This season, Havana—and Cuban art—have rediscovered an artist who long ago passed into myth: Gustavo Pérez Monzón. The galleries of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes are hosting Gustavo Pérez Monzón: Tramas (Frames), an exhibition of the artist’s works from the 1980s, drawn from the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection. Curator Elsa Vega and noted artist René Francisco Rodríguez interviewed Pérez Monzón for the exhibition catalogue, and agreed to share a two-part excerpt with Cuban Art News.
Over the years, there has been much talk of you as a myth, somebody who abandoned his career to devote yourself to—as some have called it—the race of life. This artistic "discouragement," as we might say, came precisely at the moment of greatest creative fulfillment, when you had an extensive and highly regarded production. What 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 reflected my loss of passion for the world of artistic production. Others believe they find the cause of my dispassion in my confrontation with the work of Sol LeWitt, at a time when I was perhaps in a good creative moment.
Of course, confrontations always affect one. Seeing, for the first time, Sol LeWitt’s original works and those of many other artists I admired was a moving experience, but I don’t think it was 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 people like myself. All of those years meant endless learning efforts based on the Picassoan belief that it is first necessary to “learn” in order to subsequently set out on one’s own path precisely by negating what has been learned.
My teachers came from the tradition of Servando Cabrera Moreno, and in some ways, also from a less figurative narrative sustained by Antonio Eiríz and the Grupo de los Once [Group of the Eleven].
My generation was very 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 of Cuba, we circulated many interesting titles among ourselves. We read a lot and were up to date on new developments.
In private, among ourselves, our minds were expanded by a mixture of anthropology, archeology, political thought, mysticism and occultism. Our days were touched 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 Bolívar, as well as esoteric ideas, tarot readings, and everything that had to do with the Arte Povera movement, earth art, conceptualism, and minimalism.
Why did you choose abstraction, and not let yourself be seduced by the affirmative figuration then current in Cuban art and culture?
At first, like many others, I was trying out a number of different paths. The spirituality of Rothko’s work, its lack of narrative, inspired me deeply—and later the small works of Raúl Milián. My first exhibition, Luna llena [Full Moon], with Ricardo Brey, was permeated by the spirit of Milián’s 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.
Who were the conceptual artists of the 1960s and 1970s who influenced your work?
There were many and diverse influences. Principally movements like Arte Povera, earth art, and minimalism. Artists such as Richard Long, Carl André, and Sol LeWitt were important references for my work. The idea that all materials are materials for art powerfully commanded my attention, along with the reconceptualization of artistic principles. And above all, the intellectual component that conceptualism introduced into art.
The Volumen Uno [Volume One] exhibition in 1981 introduced the first group of artists who adopted new symbolic imaginaries for Cuban art. Artists such as Juan Francisco Elso, Ricardo Brey, Flavio Garciandía, José Bedia, Rubén Torres Llorca, José Manuel Fors, Tomás Sánchez, Leandro Soto and yourself revealed a different way to see and make art. According to the critics, Volumen Uno defined the birth of the new Cuban art. As an active participant in those events, what do you feel when you recall that period?
Volumen Uno was significant because of 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 the 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 confrontations. Although it was a local event, Volumen Uno was a real phenomenon of artistic and aesthetic discussion.
In photos showing you interacting with other artists of your generation, there appears to be a strong bond 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. In 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 lively 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 Playas del Este in 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 use 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 things 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.
Next: Pérez Monzón on art and mathematics, his time with Ana Mendieta, and thoughts about his show in Havana.
Gustavo Pérez Monzón: Tramas continues at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana through August 24.
The interview "Life is an instant”: A Conversation with Gustavo Pérez Monzón" appears in full in the catalogue (ISBN: 978-0-9831692-5-3) produced by CIFO Cisneros Fontanals Foundation for the exhibition Gustavo Pérez Monzón: Tramas, presented at the National Museum of Fine Arts, Havana, May 23-August 24, 2015. The publication also includes an introduction by Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, essays by Nestor Diaz de Villegas and Corina Matamoros, images of all the works in the exhibition, and a section of archive photos.
©2015 CIFO Fontanals Arts Foundation, the authors and the artist