Monday, March 1st, 2004

Gerardo Rueda: Madrid-Paris-Madrid

Chelsea Art Museum
556 W 22
New York, NY 10011
phone: 212-255-0719

January 21 – March 14, 2004

Gerardo Rueda The Window 1971 Painted wood construction, 63.5 x 47 inches Collection Jose Luis Rueda
Gerardo Rueda, The Window 1971 Painted wood construction, 63.5 x 47 inches Collection Jose Luis Rueda

The evolution of the singular and determined vision of the Spanish master Gerardo Rueda (1926-1996) is clearly presented in a rare exhibition of his work here in the US at the Chelsea Art Museum. Rueda is often considered to be the only Spanish constructivist. This presentation does well in establishing this relationship, but it also shows a unique connection to Art Informel, Arte Povera and Minimalism, while at the same time allowing Rueda to be experienced as a passionate master of subtlety. This survey includes work beginning in the mid-1950’s and continuing through 1996, the year of his untimely death of a brain hemorrhage.

From the moment the exhibition begins there is an absolute sense of entering the world of Rueda. Each work is reduced and controlled to the point where even the frame or framing device becomes an integral element. Many of the works are either monochromatic or consist of just a few colors or a few carefully placed elements. The form of the work includes paintings, painted constructions on canvas and wood, found object constructions, and sculptures. Within these works Rueda carefully uses many found objects including: cigarette and match boxes, a washboard, stretcher bars, blocks of wood, architectural moldings and even a portion of a worm eaten old wooden structure with rusted metal handles.

Rueda’s greatest gift is perhaps his ability to understand the abstraction inherent in cubism and to realize it in terms of volume both literal and implied. In his hands form is not flattened to the surface of the picture plane. Instead he sees form as an idea, as something that exists simultaneously with space and image. This can be clearly understood by first examining the earlier works and then seeing how he extends and develops these ideas in later works.

Four well-chosen early paintings all from the 1950’s hung together as a group and presented the foundation for the formal language of abstraction that would occupy Rueda for the rest of his life. The earliest work in the group, “Landscape (Carabanchel),” (1955), reduces the visible word into four rectangular volumetric forms. Even though this image still retains a quality of illusionistic space as a result of the use of perspective in combination with a remarkably sensitive depiction of natural light it is also already characteristically impenetrable and depopulated exerting its primacy of existence as a thing in the world over any specific incident that occurs within its four edges. In an elongated horizontal work from just the following year, “Untitled,” (1956), this idea is developed to the next stage. Here Rueda presents a combination of perspectival forms merging seamlessly with the triangular geometry that defines the entire picture. Barbara Rose, in her catalog essay, clearly articulates this important aspect of Rueda’s project: “Perspective drawing is often reduced into interpenetrating triangular projections that are intended not to fool the eye but to stimulate it into recognizing that pictorial space is an illusion that the artist a priori defines as such without denying himself the pleasure of playing with it.”

In “The Window,” (1971) Rueda presents six white blocks on a white surface surrounded by a white frame within a frame. Not only does the visible frame expose the typical structural support of a canvas it also plays with the idea that the image of painting is something seen through a window. Although here ironically all we see is white. In addition, he continues his slight of hand by turning upside down the furthest left block of the six blocks in the center of the otherwise bi-laterally symmetrical composition. It is this simple act that creates all of the tension and results in an enigmatic object. This work as well as earlier works like “Pink Painting,” (1965) and “Sky Blue Painting,” (1966) in the “Bastidores” series (Bastidores is the Spanish word for the rectangular wooden supports on which canvas is stretched) are closely related to the work of Alighiero Boetti, in particular Boetti’s stunning piece “Nothing to See, Nothing to Hide,” (1969) and Giulio Paolini’s works from the early 60’s, both of whom are associated with Arte Povera.

Gerardo Rueda Great Calligraphy 1992 painted wood construction, 51 x 51 inches Private collection
Gerardo Rueda, Great Calligraphy 1992 painted wood construction, 51 x 51 inches Private collection

In later works like “Great Calligraphy,” (1992), Rueda is in complete control of his formal vocabulary. In this piece we see a shallow large square box with three horizontal bands. The middle one is two and one half times the height of the top and bottom, which are the same size. The color of each is a different rich earth tone. The top, a beautiful yellow ochre, is the strongest, and the frame itself, a sienna, adds a fourth color darker than the other three having the effect of holding in the other hues in perfect balance. This in itself is breathtaking, but there is more. The bottom of the three bands is comprised of wood like the others, but it does not fill the space. Below it inserted into the box is another piece of wood. It is not just any piece of wood, but one that Rueda has used in the process of making his work to block up other pieces as they were coated to monochromatic perfection. As a result it has specks and drips of paint, marks, scratches and other evidence of use. It is a remarkable inclusion. Rueda places it here and by doing so tells us that nothing is left out, that every aspect, every act of creating has its place and is important. But still there is more. The bottom band of wood above this block is incised by a saw. These thin kerfs although remarkably casual in their appearance are precise in their location and create a triangular rhythmic motif that activates the entire painting and includes two triangular holes that allow access to the interior of the box construction. This use of the kerf as a drawing element literally cutting into the piece is stunning and has little precedent but it can also been seen in the small wood drawings of the Minimalist Fred Sandback with who’s work this piece would complement.

From his early exploration with a structured cubist vocabulary to his late two-dimensional constructions and sculptures Rueda always maintains a keen awareness of history that rejects nostalgia and sentimentality in a style that is severe, classical, playful, ironic, and without question forward thinking. His body of work, which speaks with so many connections to European art of the second half of the twentieth century, feels uniquely fresh, honest and free of all of the contrived strategies so common in the current state of artistic creation.