In Depth

Guillermo Kuitca on Why "Painting Is Always a Paradox"

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Guillermo Kuitca on Why "Painting Is Always a Paradox"
The artist Guillermo Kuitca with one of his "Diarios" paintings.

A prodigious painter from childhood, Guillermo Kuitca is a past master in the art of resistance, creating canvases that nimbly elude or confuse the traditional categories of painting. Often depicting spaces devoid of any human figures—but still containing their presence, as if the actors had just walked off the stage—his works range from photorealist studies to architectural plans to theater seating charts. (Theater is an obsession of Kuitca's.) Now, as the centerpiece of the grand reopening of its building, The Drawing Center is presenting a survey of the artist's Diarios, a series of unusual paintings that obliquely chronicle the life of Kuitca's studio over the past seven years. To mark the U.S. debut of this work, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to the artist about the show, and about his lifelong engagement with painting.

Your new show at The Drawing Center pulls together so many strands of your work that I think it would be helpful to go through an overview of your career. To begin at the beginning, you had your first exhibition at the very young age of 13. That must have been a formative experience. How did that happen, and what kind of work did you show?

I started very early, obviously, and by the age of 13 I thought of myself as an artist. At some point I remember taking my work to different galleries with my father to see if they were able to give me a show. I had a teacher at that time, too, and she was very supportive of the idea that I keep working and showing. Obviously the galleries were concerned about my age, but not so much about the work—and some of them actually liked the idea that it was by someone who was so young. The paintings were a little Neo-Expressionist, and looking retrospectively I'm very critical of that work. The dealer who did that show was great, but I'm not so sure the artist was good—though I have to say that the work I'd done before as a very, very young kid had something good to it. But it really was a formative experience, and I kept working after that. It took me a while to do another show, but it didn't translate into a traumatic experience, and some works were sold.

Really? That's impressive.

Yeah. Uncles and some friends of my parents bought a few, and they were cheap. Anyway, it was interesting. I was a chubby kid, and I used to think that all artists had beards and dressed in black. I didn't have a beard but I dressed in black for the opening. That was as close as I could get. Now I have a beard but I don't wear black.

Another early landmark in you artistic growth was when, after seeing a performance by the avant-garde dance choreographer Pina Bausch, you traveled to Germany with the troupe and then became a theater director in Buenos Aires. What is it that first drew you to dance?

Because I was a painter almost before I remember being anything at all, I didn't have the impression that I had made a choice to be a painter. It was something that had happened to me. Somehow the theater became that thing that I saw as a young man and said, "I would like to do that." It was more like a revelation—painting was always there. So by the time I met the Pina Bausch Company and saw their work for the first time I was already very interested in theater in terms of wanting to try and see if I could have anything to do with it. What I saw really grabbed me. It was a very early stage of the company—it was not yet the celebrated global success that it became over the years—and it made me I think that I could try something theatrical. But as a visual artist I didn't want to do stage design, not because I don't think stage design is great but because I didn't think it had much to do with anything. I wanted to make theater in terms of using the theatrical tools of drama—to try to make an overlap between visual art and theater. All those things somehow led me to create a few pieces that were horribly influenced by Pina Bausch. It was so hard to leave her shadow. When you're young you can be influenced, and there's joy in that, but I found it to be a path that wasn't really for me. I tried a few things and then I quit after about three years. I didn't relate what I was doing to dance, though—it was more related to theater.

You once said you "can do everything in theater, nothing in painting." What did you mean by that?

I said that in early '81 or '82, when there was this enormous proliferation of painting globally, and at the same moment it was having a golden hour I felt painting was exhausted. At the time I didn't conceive of my work as a theatrical space. I thought of the stage as a kind of canvas where pretty much any idea I had was good enough for theater. I didn't have the same energy for painting, so my paintings at the time were very modest and reflected my lack of faith in painting. A couple of years later, though, I think these two strands merged in a sort of idea that the canvas became a sort of theatrical space, and I could could put more of myself into the canvas with theatrical spaces and elements. That's how I made the dark series of works with a theatrical look that probably only ended in '86 or '87.

That reminds me of a quote by the German war historian Carl von Clausewitz, who says that "war is merely the continuation of politics by other means." One could see your paintings as a kind of continuation of theater by other means, since there are a number of fascinating ways that you use the canvas to create a synesthetic experience akin to theater.

I like what you are saying, because at the end of the day I found that painting was pretty much the most resistant language that I ever came across, and that ultimately everything was possible in painting. But that took 30 years.

You are often described as a painter of spaces, and while you initially rose to fame in the early 1980s with a series of somber figurative paintings that many read as a commentary on the victims of Argentina's brutal dictatorship you rarely, if ever, have included figures in your work since. What led you to move away from figurative painting?

