Memory of Qualities | Patrick D. Flores

Memory of Qualities

Epilogue by Patrick D. Flores

When Fernando Zóbel turned to abstraction sometime in the fifties, he thought of his newfound form as being shaped by memory. When probed by the poet Raymundo Albano, then a student at the Ateneo de Manila who wrote for the literary journal Heights, about the substance this memory was made of, the artist would say “qualities.” It was a memory of qualities, condensed in the painting Icarus (1962) in which the trope of risk ramifies in both the procedure of painting and the epiphany of artist: “a flight of birds, an effect of light, and the way I feel about the legend.”1 Gleaning Zóbel in the present offers yet another moment of this memory; in fact, a self-conscious recollection of the modernist project itself. Two indices of the modern mark Zóbel’s shift to abstraction: the monochrome and the grid. According to Norman Bryson, “of all the forms in the modernist tradition […] the monochrome is uniquely able to respond to this double bind of visualizing what cannot be visualized.”2 Indeed, what cannot be reduced to the visible or the visual is redeemed by a memory that sees qualities. The monochrome in Zóbel stems from a struggle with the grid that manifests itself as a hint of a frame to contain the gesture or image of dispersed pigment. What complicates this delicate poetics is its difficult, if not impossible, technique. The artist experiments with the hypodermic needle, which dispenses solvent and paint. He reflects on it with irony, stating: “I was using a hypodermic syringe, which is one of the least expressive instruments possible. The only advantage a hypodermic has is that it permits you to make an extremely long, thin line in oil. But it is very hard to get any beauty or expressivity out of it.”3 Here, the tension between poiesis and techne surfaces in a very lively way and elaborates in the long term as a tension between the autonomy of the aesthetic and the ecology of the material. To the degree that it frustrates both autographic labor and the automatism of instrument, Zóbel’s response to the grid fulfills the promise of the self-renewing modern. Within the grid, the monochrome, however, refuses to be diminished. It tries to slip away or to seep through. In this regard, the interlocutor Raymundo Albano’s remarkable work titled The Grid Escape (1978), which consists of pages of tracing paper on which the artist writes in longhand, may prove salient if only because it tells the tale of a modernist artist’s travail against the grid. In the vein of Icarus, Albano calls it a parable.

If the monochrome and the grid are intuited in alternation, a third modernist cipher may be anticipated. And this is the stain, which cites a range of interests. It is phenomenologically a kind of bleeding. Stylistically, it is patina. In terms of effect, it is lyrical in its modulation, a cognate of translucence that reveals itself in many Philippine cultural forms like the lantern or the shell window. In the oeuvre of the Filipino artist Benedicto Cabrera, the stain within the grid alludes to the colonial archive which he recovers to annotate a colonial present.4 In Zóbel’s conception, the line that complicates the agency of the grid and inevitably dissipates into the atmosphere of a painting (saeta [arrow]), which is as well a song of human passion, is the beginning of the potential objecthood of these same elements. This is taken to another level in the mediation of Zóbel’s confrere, Arturo Luz, the mandarin abstractionist in Manila who helmed three cultural institutions of Imelda Marcos in the seventies besides running his own art gallery. Luz was invested in the reflexivity of the grid and how its materiality could open up to sculpture. He was, for instance, drawn to the compact block, as may be seen in
his laminated wood series in which line becomes tactile in its well-defined inscription as relief. He fancied it being like “poured concrete,” and yet it would also be so yielding to the nuances of locale, being, on the other hand, “all light sensitive.”
5 Plasticity is further released in his initiations around the morphology of the paper clip, the scale of which is exaggerated and made to contort against its flatness. He wanted to translate it “into perfectly rounded steel, because there is no way you can bend a round tube of steel without flattening the curve.”6 Luz did homages to Zóbel and Eduardo Chillida by way of sculpture that relinquishes its sovereignty, as it were, and practically perforates itself. The capacity of the forms of Zóbel and Chillida to break away from the grid and to extend to the environment may have prompted Luz to venture into public sculpture, which invests in the line as something concrete, if not ultimately fulsome. The painter-critic Cid Reyes, who wrote the only full-length book on Luz, confides that Luz, thrusting his geometric line into a universe of volume and dimensions, admired Chillida’s sculpture in nature, exposed to uncertain weather, valiantly surviving its vicissitudes. To some extent, therefore, his resistance to overt representation found expression in the drift towards the natural and the organic as embodied by sculpture in nature, which gave him a certain grammar of abstraction and site-specificity.7 This grammar is already mediated by the quality of nature and art as grasped, for instance, in how Chillida’s outdoor sculpture ambiguously grafts onto or springs from the ground or the edge, thus transcending the local-universal dualism and invoking a tribute to metaphysics and construction, to the wind and the forge.8 In contrast, Luz likewise worked on the cube or the block as some kind of miniature architecture, alluding to a maquette, the interior of which relied on the syntax of the grid and the groove. Chillida’s oeuvre in terracotta and alabaster may have guided Luz’s intimate investigations into world-making through the repetition of incisions that inevitably conjures passage into the thing-in-itself, a tempting appearance that invites indwelling, simultaneously a house and a figurine. This publicness was a kind of exposure and made the art vulnerable to forces both hostile and benign. Luz’s involvement as an advisor on Marcos cultural policy reached a watershed in the opening of the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1969. It is uncanny that such a genteel event graced by California Governor Ronald Reagan, emissary of President Richard Nixon, would be disfigured by a blitzkrieg protest by David Medalla and Marciano Galang, who unfurled banners opposing “mystification,” or the abstraction of social reality into the institution of culture. Galang was an abstractionist, informed by high-modern minimalism as evident in his work at the 1971 Biennale de Paris comprising three bars of wood arranged as a broken triangle on the floor, the same year Luz represented the country at the Bienal de São Paulo. Medalla, for his part, intrigued the global art world in the sixties with his kinetic sculpture of which a bubble machine like the Cloud Canyons series is exemplary. Zóbel was a friend and an early collector of Medalla, who in Manila painted large canvases in art brut style and wrote aleatory poetry. This outsiderness may be cognate of Zóbel’s own aspiration to breach the boundaries of painting, traces of the brut that troubles, or supplements, his porcelain monochrome and the privilege of his social class in the country’s persistent colonial economy.

