Antonio López García: Paintings and Sculpture
Francisco Calvo Serraller
D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., 2011
288 pp., $75.00
Jousting the Quince Tree
Let's face it. The world doesn't interest us much. It's just there, as a backdrop. It's visual background noise onto which we lay our own emotional tracks. We are too busy, as David Foster Wallace once put it, "ruling our little skull-sized kingdoms" to notice the way the late afternoon light hits this tree, or that brilliantly colored finch, or that toddler with his mother. Ask us what visual experiences stood out for us on any single day, and we would be hard pressed to recall anything.
And yet, for some reason, we demand that our paintings be "realistic." We demand visual imagery that conforms to our distracted recollections of what we think "reality" is, even though we spend so little time actually looking at the world around us. We want art to comfort us, to serve our needs, to add a little visual seasoning (but not too much) to the grey world in which we live out our daily lives. This is even the case for those of us who go around talking about a robust creational theology. We claim to affirm and celebrate creation, but have we ever spent five minutes looking at the stem of a rose or the deep red of a pomegranate?
We want our artists to keep us distracted by producing images that reaffirm our disenchanted, ironic, and pragmatic view of the world. Give us stuff we "know," imagery that conforms to how we already use the world. We want art to tell us we're "right." The Getty Research Center in Los Angeles has discovered that we spend an average of thirty seconds looking at a painting. Thirty seconds? For what we usually want from it, thirty seconds seems more than enough.
This is what we mean when we claim to like our art "realistic." But it's not realism. It's propaganda.
Realism is not safe. It is more radical than abstraction. It emerged in the 19th century in France with Gustave Courbet as a response to the idealism of the Academy, with its nudes and nymphs, mythologies and moralizing. Realism redirected the artist to the world, initiating the developments that led to abstraction. Art historian and evangelical statesman H. R. Rookmaaker was right to locate the demise of "Art" with the realism of Courbet. (He was wrong, I would suggest, to lament it—but that is another subject.)
Let's look at a realist.
For the Spanish painter Antonio López García (b. 1936), the world glows with the aura of enchantment and crackles with wonder. A 2011 monograph on the artist chronicles his sixty-year career, a career about which I knew little before encountering this beautifully illustrated and informative publication. López García's work is not well known outside Spain, and progressive critics have too easily dismissed it as "academic." Although he is deeply concerned with preserving technique and craft, he is not an academic, an idealist. His life has been singularly devoted to grappling with nature, with what he sees of the world around him. But he is concerned not merely with what he sees but with what he feels when he sees.
López García was born in Tomelloso, Ciudad Real, in central Spain, a part of the plain of La Mancha made famous by Cervantes in Don Quixote. He moved to Madrid in 1949 to study at the Escuela de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, which he completed in 1955. He had his first solo exhibition in Madrid in 1957 and soon became the leader of the Madrid Realists, a group of artists who sought to revitalize academic painting and figuration. In the 1960s, his reputation began to grow outside Spain. He had two exhibitions at New York's Staempfli Gallery (1965, 1968), and in 1972 he had a solo exhibition at the Claude Bernard Gallery in Paris. Marlborough Gallery, which has represented the artist since 1970, staged two exhibitions in 1986, one in New York and another in London, which further broadened the reach of his work. The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, one of the most important museums in Spain, organized an ambitious retrospective exhibition of his paintings, drawings, sculpture, and bas-reliefs in 1993.
In 2006, López García was awarded the Velázquez Art Award, Spain's highest cultural honor. Two years later, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston hosted a solo exhibition of his work. In the summer of 2011, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid organized a retrospective exhibition, establishing him, along with abstract sculpture Eduardo Chillida and abstract painter Antoni Tàpies, as one of the most important Spanish artists of the postwar generation.
López García paints portraits, landscapes, and still lifes, focusing on the humble environs of the periphery of Madrid, where the "old way" lingers. To many in the art-world, raised on the immediate rush and shocking jolt of the avant-garde, his quiet, painstaking works appear naïve and old-fashioned, irrelevant to the demands of contemporary life. And viewed among the stuffed sharks, stainless-steel bunny rabbits, and Japanese anime that feature so prominently in contemporary art, López García is an anachronism, an aesthetic Don Quixote, an artist who still believes that painting is magical, mysterious, and perhaps even a little heroic.