Kerr Houston visits Guillermo Kuitca in his Studio
It’s Thanksgiving in Baltimore, but in Buenos Aires it’s merely a bright spring Thursday – and Guillermo Kuitca is in his Belgrano studio, experimenting with various hanging patterns for an upcoming gallery show of his work at Hauser & Wirth, in London.
Kuitca, who was born in 1961 and had his first solo show at the age of thirteen, has been one of Argentina’s best-known contemporary artists since his inclusion in the 1989 São Paulo Bienal. In the 1990s, he produced several works in which fragments of maps were superimposed upon beds, resulting in a potent juxtaposition of cartographic logic and implicitly absent bodies, and of public and private space.
Subsequent series of works featured architectural plans of theaters and floor plans, which he variously distorted, fragmented, and disintegrated. Beginning in 1994, he also began to produce his celebrated Diarios, discarded canvases given a second life as desktop surfaces in his studio, becoming rich palimpsests of random notes and doodlings while also suggesting a narrative driven by chance and temporary engagements. Since 2000, his work has developed in a variety of directions, ranging from laconic images of airport baggage conveyor belts to his first curated exhibition, for Fondation Cartier.
Kuitca is represented by Sperone Westwater and Hauser & Wirth, and his work has been shown at numerous museums, including MoMA and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, in Madrid; in 2007, he represented Argentina at the Venice Biennale. Between 2009 and 2011, a major survey of his work traveled to four American institutions, including the Hirshhorn, and in 2014 nearly fifty of his works were featured in a retrospective at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo.
On this late morning, we walked through his studio, looking at a number of recently completed works, and then sat down in a room whose walls he covered, several years ago, with a series of bold paintings. The murals, with their loosely Cubist aspect, naturally suggest certain associations (as Kuitca smilingly puts it, “You feel like Gertrude Stein by being here”), and quickly opened onto a conversation.
Your work generally suggests a really fluid, flexible command of art history, with references to Cubism, Futurism, Francis Bacon…
Yes, I hope so, and to [Joaquín] Torres-García; I mean, there’s a lot of Latin American Modernism, later Cubism, you know, which has spread continentally and through time…
So how do you see the relationship between the canon and your own practice?
I don’t. I mean, of course I see that relation as something that I totally inhabit; I see it as some kind of language. So I use the language, and try not to tell the same story. I never thought about Braque or Picasso when I was doing this, or Futurism, or Duchamp. You know, I don’t see quotes here; I see ghosts; maybe the only quote is when sometimes some of these shapes became a slash, and in their form you can recognize an allusion to [Lucio] Fontana – but I found that I had a right to use it without really asking for permission, nor for a justification. So it’s really a language for me… maybe a foreign language, but also a language in which I’m very fluent [laughs].
I have one other historical question. At several points in your works and series, you’ve referred to 18th-century sources: in Trauerspiel, in the l’Encylopédie series, in No Tomorrow…
Yeah, you’re right about that.
What is it about that era or that period that interests you?
Sometimes such references appear as titles; sometimes they came as sources, rather than as bodies of work, or really intellectual reflections. For instance, L’Encylopédie takes its title from [Diderot’s] L’Encylopédie, but within that it takes a tiny fraction of images which is the marble flooring plans, which are in total eight. Eight of those is nothing; it’s a particle within a gigantic project. And actually I like that; I explore those eight subjects a lot. So in a way it was going against its own…
Almost subverting the project?
Yeah. I think also it was a time when it was starting to be considered a richer period. Things change, and sometimes you have moments in history that feel erased. And the second half of the eighteenth century seems to be one of those moments. It’s one of those things where you say, This is quite something.
I’m astonished at the complexity of that period – for example, in the art criticism that took shape at that moment.
Yeah. In a way, I felt an immediate attraction to jump two centuries without the conceiving the idea of modern art as part of the equation. Of course what I do is contemporary art, and that’s a fact – that’s the age I live in – but in a way, echoing that is a chance to make a leap of time that is not necessarily tackling modernism. So maybe there was that attraction, and maybe I just happened to find, here and there, subjects that I got interested in…
Over the years, you’ve articulated what I might call a productive ambivalence towards painting. How would you characterize your view of the medium, or the activity, these days?
