“Painting is a very difficult thing. It absorbs the whole man, body and soul – thus I have passed blindly many things which belong to real and political life.” – Max Beckmann, 1948
“Los novedosos apedrean a los originales.” – Antonio Machado, Juan de Mairena, 1936
In the 1970s – the decade of Watergate, sitcoms and the end of the radical hopes of the 1960s – art critics and a few museum curators, in their advocacy of both minimalism and conceptualism, declared painting dead. In the 1920s a number of Dadaists in Europe, reacting to the disaster of World War I, made similar declarations. One thinks of Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra saying the same of God. These hollow cries of desperation, about God, and painting, are expressions of cultural crises that have occurred, and will continue to occur as long as humanity walks the earth. What I find to be an extraordinary phenomenon is its opposite; despite everything humans continue to wrestle with God, not just as an “idea” but as a calling, demanding a way of life and action. So, too, with painting and poetry. Theodor Adorno stated that it was impossible to write poetry after the concentration camps. And yet poets wrote because of, and in spite of the concentration camps. I believe that painting has more in common with poetry than any other art form. Both require tradition and rigor, as well as knowledge of craft and maturity. In order to transcend the merely technical, however they also require mystery; the ineffable, an open-ended adventure. During the latter half of the previous century and the first two decades of the current one, a handful of men and women have continued to question the tradition of painting, thus forging the expansion of the painterly language. These painters are abstract and figurative, and they have developed out of diverse artistic family trees. To me, their commonality resides in an almost ontological understanding and commitment to painting, in and of itself. Within this lies a paradoxical connection and understanding of tradition; as something to continue and question, to learn from and parody. Of painting as “a very difficult thing,” which is not a career, but a vocation. A vocation to be lived with originality grounded in tradition, and contemptuous of novelty.
Arturo Rodríguez is a Cuban-born, contemporary American painter. As such, he wrestles with the issues of painting in our moment: figuration versus abstraction, poetic versus literal, painterliness versus linear, etc. The history and tradition of painting, European and beyond, is for Rodríguez a corpus that teaches, sets standards and challenges. Integrated with life and nature, it is something to absorb and transform, not reject. Rooted in the experience of exile but not limited by it, this has fed his vision from the outside, from the margins and underbelly of reality. Whether painting a madwoman, exiles or a deposition (after Caravaggio), Rodríguez’ endows his figures with a freshness, a concreteness that is difficult to put into words. His art does not fit into bland categories or neat boxes. On the contrary, he is closer to highly individual and dogged painters, like Beckmann and Soutine, Bonnard or Auerbach – artists grounded in the real, while not entrapped by realism, and very much in love with painting as a material that can be stretched to its maximum expressive abilities, without gimmicks and mannerisms.
Many years ago the late art critic Robert Hughes wrote that in art “there are no ‘advances,’ only alterations of meaning, fluctuations of intensity and quality.”[i] Rodríguez’ painting “does not advance,” instead it is a marvel of quality and intensity, which constructs meanings – where the human comedies and tragedies are captured on the thousands of paper and canvas surfaces that his brush and crayon have filled.
Arturo Rodríguez is clear in his aim; to make “a work of art trying to free itself from cultural, racial, political boundaries, to be able to include and exclude any influences that deny the universal vision of man.”[ii]
Within this context of painting in our time, I will explore his work.
I first encountered the work of Arturo Rodríguez through reproduction; it was an issue of Art in America which contained an article on contemporary Cuban-American art in Miami.[iii] The article reproduced in full color the painting Los bobos (The Fools), an oil on canvas from 1986. A number of things stood out from this reproduction: it was a painting engaged with issues of painting, it was figuration that fused realist and expressionist elements, it evoked a sense of humor. The author of the article wrote that Rodríguez’ work “exceeds in sheer human poetry anything else I saw in Miami.”[iv] Not too long after this article I saw one or two of Rodríguez’ paintings at the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art (MoCHA) in Soho, New York. They were multi-figure compositions, possessed open ended narratives, and were about color and texture, organically articulated drawing, dynamic compositions.
