Questions and answers; an interview with Arturo Rodriguez about Arrivals and Departures by Bruce Weber

I first encountered Arturo Rodriguez’s art in 1985 while I was Curator of Collections at the Norton Gallery of Art (now the Norton Museum of Art) in West Palm Beach, Florida. From the first I was astonished by the vigor and mastery of this young Cuban-born artist’s work, the breadth and range of his imagination, his great pathos, humor and depth of humanity. Soon after my initial visit to Arturo’s studio in Miami, where he has lived since 1973 (leaving Cuba for Spain in 1970, and residing for periods in that country again

In the later 1970s and 1980s), I invited him to execute a painting on one of the three large walls in the Norton’s courtyard for an exhibition held in the fall of 1986. Over the course of a few weeks time he created a magnificent multi-figured mural composition featuring an assortment of characters enacting a trio of allegorical and symbolic tableau’s entitled El Gran Teatro Del Mundo (The Great Theater Of The World). Following the exhibition, which also included the work of David Wojnarowicz and Mike Glier, we maintained close contact, and I have continuously kept abreast of his work through studio visits or via photographs that have been sent me in New York , where I have lived and worked since 1990.

I have had the great pleasure of watching Arturo’s talent unfold and mature – to continue to be aware of the ever changing barometer of his art, watching him dive full body and soul into one ambitious series of works after another – mostly in oil, occasionally in acrylic, watercolor, or pencil. From the spark of a new idea he begins to invent his complex and distinct iconography, filled with poetic, narrative and dramatic allusions, emphasizing the rhythmic interplay of color, line, shape and form, and, frequently, exploring dualities of interior and exterior space (in which at times he seems to be questioning the nature of reality itself), expressions of aggressiveness and tenderness, notions of place and the absence of place (and sometimes of an almost unearthly ghostliness). Among his many series – Arrivals and Departures being the most recent – have been Passages (1994), The Ghost Archipelago (2000), The Human Comedy (2002), Illuminations (2002), and The Caravaggio Project (2008-2009). Several of these series are mentioned in the following interview, and a group of earlier paintings are reproduced in order to provide a context for the discussion, and to illuminate how this artist has never failed to keep moving, keep reinventing himself, keep surprising us with his ability to continually tackle new and fresh aesthetic challenges.

Before closing this brief introduction, I want to mention Arturo’s immense love of jazz – and what I perceive as its visceral, rhythmic and compositional impact on his picture making. From the distance of New York, I always picture in my mind’s eye Arturo passionately at work on a new series surrounded and prodded on by the propulsive sounds on his stereo of jazz flooding the walls and space of his studio.

You never fail to surprise me. What inspired your new series “Arrivals and Departures”?

ARTURO: I have always been fascinated by airports, train stations, etcetera. Places where you see people waiting, people expecting something. They are emotionally charged places. You observe the constant flow of people arriving and leaving, like a human sea wave. It has always had a hypnotic effect on me.

What do airports personally mean or signify to you?

ARTURO: Airports, terminals, bus stops, are a source of anxiety to me. Yet they fascinate me.

The subject of exile has played a large role in your art. Do you see “Arrivals and Departures” as continuing in or breaking from that vein?

ARTURO: Once you become an exile, almost everything you have is lost, your country, your possessions, friends, family; yet all you have left is a small baggage of memories that you always carry inside you, and is a constant remainder of your condition, no matter how well you adapt to other cultures, other people, other countries.

These new paintings rank as among your most architectural. Do you see airports as some kind of modern cathedral?

ARTURO: Airports are a cathedral to nothingness, they are just stations that take us from one place to another; what it really remind me sometimes is a kind of purgatory.

Is the airport pictured in the paintings based on a particular one such as Miami International Airport?

ARTURO: The airports, train stations, terminals in the paintings are not based on any particular place, they combine bits and pieces of my life experiences.

Are the works based on actually sketches or are drawn completely from memory?

I’d be interested in learning your process.

ARTURO: Sketching from life is like second nature to me. When I am traveling I am constantly drawing on everything I get my hands on — small sketch books, magazines, napkins, etcetera. They are from direct observation from life or from something that comes from my imagination or a combination of the two. I think the only way you understand what surrounds you — what your place in the world is — is by observing.

And reflecting on what you saw.

In some tangential way the works remind me of paintings you created in the early 1980s of people you observed on the beach in Miami. Now the environment of the airport has in some ways replaced the environment of sand and ocean – and the focus has essentially shifted from the outdoors to the indoors. Do you see the relationship of these new works to those from that time or to another series you’ve created in the past?

ARTURO: They do not have a relationship whatsoever, of course you always carry things from your previous work

Do you equate these new works with your occasional exploration’s of landscape, and, even more so, of landscape as “dreamscape” or “fields of memory”? I think back to the singular landscape you created of the landscape of the town where you grew up as a boy in Cuba or to the series you created for Florida International University.

ARTURO: The relationship of this new work with the others is, to me, that landscape is always an inner landscape, which has been evolving through the years, and this, its latest presence, is always part real and part imaginary. This is also one of the calmest or least agitated group of works you have created, even the paint is applied much more smoothly than you commonly do. The ghosts of paintings past seem to be gone entirely, though the glass roof in“Departure XIV” hovers menacingly over the people below.