Well, you put it very well; it’s an ambivalence. To start with, I cannot participate in the death of painting; that doesn’t interest me, and I don’t think I have much to add to that. When I started to paint, painting was already dead, so I had no participation in that process. I don’t know; I just saw [Alberto Burri:] The Trauma of Painting, at the Guggenheim. I thought the title was heavy-handed, but there is some truth to it, and I found that if you were working in 1945, maybe you were in a moment in which it would be – not in your hands, but in your Zeitgeist, what to do with that. I don’t think we’re there today.
In your own practice, do you still enjoy what you’ve termed the resistance of painting?
Yes, I do; paintings are quite resistant. I try to isolate the particle that makes painting so resistant, and that particle for me has to do with privacy. I think it’s privacy, the pictorial measure. By saying that, I mean that by looking at a painting we don’t participate in a common view – which is not the same, we could say, with a film, or with photography. Of course a film or a photograph means different things to every viewer, and that goes for any art, but still there is some evidence that what we are looking at is the same. In painting, that certainty doesn’t exist. I think we definitely feel pretty lonely and alone in front of paintings, and that cannot be solved, but also cannot be interrupted, so in a way it’s a very powerful tool. It’s a wicked side, because obviously in this world we want to be all looking at the same things, but on the other hand there are very few things that we can look at with our own eyes, and no other eyes. And I think painting is probably the only realm that is capable of that.
I think of music when you say that: headphones on, immersed in our cocoons of sound.
Yeah, but, see, there is an objectivity in music, which is written – or, even if it’s improvisation, it comes from notes. Actually, I think that music is a private and totally immersive experience, if you want it to be (and cinema could be the ultimate immersive experience: you have to be in the darkness to make it happen). But put two persons in front of a painting (that’s just a very silly example) and I’ve found that I have no idea… not what the other person has in mind, because that goes for everything, I have no what the other person is looking at.
So with music, I would say, I don’t how this music is affecting, but I think there is a common ground. I thought that painting has no common ground. I’m pretty convinced of that, I’m not so sure where that’s coming from, whether because brushstrokes are ultimately so, so, so subjective that it’s hard to make that into an annotation, or into some possible objectivity. And of course sculpture cannot achieve that because it’s a three-dimensional object, it’s a presence, so your body – still, I don’t know what you’re saying, or thinking, or what’s happening in your head, but I know that this presence in between us is probably the same size for you as for me. It has some equivalent…
We’re suddenly back in the 18th century, with Lessing arguing about the relationship between sculpture and painting.
Maybe I did a long detour just simply to say that through the years I tried to reduce – or not reduce, maybe that’s not the right word – to break the pictorial problem into what I still think could be true to me. Otherwise, all the stories surrounding the validity of painting, they always jump into market, fashion – things that are undeniable, but I don’t have to think in those terms. You know, I don’t have to think in terms of market to paint. I’m not obliged to do that.
You used the term immersion a minute ago. That word can mean so many different things nowadays: digital, virtual realities, a lack of critical distance, a sort of entry into a new sphere. How do you understand it, or what do you mean by it?
Most of the time I’m using immerse, because I’ve found that maybe when I started to create these paintings on four walls or four sides, I found that immersion would be possible, with these paintings that you could enter. Most of the time I think about that, without further implications. Of course, in that sense I understand painters in the Fifties understood much earlier and better than I that the size of the painting can imply an immersive vision – you know, the world of Barnett Newman or Rothko – so I don’t think I’m applying immersion in terms of the body in front of the painting. I still think painting is quite an immersive experience, but I think I start to talk about that more in relation to the fact that I start to paint these pictorial capsules, and therefore you enter the painting…
I wanted to ask about maps and plans, which have been such consistent motifs in your work, in relation to changing digital technologies. You mentioned this downstairs: how we swipe maps, how we find ourselves mapped digitally. Has your thinking about maps and plans changed over the thirty years over which you’ve been producing variations?