Since first writing about his work in 2000,[v] I have had the privilege of following and studying his work, continuing to write about it, and most significantly spending time in his studio, conversing and seeing him work. As I have written elsewhere, he is a painter with a capital P, committed to unabashed painting.
Arturo Enrique Rodríguez Velázquez was born at 3:00 am on February 6th, 1956 in the town of Ranchuelo, province of Las Villas, Cuba. His parents were Arturo Rodríguez, an accountant, and Aida Velázquez, a teacher. His only sister, Elena, was born five years earlier.[vi] Of his childhood Arturo recalls “I was always drawing. Interested in comics, postcards and illustration. I collected and traded postcards, “postalitas” of Goliath, Zorro, William Tell, etc. I was obsessive with them.”[vii] When Rodríguez was around seven years old, his father’s sister, Silvia, gave him art books, brushes and paints. She had studied painting at the San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts in Havana, and taught geography at the local school in Ranchuelo. Due to Cuba’s shortage of art supplies, Silvia rationed the supplies she had left to give to Arturo. This is when he started painting and reading about art.[viii] The other major visual influence on the young Arturo was cinema. His maternal grandfather, Enrique Velázquez owned the only cinema in Ranchuelo, where a single movie would be shown for an entire week.[ix] “After 1959 the movies became more interesting: Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman, etc. I went all week to see the film. The narration and way of presenting things was a big influence on me”, Rodríguez recalls.[x] Although the family visited Havana, he did not have an opportunity to visit the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes there. But he remembers visiting a friend of the family: “We visited a friend of my uncle’s who had a collection of Cuban painting. That is where I saw the first Portocarrero’s and the first Carlos Enríquez’. When no one told me what they were, I asked because I liked them a lot, especially Carlos Enríquez. It was the first encounter I had. They were drawings, rather small.[xi]
Also at the age of 7, after an encounter with a bully, Rodríguez began to take Judo and Karate lessons. He would continue to practice Karate until the late 1970s, when he stopped, so as not to hurt his hands.[xii]Throughout the early 1960s, as Rodríguez was living his childhood, the 1959 Cuban Revolution quickly morphed into a totalitarian regime allied with the Soviet Union. The initial promise of democracy and social justice was not to be. Rodríguez’ maternal grandfather’s modest businesses were confiscated by the government. The family realized that exile was the only option; “I left Cuba when I was 14 years old. I missed reaching my 15th birthday by a week. After turning 15 I would not have been able to leave Cuba, because the military service began when you became exactly 15 years old.”[xiii]
When the family arrived in Madrid, they had the typical shock and readjustment of new exiles. They stayed in Madrid for a few days before going on to Asturias, where Arturo’s maternal grandfather was from. During those first few days in Madrid, Arturo asked one of his Spanish great aunts to take him to the Prado Museum, which she did. Once there, he asked a guard where were Goya’s Black paintings and he went to see them.[xiv] He was aware of the paintings via books while in Cuba, but of course seeing the originals was an extraordinary and revealing experience. When he would return to Madrid much later the Prado Museum would be a place he visited constantly. I would argue that the Prado served Arturo as a school, the most influential in his apprenticeship. He would spend hours studying paintings, making sketches, and seeing copyists at work in the galleries. And he would absorb lessons from all of them; the Flemish painters as well as Titian and the Venetians, and the Spanish school, where Velázquez and Goya were particularly important to his development.
