Modest Cuixart (Barcelona, 1925–Palamós, Girona, 2007), a man of vast humanist culture, abandoned his medical studies at an early stage to devote himself for the rest of his life to painting, with scientific rigor, but also with constant restlessness, forever rebelling against his own insights.
With the perspective we have gained from the decade that has elapsed since his death, this exhibition, entitled Cuixart: The Crucial Years (1955-1966), aims to offer a new way of looking at his work, and above all at the contributions of an exceptional artist who enjoyed enormous fame and prestige.
Given the magnitude of his output, we have opted to focus on a period of approximately a decade that was crucial in his career. Through the selected works, from the foremost museums and collections, including that of the Fundación Juan March itself, as well as the texts and documents in the catalog, the project seeks to recover the best of Cuixart, based on a highly rigorous analysis that is at the same time stimulating and instructive.
The period chosen for this show begins in the final stages of the avant-garde movement and magazine Dau al Set [“The Seventh Face of the Dice”], whose magical surrealism involved abandoning the interesting previous experimentation with matter painting, reflected in such outstanding works as Linneus escribe [Linnaeus the Scribe] (1948). Subsequently, from 1955 onward, pieces such as the assemblage Sputnik or Construcciones heteroplásticas [Heteroplastic Constructions] were to display a powerful renewed engagement with matter painting and with incorporating a range of materials and objects.
With the aid of a grant awarded to Dau al Set by the French Institute—shared with his cousin Antoni Tàpies—Cuixart traveled to Paris in 1950. Some months later he moved to Lyon, where contact with the active cultural life of the city sparked off an intense experimental phase which led him to explore the expressive potential of matter painting. There he met Marcel Michaud, who took a keen interest in his work and organized an exhibition for him in 1956 in his long-established Folklore gallery, a show that created a considerable stir in the cultural press of Lyon. The distinguished writer and journalist Jean-Jacques Lerrant also strongly supported Cuixart from the beginning and investigated the poetics of his work in articles, catalogue texts, and the book he published on him in 1967.
I addition, Michaud introduced him to René Drouin, in whose Paris gallery Cuixart first exhibited in 1956 and in solo shows from 1958. In his Lyonese period he produced magnificent works with painstakingly worked reliefs or subtle incisions and grattages (Omorka, Lyon de Belleville, Marne). He traveled constantly, and as well as Lyon and Paris he exhibited in cities throughout Europe and in the United States and Argentina. He began to be in demand from galleries, museums, and biennials all over the world.
From 1958, Cuixart’s experimentation was directed towards sublimating matter and took shape in his characteristic drip technique using iridescent metallic colors—gold, silver, and copper—on generally dark backgrounds, a procedure that evolved from the initial tangled patterns to a type of Spatialism. As a whole, the new idiom constitutes a highly personal form of alchemy, a metaphysics of matter—”Transinformalism”, in Juan Eduardo Cirlot’s terminology—with cosmic echoes, which he came to execute in huge formats (Sueño de Eude [Eude’s Dream], Suite Bienal São Paulo [São Paulo Biennial Suite]) and which won him numerous distinctions and raised him to the pinnacle of success and international recognition (First Prize for Abstract Painting in the Prix de Lausanne and International Grand Prix for Painting at the 5th São Paulo Biennial, both in 1959). The most eminent critics (including Jean-Jacques Lerrant, Will Grohmann, Pierre Restany, Alexandre Cirici Pellicer, Juan Eduardo Cirlot, and Eduardo Westerdahl) hailed him as the true revitalizer of international Informalism, a movement that by the end of the 1950s was beginning to show signs of flagging.
