Donald Kuspit. Carlos de Amberes Foundation. Madrid.
Catálogo exposición “Rare Paintings” Fundación Carlos Amberes, Madrid. Museo de Arte Moderno (MAM), Santo Domingo. National Gallery, Kingston. Museo del Canal Interoceánico, Panamá. Museo de Arte (MARTE) San Salvador. Museo Antropoólogico y Arte Contemporáneo (MAAC), Guayaquil. Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (MAC), Santiago de Chile. Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín (MAMM), Medellín. Abril 2008.
TRAGIC MODERNISM: JOSÉ CIRIA’S LA GUARDIA PLACE PAINTINGS
I venture to say that José Ciria is a great painter, by which I mean that he has complete command of his medium and means —paint and the modernist vocabulary of abstraction, both gestural and geometrical. Planarity is inescapable —the gospel truth of modernist painting— even as its flatness is animated by various surface “events”: spattering, dripping, splashing, a certain flourish of brushwork, an exciting mixture of the refined and coarse, the elegant and gritty, making for Ciria’s own unmistakable “signature painting,” as it has been called.
His use of black and red makes for a certain sense of drama, and his bold disjunctions and eccentric displacements —for example, in Narciso, where the upper and lower figures are in abruptly distinct spaces, suggesting separate yet subliminally related realms of consciousness (the lower figure is uncannily foreshortened, a truncated version of the full-bodied upper figure)— carry the modernist notion of “dynamic equilibrium” to an extreme. In some works tones of gray vie with one another, in many works white radiates beyond the surface, however mottled by darker tones. The opposites mediate but never quite reconcile: some aspect of them may be commensurate, but the difference between them remains, sometimes starkly. For example, the Bailarinas have the same shape and diagonal thrust, but one is black and the other is red, however tempered by touches of gray. The circles, with their softer tones and luminous whites, unite them, and the atmosphere —also colored a sort of tranquilizing yellow, as lyrically light in spirit as the surface of a subdued sea— embraces them with its softness, but they remain stubbornly at odds, however dancing together. Merger and intimacy are suggested, but separateness and conflict remain fundamental. The result is a sort of subjective tension whose objective correlative is the physical tension between the painterly elements that form and inform Ciria’s surface. Ciria’s handling is complexly primordial, and so are the emotions his work conveys.
There is clearly a strong element of fantasy in Ciria’s paintings, as his figures show: let’s call him an abstract fantasist, that is, he creates fantasy figures out of abstract elements, usually of gestural planes that seem to be in constant movement, suggesting a figure in metamorphic process. This brings me to the issue I want to address, because it is the issue that I think Ciria’s La Guardia paintings address —indeed, unflinchingly face and struggle to resolve. It is the inner ambition of his art; I think he succeeds, affording insight into the tragic condition of modern man and modern art by doing so. I am saying that his figures have a tragic presence —Ciria’s professed engagement with Malevich’s Suprematism seems peripheral to me— and so does his modernist painting. I am saying that in effecting a “compromise formation” between modernist painting and the human figure he reveals their tragic character. And the tragedy of modernity itself: with understated abstract eloquence, Ciria’s Crucifixion conveys its lack of faith in anything but itself, that is, the collapse of the capacity for transcendence that comes from being modern —transcendence in Erich Fromm’s sense of evolving beyond the creaturely(1)— and with that its compensatory reliance on narcissistic primordiality, a sort of regressive delusion of instinctive grandeur.
I think Ciria’s paintings brilliantly convey the modern failure of transcendental nerve even as they suggest the possibility of transcendence through modernist painterliness, that is, total immersion and complete identification with the fluid materiality of paint. It is something that occurs in Abstract Expressionism at its most intense —in Ciria’s Abstract Expressionism. Enchanted and transfixed by paint, the painter can use its energy to fuel his creativity, including his self-creation. Its oscillation between manic elation and melancholy inertia —in Ciria ecstatic color and depressive grayness— is reflected in the changing rhythm of the painterliness. At the same time. Ciria’s paintings make it clear that the so —called pure— super-fine, Kandinsky called them —feelings and sensations conveyed by pure abstraction, however ruthless and uncompromising, are unavoidably informed by impure feelings and raw sensations. Abstraction defends itself against them by becoming perfectionistic, or, to say this another way, a formulaic formalism— “wild” expressionistic painting can easily degenerate into a mechanical formula, signaling its exhaustion and emptiness, as the gestural paintings of Gerhard Richter show —and with that becomes pseudo-transcendent and pseudo-vital. Ciria avoids this formalist trap by being hauntingly human: human presence precipitates out of abstract presence, conveying its tragic import, and underscoring the tragic, not to say morbid, character of modern man. I think Ciria’s visionary paintings of a peculiarly aborted figure —a figure simultaneously abstract and human, divided against itself, suggestive of its self-doubt, expressing its inability to integrate— reveal the inseparability of tragedy and transcendence.
The defining problem of modern art —and its tragic import for art as a whole— was clearly stated by Kandinsky almost at its beginning. In 1912, in an essay “On the Question of Form,” which appeared in Der Blaue Reiter Almanac, he wrote: “The forms employed for the embodiment [of the spirit], which the spirit has wrested from the reserves of matter, may easily be divided between two poles. These two poles are: 1. the Great Abstraction, 2. the Great Realism. Between these two poles lie many possible combinations of different juxtapositions of the abstract and the real. These two elements were always present in art and were to be characterized as the “purely artistic” and “objective.” The former expressed itself in the latter, while the latter served the former. An ever varying balancing act, which apparently sought to attain the ultimate Ideal by means of absolute equilibrium. And it seems that today one no longer sees in this ideal a goal to be pursued, as if the spring supporting the pans of the scale has disappeared, and the two scale-pans tend to lead a separate existence as self-sufficient entities, independent of each other. In this splitting up of the ideal scales, one again discerns “anarchy.” Art has apparently put an end to the welcome complementation of the abstract by means of the objective and vice versa(2)”.
