Interview with Rafael Canogar | Emmanuel Guigon

EMMANUEL GUIGON: The Mayoral Gallery has become known in recent years for a programme of “museum” exhibitions devoted, for example, to the 1937 Spanish Pavilion, Manolo Millares, Antonio Saura, and to The Space of Dreams. In this instance the exhibition concentrates on a key moment in Spanish art and the organization of it has been entrusted to one of the great connoisseurs of that period, Tomàs Llorens, who has been one of the country’s great museum directors (the Reina Sofía, IVAM, Fundación Thyssen) and has shown a strong interest in his own generation. You were one of the painters who participated in the international exhibitions that signified the triumph of Spanish art, of El Paso. You’ve shown at the Guggenheim, at the São Paulo Biennial, etcetera. There’s also an essential exhibition, Before Picasso; After Miró. As we’re in the Museo Picasso right now, an important museum that Picasso himself wished for at the end of the 1950s, in the era of Francoism, my first question is: what is your relationship to Picasso in terms of your art training?

RAFAEL CANOGAR: Well, I think that to some extent the relationship of every artist of my generation has been a different form of encounter with Picasso. I studied with Daniel Vázquez Díaz, from a very early age, 14, to be exact. Daniel Vázquez Díaz was a friend of Picasso’s and he often spoke to us of Pablo Picasso and his connections in Paris. When, as a student of Vázquez Díaz’s, I first heard the name of Picasso, who wasn’t someone I knew, I immediately sought out his books and naturally I was very interested in him as a form of personal preparation, of my incorporation in a more contemporary language than the one I was learning with Daniel Vázquez Díaz. But it’s also the case that before long positions that were perhaps more radical, such as Mondrian’s, interested me. For me Picasso formed part of my education, but nothing more, an essential step; and sure, once Informalism proved to be an attraction other artists interested me, such as Dubuffet.

EG: You were a student of the painter Vázquez Díaz and afterwards you did a portrait of his friend Adriano del Valle, an Ultraist poet and a collagist in the style of Max Ernst. How did the encounter with Adriano del Valle come about?

RC: Adriano del Valle was a close friend of Vázquez Díaz’s, and as a poet he was asked to do the text for my first exhibition; in exchange we agreed that I’d do a portrait of him. Adriano del Valle really liked being painted by artists, and he was excited about me doing his portrait. I was very young, 15, when I did that exhibition. At that time my interest was in learning by studying with Vázquez Díaz. I was going through ever more modern periods, until I finally found my first language. Something my own, but very influenced by Miró and Paul Klee; maybe through a conjunction of those two artists, who were the basis of my first language, as it were.

EG: Miró, Paul Klee: two great legacies of the time for the education of these artists, not only for aesthetic reasons but political ones too. Miró is the painter of the constellations, of the “escape ladder”; and Klee for his “visual magicism,” as Juan Eduardo Cirlot put it, was a reference for many people throughout Europe, for CoBrA, which is roughly of your generation, for Eusebio Sempere. There’s a number of Dau al Set about Paul Klee, a catalogue of Tomás Seral’s Clan Bookshop.

RC: Yes, of course. It’s where we got to see books and catalogues by contemporary artists.

EG: Some artists of your era— Tàpies, for example—given that Spain was totally cut off until 1949, hadn’t seen the work in the flesh, they’d seen it through magazines. Tàpies through the famous number of D’ací D’allà created by Josep Lluis Sert and Miró; Antonio Saura and also for Tàpies in the Franz Roh book on magic realism. Do you have a book that’s been important to your artistic education? Because I assume you didn’t know the paintings in the flesh.

RC: No, no. I travelled to Paris relatively early on; I think I was 18 when I went to Paris for the first time. Then I began to see what paintings really looked like; prior to that it was only through illustrations. I can’t refer you to a particular book but, yes, to certain writings by Kandinsky and spirituality in art. Surrealism didn’t interest me too much, I was interested in the “magicism” of Klee and Miró, a new form of visual reality.

EG: Coming back to Tomás Seral. Did you have dealings with him at that time? Did you see the exhibitions he was doing in Madrid?

RC: Yes, of course. He exhibited a few things of mine at the time. There were two gallery-bookshops, Tomás Seral’s and Buchholz’s. They were the two places you had more of a chance to see books and where they put on interesting exhibitions, but in actual fact the Clan Gallery-Bookshop sold some things of mine using that early language, influenced, like I said, by those two great artists, Miró and Paul Klee.

