Juan Navarro Baldeweg

Galería Juana de Aizpuru

Juan Navarro Baldeweg’s show was one of this year’s key exhibitions of Castilian painting. Despite the adjective “new” applied to his art, Baldeweg is hardly a newcomer, having shown his work, although not copiously, for more than twenty years. A professor at the Escuela Técnica de Arquitectura de Madrid, from 1971 to 1975 he lived in the United States, working at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There his development as a painter was influenced by his surroundings and by his research in video. Having gone through a conceptual stage he has now turned fully to painting, presenting a body of work of great freshness and coherence—one of the most significant in “post-avant-garde” Spanish art.

To understand how Baldeweg attained the maturity of his “Fumadores” (Smokers) series, 1983, his earlier work must be considered, especially the “Kouroi” and “Narcisos” series of 1980. Each “Kouros” features a cross enclosed in its upper part by a curved line, which breaks the rigidity of the central motif and allows Baldeweg to work the space in differentiated zones. Color predominates as a vehicle of expression. The “Narcisos” series explores the same vein opened in the “Kouroi”—that of formal duality, positive and negative space, as well as the division of the canvas into upper and lower sections. Baldeweg conveys the fragmented image Narcissus might have seen when he looked at his reflection in the water by the use of zigzag lines, angles, and imperfect geometric shapes; his brushstrokes are fluid, his palette complex.

The movement and concealment of liquid has now led Baldeweg to the study of the gaseous veils of cigarette smoke. The “Fumadores” series turns away from the schematic compositions of the earlier work, instead seeking structure in the various planes of interiors and in contrasts of light. Once more color dominates, establishing boundaries and evoking transparencies. The silhouette of a man smoking is vague, almost erased behind the undulating rhythms of the invasive smoke. There is no narcissistic reflection here, but there is a parallel with the earlier work in the way the solid, abstract figure is counterpoised against the evanescent smoke and seems about to disappear—like the reflection in the water. This is a figuration full of ambiguity, a soft expressionism in which can be seen the traces of certain American abstract art as well as echoes of Matisse and Picasso.

The masklike heads from 1983 are a continuation, at least formally, of the ovoid heads of the “Narcisos,” but now they are in the foreground and have a frontal, disturbing look. More successful pieces than the only work of this genre here, Cabeza en negro y plata (Head in black and silver), have been shown elsewhere. There is something primitive and demonic in this piece, enigmatically invading the canvas; perhaps the mask hides another kind of physiognomy, as smoke covers whatever is behind it.

Aurora García

Translated from the Spanish by Hanna Hannah.