For “objective” read “human” (and the human environment, including nature) and for “purely artistic” read “autonomous abstraction.” Kandinsky has identified the basic problem of modern art —the split that undermined it from within: in emphasizing the presence of the abstract at the expense of the presence of the human, more generally, handling at the expense of image— gesture, color, shape as such rather than as components of the figure or environment (manipulative sensitivity to pure form rather than projective and eventually empathic identification with the figure and its lifeworld) —the human (when abstract art deigns to acknowledge it) deteriorates into a mnemonic trace, a sort of fossilized memory, its identity obscured and its body on the verge of decomposing into abstract parts. This is the hallucinatory form through which the human achieves uncanny presence in Ciria’s paintings.
He renders modern man with existential accuracy: transcendence —the hope for transcendence of the human condition implicit in every religious myth (the urge to become a “higher,” fully conscious being rather than remain bound to one’s “lower” needs and shadowy unconscious)— has been discredited by enlightened modernity, even as transcendence has shown its indifference to humanness by becoming completely abstract in art. The outcome is the bizarrely abstract —quintessentially modern— “fallen” figures we see in Ciria’s paintings, torn between the longing for the authentically human and for the transcendence afforded by abstraction. Ciria re-invents the human figure in abstract terms, in effect embodying —the body, muted into colorless anonymity, is a recurrent theme in Ciria’s visceral paintings— transcendence in tragic form. Fosfeno de figura, Figura adolescente, Figura Barroca, and Monociclista desequilibrado are among the many paintings that make the point clearly. The two ideas that Ciria is torn between in Entre dos ideas (Version II) are tragedy and transcendence —or is it that the self— entangled imploding figure in the center, torn between darkness and light, is tragically transcendent? Even Paisaje con elementos I —an inventive abstract landscape, with clashing planes of percussive color contained in a broad band that forms a kind of horizon, and an innovative use of the modernist grid, adding to the disjointed effect— has an elliptical center at odds with itself, suggesting that even nature is tainted by a tragic split.
Picasso, who was torn between Cubist abstraction, which distilled and elaborated Cézanne’s very modern anxiety —it is what made his paintings “click” for Picasso— and Classicism, which “reassured” him, as he said, is the subject of Ciria’s Mano Picasso. It is a gigantic, oppressive hand which epitomizes the issue: in Ciria’s hands Picasso’s hand becomes tragic and transcendental —humanly meaningless and abstractly powerful— at once. In a sense, Ciria has castrated the hand —and with that the creativity— of the greatest Spanish painter of modernity. While the hand has a solid “classical” look, it is an abstract construction. For all its forbidding appearance, the picture as a whole conveys Cubist agitation leavened by later developments in pure abstraction.
The fingers of the hand move from white through gray to black (reading from left to right). The arm from which the hand emerges has the same range of colorless contrasts. Picasso’s fingers seem petrified; their surface has a gritty stony look, giving them a certain ironic organicity. They are the fingers of death as well as creativity. The flat horizontal bar of black and red that they hold is much smoother, however marked by a small painterly flourish. The bar separates a light gray lower field, enlivened by signs of dark gray gestural turbulence —a tentative eruption of molten impulse, a sort of slowly moving lava, vaguely threatening— from a higher field of bright colors, yellowish and green, from which the God-like hand of Picasso reaches down. The great hand has a tragic aura; the geometrical bar —it splits the picture— is abstractly pure. Picasso’s hand grasps the geometrical bar, but cannot bend it to his creative will. But the split in the transcendental geometry —the striking difference between the red and black, conveying a serious lack of balance, the flaw of disequilibrium in the midst of geometrical perfection— codifies the tragic split that is the expressive substance of the work.
Ciria’s La Guardia paintings convey an uneasy reconciliation of abstraction and figuration, the purely artistic and the objectively human. They suggest that abstraction must recapitulate its history through figuration, and figuration must recapitulate its history through figuration. This would allow both to achieve a new modernity. One might say that Ciria’s paintings give us a “peak experience” —Abraham Maslow’s term— of tragic transcendence. That is, he makes the tragedy latent in transcendence manifest and the transcendence latent in tragedy manifest. He does this by fusing high abstraction and human alienation. The ambition of his paintings is to humanize abstraction and show that human beings have become shadows of themselves in modernity, and as such self-alienated abstractions. The fact that modern man unconsciously regards himself as a machine in human disguise —the sort of quasi-organic machine— like figure, grim with anonymity, that Ciria constructs, emblematic of the indifference to the human that pervades modernity, confirming that becoming human remains an unrealized evolutionary project —indicates as much. Ciria’s paintings are a triumph of existential insight even as they remain consummately abstract.
- According to Fromm, the need for transcendence “concerns man’s situation as a creature, and his need to transcend this very state of the passive creature.” Quoted in Rainer Funk, Erich Fromm: The Courage to Be Human (New York: Continuum, 1982), 62. From this point of view Ciria’s hyperactive painterliness is a mode of transcendence, however filled it is with creaturely instinctiveness, which may partially explain the uncertain humanness of his figures.
2. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 242.