The family settled in the village of Cornellana, Asturias, which was small and somewhat isolated, living there for almost a year. Arturo was able to get some art supplies, and painted some landscapes on site as well as from his imagination.[xv] Eventually Arturo and his family moved to Madrid, where they lived for a year and a half before relocating to Miami, where two brothers of his mother had settled. In Madrid Arturo worked as a helper in a tavern for six months until he was fired, he also handed out leaflets for businesses in street corners.[xvi] But the most important thing was the museums: “I started to go to museums as much as I could. I began to see many copyists in the galleries at the Prado. It was a good experience, because I would ask them a lot of questions. I would pay attention to the colors that they used, how they were painting the backgrounds, and what materials they were using. This was a great teaching experience for me. And from this I developed the habit of seeing the paintings directly. For me this is essential up to the present day.”[xvii]
In 1974 the family migrated to Miami and these were difficult and troublesome years for Arturo. The artist recalls that “after getting used to the vibrant cultural environment of Madrid, I found myself in a culturally barren city, and I did not know the English language. I felt isolated and misunderstood by almost everybody. My few friends were also young men who felt alienated. But this is the time when I began to discover great music, blues and jazz, which has become a life-long passion and influence. I did not have money to purchase music, so I stole a few records and was sent to jail briefly a couple of times. After I graduated with a high school diploma from Miami High Adult Education Center in 1975, I briefly studied drawing at Miami Dade County College. These were difficult years; I was getting into trouble and drinking a lot. Felt more displaced than ever, but kept on reading, and painting and drawing as much as I could.”[xviii]
In 1977-1978 Arturo Rodríguez painted a number of pictures that are the earliest examples of his own visual vocabulary. These works share fragmented compositions, single or multiple figures with body parts in bones projecting dramatically throughout the surface. Faces and extremities are distorted, and the subjects and their titles evoke a pained, expressionist ethos, and overall they have a linear, less painterly quality. Notable works from this period are Celine, Prostitute (both from 1977), the eight panel The Prisoner, Fall of Icarus on 32 NW Street, Senior Citizen, and his first homage/visual conversation with Caravaggio, Martyrdom of St. Matthew/Boniato, after Caravaggio (all from 1978). Technically these works range from acrylic on paper, to mixed mediums on cardboard, and oil on canvas.
Prostitute depicts a figure against flat sections of black, yellow ochre and olive green. The figure stands holding a purse in one arm, as if she is “walking and working” the streets. Tight orange lines project from the upper torso to the top edges of the canvas, evoking either a puppet-like quality or the violence of life pulling away at the body. The body, which is partially nude and skeletal, is painted in neutral flesh and earth tones with touches of white for the bone shapes. One arm and the face gesticulate. This adds to the sense of marginality and dislocation; elements which would be constant throughout Rodríguez’ work.
Caravaggio’s paintings – it’s blunt realism, and dramatic compositions – has affected Arturo’s work throughout. Rodríguez’ Martyrdom of St. Matthew/Boniato, after Caravaggio employs and transforms the multi figures of the original composition. Although the martyred saint remains in the center of the painting, automatic guns are the weapons of death in the hands of three figures. A flat background of gray, black and yellow ochre defines the architectural space, which pushes towards the foreground the three-dimensionally defined figures, which are falling, running, and killing. The inclusion of the word Boniato in the title makes reference to a massacre that took place on September 1, 1975, in a prison of the same name, in the province of Oriente, Cuba. This political explicitness is rare in Rodríguez’ pictures.[xix] Expressions of fear or brutality inhabit the faces of the eleven figures in the composition.[xx] Like the original painting by the Italian painter, it is a complex composition filled with movement and violence; it is also for an artist as young as Arturo, an ambitious homage.