EG: All the artists on show here are roughly of the same generation, they began at an international level with an abstract body of work in more or less the mid-1950s. Millares with his first burlaps, Tàpies with his first walls, Saura with his grattages. In your case, how did the first nonconformist experiments and the break with the Spanish tradition of landscape of your teacher begin? Was it the trip to Paris? Was it seeing the new art autre generation?

RC: Yes it was. Before going to Paris I was, like I say, directly influenced by Miró and Klee. The magicism of Klee and Miró interested me a lot, but it was a very brief period, a transitional one. When I did my first trip to Paris I was very interested in Dubuffet, as I’ve pointed out, and I was mainly interested in the material as a form of expression. As a Castilian artist I feel very close to materials. In fact, influenced by the new tendencies of Informalism, I found my way via the material, by working directly with the hands; by putting colour directly on the canvas with the hands, leaving the mark, the furrows, that the fingers make in the material as a reference to my position as a Castilian artist. It’s part of my landscape, the earth ploughed by the worker, who ploughs, leaving his mark on the earth. After this first encounter with the canvas, these were placed on the ground and with liquid paint that I poured onto the surface the artwork began to emerge. The liquid marked the furrows left by the fingers, like water, or like the rain that falls on the earth and delineates the furrows the farmhand has made in the earth. A poetics that defines my interest in the material, and which I also found in artists like Dubuffet. The painting they’re going to exhibit at the Mayoral Gallery, Black Series No. 2, is in fact one of the pictures created with this material painted directly with the hands and this liquid material. And in 1955, as you’ve mentioned, in the Spanish-American Biennial in Barcelona they had a gallery of abstract paintings, in which Tàpies exhibited, and also me. A Tàpies who was much more developed, with pictures that were already very typical of him.

EG: I love this metaphor of a rapport with the earth, of grounding, of the farm worker. This tradition of a number of artists who have a bond with a land, in your case the land of Castile, makes me think of the Belgian painter Raoul Ubac. And also of Chillida and his first iron sculptures, because it’s also something that the earth brings with it. In this group exhibition there are other El Paso artists, but also Catalans like Tàpies, Cuixart and Guinovart. It’s in Barcelona, in fact, that there’s a marvellous critic who has followed you and who is one of the great poets of the second half of the twentieth century, Juan Eduardo Cirlot. There are also other critics from here such as Maria Lluïsa Borràs and Daniel Giralt-Miracle who have written about your work. What’s your relationship with Barcelona?

RC: Well, I had a close relationship with the gallery owners, painters and critics of Barcelona, above all the in the second half of the 1950s, in ’55, ’56, ’57. I was showing with a certain regularity, but from 1959 onwards I dissociated myself a bit from Barcelona because I had more of a relationship with Italy. I signed a contract with the Galleria L’Attico in Rome, to which I had to deliver almost all the work I was creating at the time. They were now representing me in Europe and that meant that I went to Rome more frequently. Later on, when they gave me the prize at the São Paulo Biennial, a major exhibition of mine took place with the realist artworks. But while I wasn’t personally so present on the Barcelona art scene, I did have a fluid relationship with artists like Pijoan, Ràfols-Casamada and Guinovart. My generation shared some of the same aesthetic ideals, we defended the same ideas. It’s precisely for this reason that I appreciated the invitation from the Mayoral Gallery and to be present in the group show they’re preparing.

EG: I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that 1959 was a very important date. The involvement, of course, with El Paso, in the second generation of the post Civil War avant-garde with Saura, Millares, Manuel Viola, Martin Chirino. There is the famous group photo, the Manifesto, the magnificent number of Cela’s Papeles de Son Armadans with a text of yours. What memories does this group dynamic bring to mind?

RC: There was an idea of this group. Maybe not for everyone, but I reckon there were four or five of us in the El Paso group who were in touch from start to finish, with very strong ties: we saw each other every day, we spoke about each person’s projects and of the projects of the group. I actually mounted the last exhibition of the El Paso group in my gallery in Rome, with the group’s closing manifesto and a portfolio of El Paso’s graphic work. Some of the artists in the group had a very close, and at times tough, relationship; it wasn’t only the coming together of a few colleagues. We were artists who were defending a position, an aesthetic change in the language of painting, who wanted to bring about a transformation in our society so that it would be more open, more interested in the contemporary. We wanted to build this bridge with the generations who’s gone before us, like Miró’s, like Picasso’s. We wanted to have that new connection with the European cultural scene, and to have more presence. I’ve always said that what I felt and what I defended at the time has structured my whole oeuvre. What I’m doing has a tremendous connection with, or is a consequence of, those moments in time.

