PRINT March 1993


SAVE FOR ANTONI TAPÍES and the odd group show or pavilion exhibit, Spanish art was all but invisible outside Spain during the long period between Generalissimo Franco’s ascent, in 1939, and his death a decade and a half ago. Even the late works of Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí, who were living in Spain undisturbed by the authorities, have largely been ignored. Furthermore, because of its peninsular situation, sealed off along its lone border by the Pyrenees, Spain has always tended to be a case apart from the rest of Western Europe. While the leading figures of 20th-century Spanish art form a distinguished cast, it is a small one, and even the great Spanish early Moderns—Picasso, Juan Gris, as well as Miró and Dalí—are as often associated with the development of modern painting in France.

The very moment Franco’s regime fell apart, Spanish art seemed suddenly to command international attention. But many of the painters and sculptors who came to prominence, most of whom had been able to work freely during the last years of the dictatorship, were epicures and formalists, and for all purposes again almost French. Spanish fascism, it seems, had a royalist rather than a populist bent, to which painterly abstraction apparently posed little threat. For imagistic heat with a Spanish flavor, one looked elsewhere than to art—indeed to the cinema of an Almodóvar, for example, which had been more energetically suppressed.

Luis Gordillo’s paintings would look as much at home in the major art capitals of the West as those of any Spanish artist. Yet where transvanguardistas like Jose Maria Sicilia and Miguel Barcelo made the scene of the early ’80s, on the first post-Franco wave, this middle-aged master and seminal influence for some reason remained virtually unheard of outside Spain. When Gordillo did finally make his New York debut this December, the particularity, sophistication, and broad timely relevance of his work were obvious at once. Not only do his idiosyncratic yet trend-conscious paintings look funkier and more complex than the work of a lot of the younger painters working in related idioms today, they constitute a virtual monument to neurotic cosmopolitanism.

Born in 1934 in Seville, Gordillo lives on the outskirts of Madrid, and has for some time been famous in his country. In fact, a whole type of contemporary Spanish painting is referred to as gordillismo, which, judging from the eponymous model, is a style that engages a variety of abstract as well as figurative conventions, along with elements of both Surrealism and Pop. Full of gastrointestinal imagery and psychosexual associations, Gordillo’s recent work at a glance suggests a sort of Spanish Philip Guston. (One is tempted glibly to suggest that the artist, a chronic analysand, made up for cultural isolation by traveling extensively within himself.) Like so much of Guston’s later figurative work, Gordillo’s paintings project an agitated cartoonlike effect by means of bold outlines, viscerally bulbous shapes, a tightly controlled chromatic range, and iconographic reiteration.

Gordillo’s repertoire of biomorphs—variously intestinal, neurological, fecal, larval, mineral,and cellular in appearance—functions pictographically, almost orthographically, as a private language able to express all sorts of compositional or allegorical intentions. In this sense he is indebted to Tapíes, as well as to the postwar, antiformalist branch of the School of Paris. (In 1958, Gordillo did move to Paris for a year.) But, impressively, Gordillo seems against some odds to have remained unfailingly responsive to the larger zeitgeist over the last thirty years. Indeed, his paintings even suggest contemporary representations of the body in extremis by younger American artists like Matthew Weinstein and Kiki Smith. A painting such as Electrovegetales, 1991 (Gordillo’s titles are usually self-evident and the artist prefers that they remain untranslated), in which ovoid forms are positioned within a centered rectangle surrounded by various arching lines resembling conduits, recalls Cubist still lifes but also Peter Halley’s circuit-board abstractions. And Córazon de Jesus en vos confio, 1992, with its predelle and assorted ulcerated or atomic-looking allusions to Christ’s Passion, is a modern polyptich the iconography of which is reminiscent of Terry Winters’ organic imagery.

Gordillo’s metaphors are hot but his surfaces are cool, calibrated, and laconic. The biomorphic brew is simmered to a close tonal range of metallic and legume shades. There are lots of barium grays, along with mustard-plaster browns, clinical blues, avocado, and a sickly silvered green reminiscent of school infirmaries built in the ’50s, a decade that echoes through Gordillo’s paintings, as it does through those of David Storey and Jonathan Lasker. Gordillo is himself quick to point out his affinity for American Pop—for American art in general, in fact, right up to the present. He has even cited Carroll Dunham and Lari Pittman as two important recent influences.

But the ’60s activities of fellow Europeans such as Joseph Beuys and Sigmar Polke are also plainly relevant to Gordillo’s work. Guau guau guau (Bow-wow-wow), a Gordillo drawing from 1963 composed of overlapping images—a man in a hat, several dogs, a cartoon bubble, stenciled numbers—is quite similar to contemporaneous drawings by Polke, an artist with whom Gordillo periodically seems to “collide.” Gordillo’s two-panel Cuarto Menguante, 1992, includes the kinds of charged allusions—maps, barbed wire, brick walls, electrified poles, and toxic substances—that are a leitmotiv of Polke’s opus. Another work by Gordillo from 1963, a moody portrait titled Cabeza gris-amarilla—a largely mud-colored painting, in which a face is emotionally articulated, but simultaneously distanced by patches of contrasting ocher paint—even seems to anticipate the iconic staring visage of the later Beuys, as well as Andy Warhol’s haunting self-portraits in “camouflage” from the early ’80s.

To our running list of younger American artists with whom Gordillo has surprising affinities, we can add David Salle (the palimpsests especially), Donald Baechler (the comic-hapless figures), not to mention a distracted comet like Judy Rifka, whose cold, sweet colors, jittery figures, and offhand multipanel configurations at times recall Gordillo’s own. A first solo exhibition in town cannot, of course, tell one everything one needs to know to gauge an artist’s significance. Perhaps, because of all the body imagery in recent art, the time is simply right for Gordillo’s anxious biology; perhaps, like Polke, he is a beacon, a model adventurer, as well as a convenient European precedent for New World artists unaware of certain cultivated roots. Yet all in all, I think, there is strong evidence for Gordillo’s ultimate relevance among generations of artistic peers.

Lisa Liebmann is a writer living in New York.