ARTURO: I agree that this work is more tranquil. The result of one’s life experience, and it is reflected more and more in what you paint. That you understand the meaning of the passing of time more clearly, and, naturally, perceive or comprehend death with a more definitive vision.

Ironically, this calmness or “serenity” exists in a place that has grown rougher and more difficult for those who travel – especially since 9/11. Have you consciously avoided painting the lines of people removing their shoes and getting frisked as they entire the confines of the airport?

ARTURO: Every thing changed after 9/11. Society as we know it is different. I think art gives us a different perspective of events than television news , newspapers , photo journalism , or even history, give us.

Following in this vein of questioning – you’ve managed in this series to push the boundaries of some of your recent experiments with reduction or refinement of formal elements – with color as well as space and the overall composition. This is a long road from such works of the mid and late 1990s as “Tempest III” that are crowded with incident, motion, contortion and distortion.

ARTURO: I think that with the passing years, at least in my case, you can sometimes work in a very crowded, expressionistic way, and at the same time go in the opposite direction at some point. In my case both of these approaches reflect a search for a whole. I always want the work to go where the paintings take me. I am not trying to intellectualize my work. Painting is such an immense language that it is impossible to describe it, let alone make a theory of what you do.

The paintings are extremely subtle in coloration – basically a range of tonality that resembles black and white photography. In fact many of these works are night scenes and feature a glimpse out the window of the pitch black night. These works follow your intense investigation of the paintings of the seventeenth century Italian Baroque artist Caravaggio. Is there a link there in terms of their investigation of the play or contrast of light and dark. Are you thinking more now of Velazquez than Caravaggio?

ARTURO: The influences on these paintings are too many too mention. Of course Caravaggio and Velazquez are an integral influence on of these paintings. Without the intense darkness, the observation from life from the Italian painter, or the mysterious geometry of Las Meninas, and the settled grace of the portraits in work of the Spaniard, there would not be the cohesion that exists in the Arrivals and Departures series, even if you do not readily recognize these influences, they are always there.

The croppings are very interesting and evocative in these new works. What is the impetus behind them?

ARTURO: I have always loved photography and film. I think that these media capture something unique, that you can never reveal with painting, yet each medium influences the other. I could never have painted these works without having viewed a film by Ozu, a photograph by August Sander, and the compositions of ukiyo-e prints, or observed Degas and Bonnard’s use of pictorial space. To me they compliment my vision of the world.

How do you see the smaller (12 x 9 inch canvases)? Are they meant to convey a more personal and intimate glimpse of the people one encounters at an airport – rather than being lost in the impersonal matrix of a contemporary airport.

ARTURO: Those small canvas were the ones that started this project of Arrivals and Departures, they are more tentative and focus more on the individual. It is like responding to your impulse and using this as a springboard to creating larger and more complex paintings.

In your series from 2004 dealing with interiors you also occasionally included airplanes in the sky, Are airplanes meant to have a particular symbolism in your art?

ARTURO: I have always been fascinated with the airplane. The fact that in Miami , where I live, the main airport is in the middle of the city, and there are always airplanes flying overhead, I guess it gets under your skin.. Some of my earliest paintings were based on the mythology of Icarus. I am trying to apply a deeper meaning to something as common in the everyday world as an airplane, or the act of traveling to different places , airports, train stations — it is one of my concerns as a painter.

Your series “The Human Comedy” features individual’s whose giant distorted head appears to float above their body like a balloon while the space or environment around them is broken down into a few elements and passages of neutral or occasionally strident color. In “Arrivals and Departures” you’re reversed the relationship of figure and ground.

ARTURO: Yes the Arrivals and Departures series is precisely the opposite of The Human Comedy series (2006) . In Arrivals and Departures there is an absence of distortion , color, and humor. In The Human Comedy series there were also portraits of specific individuals. In the new series there is no distortion, almost no bold color, the figures are anonymous, and relate to the architecture that surrounds then. Furthermore, the scale of the figures is normal, and there is a sense of existential dread, of boredom, and the ordinariness of every day, contemporary life.

The more closely I observe the paintings in the series the more I recognize how you’re utilizing space in a metaphorical manner – perhaps most clearly and poetically in “Arrival X” – where the couple stand before what might even be interpreted as a vast blank canvas. Do you see yourself as dealing principally with the poetics of space in this new series?

ARTURO: Of course you deal with various levels of meanings in these paintings – the space and tonality of the works are probably the main ones. I try to convey an emotional state that could be melancholy, expectation, anxiety, loneliness, etcetera, by using space as a metaphor for emptiness and a toned down palette.

Personally, I wonder which are your favorite airports? And why?

ARTURO: I think that airports, train and subway stations acquire the personality of the city, the country where they are located, but the common thread is that they are always very interesting places, no matter whether you are angry, happy, bored or sad.

I also wonder if you have ever envisioned your own art hanging in an airport?

Perhaps a mural commission. If so, how do you picture it?

ARTURO: Why not? As long I can do what I want without concessions to public taste — which probably means I will never get a public commission for an airport.

Planning any long trips away from your home in Miami?

ARTURO: To me travel is always a paradox — every time I travel I want to be in the studio painting, and every time I am in the studio painting I would like to be somewhere else – traveling — of course.


by Bruce Weber
Senior Curator, National Academy Museum