I think by '86 or '87 I found that using a depiction of a chair or a bed was much more dramatic, even in theatrical terms, than using the figure, and I began to make all of my scenes without it. I don't relate the figure's disappearance with the disappearance of people in Argentina—I think that would be forcing what really happened. But I did find that my work was gaining more interest, freedom, in all aspects, when the human figure was less present. And immediately the elements of architecture replaced the theatrical spaces. A door, an entrance, a depiction of room, even architectural tools all pointed with a very straight arrow to the sort of drama I wanted to portray. First, only beds and chairs remained, then rooms instead of chairs and beds, and so on. Probably I was more attracted by the graphic standards of architecture, even if I treated them pictorially and not so graphically.

One thing that is interesting for me about these schematics and theater seating charts and apartment layouts and maps is that they're similar to what Jasper Johns was doing with his targets and maps, since they are all flat things that, when depicted in art, are barely distinguishable from their functional reference points. However yours seems to have more of a psychological layer, where it seems that the maps conjure a character of sorts—conjuring a character condemned to find the same city wherever he goes, like the servant in Somerset Maugham's "Appointment in Samarra." This has led critics to often ascribe a literary quality to your work, with Borges as a frequent citation. What do you make of that assessment?

I have been interested in the names of places rather than geopolitical resonances. With that work there was just something that was depicted in the name, and the fact that you have one repeated name as a journey that goes on and on to the same place—it's still pretty much an image. Whether that sort of thing qualifies me as having a literary approach, I'm not so sure. I don't really bring literary references to my work, and when it happens it's more occasional than structural. It's more about having a resonance, or echo. I like to think about the sound of my work, especially when it comes to the theater and seating charts—I consider the sounds of the work and the echoes as a sort of reaction to whatever happens on the stage. But I would refer to these seating plans in some other way, too. Most seating plans tend to portray the view from the stage, but in my works I took a huge turn by giving them a 180-degree rotation so that they look out from the stage into the audience. And it took many years to do that. It was many years after doing architectural works that I started to think again about the theater, putting the weight of the drama on the audience and not the stage. I thought that the rotation and that movement was quite interesting.

The way you talk about the echo and the sound of your work, it seems like you're very interested in channeling these other forms of aesthetic experience through painting. What is it that's accomplished when you take something from the world of theater or music and put it in a static, two-dimensional painting?

I'm not sure how much you can portray the sound, but you still try. Like many artists, at some point in my career I was struck by Wagner and by his "Ring Cycle," and my reaction to this was a very large panel that somehow divided the "Ring Cycle" into what look like very large record covers or CD covers. Obviously the works were mute, but there was a lot of information because there were the names of singers, orchestras, labels, record companies, things like that. Maybe it's a paradox because when some of those works seem to address music very frontally they become quite mute and quite still. Some of the theater paintings are different. Sometimes I like to think about the idea of "acoustic mass," which is also a title I used for a show, and those paintings that somehow address the "Ring Cycle" are closer to graphic design than anything else I've done. Painting is always a paradox. For instance, some of the mapped painting didn't imply any movement, and I painted maps for so many years. The idea of movement didn't occur to me, of painting roads and highways. Sometimes there is evidence that doesn't come easily or you have to make a huge sacrifice in your work to do something else. It's a strange medium.

What is it about painting as opposed to say, theater or music, that makes it an indispensable medium in terms of helping us understand and apprehend the world around us?

It's something every painter thinks about from every angle. I've thought about it in so many ways, and sometimes I don't think at all about it anymore, but obviously it's a permanent intrigue. In the last couple of years I've thought of it as having a measure of... I don't want to call it privacy, but it's sort of a private medium that the viewer can only experience alone. My impression is that paintings are resistant because it seems to me that when two people are looking at a painting there is no evidence they are looking at the same thing, unlike with music and movies and photography. And because it's so personal, you can create a bond with a painting. It won't happen all the time, but it will happen eventually if you're lucky. That seems to be a channel that is very unique.

It seems that a painting would appeal to a person's psychology more directly.

No, I'm talking about a psychology. Art in general can deal with anything. There's no hierarchy in terms of a poignancy or importance. I wish there weren't psychological references here—it's more about something that is built out of privacy, as if the privacy were the pictorial measure. You don't have to feel lonely, or feel anything. You don't even have to be affected psychologically. I'm sorry I can't describe it better. It's more of an impression. That would be my take on why painting is so different from other media.

You have been working on the Diarios pieces in The Drawing Center show since 1994, stretching failed canvases over a table and using them to annotate the life of your studio. Since you've been working on them for a decade and a half, these works function as palimpsests to chart the course of the various series you've worked on over that period. Often it can be hard to tell whether you are telling a fictional or personal story in your works, but here the art is plainly autobiographical. Can you talk a bit about how these pieces function as diaries?