But Cuixart, a free spirit little given to resting on his laurels, felt that Informalism had turned into empty, monotonous repetition, and other interests emerged in his work. He produced some pieces in thick relief that were unusually audacious for the period (Obsexys, Androgyne, 1962), and in 1963, at the René Metras gallery in Barcelona, he surprised everyone with his exhibition of the massacred dolls from his series Nins sense nom [Nameless Children or Dolls], symptomatic of profound existential angst. While still working within the idiom of matter and objects, his visual and mental concern with the human condition led him to that first clear and conclusive demonstration that he was engaged in representing humanity—it would not yet be accurate to speak of figurative representation—which was to take over his work, initiating a long interlude in which his preoccupation with the metaphysics of the cosmos and of matter was gradually replaced by that intense incursion of the existential dimension. The very title (Nameless Children) evokes the helplessness of all anonymous victims in the face of violence and alludes to a terrible memory from his childhood, when he saw lorries arriving during the bombing of Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War loaded with dismembered corpses, many of them children. That image seems to be illustrated in the free-standing assemblage Rodamort [Death Wheel] (1961), produced the same year that the exhibition The Art of Assemblage was held at MoMA. As Maria Lluïsa Borràs said, Cuixart, a contemporary of Robert Rauschenberg, was a pioneer of the incorporation of objects, which he had already been using since 1954.
Despite the change of idiom, Cuixart continued to arouse the keenest interest in this period. His presence in both the general and the specialist media was constant. He appeared on many covers and was the subject of countless articles and interviews. He exhibited in museums and galleries all over the world. In 1963, Jean-André Fieschi, then a young filmmaker associated with the Nouvelle Vague and Cahiers du Cinéma, directed Cuixart, permanencia del barroco [Cuixart, Persistence of the Baroque], an interesting short film in a cinema verité style which shows the artist in the very process of creating his enormous pictures with dolls and strings and presents him as a paradigm of the avant-garde artist.
Around the same time (1963–64), anticipating the new international figurative movements, Cuixart produced an extraordinary series, predominantly organic, erotic, and sinister in its content, in which matter painting and texturalism are amalgamated in an unusual way with graphic elements suggesting signs with magical connotations. Some critics agree that these images, most of which are extremely “biological”, dissecting the mysterious intricacies of human existence and the human body like scalpels, probably reflect his experience of dissection and anatomy classes at medical school. Letters, figures, and signs occupy an exceptionally prominent place in many of the works of this period and there are frequent allusions to mathematical and philosophical thought (Metafórica [Metaphers], Sofismas [Sophistries], 1965) which lend them a profoundly intellectual dimension. By combining the furrowed matter painting of his Informalist period in Lyon with the use of signs characteristic of Dau al Set, Cuixart creates a dynamic syntax between the two.
Anticipation was at a peak when his new works were shown in 1966 at Galería René Metras, marking his definitive break with Informalism and arousing great controversy. The subtly lurid character of some pieces was harshly condemned by fundamentalists of various kinds, and also misinterpreted by some scurrilous critics as a defense of perversity, failing to understand that anguish, death, and sex—in short, the human condition—constitute the underlying principles of this extremely interesting phase, which Arnau Puig, the exhibition’s curator, described as “critical realism”, explaining it as a salutary analytical reflection on social reality. Nothing could be more anti-erotic than those icy images that seek only to reveal a hypocritical society hiding its depravity behind good manners.
It is a markedly transgressive work which constituted too vigorous and bold a challenge for that period in Spain, utterly lacking in respect for freedom of expression. Nevertheless, a number of critics and intellectuals praised this unprecedented change of direction in Cuixart’s work as he turned forty. Indeed, the show at Galería Bonino in New York in 1964 had aroused such excitement that it had to be extended. It is also significant that one of these works was chosen in 1968 for the important group show The Art of Organic Forms at the Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC and that the bulk of this brief but intense and highly original series of works is in American collections.
The exhibition visit and the encounter with the work of this artist are enhanced by the profound poetic and symbolic power of his magnificent and very well-known work on paper, combined with the surreal expressiveness of his manipulated objects: three-dimensional configurations and assemblages.
The show presented here, which will include copious documentation as well as a screening of extracts from Fieschi’s film, brings together the best and most representative works produced by this artist during the period from 1955 to 1966, the true crux of his fascinating artistic career.
Image: Modest Cuixart, detail of Gran barroco [Large Baroque], 1959. Colección Fundación Juan March, Museo de Arte Abstracto Español, Cuenca. © Modest Cuixart, VEGAP, Madrid, 2021
Museo de Arte Abstracto Español
16001 Cuenca, Spain