Well, it did change, certainly; the mapping situation changed so much since the Internet. When I started, the maps were before that and somehow I was doing maps more for the idea of getting lost rather than a device to know where you were. They were really maps that told you where you were not, rather than where you are… But going back to that, I found that it was just a pure, specific material to walk through without being either a complete abstract work nor a representation. They’re definitely not abstraction, but on the other hand they’re not representative.
So they go through a line of things which I found so attractive to paint, to use as a pictorial material. And I never felt a hundred percent comfortable then to be an abstract painter. Now I am, or I love being an abstract painter (though my work now is less abstract than before: it doesn’t matter). I was looking for material that allowed me to walk this line, which was neither one way or the other. I did find also that quality in genealogical charts, and in other sorts of charts, but then they started to become more representational, because they look like I took a chart and I painted that. But maps and architectural plans, since they are so vast – it’s basically infinite…
I’m interested in how they’ve become more abstract since the advent of the Internet. Now we map behaviors, social connections…
Everything, yeah. Well, mapping is not as new as, it’s not invented by, the Internet. There’s a lot of material about graphic representation, and there was really good material. Maybe now it just became more accessible. But the architectural plan is a way to map the world, and maps are a way to map the world, and they’re pretty ancient [laughs].
I’m not so sure if the appearance of the Internet made my work shift into… for instance, theaters were before and after, and they didn’t change – but the Internet did expand the database of what I had. Mapping is a little bit different, because somehow I was not working with maps then, and when maps appeared again, they didn’t have that quality, and – who knows? Maybe it was a process that happened within my own painting, maybe it was the fact that maps are such a banal presence in our life that it became a little pointless to use it. I’m not so sure.
I do think that not only the Internet, but also the devices, more than then Internet, make a big change in my tables [Diarios], because in the past my tables were a diary, and the diary often included a lot of information like telephone numbers, addresses, e-mail addresses, you know, money, accounts, and there were times when I had to look back to a specific table because I knew what I had written there, today it’s very unlikely we have to write anything because everything gets stored immediately without really passing through our hands. So in a way if you see the Diaries that I produced maybe in the last fifteen years, they’re less and less about written information and more about color proofs, doodlings, abstract shapes…
Right. The nature of the archive changes.
Yeah. And they don’t contain any more words. I still do lists of titles, as I always see myself into trouble when I search for a title, and sometimes if I do a list with my hand I connect somehow with the thought – but, but that’s it. All the rest goes, as with all of us, straight to the phone, and that’s never printed [laughs]. So the process of the work was not affected. What it did affect was maybe the material involved the process. I mean, the process of the work is exactly the same.
I just have a few more questions. I was fascinated to learn that you’ve been a teacher through much of your career, both in a formal school setting and through the studio program that you founded. What was your teaching philosophy, or how do you see yourself as a teacher?
In many ways… I was teaching when I was very very young, because that’s what you do until you sell your own work, but that was a long time ago. Then I stopped teaching, and in ’91 I created this studio program, which was a great thing to me – one of the best things that happened to me as an artist, because I – I mean, I enjoy working with other artists, and somehow this studio program was a gathering of artists.
The reason why I created that program had I think many sources – one, because I had a very conflicted relation with showing in Argentina. (I was not showing, I still don’t show at all here, but I live here, I live and produce my work here, so it was hard to find ways to connect with the community here. So my connection was as an artist, and I think my presence as an artist is by being a teacher.
On the other side, I, as with most of the artists I know, was sometimes invited as a visiting artist or a visiting faculty member to studio programs, and you visit some artists, generally they’re post-graduates, and most of the time they’re good, and they’re struggling with so many things to which you can relate – and, to be frank, it’s not so difficult for a trained artist to see the work of an artist, and say, Why don’t you try this, and that? – regardless of whether you are being any help at all… But I found that so touristic. I don’t think it’s superficial, because what you’re saying is meant to be as serious and as deep as possible, but it felt touristic. Again, I have nothing against tourism, but I think that education is something different.