There are autobiographical references in my work all the time, but I don't think of my diaries in that way—I mean they wouldn't work very well as literal diaries. And I don't think of the canvases I use as failed works. I like that fact that I write my diaries on a work that needs a second chance—so, yes, it is a failed work, but it's not like a failed work that goes straight to being a background for my diaries. Some of those paintings were works that were stuck in time or space. They were in my studio for many, many years and then, after some arbitrary decision, they ended up being the background of my diary.

How did you start working on this series?

I can only describe how this process started in a very literal way. I have this round garden table in my studio that I needed to cover with something because it had gaps in the surface and if you put a pencil down on the table it would drop to the floor. So I took a canvas that I had around and stapled it to the table, and for many months that canvas collected all sorts of activity that I was doing with my hands, with the pencils and brushes, and also just information: a telephone number or an email address or a list of titles. It's not really a discursive diary of what I've done on a specific day but rather an accumulation of information or doodling—in a way, the table became the receptor of the sort of dust that normally goes into the trash can, and the layers of daily nothing became very interesting.

How do you decide when these works are finished?

I never approached these works in a formal way—it was always very arbitrary and exclusively time-driven. One day I would just say, "Okay, this is finished. I need to change the diary for the next one." Obviously there is a lot of subjectivity, but I'm not 100 percent sure how they relate to my biographical day-to-day. I mean, all of the information there is real. There are to-do lists, for instance, or money accounts, and it all has some reference to a daily routine. But on the other hand, if I can steal the metaphor of a sound again, I see these works as a device that records all the sounds around the studio, depositing them one over the other on the table. Sometimes I hear a song and I'll try to write all the words I'm hearing as fast as the guy is singing, and then that's in the diaries. Often what looks like words probably came from someone talking on the radio or singing. So I think it's difficult to dismantle these works into biographical terms—Â?it would be very hard to reestablish a biographical tale.

It sounds like it would be like an archeological process to go through them but I'm sure than an art historian would be more than happy to do it.

[Laughs] You're right. I think "archaeological" is a good word. But I hardly think there is anything vital—there are no codes. I think I'll feel embarrassed by one or two things when people eventually see these works, but it would definitely take an archeological approach to put the things in order.

Speaking of things that you might find embarrassing, have you taken any details out or erased any information? What are the parts that could embarrass you?

No, I never corrected these. I think the notations are such a collapse of information that it's hard to extract anything specific, and when I say embarrassed it's more about how I perceive myself. I think it deals with the very private in a way—it gives people an access to my mind or way thinking because it's written during hours around the table. In a way, you can only feel embarrassed by the way your brain works, but that's human. There's no reason to be ashamed.

Are you worried at all that at opening of the show people will be going around with cell phones and trying to dial the numbers on the canvases?

[Laughs] Well, basically, you could dial the numbers or send emails. But I think you could do the same thing off bathroom walls, and it would be much more interesting information. But yeah, obviously there are email addresses that belong to people. Those definitely became a new element in the work, because as technology evolved the information I would write down on paper changed—and now everything goes from one device to another without ever touching the paper. Most of the images became less discursive, so there's began to be a lot of drawing.

You once said that you don't believe art should be viewed through the artist's biography or identity. Why is that, and how does that apply to the Diarios? And why do you feel that so strongly?

I don't know, really. Often the first way people understand an artist is to see who her or she is and then look at their work through those the parameters. I don't emphasize the fact that I live in Buenos Aires, for instance, but for some people that's very important information. If people live in New York or somewhere in Central Europe, then the place can come to define you. I live in Argentina, I work here, and there's nothing bad about that, but I don't want my work to necessarily be defined by the fact that I was born in a certain place, that I'm a certain age, or even who I am. I miss independence in art—I miss the way we don't look for identity in art. It's important for every artist to establish some parameters. I don't think what I'm doing serves a better cause, but I just think the opposite feels a little bit forced, especially when I show in foreign places and people see my work in geopolitical terms.

That seems to give another layer to your idea of painting as a "resistant" medium, because it seems that you resist many different forms of subjectivity in your work, whether it's being confined by a specific medium, or psychology, or identity.

I hope it doesn't give it a stubbornness, but that's where most of the intrigues I have with painting are taking place. The Diarios are a good example of that because they are a parallel practice from the last 20 years and they are so intertwined with all the paintings I've done during that time, so in the end they became a way to see the other paintings. But you're right, I might not be very coherent when I say one thing about identity and then another, but that's okay. The painting is still a painting. It's a painting that is quite resistant to coherency, but that kind of logic is not really applied to pictorial practice. It doesn't make sense.

Why is it so important to you to resist being pinned down?

That's a good question. I don't know how I relate to that. I'm not an old guy, but I've done painting as long as I remember, and I think it has always had to do with resistance. You have to stretch the meanings and the scope of what you do in order to cover your whole life, because otherwise it's a nightmare. I think if I explain too much about resistance, I'll lose the idea, but it echoes something that I've found to be very true. We still look at paintings today, despite all of the changes in the world around us. I think there is a sense of resistance in that.

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