looking up at in the same gallery. Dated 1952, they were one meter by eighty centimeters, so almost square, and have nothing to do with that five-meter strip of wood. They have nothing to do with that brightness that George has just accomplished. The “Blue Nudes” were dirty, he says, dirty in the best sense of the word, just touched all over by the fingers of Matisse. One can feel his mind painting the blue, cutting the forms, moving his hands and his scissors to continue, just to get the shape. One can then sense the hands moving on top of that canvas, like a skin, getting a sense of the form on a form, of the color against the pale background. One can only touch with eyes: the two different textures, the materials, but also the surface quality created by the color, by the pigment. By now he is slightly moving, repeating the words in a very melodic tone, soft like satin, like a rapper intoxicating an audience with these emotions, musicalizing their thinking. Oh! —he continues— I needed to do it too. How intense were the days with this found wood, and the pleasure of just cutting paper and moving it and making all these decisions. The proportions are so different; Matisse’s nudes lack fullness, but they don’t feel mutilated or incomplete. In being asked about his method, Matisse responded that in drawing with scissors, cutting directly into color, he was abolishing the conflicts between color and line, emotion and execution, conflicts that were haunting him, limiting him all his life. “I did them in self-defense,” he is reported to have said to Louis Aragon. George seemed to have repeated the very same gestures, not in the name of appropriation art but with the energy generated by a self-defensive impulse. At first, to expand his view of himself as an artist, just by impersonating the gestures of a “master” presented at MoMA. What other method could carry you faster to a mind than trying to repeat all the gestures and decision-making of an artistic task that that mind endeavored, one that then turns into a work in front of your eyes? But what’s more important than feeling like an artist is the impulse to feel her or him; that is, to understand the importance of actualizing the work so that it becomes relevant for today’s minds and eyes.
I know I took a detour to address the work of Manolo Millares. The reason is complex. My own impossibility to adopt an art historical voice leaves me with the question of how to bring his thinking to us in very similar terms to the above described by George. How can we learn to follow Manolo Milares’s complex mind? How can we be carried to the significance of his actions in words and surfaces, in color and texture, when abstraction today means even more because of our digital immersion? According to philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, since the inquirer’s understanding is formed by the same tradition that provides the context of significance in which the historical subject matter must be understood, there is a horizon of meaning that unites the inquirer and her subject. However, I would argue that we have been burning bridges, so to say, or producing a “feeling” that certain works are formed by a completely different tradition, that Millares, for example, may not necessarily be an artist of today. And it is our task —for many reasons, all of them epistemological, related to how we learn and what learning does to us— to force this “anachronistic” material into our present. To produce this horizon, this “new tradition,” is the task of an exhibition-making embedded in an unprejudiced imagination of a relation to the past. Both exhibitions and the different voices that mediation can adopt may serve to set limits that, though always open to revision and extension, expand as well as contract at exactly the same time, and with the same force and credibility as the range of possible interpretations of a work, of an artist. We should orient ourselves towards revealing a relatively stable historical world while at the same time producing radical difference, solid complexity. This is a process that liberates works from the particularity of their origins and specific conditions of production and reception. It sees temporal distance as only something radically positive.