“The melancholy of suitcases.”
Painting was declared to be on its deathbed in the 1970s. Since then, a few so-called “doctors” (art critics) have pronounced it dead. A visit to the majority of galleries in Chelsea usually confirms this; at these minimal and elegant funeral parlors we encounter cold, clean corpses hanging on the walls.
I am an old fashioned guy who believes in God, the power of poetry, the fierce beauty of women and that painting is alive and well and fooling the so-called “doctors.” Arturo Rodríguez is one of a handful of subversives that lives to paint and keeps painting alive.
I have had the good fortune to have written on the paintings of Arturo Rodríguez. For years we have been talking of collaborating on a portfolio of his prints and my poems. I have been following his work since the 1980s. It is painting in the best and grandest sense, born of tradition and hard work, of jazz-like improvisation and courageous innovation. For two years he wrestled with intense and overwhelming pictures in his Caravaggio project series. Now, this most recent corpus of pictures breaks away from the broken bodies of baroque darkness and moves the viewer into the light of leaving and arriving.
Departures and Arrivals is a series of over thirty oils on canvas that range in scale from 9 x 12 inches to pictures the size of a medium to large altar piece. At first glance they seem to be pictures of airports, their parking lots, and a handful of train stations. Closer examination reveals that they are much, much more than that. The palette ranges from bluish grays to soft pinks, dense ochre and “Turner” yellows. The whites are bold and sharp flashes of light that open up and break the compositional surface. Occasionally powdery blue disrupt the melancholic color of these pictures. Throughout all of these works the drawing is simple and direct, bringing to mind the Japanese masters or the gorgeous scribbles of a Jules Pascin.
In all of these pictures people are departing, waiting or arriving. Sometimes in groups, mostly singly, and at times many figures depicted as “being alone together.” A woman embraces a man. A child waits in solitude. An elderly man wearing a tie seems lost in a vast concourse. Escalators move the figures up or down. Many figures seem to be floating in moveable walkways. In the backgrounds we see planes landing and taking off, half empty parking lots, and skies, lots of skies that are both frightening and beautiful in their emptiness.
The color schemes, painterly strategies and emotional depth of these pictures by Rodríguez remind me of only two artists: late Corot and Morandi. This “family resemblance” is achieved by the force of the painterly language that all three share, where the entire coloristic structure is charged and held together by a silvery gray. This endows the pictures with what I can only define as “a melancholic lucidity;” where mental distance and clarity are balanced by the sadness of the world.
The late Julio Cortázar uses in an essay the phrase “The melancholy of suitcases.” I believe by this that he referred to the sadness of the objects we carry our few belongings in, our broken histories as we move from place to place, temporarily or permanently. There are a few literal depictions of suitcases in this series of Rodríguez’ paintings. For the Cuban exile that Rodríguez is, the suitcase (or its absence), acquires a meaning deeper than Cortázar’s phrase. One suitcase was the only thing allowed to take when fleeing the island; a paradoxical object which is both a painful reminder of what has been lost and an icon of stubborn resistance against the power of “official history.”
Back in 1981 Robert Hughes wrote the following words in a review of the work of Giorgio Morandi: “The way they are painted looks awkward at first, ill defined – but only because it makes no concessions to haste. Morandi used no shortcuts. He eschewed the sharply abbreviated shapes, high contrasts of tone and grabby oppositions of color that can make an image “memorable” on first sight. Instead, the things in his paintings seep deliberately into one’s attention. They start vaguely, as little more than silhouettes . . . the silence of the motif and the inwardness of the vision are as one.” (TIME magazine) Like Morandi, Rodríguez makes no concessions to haste. His paintings transfigure us from looking to seeing, which is meditative act, through which we comprehend the world, both broken and redeemed.
Departures and Arrivals are paintings about the world and our place or misplacement within it. Coming or going, these transients are in a state of flux, of perpetual impermanence. Perhaps this is the best way to represent our human condition?
Arturo Rodríguez proves (once again) in this series that a content of substance need not be divorced from REAL PAINTING. These paintings in their bold and extended brushwork paint the world as a melancholic place that moves us.
* Alejandro Anreus is an art historian and poet who teaches art history and Latin American studies at William Paterson University, Wayne, New Jersey. He is the author of Ben Shahn and The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, Orozco in Gringoland (both 2001), co-editor and contributor to The Social and The Real (2006). His monograph on Luis Cruz Azaceta is forthcoming. He writes art criticism for Commonweal magazine.
Ph.D. Emeritus Professor of Art History and Latin American
Latinx Studies William Paterson University.