Rolando López Dirube (1928-1997), at a bar in Madrid, 1979:
“Siempre trata de matar al Buda cuando pintes, y si no funciona siempre tenemos los moriles.” (Always try to kill the Buddha when you Paint, if it does not work, we always have the moriles wine)
Rodriguez’ life in Miami continued to be difficult, lacking in focus other than his art. He needed to get out of this rut and leave the city. A close friend, the journalist Ramón Mestre, brought Arturo’s talent and potential to the attention of writer and publisher Carlos Alberto Montaner. The writer purchased two paintings by the artist, hired him and took him to Spain, to work as an illustrator for his publishing house.[xxi] Under the signature “Heronimus Fromm,” Rodriguez would illustrate a series of twenty children’s books for FIRMA Press, ranging from The Odyssey to Don Quixote and Treasure Island and everything in between.[xxii] Arturo Rodríguez arrived in Madrid on November 6th, 1978; he would live and work there through October 1979.[xxiii] His stay did not begin on an auspicious note; in December 1978 he had an altercation with three Spanish soldiers; and they broke his jaw. He had to have surgery and it took him over a month to recuperate. And yet these eleven months in Madrid were an extraordinary time in his apprenticeship; not only was the Prado and other museums once again places of learning for the artist, but it was the overall cultural environment. “I met many people, especially writers and painters. Painters like Ramón Alejandro, the sculptor Rolando López Dirube, poets like Gastón Baquero and Pío Serrano. PLAYOR (Montaner’s publishing house) was like a center for Cuban intellectuals, where anyone that passed through Madrid would come by to meet and exchange ideas.”[xxiv]
In the daytime Rodríguez drew the illustrations for the children’s books, and at night he focused on his own work. Over the years, his work as an illustrator, not just in the series of children’s books, but in other projects (literary magazines, book and cd covers), has enriched his draftsmanship and compositional skills with a practicality and inventiveness that has grown and matured throughout his pictorial production.
In this period he produced a series of color ink drawings on paper entitled Dreamfields. Consisting of 28 pieces measuring 12 x 9 inches, the compositions are filled with heads and figures. Some of these are repeated in a Pop art-like pattern but it is the intensity of the lines, which gives them and exquisite quality. The overall palette is of washes of blues, pinks and oranges. The artist has defined this series as “explorations of landscape as dreamscape or fields of memory.”[xxv] It is interesting that the “landscape” consists of the human body, also that the artist will continue to work in “series” for the rest of his career; this will provide a structure for in-depth variations of a theme. In June 1979, the series was exhibited in Trocha, a cultural space in Madrid.[xxvi]
Back in Miami in November 1979, Arturo found the environment “as barren as ever. At that time there were only three galleries: “Forma” which was run by Marta Gutierrez and Dora Valdéz-Fauli; “Meeting Point” under the direction of Carlos M. Luis; and “Barbara Gillman.” And only two museums: The Bass Museum and the Lowe Museum at the University of Miami.”[xxvii] Behind him was almost a year of living and working in Madrid in a rich cultural environment, where he had deepened his experience and knowledge of painting at the Prado and other museums.
Serial works have anchored Arturo Rodríguez’ production from the very beginning; “Throughout the years, I have worked on different painting series: Madhouse, Exiles, Survivors, The Floating Self, Ghost Archipelago, etc. This helps me focus my ideas. It is like a composer or film director – there is always a stylistic trajectory in all of the paintings, but the approaches change as you paint them, since I do not like to follow any formula, this way I take risks with the subsequent failures and sometimes, the successes.”[xxviii]
Throughout these series over the years, the human figure has been the central subject, while avoiding the literal or the illustrative. In his compositions, humor and compassion balance the suffering and disorientation of his personages.
