Robert Filliou, Optimistic Box #1, 1968, wooden box, two printed labels, stone, 4 3⁄8 × 4 3⁄8 × 4 1⁄8".

Robert Filliou, Optimistic Box #1, 1968, wooden box, two printed labels, stone, 4 3⁄8 × 4 3⁄8 × 4 1⁄8".

Robert Filliou and Wilfredo Prieto

“The play of art,” said Hans-Georg Gadamer in a 1973 lecture of that title, “is a mirror that through the centuries constantly arises anew, and in which we catch sight of ourselves in a way that is often unexpected or unfamiliar: what we are, what we might be, and what we are about.” I remembered this quote while visiting “Un encuentro improbable” (An Unlikely Encounter), an exhibition that staged a chance meeting between Robert Filliou (1926–87) and Wilfredo Prieto (born 1978).

On the surface, this was a modest exhibition. It featured small pieces made with basic materials: a cardboard box with a basketball inside by Prieto (The Round Ball Comes in a Square Box, 2011), for instance, next to a small wooden box with a pink label reading THANK GOD FOR MODERN WEAPONS by Filliou (Optimistic Box #1, 1968). Inside the latter, one found a black cobblestone and another label that continues the phrase: WE DON’T THROW STONES AT EACH OTHER ANY MORE. This “duet” summarizes the exhibition’s dynamic well: a sardonic dialogue among works that are formally simple but conceptually complex. Another example: Prieto’s Whip and carrot, 2019, consisting of a carrot attached to a whip suspended from the ceiling, installed near Filliou’s Drunken Horse, 1972/1975, comprising two cardboard box lids on which appear, among other things, the “portrait” of a pink horse and the pencil-scrawled words I DREW THIS HORSE WHILE I WAS DRUNK WITH WHISKEY / I FINISHED THIS PIECE WHEN I WAS HIGH (WITH HASCHIS).

Despite the title of the exhibition, the conversation between the two artists unfolds as if it had, in fact, happened. It seemed so natural that at times the visitor could not tell which of the artists made any given piece. The works’ formal refinement, based on concision and vernacular methods, reminded us of Filliou’s assertion “I am a genius without talent.” This paradoxical statement likewise exposed the playful character of the French-American artist’s work, as it did that of his Cuban counterpart. A game is a serious matter because it establishes rules that commit the player. “There is no room for skepticism where the rules of a game are concerned,” as Paul Valéry once said.

Two pieces on display underscored my reading of the exhibition as a conversation in the form of a game. Prieto’s Revoluçâo dos Cravos (1974) (Carnation Revolution [1974]), 2012, is a discreet jigsaw puzzle piece displaying a carnation. And Filliou’s Le Jeu de vie. [O! Le Jeu de Vi(d)e], 1984, is a print depicting a disassembled cube, similar to those cutouts that children fold and paste together to build geometric figures. The work, following its title, can be read in two ways: as an image of “the game of life” or as an image of “the game of the void.” The ironic jokes in these pieces, even their sarcasm, generate the beauty Gadamer attributes to the “play of art,” a beauty that arises not only from the material aspect of the work but also from doing something in a different way, and that we appreciate through intelligence rather than through sight. I must acknowledge I felt something similar to complicity with these artists. It is a very rare sensation.

Translated from Spanish by Michele Faguet.