The Modern and the Present
Change of Century in the MACBA Collection
This new selection of works from the MACBA Collection follows the theory that, in Catalonia, aesthetic modernity began to emerge in 1950 rather than in the early twentieth century as it had in other European countries. From that point until, say, 1992, the development of artistic practice was closely bound to that of architecture and design.
While the fifties were the years of "Mediterraneanised" rationalism in architecture, materic subjectivism in painting and Neorealism in photography, the new generation of artists that emerged in the sixties reinstated the quest for objectivity as one of their fundamental values. These were the years of Grupo R, Team 10 and the first attempt to set up a Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona (1960-1963), a period when people like Joan Brossa, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Josep M. Mestres Quadreny, Joan Prats and Anna Ricci pooled their many talents at soirées at La Ricarda. The profound social changes that were introduced after May 1968 gave way to art that was strongly influenced by conceptual experimentation and political commitment.
The exhibition also included works by international artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, Öyvind Fahlström, Richard Hamilton, Frederick Kiesler and Constant Nieuwenhuys. Two sections explored the relationships between poetry and dissidence, and the use of the body as an object and content in art.
The way of presenting the MACBA Collection at the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona has significantly evolved during the last few years and is currently experiencing a quantitative and qualitative change. Quantitative because the space dedicated to it has been considerably extended. Exhibiting the Collection has involved turning the central axis of MACBA into a mise-en-scène, acting as a genetic code and an experimentation table for the Museum project. On this occasion, the exhibition includes works from diverse public and private Catalan, Spanish and European institutions, such as the Fundació MACBA, Generalitat de Catalunya, Barcelona City Council, 'la Caixa' Foundation, Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Biblioteca de Catalunya, and Col·legi d'Arquitectes de Catalunya, among others. Therefore, the MACBA Collection is an initiative dedicated to public service that is constantly expanding and being articulated according to the necessities of narrative projects. It does not only refer to a material and inert heritage, but also identifies with a will to become a motor of intelligence. To this end, the Museum has recently created The MACBA Study Center, where a facet of collecting is developed that is complementary to the traditional sense. From a qualitative point of view, the MACBA Collection is currently focussing on a conception of artistic practice beyond the visual arts. It is not a conclusive collection covering a particular period in recent history: it is an organism that feeds on the debates and questions generated by the present. From the present to the past, artists from different generations and origins can be seen together around thematic environments that distance themselves from the linearity of chronological succession. The current presentation of the MACBA Collection derives from the thesis that the aesthetic emergence of modernity in our cultural context began in the 1950s rather than in the early twentieth century. Since then, until probably 1992, the practice of art must be seen in parallel to architecture and design, as the historians Enric Franch and Valentín Roma maintain. The close relationships between artists, architects and designers can create an artistic atmosphere, albeit with some strong dissonances. On the one hand, architectural rationalism, in its 'Mediterranean' version, and adapted to a culture of the south, questions certain dogmas of the modern movement and materialises itself pragmatically around the family home and a new conception of the domestic bourgeois space. Associations such as GATCPAC and ADLAN, created in the early 1930s, mark the beginning of the modern project in the fields of architecture, urbanism and the arts. The public space will take a while to accept these aesthetic innovations that will evolve from the interior of the domestic space and out into the street. On the other hand, painting rejects the long influence of Surrealism –Dau al Set could be regarded as the conclusion of this aesthetic programme –in favour of a colourless, abstract, material, gestural and subjective image opposed to the geometry, transparency and simplicity of modern buildings. Freedom of gesture will equate the freedom of the individual, repressed and mutilated by the regime of General Franco. Against this, photography rejects idealism, reason as a parallel world that turns its back on reality, and the language of gestural abstraction. In the 1950s, the practice of photography is impregnated with Neo-Realism and offers images that are in sharp contrast to those produced by pictorial practices. The documentary genre, which explores the relationship between individuals and groups and postwar urban and rural environments, will go through a period of expansion, characterised by the photographer's commitment to his time and environment, which will last until the 1980s with the emergence of pictorialism. Urban and social transformations are at the heart of the work of photographers, such as Francesc Català-Roca, Joan Colom, Oriol Maspons and Xavier Miserachs. Late 1950s abstraction, closer to CoBrA and the literary pessimism of the moment than to American Colour Field painting, has little in common with rationalism but can quite happily coexist with it, without this being seen as a cultural contradiction. Aesthetic opposites are ultimately brought together by the regime, poverty, autarky and isolation. In the mid-sixties, however, the next generation of artists will react against the expressionist subjectivism that