Gustavo Pérez Monzón: Life’s days are numbered

Interview of Elsa Vega y René Francisco Rodríguez

/ 12 November, 2015

Over the years you’ve been described as a myth: a figure who abandoned his artistic career in order to dedicate himself to the career of live, as some have put it. This artistic “dis-animation”, so to speak, came about precisely at the moment of your greatest creative productivity, when you had completed an extensive and highly recognized body of work. Many reasons have been given for you departure from the Cuban plastic arts scene. Can you tell us what really motivated you to make that decision?

For many years, my friend Leandro Soto argued that during my trip to the Paris Biennale I had left the “dreaming body” trapped somewhere and that this demonstrated my loss of passion for the world of artistic production. Others, as you mention, believe they find the cause of my departure in my confrontation with the work of Sol Lewitt, during a period in which I was perhaps in a good creative moment. I like Leandro’s comment because it situates the topic in a not –so-inaccessible place that is open to the imaginable. Of course, confrontations always affect one. Seeing Sol Lewitt’s original works and those of many other artist I admired was a sufficient to stop me doing work.

 

Could you describe the artistic-pedagogical context in which you developed?

From the age of 11 to 19 I was at boarding schools learning art. That period as a student taught me, above all, to be independent, to develop social connections and to relate to other, similar people. Despite the tragedy that one lives through in the closed spaces of boarding schools, I learned to have my own history as well as a passion sustained by art. All of those years meant endless learning efforts based on the Picasso an belief that it is first necessary to “learn” in order to subsequently set on one’s own path precisely by negating what has been learned.

My schoolteachers came from the tradition of Servando Cabrera Moreno and, also from a less figurative narrative from Antonia Eiriz and the Grupo de los Once (Group of the Eleven). As much have occurred in other parts on the world, my generation was much focused on film, music and books. I liked to read about art, philosophy and esoteric topics. Although at the time it was difficult to find good books published outside on Cuba, many interesting titles circulated among us. We read a tot and were up to date on new developments. In private, among ourselves, our minds were expanded by a mixture on anthropology, archeology, political thought, mysticism and occultism. Our days were nuanced by Carlos Castaneda’s books, Frazer’s Golden Bough, Latin American Art, Afro-Cuban art, the idea of revolution, the thought of José Martí and Simón Bolivar, as well as esoteric ideas, tarot readings and everything that had to do with the arte povera movement, earth art, conceptualism and minimalism.

 

Abstraction in twentieth-century Cuba had its moment of greatest activity during the 1950’s. With the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in January 1959, there was encouragement to search for a plastic expression based on the moment. Why did you choose abstraction and why didn’t you allow yourself to be seduced by that current of figurative art?

At first, like many others, I was trying out a number of different paths. The spirituality of Rothko’s work, its lack of narrative, and later on the small works of Raúl Milián inspired me deeply. I was particularly passionate about everything by Rothko, but I think this interest came through Milián. My first exhibition, Luna llena (Full Moon), with Ricardo Brey, was impregnated with the spirit of Milián work. Although I made the pieces for the show with silver paper, much of the “suffering” evident in them was due to Milián; the way they were marked out, the way I worked with the ink, and the finish on the frames also connects them directly to his aesthetic.

 

Conceptual art of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s contributed in great measure to the development of you works. Who were the artists who influenced you?

There were many and diverse influences. Principally movements like Arte Povera, earth art and

Minimalism. Artist such as Richard Long, Carl André and Sol Lewitt were important references for my work. The idea that all materials are materials for art power-fully called my attention, along with the reconceptualization of artistic vehicles and, above all, the intellectual component that conceptualism introduced into art.

 

The Volumen Uno (Volume One) exhibition in 1981 introduced the first group the artist who adapted new symbolic imaginaries for Cuban art. Artist such as Juan Francisco Elso, Ricardo Brey, Flavio Garciandía, José Bedia, Rubén Torres Llorca, José Manuel Fors, Tomás Sánchez, Leandro Soto and yourself demonstrated a different way to see and made art. According to the specialized critics, Volumen Uno defined the birth of the new Cuban art. As an active protagonist of those events, what do you fell when you recall that period?

Volumen Uno was significant because on the context, because of what it proposed, because of how tired we all were of the kinds of art that were being made at the time and because of the new directions that the event opened up, In this context of the show an encounter was generated with the public, and some artists of other generations complained of the lack of seriousness in our proposal. The event’s supposed lack of formality or good sense was due, for example, to the fact that I had improvised some drawings on the floor using tape. On the other hand, together with Bedia, we redrew the scissors staircase that we used in the exposition and mounted it on a wall, integrating it with the montage. We also hung some clouds from the ceiling that we had made with cotton purchased from the pharmacy across from the gallery. We enjoyed levity.

Although there were other equally important exhibitions during the period, the one that transcended was Volumen Uno, due to its contextual confrontation. Although it was a local event, Volumen Uno was a real phenomenon of artistic and aesthetic discussion.

 

In observing some of the photographs showing you interacting with artist of your generation, we are led to think that there was a very strong ethic of friendship among you. Were those encounters purely festive? Have you continued to cultivate your relationships with some of these artists?

Our generation was nourished by its diversity. That was perhaps its strongest and most distinctive trait. Modernists that we were, each of us spontaneously defined ourselves in different directions, and at the beginning this tolerance of our diversity permeated the group and allowed us to live in a space of protected growth within a close-knit social environment.

Together we could generate enthusiasm and plan events and exhibitions: the Festival de la pieza corta (Festival of the Short Piece) (1980), Volumen Uno (1981), Sano y sabroso (Healthy and Tasty) (1981), as well as energetic get-togethers and parties. Festival de la pieza corta was the name we gave to an event that we held at a house in La Veneciana, at the end of the beaches east of Havana. We decided to call it that because at the time we didn’t want to talk about performance, and in keeping with this intention Leandro suggested we used the term acción plástica (plastic action).Those were very enjoyable experiences, filled with a lot of closeness, and we had good times together. After a few years thinks were no longer what they had been. After Sano y sabroso nothing was the same. We tried to plan a second version of Volumen Uno, but it proved impossible. We were perhaps too focused on our differences to be able to connect emotionally.             

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