Since 1978 Rodríguez has produced some thirty series, ranging from Dreamfields to the more recent Arcimboldo’s Ghost’s (2016-2019), although the majority of them are oil on canvas, parts of series are watercolors, which for the artist is another significant painting medium. Throughout the 1980s some of the most significant series were Madhouse (1981-1982, consisting of paintings, drawings and mixed media, it represents portraits of the mentally ill, drawn from life after he visited clinics as well as from the imagination, but also what the artist perceived as the state of mind of the world, as well as his; Exiles (1983), which is both watercolors and oil paintings, reflects Arturo’s own exile experience and its environment; while the paintings of The Floating Self (1989), used self-portraiture as a departure point for the compositions. The 1990s was a very fertile period with the series The Tempest (1998), inspired by Giorgione’s iconic work; Seguirillas (1999), which emerged out of the painter’s obsession with flamenco music; and Ghost Archipelago (1999-2000), one of his most poetic and evocative series, which weaves the past as visual memories that are our spiritual roots. In this decade, the trauma of the artist’s wife successful battle with breast cancer was reflected in a series of collages simple titled Demi (1993). She has been a constant subject of portraiture for him since they first met right through the present, starting with his first portrait of her, Retrato de Demi (1980), which the subject disliked at first.[xxix] He has painted her singly, in double portraits with himself, and integrated into multi-figure compositions. For Rodríguez she is “my constant muse and subject.”[xxx]
Since the beginning of the twenty-first century more series have continued to come forth Rodríguez’ brush. Illuminations (2002) consist of rhomboid shaped paintings and drawings inspired by Rimbaud’s poems; The Human Comedy (2006) revises the tradition of portraiture, with both real and imaginary sitters, by fusing elements of caricature that also function as formal devices; in both Arrivals and Departures and Passengers (2009-2010) he limits his palette to grays and tans, and using mostly airports and train stations as subjects, explores where are we going and why, and the tension and apathy of waiting. These are just a few of the series he has worked on.
Rafael Soriano (1920-2015), in 2011:
“La pintura es un regalo de Dios.” (Painting is a gift from God)
The Caravaggio Project like the earlier The Tempest was inspired by the work of a predecessor in the history of European painting. Begun in 2008 and worked on through 2014, while still re-working some paintings in 2018, it consists of oils on canvas, watercolors and acrylic and collage works. With the aid of extreme stylization of shapes and elements of caricature, Arturo transforms Caravaggio’s work into his own mode of expression. But this not parody, it is a homage and visual conversation, as he retains the powerful sense of drama, mystery and religiosity of the Baroque painter. “The Caravaggio Project has to do with the subject of art and my own view on the nature of art, especially in a painter like Caravaggio, who has been such an important influence throughout the years in my work . . . it also reflects a very emotional way of painting,” he has stated.[xxxi] The emotional power in this particular series resides in that the subjects are all religious, that when Caravaggio painted the works the belief system reflected in them was grounded in the society of his time, while today as Rodríguez reinvents them, we live in a secular society disconnected from an authentic religious/spiritual view. Although Rodríguez does not consider himself particularly religious, he respects the mystery, the deep meaning of it, and is open to reflecting the conceptual and visual paradox in a painterly language. Perhaps what I have always intuited in his work: a search for meaning, a hunger of God, is reflected in the intensity of these pictures.
Returning to Arrivals and Departures, these pictures range in scale from small (9×12 inches) to monumental (46×72, 54×86 inches, etc.). The tenor of the palette is melancholic; rich whites interact with blueish grays, greenish ochres and soft pinks. A powdery blue, and what I can only define as “Turner like” yellows disrupts at times the somber and anxious contemplation of these pictures. The drawing is direct, almost simple, capturing the figures (men and women of all ages, children) alone, waiting, embracing another, or in groups that still are, somehow, alone. They are in airports, train stations, escalators, waiting areas, parking lots. Where are they coming from and where are they going? In this series Arturo is at his coolest and most detached, and yet able to capture the listlessness, the longing of existence. Skies in the day and at night appear throughout these paintings, and they are complex passages of almost pure, abstract painting – they are both beautiful and frightening. A while back I wrote that the painterliness and emotional depth of these works gave off a “family resemblance” with late Corot and Morandi, I must add Edward Hopper. In all three and in Rodríguez’, light is the element which plays with complex coloristic structures and holds together the compositions. It is light that reveals both clarity and distance, unveiling the sadness of the world.
In the series of drawings, paintings, and book[xxxii] The School of Night (2013-2015), Rodríguez explored the world of his studio and home at night, reflecting his insomnia. The familiar objects become unfamiliar, the masks, the books and furniture acquire different dimensions and textures. The silence of night surrounds the artist and is projected unto the viewer, as the visual spaces shift from hallucination to mystery, and back to reality.