So I think my philosophy is… it’s a big word, but it has to do a little bit with this. I tried to make this visiting time much, much longer, so it happens that the visits go not once in a lifetime but twice in a week, which means that I happen to know these artists very well after a year. That doesn’t mean that we became friends; we know each other, and they know me. And I think my goal is not to see a work from… you know, most art education is based [in the idea that] I am the artist, and I know you’re having problems; I, the teacher, am trying to help you. And I tried to reverse that in the sense that I wanted to be also the one who doesn’t see the work.
I want to be the one who doesn’t understand as much as you don’t. But that takes a lot of time. I found that my goal would be to bring some peace, if you want, some help, by being able to share what we both don’t see, what we both don’t understand… But it’s been a very successful story; I’m a much more successful teacher than painter, I have to say [laughs]. Like, I don’t see much of gestures of myself in other artists that I work with, but the opposite: I feel completely inhabited by things I’ve been working with. So in a way you end up destroying your life [laughs]. I don’t do it every year, because I find it very tiring, and it’s very time-consuming, but it was a process that is engaging, that has consequences, that has consequences in your own work.
It seems to me that you’ve managed consistently to craft a career on your own terms: developing your own studio program, refusing to move to a more conventional center of contemporary art… I wonder if you have any advice or thoughts for young or emerging artists, in that sense?
Well, I’ve found a lot of frustration in artists that are around the world by thinking that because they don’t live in New York – and that’s not only in Latin America; you know, sometimes you go and visit a school in Houston, and they say, How are you going to ever make it to New York? Normally, you tend to advise: Just don’t, and keep doing what you do. But it’s hard to say, because it’s not that easy. That happens, you know, with some artists. But that’s all based on talent, I think.
So it’s not based on strategy, it’s not based on movement. But this is a perspective really from South America, and I know that that would be considered very naïve in the United States. And I’m not so sure who is right in this discussion. I know that people in New York have this really clear idea of how a career has to be strategized and established, and of course which schools are the ones that will rule, and after that which galleries, and blah blah blah. I didn’t have the chance to strategize my career at all, so whatever was an opportunity, I took it, and that’s pretty much where I think we are still, at least in Argentina – maybe Brazil has a better system of galleries and schools and collections in the country that allows the artist to say no to something. I don’t think artists in Argentina say no to anything. And that’s not great advice. I mean, you make a lot of mistakes by saying yes to everything – then, you’re going to erase your past and your talent. But you know, I think it’s heartbreaking to say you have no chance, unless you do this. It’s unfair; it’s not heartbreaking, it’s unfair. And who knows?
I was pretty much against the idea to move to New York or Europe when I was very young. It was pretty much pre-established that I would end up living there, and though there were a lot of older Latin American artists that had a presence, I think I’m part of the first Latin American generation that said, We will try to have international visibility or exposure, but we don’t have to be in New York.
You mentioned the upcoming show in London. Are there any other projects or directions that you’re excited about in the near future?
I mean, I’m most focused on the London show, because it’s coming, and I’m still struggling with the work. But, yes, there are some sketches of exhibitions [laughs], but not as defined as this one, with the date and the catalog and everything… I think we will be seeing changes in the gallery scene as much as we saw maybe in the past in the institutional field. There is also more concern about the cost of moving paintings: you know, you take for granted that people will be happy to loan their works, but there is some reluctance to lend works.
Maybe we will have to generate new formats, or maybe more segmentary exhibitions, or smaller shows. But it’s something that I’ve found more and more as a preoccupation, that I hear around me, and ultimately will be my own. I mean, I understand why – it seems like the prices of insurance and transportation are higher, and museums have less funds, and… of course, I do understand that, but there seems to be some kind of paranoia about what will be the future of art that has to travel physically.
Or we sit in a space like this.
Yes [laughs]. I will keep doing murals so people will travel to see the art, and not the other way around.
(This interview has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.)
Author Kerr Houston teaches art history and art criticism at MICA; he is also the author of An Introduction to Art Criticism (Pearson, 2013) and recent essays on Wafaa Bilal, Emily Jacir, and Candice Breitz.