dominated the previous decade and reintroduce the search for objectivity as one of the fundamental values of artistic practice. To counteract the lack of public institutions giving support and visibility to contemporary creation, private initiatives - the so-called civilian society –organise private events, such as the meetings and music cycles at La Ricarda, which bring together artists, poets and musicians, from Anna Ricci to Merce Cunningham and John Cage, Joan Brossa, Moisès Villèlia, Carles Santos, Joan Miró and Josep M. Mestres Quadreny. Associations and groups supporting the arts, such as the Agrupación de Artistas Actuales(AAA)and Club 49, are the forerunners of the limited company that ran the first contemporary art museum in Barcelona in 1960. Cesáreo Rodríguez Aguilera and Alexandre Cirici Pellicer, with the help of Joan Prats, Joaquim Gomis, René Metras, Alfons Milà and Gustau Gili, among others, will conduct the first experiment for the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Barcelona, with a vision that was ahead of its time, albeit very different to the present one. From 1960 to 1963, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Barcelona organised events and built a collection that is currently housed at the Biblioteca Museu Víctor Balaguer, Vilanova i la Geltrú. The collection includes works by Joan Josep Tharrats, Josep Guinovart, Joan Hernández Pijuan, Albert Ràfols-Casamada, Antonio Saura, Àngel Ferrant, Antoni Cumella and Andreu Alfaro. From June 1960, when the museum opened in the old quarters of Barcelona's FAD at the top of the Coliseum cinema, until February 1963, when its activities ceased, the museum organised twentythree exhibitions. In the field of graphic design, authors such as Ricard Giralt Miracle and Joan Pedragosa put forward an aesthetic linked to the needs of advertising in an economy in the process of liberalisation, which would reach its peak during the 1960s. Excellent examples of it were the new commercial spaces, such as the Librería Técnica Extranjera, designed by the German artist Erwin Bechtold, who lived in Barcelona from 1951 to 1954. The exhibition designs of Grup R were also close to the techniques of spatial and conceptual communication typical of the avant-garde before the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. The original forms of Antoni Cumella were exhibited at the Triennale of Milan, 1957 –where he won a gold medal –next to works by Joan Miró and popular art pieces. Grup R was created in 1951 in the studio of the architects Josep Antoni Coderch and Manuel Valls. Soon they were joined by other architects, such as Antoni de Moragas, Josep M. Sostres, Oriol Bohigas, Josep M. Martorell, Joaquim Gili and Josep Pratmarsó, and later by yet others. What characterises this collective is the confluence of heterogeneous personalities in a common project. Grup R was active from 1951 to 1961, and during that time, besides producing high-standard individual architectural works, they also organised activities such as competitions, meetings and group visits to architectural works, as well as campaigns in protest against the regime's urbanistic projects. They also organised lectures by renowned international architects such as Alberto Sartoris, Gio Ponti, Bruno Zevi and Alvar Aalto, who acted as salutary lessons and had a deep impact. Of the four exhibitions organised by Grup R, the second was the most noteworthy. Entitled Industria y Arquitectura (Industry and Architecture, Galerías Layetanas, Barcelona 1954), it showed the work of architects and industrial designers, next to that of artists such as Antoni Cumella, Àngel Ferrant, Joan Miró, Eudald Serra, Jorge Oteiza and Antoni Tàpies. At that time Josep Antoni Coderch was part of Team 10, together with Aldo van Eyck, Alison and Peter Smithson, Oskar Hansen and Oswald Mathias Ungers, among other innovators of architecture and urbanism during the second half of the twentieth century. Team 10 developed and renewed the critique of canonical Modernism formulated by Constant Nieuwenhuys and the Situationists in the midfifties, and took a pragmatic approach to the critique of modern urbanism through projects that were very diverse, and even contradictory.
Casa Ugalde (1951)is a building by Coderch that draws formal parallels with the sculpture of Jorge Oteiza, seeking wide openings onto the space and creating an independent wing with a new geometry. Almost contemporaneously, Paul Virilio and Claude Parent, in the magazine Architecture Principe, analyse the components of bunker architecture, which, in time, will lead to the formulation of the first examples of Brutalist architecture, represented here at home by Ricardo Bofill's building Walden 7 (1970). Bofill creates architectural scenes inspired by the experimental cinema of the time, whose main figures were the filmmaker and producer Jacinto Esteva and authors from the so-called School of Barcelona, such as Pere Portabella, Vicente Aranda, Romà Gubern and Joaquim Jordà. With his critique of International Modernism, the already mentioned Constant Nieuwenhuys leads the way towards the achievement of freedom through play and the disinterested securing of pleasure. His project New Babylon (1963)is closely related to the work of Öyvind Fahlström, Sitting…Blocks (1966), where the artist invites the viewer to participate freely in the distribution of the blocks. The transition between the sixties and seventies sees deep changes in culture, the economy and society in general. The events of 1968 will leave solid roots and a longlasting impact on artistic practices. The avant-gardes of the second half of the twentieth century first come to light during the fifties, but they do not consolidate themselves until the sixties. Here at home, the break between the generation of abstract painters and the next brings to the fore a very heterogeneous group of artists with one thing in common: a desire to experiment with forms and materials and, above all, with the different ways of relating to the artistic