Medalla’s incessant effervescence, which can be perceived as well in Hernando R. Ocampo’s mutant series and Nena Saguil’s cosmologi-cal landscapes, may have been a foil to the avant-garde rupture. In the exhibition Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965 in Munich in 2017, said work was sited next to Anthony Caro in a room inhabited by the likes of John Chamberlain and Atsuko Tanaka. That Caro converses with Medalla is germane in the reconsideration of Zóbel and Chillida in the present. Both Caro and Chillida were part of a broad conversation in the sixties on sculpture that endeavored to encompass the process of hosting in conjuring mass or volume in which, inevitably, the “works spatialize”9 and “thought and invention take body.”10 Such expansion, as explicated by Martin Heidegger and Rosalind Krauss in distinct registers, veered quite unerringly towards the vitalist as robustly embodied by Medalla’s bubble machines, which were partly inspired by the clouds on Manila Bay to be concealed by the brutalist architecture of the Cultural Center by Leandro Locsin, who like Zóbel was an artist and a connoisseur of antiquity. The critic Guy Brett aptly exalts this Medalla achievement as a “liberating paradox: a ‘something’ and a ‘nothing’ at the same time.”11 The contemporary sculptor Phyllida Barlow shares this sentiment of the paradox in Chillida’s sculpture titled Modulación del espacio I (Modulation of Space I) (1963). With the title already prompting her to feel through variation and inflection, Barlow thinks of the sculpture as a “hybrid fusing both the readymade and invented form. The solid iron bars from which it is forged are themselves readymades. It is a heavy, recalcitrant, unyielding material which requires great heat to make it malleable, and great strength and skill to twist and turn it into something other than its original prepared lengths.” As in Luz’s bent paper clip and Zóbel’s squirt from the syringe, the energy that catalyzes the art is ingrained, ennatured. Again, Barlow: “The heat is somehow retained. It is as if it is still darkly smoldering, emanating an inherent sense of danger. […] Gravity, as well as time, heat and forged iron, are its materials.”12 In 2016, Barlow and Medalla were nominated for the inaugural Hepworth Prize for Sculpture, which seeks to track the progressive signs of contemporary sculpture.

In the exhibition of the works of the nominees, both artists presented pieces that may well have taken up Chillida’s invitation for sculpture to surround, gather, and inspire. This perception is evident in Joyce Dixon’s review of Barlow’s stage-set-like work that “is not so much viewed as populated by its audience, their presence completing the work,” and of Medalla’s bubble machines as an index of memory “settling in the fertile space where language and material meet.”13 As intimated in the beginning of this essay, Zóbel thought of memory as instilled by qualities. Perhaps the irresistible identification with, or the possible misrecognition of, a post-colonial orientalist vector like calligraphy in the Saetas suite testifies to the locality that gives rise to an idiosyncratic abstraction. According to Medalla, who was nurtured by Zóbel in the art of painting and poetry: “Fernando Zóbel inspired my interest in calligraphy and opened me to the universe of Chinese art, both historically and aesthetically. Fernando had a universal relationship with the arts and introduced the idea of an inspired non-provincial, expansive global dialogue of all the arts.”14 It was Medalla who wrote a manifesto around dream sculptures that “breathe, perspire, cough, laugh, yawn, smirk, wink, pant, dance, walk, crawl.”15 It is in the stain, however, that the ornament, so cherished in the habitus of the Philippine locality, sublimates and therefore so elusively tinges
the surface. This is the quality of the memory of particularity that may be discerned in Zóbel, one that in the long durée becomes some kind of nature, or better, still a
naturalesa, a Filipino term for disposition derived from the Spanish naturaleza, which is largely nature. Naturalesa
is nature in the sense of the body’s immunity and its ability to mediate anything that comes from outside, akin to Baruch Spinoza’s ingenium.16 In the art-historical lexicon, naturalesa may be read as “non-objective,” a species of abstraction that is more mystical and numinous, less indebted to the rationality of the reality-effect and the empiricism of the art object. In 1953 the Philippine Art Gallery organized the exhibition The First Non-Objective Art Exhibition in the Philippines and included the likes of Zóbel, Locsin, Ocampo, and Saguil. It caught the eye of a rather eccentric poet and collector called Aurelio Alvero who, under the pseudonym of Magtanggul Asa, wrote a monograph on it as if he had curated it; he even took the liberty of changing the title to The First Exhibition of Non-Objective Art in Tagala. The colonial name of the Philippines would be replaced with the reference to the dominant ethnic community surrounding the capital of Manila; and the non-objective might hark back to the precursor of the Guggenheim Museum, which was the Museum of Non-Objective Painting under the aegis of Baroness Hilla Rebay von Ehrenwiesen, who was struck by theosophy, among other transcendent doctrines.17 The juxtaposition between the non-objective and the Tagala might take us to another plane of the international, one that absorbs the nativist and the nationalist, on the one hand, and the hylozoist (believer in the indivisibility of life and matter) in David Medalla, on the other. This shift, as it had been in the shift of Zóbel to abstraction and Medalla’s critique of mystification, signals the temper of an equivalently esoteric18—if not an altogether otherworldly—modernity that disperses grid and monochrome into nothing less than spirit.



