The narrative plan set out by Plutarch in his Parallel Lives has been one of the most strongly rooted in the history of literature. The history of art has also made frequent use of it, for not in vain did Vasari’s Lives, the foundational text of the discipline (as were those of Bellori later), have it as primary source, and it is well known the influence that both had on the biographical outlines that followed.
So it is not unusual that to date so many approaches have been made to pairs of artists through their intertwined histories, so as to thus describe the diversity of attitudes faced with the same reality.
In this spirit, the Centro José Guerrero, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente and Acción Cultural Española, in cooperation with the Museo de Bellas Artes de Asturias, present the “Guerrero/Vicente” exhibition project, which links the work of the only two Spaniards to have been part of one of the most important art movements of the 20th century – American Abstract Expressionism. The exhibition therefore seeks to highlight the similarities and the differences between two artists that historians have traditionally dealt with separately as individuals, given the unbending artistic and stylistic personalities of both.
A number of biographical coincidences mark the two artists’ early careers. Esteban Vicente was born in 1903 and José Guerrero in 1914, so that, until the central years of their two trajectories (and, indeed, their two lives), the former kept ahead of the latter’s movements. But even with the corresponding décalage they shared most of the main scenarios. They both came from provincial Spain to study at the San Fernando School of Fine Arts (Madrid). After concluding their academic training, they both set out for Paris, the hotbed of the European artistic avant-garde. They were both attracted to Matisse, but also to Cubism and the Paris School. Because of their marriages to American women, they both moved to the USA after a brief stay in London. Both travelled to the USA in search of “the art of their time”; Esteban Vicente in 1936, José Guerrero in 1949. A bloody war, with all that it entailed, was fought between their two departures.
Both artists had begun their careers in the framework of renewed figuration, which gradually diluted mimesis to grow closer to abstraction. The turning point in both cases, the year marking the change in their artistic language, was 1950. For Esteban Vicente, the most important event in his life would be the Talent 1950 exhibition, for which he was chosen by Meyer Shapiro and Clement Greenberg. That same year, José Guerrero settled in Greenwich Village, where there was an established colony of artists, and he began to work with agents who soon led him to the gallery owner Betty Parsons. Over the following years both our artists, each with his own likes and dislikes, were in touch with others such as De Kooning, Rothko, Kline, Motherwell, Guston, Newman, and others, and remained faithful to the spirit of that first generation of American Abstract Expressionism.
Despite their stylistic differences, Vicente and Guerrero shared a common fixation with colour. This happened quite soon in Guerrero’s case, but later for Vicente, whose first concern was for the structure of the picture, but at the end of 1950 he began to investigate the manner of capturing or fixing light, and managed to do so thanks to colour, which also impregnated the work with emotion.
We have focused on three outstanding moments of their shared trajectory in order to choose the works to be shown:
– The early pictures of a figurative nature are represented with a set of their respective landscapes, which was the genre they developed most and with most fruition – urban and rural scenes in which we can sense their gradual inclination towards abstraction.
Esteban Vicente. Sin título, 1923. Oleo sobre cartón. 22 x 27,5 cm
Colección Sagrario de Uliarte Vicente,. Madrid
José Guerrero. Panorámica de Roma, 1948. Oleo sobre lienzo. 87 x 184 cm . © José Guerrero, VEGAP, Segovia, 2019
Centro José Guerrero, Diputación de Granada
– In both cases this took place in the early fifties, when we find complete, determined immersion with no turning back that both artists effected in the type of painting that was then carrying the torch of the avant-garde. The decisive factor for them to fully accept these ideas was the visual exploration they undertook on paper – collage for Vicente, engraving for Guerrero, were experimental laboratories where they progressed until they felt sure of the new path, and from which they took on increasingly ambitious work. For Vicente, collage became a means of searching for the essence of painting. The pieces of paper suggested the sensation of something material, rather like brushstrokes transferred to a more intimate format. The superposition of paper allowed him to create the sensation of transparency, luminosity and depth also to be seen in his paintings. In Guerrero’s case, engraving allowed him to definitively free himself from figuration thanks to a process of formal refinement resulting in biomorphic abstraction.
Esteban Vicente. Sin título, 1958. Oleo sobre lienzo. 76,2 x 96,8 cm
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente. Segovia
José Guerrero. Sin título, c.1958. Gouache sobre papel. 40 x 60 cm . © José Guerrero, VEGAP, Segovia, 2019
Colección Banco de España, Madrid
– In the seventies, both Vicente and Guerrero had reached complete maturity. From then on, and once each had in his own manner exhausted the teachings of abstract expressionism (to which they contributed major works), they proceeded to distil their own distinctive voices, leading to their different manners of painting in fields of colour.
José Guerrero gave great importance to space, its limits, the boundaries between planes, the zones where the colours interrelated. What interested him, in Bonet’s words, “is for the colour to flow, for the painting to breathe, for the picture to be vibrant, luminous, charged with energy”. Esteban Vicente had already created his own world organised on the basis of shapes that float in space and give meaning to the work, where he worked obsessively on the grading and saturation of colour and, through it, on light. Esteban Vicente’s production in this period can be considered a series in which, although each work has its own individuality, together they all form part of a common process whose foundation is harmony.
Esteban Vicente. Nuance, 1990. Oleo sobre lienzo. 132 x 162,5 cm
Colecciones Reales. Patrimonio Nacional. Palacio de la Moncloa. Madrid
José Guerrero. La brecha III, 1989. Técnica mixta sobre papel. 195 x 260 cm . © José Guerrero, VEGAP, Segovia, 2019
Colección Diputación de Granada
Plutarch concludes his paired tales with brief texts (sýnkrisis) in which, after revising the points of his basic plot and the deeds of his subjects, he compares and morally assesses their lives, pointing out the differences without clearly making some merits prevail over others. We limit ourselves to showing in the exhibition the concomitances of our protagonists … and leave the last word to the viewer.
Francisco Baena, Director of the Centro José Guerrero
Ana Doldán de Cáceres, Director and Curator of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente
Relación de las obras en las distintas sedes que completan la itinerancia de la muestra
Biografías de José Guerrero y Esteban Vicente