object. A new conception of art and the values it transmits will appear; the already mentioned –albeit in a too generic manner –Conceptual artists will reject the pictorial gesture in favour of objectivity and order. Actions, ephemeral happenings, unpleasant works, the use of language, the documentary use of photography and the presence of cinema and video mark the progressive politicisation of many experimental practices that take a clear stand against Franco's dictatorship. In this context, design schools, such as Elisava and later on Eina, will become centres of experimentation and innovation both formally and as education centres. The meetings at the Universitat Catalana d'Estiu in Prada de Conflent; the Congress of ICSID in Eivissa in 1971; the Primera Muestra de Arte Actual, Comunicación Actual in L'Hospitalet in 1973; Terrassa Informació d'Art, and Informació d'Art Concepte, Banyoles, also in 1973, are the precursors of subsequent cycles of exhibitions on new artistic behaviours at the German Institute, the Col·legi d'Arquitectes de Catalunya and the FAD, in Barcelona, 1974. The new artistic practices will acquire greater visibility thanks to exhibition programmes in spaces that are halfway between the commercial gallery and the alternative space, such as Sala Vinçon, Galeria G and Galeria Mec-Mec. Independently of the market, the avant-gardes in the sixties and seventies open up to the numerous possibilities that will eventually become the legacy of artistic practices today. While modern architecture after 1950 distances itself from Centro-European canons, a figure like Frederick Kiesler, anti-prophet of Neo-Plasticism, defines the idea of continuous spaces in a project entitled Endless House, 1947–61. Continuous space has no caesuras between wall, floor and ceiling: the edges disappear. Endless House is not a sculpture; it is eminently functional. The aim is to define a functionality radically opposed to the simplification and industrialisation of the type of architecture, design and urbanism inspired by Le Corbusier, the Letter from Athens or the Bauhaus. 'Nature creates bodies, but art creates life,' Kiesler wrote in 1966. 'The Endless House is not amorphous, not a free-for-all form. On the contrary, its construction has strict boundaries according to the scale of our living. Its shape and form are determined by inherent life forces, not by building code standards or the vagaries of décor fads.' Kiesler also applies this spatial concept to the design of art exhibitions, such as the famous Art of this Century, 1942, at the Peggy Guggenheim' eponymous gallery in New York. The assertion that 'nature creates bodies' is the point of departure for Armando Andrade Tudela's Marcahuasi, 2009-10. Andrade Tudela lets his film camera meander around a rocky and volcanic landscape in the Andes, to the east of Lima, a place that became a hippy pilgrimage destination during the seventies, as it was seen as a metaphor for the fusion with nature. The tension between the imitation of organic forms and the way man's actions configure the space is at the root of Pablo Palazuelo's paintings. An aviator during the Spanish Civil War, Palazuelo distils a bird's eye view of agricultural fields, forests, paths and towns from a notion of drawing linked to the kinetic experience. Equally, Gego investigates the expressive possibilities of the line as 'thread' crisscrossing the space and forming a woven sculpture. A re-reading of the origins of modern forms and ideas is a must for a generation of artists who have grown in the absence of new art canons. The investigation of forms and ideas stemming from an already distant past allows them to articulate their aesthetic positions from the critique of the modern. The abstraction of the individual object –as evidenced by the cinematic work of Mathias Poledna, Double Old Fashion, 2009, based on a series of glassware designed by Adolf Loos at the beginning of the twentieth century –constructs a phantasmagoria that turns the industrial object into a shadow. The origins of modern design, the new idea of beauty, are enveloped in an aura similar to the one attributed by Walter Benjamin to the unique artistic object in relation to its photographic reproduction. In Debacle, 2009, Xabier Salaberria analyses the abstract forms of Constructivist sculpture from the point of view of support systems such as pedestals and basis, for the presentation of Jorge Oteiza's sculptures at the São Paulo Biennial, 1957. Salaberria turns an object into an abstract form by depriving it of its functionality. In the same way, Andrade Tudela recuperates handmade forms to realise imitations and re-readings of early Modernist sculpture. These are examples of how the art of the present searches in the distant past for the key to understanding the recent past. The current presentation of the MACBA Collection ends with three chapters that can be considered 'classic' in the discourses proposed by the Museum in the last few years. On the one hand, European Pop with figures such as Richard Hamilton, Nigel Henderson and Eduardo Paolozzi, whose work is significantly represented at the MACBA Collection. We also find the work of Thomas Bayrle, next to artists such as Miralda, Dorothée Selz and Eulàlia Grau, who, during the sixties and seventies, denounced mass society, consumerism and women's stereotypes in the media. A second chapter includes artistic productions from successive generations, which reveal the subtle division between poetic practices and critical attitudes towards the world and inter-personal relationships: from Marcel Broodthaers to Krzystof Wodiczko, via Pedro G. Romero, León Ferrari and Jon Mikel Euba. A last chapter dedicated to the use of the body as object and content in art, includes works by Joan Jonas, Bruce Nauman, Dan Graham, Fina Miralles, Àngels Ribé and Francesc Abad, next to works by Sergio Prego and Asier Mendizabal. Curators: Bartomeu Marí and Antònia Maria Perelló. Organised and produced by: Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA).