I’m off to Guillermo Kuitca’s house. I take a taxi, and on my way there, I start reviewing the questions I plan to ask him.
Guillermo’s painting influenced me at the outset of my career, as it did many other young artists in Argentina. A series of beds with maps were the first works of his I ever saw, in a book. I realized right away that his approach to painting was different from that of other artists. He broke the rules about how to approach a painting. Something special about his work became apparent immediately: it expanded the visual arts, but without moving away from their foundations. This was doubly interesting to me.
The first time I stood in front of his work, I felt that, somehow, I could see myself reflected as a viewer. But as a viewer removed from my own self. Almost like a ghost. Seeing his art is still, for me, like a meditation on an unknown inner self, and consequently, on everyone’s hidden self.
In the pieces that come to mind there are paintings of maps, beds, baggage carousels, theaters, album covers. His latest work manifests a distortion that situates it in a very different place with respect to his previous work. It represents a radical break—as if a new Guillermo Kuitca had started to work from point zero—and entices one to wonder about what his work might be like in the future.
I arrive at his house and he buzzes me in.
Matias Duville The series of paintings which you showed in the 2007 Venice Biennale reference other artists’ marks. They represent a before and after in your work. As I looked at them in Venice, it occurred to me that the representation of Fontana’s slash, for example, or that type of intervention influenced by Fontana—like your works with baggage carousels, album covers, beds, and maps—takes something from the exterior world and incorporates it into the painterly process. I’m trying to identify the threads that connect your previous works with these recent ones.
Guillermo Kuitca I have a hard time with the idea of connecting threads, but I welcome any attempts to find them. I consider the threads within my own work to be more like failures. Maybe from the outside continuity or coherence is held in high esteem, but from within, at least for me, the tendency is to try to sever the ties linking the works. When I make an effort to cut them, I feel the violence of the magnetism wanting to pull things together again. At some point, I realize there’s a line connecting one thing to another and I ask myself, Why is there a connection if I did everything possible to avoid it? (laughter) As a very young artist I got used to the idea that painting is something so resistant and elastic that you have to provoke it at all times. It’s like plastic or that super-high-tech material that bends and never breaks.
MD Going back to your paintings that reference other artists, viewing them, I had the feeling that I’d lived for many years and that, somehow, both the artist who had created them and I as the viewer had disappeared.
GK That’s great!
MD Beds, maps, baggage carousels, and album covers reappear throughout your work. Are these intended to order your various series or do they emerge through experimentation? Do you start off directly in search of something?
GK I start off with a few, at times very weak, certainties. I tell myself that I’m going to do a map and then I allow the work to take me to unknown places. This is where the idea of experimentation appears—it’s not so much that I keep on trying until something emerges.
MD So there’s a bound territory within which you move that gives you more freedom than if you had complete freedom.
GK That’s exactly it; I identify with the idea that the work takes you to the unknown and not the other way around. The work is not the culmination of an information-gathering process. That’s not a bad thing, but in my work I begin with certainties and then move gradually into unfamiliar territory. The canvas is never blank for me. The blank canvas has never made me very anxious; yet if the painting can give the viewer a sense of the abyss of the blank canvas, then I’ve achieved something.
MD You’re saying it’s like going against the grain.
GK Right, it’s like going backwards. I’m not saying that with a deconstructivist, philosophical, or Adornian affectation. I’m talking about a pictorial experience. It’s difficult for me to construct a work from my personal experience; that’s why my drawings always come after my paintings. Almost always there is a parsing of the work—construction is never geared toward a work. Instead, the painting is always the starting point of the drawings, in which I try to tie up the loose ends and reconstruct the scene, so to speak.
MD It’s important to understand that, because when you read a text about an artist who interests you, you only come away with what makes the work cohere, but that’s never how it happens. Life isn’t like that. (laughter) I was thinking about the title of your painting If I Were Winter Itself. To me the title suggests that you’re present in the painting. Is there a dualism between you and your work?
GK Is that because of the “I” in the title?
MD Was it like coming up with a Frankenstein or something?
GK For a long time, I’d say almost until that painting appeared, I tried to separate myself from the work almost completely. We both agree that the painting itself contains the best material—it’s more trustworthy than yourself; it’s of greater quality, deeper. It’s not that you’re not a good person—it’s that the painting has an entirely unique being, and you’re an ordinary person next to it. That’s why it was difficult for me to integrate myself into the painting; we’re not the same thing. Giving the piece a title with a strong “I” had something to do with my having doubts that I could actually achieve my goal of erasing all the echoes of my private experiences in the work. Maybe it was like saying “I am winter itself.” I made that work in a state of complete devastation; it had been a rough two years. I didn’t want to lecture the viewer about it—I’m still very allergic to self-referential art where the artist’s problems are at the center of the work—but, at the same time, I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to say that this period of my life had been like a long winter. Let me tell you a story: Inés Katzenstein and I were thinking very hard about titles. The name I originally gave the painting was “Desperation.” Brilliant, don’t you think? (laughter) There was another called “Desperation and Isolation.” Inés told me I was completely insane. The first announcements for the show said: “Guillermo Kuitca: Desperation and Isolation.” But the other title was even more problematic because I kept insisting upon it: “Solitude.” She understood the reason for it, but because she’s very intelligent and wanted to ease my anxiety, she said, “That’s very sophisticated.” (laughter) It just shows you where I stood regarding the fusion of the work and my own self. If at one point I had the clichéd idea of painting the four seasons, I hadn’t actually experienced four, only one: winter. The other title that came to me was “Winter, Winter, Winter, Winter.” In the end, I stole an idea from my own work and the title became If I Were Winter Itself. I had used it in 1986 for paintings that were important to me, and were also done out of a sense of desolation. The title fought its way to the finish. It was a true Olympiad of titles. When it’s time to decide on a title you become terrified of burying the work under a layer of misunderstandings.
MD When you title a work you’re saying: “This looks like that.” Your equalizers, so to speak, are very different when you’re inside the work, making it.
GK I have a lot of patience: sometimes the title arrives after the show. I know I have to wait for it to come, and in the meantime …
MD You keep a list.
GK Yes, I make lists. As a spectator, when you see an overly extravagant or humorous title, or one that seems to be a private joke, you feel almost betrayed. You want something more from a title. It really bothers me when I approach a work for which I feel some affinity and the label says, “Nothing Occurred to Me Today.” I couldn’t care less! (laughter)
MD How do you feel about the fact that your works are scattered all around the world? I was thinking about a map showing your works at all these different points on the globe: in museums, collections, institutions, whatever. Do you keep track of all this inside your head?
GK When I was a young artist I got used to the fact that my work wasn’t going to stay in the studio, and I became hardened about it. I’ve learned to forget about my paintings. It’s not easy. And what is more—I wait in acute anxiety for the moment when the art handler comes to take a painting away. It’s a stressful day. I try not to be in the studio. But afterward, I almost feel happy when the work leaves, not only my studio but also my head. There’s something about the institutionalization and validation apparatus—it’s a Cinderella story. Here in the studio the paintings are easy to manipulate, you put them aside, you move them around. Once they go through that door, they become valuable objects that can no longer be touched. Gloves and insurance appear. An insurmountable barrier materializes once a piece of paper has been signed. The work leaves and you no longer recognize it.
MD It happened to me in the Tate Museum. When I saw your beds, I felt like throwing myself on one and saying, “I know him, I’ve worked with him!” (laughter) Do you want to continue working here in Buenos Aires, as if you were on a journey to a distant land? Have you ever worked anywhere else?
GK Very little. I recently had to do some red paintings at a hotel room in New York. If someone had entered the room when I was painting, it would have seemed like a crime scene. I thought, This is ridiculous. I don’t have a place to work! What have I made of my life, if I can’t have a small studio here! Apart from that, I’ve never worked outside Buenos Aires and I’m going to keep it that way, because it’s hard for me to make changes. I live here; it’s not a choice. I don’t understand why people turn it into something that makes me special. “He stayed in Buenos Aires!” they say, as if that were an oddity. It’s a very exciting city and, whether you use it or not, it is a city. I don’t experience isolation much on a daily basis; only when I realize it will take 20 hours to travel somewhere. For me, Buenos Aires can be anything I want it to be: there are days when it’s the center of the world and days when it’s simply the two blocks where I walk my dog. At one point I hated the idea of artists congregating in New York. Are they crazy? It seemed an unlivable place, a terrible kind of provincialism. But it’s not for me to judge other people’s choices.
MD Because of your career, you began to travel extensively a long time ago. Did you begin noticing that the world was becoming smaller?
GK At the end of the ’80s and ’90s, when I was traveling a great deal—I had to have more presence abroad, and besides, it was a novelty for me—I realized that the world was getting smaller. But I wasn’t amazed, quite the opposite—it was getting hard to have experiences that were distinct. Cities are hybrids that are so hybrid that … there are big differences between one city and another, but at a certain point, I couldn’t come up with a compelling enough reason that made it absolutely imperative for me to live elsewhere. Sometimes I have flashes of Argentina as it really is and I think, This can’t be fixed, this is a disaster. I’m out of here, ciao! This usually happens when I’m reading the paper in the morning; later the feeling fades away.
MD What prompted you to start a program of workshops for younger artists, or as we all call it: the Kuitca fellowship?
GK I had the idea in ’90 or ’91, probably because of all the traveling I was doing. My distance from Buenos Aires started to feel very strange. The distortion of being everywhere at once seemed like a bad movie. I started experiencing an enormous sense of unreality. I had lost contact with my colleagues, which might be what I enjoy the most: having artist friends and being in dialogue with them. This was the cauldron out of which the idea of having something to anchor me in Buenos Aires emerged. I’ve always liked teaching very much. My first job when I finished high school was as a kindergarten teacher. Later I had students in my studio, and when I no longer had to teach to make a living, I taught less and less. I was missing that a lot. My first idea was to offer classes in a fine-arts school, because it was frustrating to learn that there was no program in Buenos Aires that was open to the contemporary world. Not only to contemporary art, but to anything contemporary, in the full sense of the word. Since I don’t have a degree qualifying me to teach in a fine-arts school, my initial proposal was a small program within a school. The idea was almost totally rejected—it wasn’t viable. It seemed absurd to the faculty that someone would come to the university and create a school within the school.
MD Incredible. In this country, at least, art schools are the places where you find the least amount of art.
GK When I grew up, I was warned not to set foot in an art school. The first time I actually entered a school of fine arts was when I proposed the fellowship program. Anyway, I was hooked on the idea. I saw that there was a local need for something like it to exist, and besides, I was dying to do it. Then the possibility of running the program independently arose. In those days, I didn’t really know what it was like for things to be going well. I’d only sold four paintings … I mean, I wasn’t exactly sitting on a pot of gold, and forget about prestige or anything. But I felt I had to do a project involving the community, and for me, that’s the community of artists.
MD And somehow, the stone you tossed more than 15 years ago took on an enormous importance. I remember there were a huge number of applications in the final edition of the program.
GK It was insane. There were 700 applicants, a monstrous number! That’s why the selection process was so difficult—a staggering number of good artists had applied. Afterward, working with the artists became much more complex, especially as time passed. That work dynamic had become so integrated into my way of making art that at some point the reason why I did the fellowships became synonymous with the reason why I paint. Teaching embodied my way of seeing art, of communicating with others.
MD Throughout my participation in the program I felt that when I expressed an opinion about other people’s work, a project of theirs or a group of ideas, I was speaking about my own work at the same time. The same thing is happening to me in this interview as well. I’m engaged by the back-and-forth of ideas. One goes from being the spectator to being the observed.
GK Overall, at each stage of the program I was always very free, but in the last session I gave myself permission to show up with a wide-open agenda. The idea was that every encounter with an artist, or a body of work, would be an unscripted experience—it could be anything. In that sense, each encounter was a creative act in situ. And that became palpable for all, don’t you think?
MD We weren’t working toward an end product, but rather were trying to go beyond what was before our own eyes. That became a guide for me; it opened up many more possibilities than working on or materializing the project we were seeing. The question wasn’t: What do you have to do to make this a better work? Instead, it was: Where is this work going in the future?
GK Some artists gave themselves wide internal latitude. You’re an artist who took on a greater number of risks. You used to show us parts of your work and yet you weren’t expecting any specific results.
MD My attitude when showing my work was, “As of now, I’m a target.”
GK That’s what made the program so fascinating—there was no collective strategy about teaching. Have you seen The Headless Woman by Lucrecia Martel?
MD Not yet.
GK It’s an incredible film about a mental block. Basically, it’s told from the perspective of a person who is in almost complete denial, and has a huge blind spot. In a way, the experience of the artist is that of blindness. What I mean is this: in the role of a teacher, when you’re trying to help an artist think through his or her work, you can’t do it from the clarity you possess. To be helpful, you have to share the artist’s blindness to a certain degree. If you don’t, then there will be two people who don’t understand each other, a critic and an artist, for instance. You asked me about Buenos Aires: you had the experience of living in a smaller city, Mar del Plata, and then coming here. You can work in different places. How do you think you’ll settle down in Buenos Aires? How do you think the city has been entering your work?
MD I studied in Mar del Plata with Daniel Besoytaorube, who had the first Kuitca fellowship. I learned about the program through him. Our relationship was somewhat different from what I could have had in an art school.
GK Did you go to the School of Fine Arts in Mar del Plata?
MD Yes, I went, but—you know those days in which you’re like the Wizard of Oz getting lost on the road? I ended up someplace else … it happens that way.
GK By chance.
MD Right, not everything is completely directed. During the fellowship, I did an experiment: I built myself a studio inside a large wooden box in the courtyard. The claustrophobia I felt inside this capsule of sorts was totally positive for my drawings—I was able to disconnect from real space and image myself inhabiting a different physical space.
GK In your drawings, it’s as if this capsule were on mountainsides …
MD Yes, but I was in the heart of Buenos Aires, in the Once neighborhood. That shows how my head operates; I always try to work in a way that opposes the physical place I’m in. At the very least, I’m mentally nomadic.
GK During the fellowship, you gave yourself all the time in the world to experiment, and now, somewhat later, you’re creating risk-taking works. Yet, without a doubt, you’ve been legitimized as an artist. People recognize you more and more. What’s that like for you?
MD I try to remember how I got started and how everything came together. I try to make each work trigger something intense inside me. A few times I’ve made works where I felt I wasn’t being me, not because they had been commissioned, but because I didn’t feel I was in control of the situation. So I destroyed them. At any rate, I’m interested in what others think and I’m letting go a little of the “Me, me, me.” It’s best to let other ways of looking enter the work.
GK It’s energizing to see the work circulate. When things started going a little better for me, I remember all the warnings I started getting, “Be careful about success!” If I remember correctly, the problem isn’t success, but failure!
MD I’ve been meaning to ask you something. Why do you think you can’t stop making art?
GK I love the idea of stopping; it’s like a dream. Not long ago I experienced Julio Bocca’s retirement very personally, even though it had nothing to do with me. I deeply envied the ballet dancer’s ability to set a date for his retirement. I asked myself, How do I get out of this myself? Then I realized I couldn’t make an argument for retiring. In the case of a ballet dancer or an athlete, for example, aging entails that you can no longer do certain activities in the same way. But the idea of no longer making art … I hope this doesn’t sound like an aphorism: I couldn’t go on if I didn’t have the hope that at some point I’d stop. It’d be devastating otherwise. Going back to the start of our conversation, yes, I can say there’s consistency to my project. It’s not based on any aesthetic or formal coherence, but rather on the hope that there’s an end, a closure to my pictorial project.
MD Do you want to see your work live on? Do you imagine your work in the future?
GK A reporter from Perfil who interviewed me along with my family and friends told me about a conversation he’d had with my father. He said to him, “You know, don’t you, that Guillermo’s work is going to endure?” He said that my father, in response, broke down in tears. I never saw my father cry. Only then did I connect with the idea that my work could elicit a strong emotional reaction in someone, but it was as if I had to triangulate this realization through my father. I was more moved by my father’s experience than by the thought of my work enduring.
MD I wonder why painting has lasted over the ages?
GK The pictorial experience is so specific that it hasn’t been replaced by any other. It’s absurd to think of photography and painting as antagonistic forces that could displace each other. The measure of the pictorial experience is privacy—we’re alone before a canvas. This is not the case with photography. When you and I are in front of a photograph, we see the same thing; we’re necessarily before a shared world. On the other hand, when two people are in front of a painting, there’s no proof that they both see the same image. Painting produces privacy. Modernity produced not the solitude of the artist—that was always there—but the solitude of the viewer. Painting will exist as long as there is a wish for privacy.
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Carson.