EG: It’s the moment in which various artists of your generation show in the most prestigious American museums and galleries, like the Guggenheim or Pierre Matisse’s. But you are one of the few who goes and settles down in America. Guerrero, the Andalusian painter, was living in the States, as was Esteban Vicente, who’d been there since the end of the Civil War. Why did you cross the Atlantic and go to live in the United States?

RC: That ultra-close relationship with the United States was because I married an American woman and we came to live in Madrid because it’s something I’d always wanted, to live where I was born, where my vocation and passion for art was born. America is a place that served me as a major reference, and it was. En route for Los Angeles I passed through New York to visit exhibitions. And on the return journey, now with my wife, we visited MoMA. The museum’s exhibitions director was keen on introducing me to a gallery owner in New York. We went to see him and he offered me a contract and for me to stay. I told him I’d think about it. At that time I wanted to be in Madrid, I had certain sociopolitical preoccupations, and also wanted to reinvent my painting. I had worries stemming from the crisis of Informalism. The tension of the situation was so strong for me that I needed, finally, to quit Informalism. To have an encounter with the viewer, perhaps insufficiently understood, so as to see that behind that abstract, expressionist image there was also a desire to express preoccupations that went beyond aesthetics, which involved socio-political changes, that were desires for the democracy we still didn’t have in Spain. I was keen for my painting to embody and to express freedom, but not only in my painting—I needed it in my surroundings. That somehow encouraged me to seek an encounter with the viewer through the images that reached us via the media, and to be able to reflect upon the unjust society of the time. I didn’t want to remain in the States, I wanted to come back where we had problems to resolve; and my painting sought to speak of those unresolved issues. It’s true that I often returned to the States because they invited me to give a course in a college in California. They also invited me to do graphic works in Los Angeles, etcetera, but they were always very specific work trips.

EG: You speak of the crisis of Informalism, in the same way as in the States there’s the crisis of Abstract Expressionism. You speak of your return to a certain realism and you are not the only one. There are many painters in twentieth-century modernism who, having once been abstractionists, have gone back to reality—Malevitch, Luis Fernández—each, of course, for a different reason. What I know of your work is this very rich abstract part with the extended metaphor of the earth of Castile and following that the return to realism with hands, with scenes of violence, infused with militancy, as was performed in another way in Spain with Equipo Crónica, with a few artists like Arroyo.

RC: Yes, involving denunciation.

EG: How did it come about? Where does this break come from?

RC: There are two ways of analysing it. On the one hand, my socio-political disquiet. That social and political interest meant that in my realism I was after a form of communication with the viewer of my visual work that sought, as I said before, to go beyond the desire for aesthetic expression. But we must also analyse it from another angle. The artist felt the need to knock down walls. Creation was through painting, through sculpture, through photography, drawing, but a moment arrived when painting on canvas wasn’t enough. Artists like the early members of the New York School—such as Pollock, Kline, Rothko—had already raised the forms of expression of Abstract Expressionism to levels that were difficult to improve upon, or to go beyond. After this first great generation, other younger figures were filling gaps that had maybe been left vacant by that first great generation. And maybe the moment arrived in which the only way of advancing was to smash the compartmentalization of artistic creation. This occurs with Rauschenberg who, thanks to the incorporation of photography, blazed new trails for us by smashing this creative compartmentalization. In the case of Jasper Johns there’s also an incorporation of totally new elements, with a new iconography invented by the man, like numbers, letters, maps, targets, etcetera. What I wanted to do with my realism was create a new reality, to break the creative compartmentalization between painting and sculpture, and I worked on huge pictures in which the figures stuck out from the two-dimensionality of the canvas, irrupting into the physical space of the viewer. I wanted to advance, to go beyond painting, which was insufficient for me, in order to harness the tension of reality.

EG: Many of the painters present in this group exhibition wrote theoretical texts on painting—in your case and in that of Manolo Millares, Antonio Saura, Tàpies, of course. Not all artists write about their praxis, but you belong to a generation that has reflected on its artistic practice.

RC: I think it also helped us when it came to explaining ourselves, so that people would get a better understanding of what we were doing and why.

EG: Good, I’m very happy to have heard you speak in such a lyrical and impassioned way about your work and also the work of other artists of the generation before yours.

RC: Great.

EG: It’s been a pleasure.

RC: Good, I’m pleased.

Published in With rebellion, awareness is born. Barcelona, 2018. Mayoral. p. 39 – 47