1 “Interview by Raymundo Albano and Rolando Perez.” In: Raymundo Albano: Texts. Quezon City: Philippine Contemporary Art Network and Vargas Museum, 2017, p. 127. Reprinted from Heights [The Official Literary Publication and Organization of the Ateneo de Manila University]. Vol. 15, no. 3 & 4 (February-April 1967), pp. 23-33.

2 BRYSON, Norman: “Prussian Blue: In the Shadow of the Shoah.” In: Prussian Blue. Barcelona: RM Verlag, 2016, p. 121.

3 “Interview by Raymundo Albano and Rolando Perez.” Op. cit., p. 127.

4 See ALBANO, Raymundo. Bancab New Works [exh. cat.]. Manila: Cultural Center of the Philippines, 1973.

5 REYES, Cid. Arturo Luz. Manila: Ayala Foundation and The Crucible, 1999, p. 48.

6 Ibid., p. 58.

7 Conversation with Cid Reyes, 7 February 2019.

8 SELZ, Peter: “Installations, Environments and Sites.” In: STILES, Kristine; SELZ, Peter (eds). Theories and Documents
of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings
. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, p. 502.

9 BERNSTEIN, J.M. Against Voluptuous Bodies: Late Modernism and
the Meaning of Painting
. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006, p. 102.

10 BARAÑANO, Kosme de: “Geometry and Tactual: The Sculpture of Eduardo Chillida 1948-1998.” In: Chillida 1948-1998 [exh. cat.]. Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía; Bilbao: Museo Guggenheim Bilbao, 1999, p. 44.

11 BRETT, Guy. Carnival of Perception: Selected Writings on Art. London: Institute of International Visual Arts, 2004, p. 73.

12 BARLOW, Phillida. In the heat of the moment [online]. London: Tate < context-comment/articles/ heat-moment> [retrieved: 8 February 2019].

13 DIXON, Joyce: “The Hepworth Prize for Sculpture.” In: ArtReview (Jan-Feb 2017). Also available online in: <https:// reviews/jan_feb_2017_ review_hepworth_ sculpture_prize/> [retrieved: 8 February 2019].

14 Email correspondence with the artist through Adam Nankervis, 28 January 2019.

15 MEDALLA, David: “MMMMMMM…Manifesto.” In: LACK, Jessica (ed.). Why Are We “Artists”? 100 World Art Manifestos. London: Penguin Classics, 2017, p. 95.

16 See: FLORES, Patrick D.: «The Nature of the Historical: Forming Worlds, Resisting the Temptation» [unpublished manuscript].

17 See: FLORES, Patrick D.: “Other Worlds: The Native, the National, the Non-Objective.” In: LEI, Yi-ting (ed.). Archival Turn: East Asian Art and Taiwan (1960-1989). Taipei: Taipei Fine Arts Museum and Spring Foundation, 2018, pp. 193-206.

18 KAPUR, Geeta: “Material Facture.” In: ENWEZOR, Okwui; SIEGEL, Katy and Ulrich WILMES (eds.). Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic 1945-1965 [exh. cat.]. Munich: Haus der Kunst/ Prestel, 2017, p. 231.

Patrick D. Flores is Professor of Art Studies at the Department of Art Studies of the University of the Philippines, which he chaired from 1997 to 2003, and Curator of the Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center in Manila. He is the Artistic Director of the Singapore Biennale 2019.


Published in Zóbel-Chillida. Criscrossing paths Barcelona, 2019. Mayoral p.137-141