Any­one who vis­ited the show no­ticed it started with ab­strac­tion and ended with it; be­cause Raúl was a con­sis­tent ab­stract painter.


I, Publio. Con­fes­sions by Raúl Martínez was the ti­tle of the me­moirs of this Cuban artist, who was awarded the Fine Arts Na­tional Award in 1994 for his life achieve­ments. Al­le­gretto cantabile was the name of his retrospective ex­hib­ited from Novem­ber 2017 to Fe­bru­ary 2018 at the Wifredo Lam Con­tem­po­rary Art Cen­ter in Ha­vana, to cel­e­brate the 90th an­niver­sary of his birth (1927). And we could re­name this show I, ab­stract.

Chrono­log­i­cally and pro­gres­sively struc­tured and cu­rated by Co­rina Mata­moros, Gabriela Hernán­dez and Ros­sana Bouza, the show cov­ered pe­ri­ods or mile­stones through 45 works be­long­ing to the col­lec­tions of the Fine Arts Mu­seum – for the most part –, the Na­tional Coun­cil for Visual Arts, the Coun­cil of State of the Repub­lic of Cuba and Abe­lardo Es­torino.

Any­one who vis­ited the show no­ticed it started with ab­strac­tion and ended with it; be­cause Raúl was a con­sis­tent ab­stract painter. In the first room, the viewer could see ab­stract col­lages, ink and oil paint­ings from the 1950s, and even no­tice some rec­tan­gu­lar shapes, more or less lyric, more or less geo­met­ric.

In the se­cond hall – cor­re­spond­ing to the 1960s – one could find pic­to­rial and ges­tu­ral ab­strac­tions with added ma­te­ri­als and texts that could be as­so­ci­ated with Rauschen­berg's com­bine–paint­ings. You could per­ceive the rec­tan­gles wanted to talk, to com­mu­ni­cate with words (few, but enough, like in good old graphic de­sign).

You could also no­tice a tran­si­tion to fig­u­ra­tion. The face of Martí would be re­peated, mark­ing the be­gin­ning of his se­ries with Cuban his­toric fig­ures, a list­less vari­a­tion of Warhol's pop. Martí would be in­side each rectangle. But, would the viewer dis­tin­guish that it wasn't an empty or learned geo­met­ric fig­ure any­more but full of im­agery in­stead? It hosted an icon that car­ried a mon­u­men­tal sym­bolic value, higher than a thou­sand well–worn words.

The public could also note that Raúl's fig­u­ra­tion – this time in the com­pany of Mario Gar­cia Joya – reached the do­main of pho­tog­ra­phy. It ob­vi­ously did so in ¿Foto – men­tira!, which some peo­ple sim­ply con­sider a se­ries; though it is rather con­sis­tent with the con­cept of pho­to­graphic es­say: that is to say, a group of pho­to­graphic im­ages where syn­the­sis, plot, se­quence and tech­nique con­verge.

Raúl and Mario wanted to sub­vert or ques­tion the ve­rac­ity of pho­tog­ra­phy as an ac­cu­rate doc­u­ment of re­al­ity. They ma­nip­u­lated the typ­i­cal rec­tan­gu­lar com­po­si­tion of the frame, ex­pos­ing dif­fer­ent an­gles or points of view of the same scene. Maybe they wanted to ex­press that the no­tion or un­der­stand­ing of re­al­ity is ab­stract? In any case, the public was able to see that the cen­ters of in­ter­est were, at least, pro­saic; that there were other ar­eas of re­al­ity, dif­fer­ent from the ones ap­proached by the epic pho­tog­ra­phy of the time.

In the third small room – also from the 1960s – the viewer wit­nessed a con­test, an ar­gu­ment. The var­i­ous faces of Martí con­versed with the dif­fer­ent, “anony­mous” faces of other chil­dren of our Home­land. In one of the rec­tan­gles, one could rec­og­nize Raúl Martínez, as among equals, in­te­grated into the peo­ple, into the masses. It is an essence ab­stracted in the con­cep­tual but also for­mal level, since the artist started from pho­to­graphic ref­er­ences.

It was an ab­strac­tion with a dou­ble mean­ing, to which Raúl kept com­ing back to in­ter­pret the hu­man and so­cial land­scape. And so comes 1970, the year of a utopia: the ten mil­lion ton su­gar har­vest. “We can make it, we can!”– was re­peated of­fi­cially, in the mid­dle of a wide­spread revo­lu­tion­ary spirit; and fi­nally, we… couldn't. The paint­ing Nosotros (Us) is from that time, with phys­iog­nomies of var­i­ous ex­pres­sions: smil­ing, se­ri­ous, pen­sive. From that same year are the tem­peras that Raúl made of each one of The Bea­tles, when their mu­sic was clan­des­tinely lis­tened to in Cuba since it was con­sid­ered ide­o­log­i­cal di­ver­sion; or not po­lit­i­cally cor­rect, as we would have said to­day. But that is no longer nec­es­sary.

The public prob­a­bly no­ticed a chrono­logic gap in the ex­hi­bi­tion un­til 1976, right when the Grey Quin­quen­nium ended – which in­tel­lec­tu­ally con­fined artists like Raúl him­self – and the Min­istry of Cul­ture and the Higher In­sti­tute of Arts were cre­ated. In the same room, the col­lec­tive por­traits smiled up un­til the

80s. Choral eu­pho­ria, in­di­vid­ual and col­lec­tive well­be­ing was also ex­pressed in the mu­si­cal ti­tle of the pieces Al­le­gretto cantabile and Te doy una can­cion (I give you a song), ex­hib­ited in the next room, cor­re­spond­ing to the 1990s.

And then we get to the Spe­cial Pe­riod. Here, be­tween col­lages of the se­ries Oh, Amer­ica and char­coal sketches from the fi­nal years of Raúl's life (1994 – 1995), the public could ad­mire an ab­stract paint­ing that closed the room and the ex­hi­bi­tion: Atarde­cer en la Isla (Sun­set on the Is­land) (1994), in which two rec­tan­gles seem to in­ter­sect in the shape of a cross and then fade.

At the end of his life and dur­ing times of restora­tion of the aes­thetic par­a­digm, of the en­light­ened metaphor, Raúl went back to ab­strac­tion. Like the ouroboros, eat­ing his own tail, he came re­turned to the trend that po­si­tioned him amongst the avant– garde of Cuban art; that had al­lowed him to ex­press an aes­thetic, artis­tic and so­cial re­bel­lion; and that had con­nected Cuba with the in­ter­na­tional main­stream: a cur­rent that comes and goes, or is re­cy­cled, like a dia­lec­tic river. ƒ

Azul, ca. 1954 Oil on ma­sonite 47½ x 34 in

Va­radero, 1964

Oil, col­lage, metal on ma­sonite 47 x 62½ in

Photos: Fer­nando Fors Courtesy Cen­tro Wifredo Lam

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