Carlos León

Galeria La Cúpula

In Carlos León’s first one-person show since his yearlong stay in New York, it was clear that the new direction his work had taken was indebted to the foreign context that motivated it.

In the early ’70s, León came into direct contact with the Parisian Support/-Surface movement. However, he continued to emphasize a knowledgeable art informed by social and cognitive concerns, allowing these to overwhelm the purely pictorial elements. But a phase of continual revision and self-analysis connected to social awareness brought him quite naturally to an unfettered work free of theories—a development already discernible in a show of his in 1982. There the painter demonstrated immediacy of expression, dramatic lyricism, and the ability to endow painting with vital forces that had previously been kept in check by the use of a flat palette, among other factors.

Since then, León has subscribed fully to the primacy of painting, ultimately disposing of slower tools such as the brush, and instead working with more immediate tools, such as sponges. During his New York sojourn, he introduced an important new element into his work, an iconographic leitmotiv shape repeated in each painting of the “Hortus Hermeticus” (Secret garden, 1986) series. The inclusion of this formal element was not mere accident. León needed a simple, formal, and yet ambiguous element that would help establish a spatial order, a few organizational lines in the pictorial magma that would enrich without inhibiting the free use of color. This bears testimony to the painter’s process, showing the way back to the painting’s inception. What interests León, in his own words, is “to conjugate rationalism with disorder, order with freedom” In relation to the predominant rationalism of his first stage, the more recent work leans clearly toward freedom; but with the introduction of a spatial device he has tempered the almost visceral power of color.

Preceding the “Hortus” series, and also realized during the last year, is the “Jardins” (Gardens) series. This consists of a range of abstract landscapes devoid of perspective, where everything flows equally on the surface—as in Monet’s last work, which served as León’s model. In “Jardins” the use of acrylics endows the works with a striking richness and looseness, including certain effects similar to those in “Hortus,” from the rubbed transparencies to the gel impastos. To turn to Monet suggests, as Clement Greenberg has said, “the pleasure of contemplation” But for Left it also means the establishment of a relationship with contemporary American painting, which pointed him toward the French master. During León’s stay in New York, he did not establish a significant rapport with the most recent work being done there, neither with the recent outpourings of the East Village nor with that of any other young artists. He feels closer to Susan Rothenberg, a direct inheritor of the rich tradition of American Abstract Expressionism, or with such second-generation artists in that school as Helen Frankenthaler or Jules Olitski. In one of the “Hortus” paintings one also senses a connection with Barnett Newman, whom León has always admired.

As experienced a painter as León is, he has shown an open richness through which he has assimilated the most diverse influences and affinities, giving them their proper intonation, removed from transitory passions or tricks of the trade that can fool the viewer at first glance. This show, on the contrary, offers coherence and the desire to connect with fine painting, uniting Southern European traditions with certain North American ones. From the disorderly flux of his first garden paintings, those masses of color without structure, he has arrived at secret woods populated only by a simple architectonic image: a balustrade that appears alone or multiplied, ensconced in the polychrome forest or standing out as a simple presence in the luxuriance of an abstract garden.

—Auroa Garcia

Translated from the Spanish by Hanna Hannah.