Beatriz González

Beatriz González on art history, bad taste, and the search for memory

Beatriz González, Los papagayos (The Parrots), 1987, oil on paper 29 ½ x 78".

Organized by the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, “Beatriz González: A Retrospective”—the most comprehensive US display of the Colombian artist’s output to date—makes its final stop at the Museo de Arte Miguel Urrutia (MAMU) in Bogotá, the city where the groundbreaking painter has long lived and worked. Spanning the early 1960s to the present, the exhibition’s more than one hundred paintings, drawings, and furniture pieces center on González’s trenchant, often playful commentary on life during Colombia’s five-decade war while tracing an aesthetic associated with Pop art (erroneously, the artist maintains) and rooted in the idiosyncrasies of Colombian visual culture. Among the most acclaimed painters from Latin America, González still asserts she is a peripheral artist. On through December 7, 2020, this retrospective—together with MAMU’s “Los archivos de Beatriz González,” (through February 22, 2021), a concurrent survey of the artist’s extensive collection of found images and printed matter—insists otherwise, and allows us to bear witness to an art that has continually expanded the boundaries of representation and remembering. 

A PIVOTAL MOMENT IN MY CAREER occurred when my college professor Juan Antonio Roda traveled to the United States and told us, “I will be back in a month. Have a painting ready for me.” I was scared, so I took a blank canvas and looked at a poster of The Surrender of Breda, 1635, by Velásquez. I focused on a single detail and began daubing paint like mad, and it was beautiful. I discovered art history with Marta Traba, my professor for four years. Our discussions centered around Velásquez and Vermeer. That intellectual awakening to the history of art saved me and made me a good painter.

Art history was a stepping-stone that led me to furniture. I began to mount my works on metal beds, tables, and cribs made with local artisan techniques. I was painting canonical iconography with enamel on metallic sheets and placing them on the furniture, as if I was attacking the original artwork I was interpreting. I did not want to imitate other artists, like Fernando Botero, my first idol; I was looking for something different, a new way of painting.

View of “Beatriz González: A Retrospective” at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, 2019.

Good taste was embedded in my education, as my mother had strong opinions about it. At one point, I discovered that there is pleasure in looking at objects that are kitsch and tasteless. Bad taste can coexist with good taste; people try to separate them, but they are inevitably intertwined. People decorated their places with store-bought reproductions known as “Láminas Molinari”—saints, idols, pets, and mythological imagery—so I was interested in understanding how these images operated within an individual’s sensibility. Most of the time, kitschy objects catch your attention, while objects that represent good taste are ignored.

I painted Simón Bolívar—one of my favorite historical figures—and the reference image I used was a tasteless painting of him lying dead on a wood bed, surrounded by people. I placed my version of this image painted with enamel on a metal bed. I wasn’t and still am not moved by the original painting depicting his death scene, but by placing my painting on the bed, this image of Bolivar moved me. I also developed an interest in bad photographs. Photojournalism at the time was unsophisticated, and I liked the gruesome images of painful events published by the press. I began using bright yellows and greens, reflecting the colors of my homeland. I believe that all provincial art has the potential to become universal.

Beatriz González, Mutis por el foro (Exit Stage Rear), 1973, enamel on metal sheet assembled on bed, 47 ¼ x 80 ¾ x 35 7/16".

In 1978, I stopped using classical painting as a reference and began working with journalistic photographs published in Colombian tabloids such as El Tiempo and Vanguardia Liberal. The year prior, I had cut up an enormous painting I made of a Renoir and sold it in pieces less than a square inch in size. When Turbay Ayala was the president of Colombia, I saw a photograph of his family by the photojournalist Carlos Caicedo and I said to myself, “I want to be like Goya, the court painter.” My interest in the president drove me to discover the possibility of being a critic with my artwork, and also a reviver of memories.

1985 marked another turning point in my career. I felt the need to confront the tragic effects of drug trafficking in my country. I looked for a new icon in my work, and focused on weeping women carrying their dead or with their hands over their faces. Most recently, I’ve been painting black silhouettes of people digging holes to bury corpses. At first sight, one could think they are farmers working with their instruments. Representing violence is complex. I do it as a way to preserve memory. I paint the emptiness left by the missing. I paint the tragedy of the violence but without the gruesomeness; I paint out of dignity, not fear.

View of Beatriz González’s Auras anónimas (Anonymous Auras), 2007–9. Central Cemetery of Bogotá.

Auras anónimas (Anonymous Auras, 2007–9) in the Central Cemetery of Bogotá marks the climax of my search for memory. It was upsetting to know this meaningful place was going to be torn down. I called Doris Salcedo; we both battled to preserve and protect the building. I made 8,957 headstones devoted to all the disappeared people in Colombia. I drew a series of black silhouettes that consisted of how dead bodies are carried. I had to make sure the title of the piece was in plural; there are thousands of people that were murdered, buried, and nobody knew more about them. As with the rest of my work, it relies on repetition as a way to preserve memory. When I came up with the idea for this work, I dreamt of preserving the souls of the missing in their covered graves, so that their memory would not disappear into thin air.