New York

Guillermo Kuitca

Sperone Westwater

Guillermo Kuitca has said on more than one occasion that he is “looking for reality,” but the one his maps, interior scenes, and floor plans ultimately point to is psychic rather than physical. Two of the works in his recent show “Puro Teatro” (Pure theater) featured a favorite trope, a spectral, stagelike space littered with furniture, but a series of 13 theater plans with numbered seats dominated the rest of the gallery. Suggesting waiting, watching, and reflection, the theater plans privileged time over space—one imagined a ghostly audience anticipating the end or beginning of a performance. Kuitca’s remarks in a 1994 interview about his use of “numbered and compartmentalized spaces” point to the anxious obsession with anonymity that underlies his use of architectural plans: “It is as if each [one of us] were part of a great master plan, one which, with a degree of desperation, I have done what I can to portray.”

Kuitca stresses the universality of his paintings, and it is not unusual for him to include pointed references to geographies and cultures outside his native Argentina, which he likens to a diaspora. In this show the titles of four of the theater plans referred to Mozart’s most famous librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, while three others depicting a different theater—two stained with the strident colors of the German flag, and one with black—were titled after Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem. In two other works not only color but also text seemed to rise out of the audience like a collective memory. “Come thick night,” a succinct fragment of Lady Macbeth’s cry for darkness to obliterate her conscience, was spelled out in one plan by seats highlighted in white, the invisible audience seeming to eerily reflect or perhaps even to generate the phrase. In another plan, one hovering in tiered, parchmentlike sections on a blood-red field, seats numbered with white paint limned the ghostly message “Goodnight sweet prince,” Horatio’s farewell to the murdered Hamlet. Both allusions to Shakespeare further extend the familiar equation of a theatrical setting with the universe.

Even when Kuitca’s unpeopled dramas are not set in enveloping, almost bruised darkness—such as the dark red interior scene that contained a labyrinthine arrangement of chairs, sofas, and beds—they tend to grow hazy or blank at the edges of the canvas. The striking exception here was a stark gray painting, conspicuously blank in the center, containing only a few lines that seemed to describe a rudimentary stage. But while the events that might take place “on stage” in these paintings remain unnervingly unspecified, chaos lies beyond. The floating yet airless spaces that Kuitca’s work describes recall metamorphosed Gregor Samsa peering out of his bedroom window at night and finding that “if he had not known that he lived in Charlotte Street, a quiet street but still a city street, he might have believed that his window gave on a desert waste where gray sky and gray land blended indistinguishably into each other.”

Kuitca is modest in his estimation of his own work, and, over the course of his career, has been careful to correct what he has found on occasion to be “precious,” “sweet,” or “illustrative.” He has also been frank in acknowledging his influences, making no secret of his admiration for Jorge Luis Borges, for example. In his work, Kuitca seems to emulate what Harold Bloom has described as the Argentinean writer’s “prime flaw”: “Borges can wound you,” Bloom writes, “but always in the same way.” Kuitca’s labyrinths, whose thematic ritornellos have the resonance of trauma, may be far less intricate and beautiful than those of Borges, but they are haunting in their desolation.

Kristin M. Jones