[i] Robert Hughes, Frank Auerbach (London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1990), p. 11.
[ii] Arturo Rodríguez, email to the author, dated August 20, 2019.
[iii] Peter Plagens, “Report from Florida,” Art in America, November 1986, pp. 27-39. The article reproduced in full color his first version of the painting Los bobos (The Fools).
[iv] Ibid, p. 37. In the article Plagens admits his preference for a minimal aesthetic, yet responding to Rodríguez’ more “baroque” and figurative paintings due to its poetic quality.
[v] An essay for his exhibition Ghost Archipelago at the Elite Fine Art Gallery in Coral Gables, April 7-28, 2000.
[vi] Arturo Rodríguez, Response to questionnaire from the author, email dated June 29, 2019. “My father was an accountant in Ranchuelo, when we went into exile in Spain, first Asturias, then Madrid, it was impossible for him to find work. When we moved to Miami in 1974 he became a warehouse supervisor at Macy’s, where he worked for 30 years until his retirement. My mother was a teacher in Cuba, and then in Miami she worked in factories. Later she took care of her parents, who were very old – her father was 103 when he died. My sister Elena is five years older than me. She went into exile with us, first to Spain, then to Miami. She has been an art teacher at the elementary school level.
[ix] Ibid. Enrique Velázquez was born in Asturias and came to Cuba at the age of 15. Eventually he settled in Ranchuelo, and married Arturo’s grandmother Rosa. In time through hard work, he owned a shop and opened the local cinema.
[xiv] Arturo Rodríguez, Response to questionnaire from the author, email dated June 29, 2019.
[xv] Ibid. This is the village where his maternal grandfather was from, and where he had substantial family. Eventually Arturo and his family moved to Madrid. He has not returned to Cornellana since.
[xix] According to both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the 1960s and 1970s were among the most brutal decades in abuse, torture and executions in the political prison system of the Castro regime.
[xx] The Caravaggio painting has thirteen figures. Rodríguez transforms the angel with the palm of martyrdom in the original, descending from the upper right of the picture, into an executioner.
[xxi] Arturo Rodríguez, Response to questionnaire from the author, email dated June 29, 2019.
[xxii] An entire set of these books is part of the artist’s papers in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. FIRMA Press had given PLAYOR, Montaner’s publishing house, a contract for these books. The collection came out under the title “Mi Primera Biblioteca” (My First Library). It was a commercial success.
[xxiii] Arturo Rodríguez, email to the author, July 10, 2019.
[xxiv] Arturo Rodríguez, Response to questionnaire from the author, email dated June 29, 2019.
[xxv] Arturo Rodríguez, Undated manuscript with list of series of works, and one or two descriptive sentences.
[xxvi] Arturo Rodríguez, email to the author, July 12, 2019.
[xxvii] Arturo Rodríguez, Response to questionnaire from the author, email dated June 29, 2019.
[xxviii] Ibid. Series sometimes take years for Rodríguez to complete.
[xxix] Demi has told me more than once in conversation that since she knew little about art, she was expecting a “formal and pretty” portrait. Instead Arturo captured her intensity and inner turmoil in a portrait she disliked at first. Eventually she realized it was “a true, authentic” portrait.
[xxx] Arturo Rodríguez, Response to questionnaire from the author, email dated June 29, 2019. Oil on canvas, acrylic, watercolor, pencil and crayon drawings, as well as collage, have been the mediums Arturo has utilized to depict his wife Demi.
[xxxi] Arturo Rodríguez, Undated manuscript with list of series of works, and one or two descriptive sentences.
[xxxii] Arturo Rodríguez, The School of Night, (New York: Island Project, 2014). This volume of beautifully reproduced black and white drawings, with bilingual poems by writer friends of the painter, was published by Jorge Moya, with editorial assistance from Joaquín Badajoz.
PhD. Emeritus Professor of Art History and Latin American/Latinx Studies.
William Paterson University.