Guillermo Kuitca can fairly be described as Argentinas best-known contemporary artist. At the 2007 Venice Biennale he received the ultimate seal of approval, not only being chosen to represent his home country, but also featuring heavily in the Arsenale show selected by US uber-curator Robert Storr. Despite such accolades Kuitca is seldom shown in Britain, so it was a rare treat when Londons Hauser & Wirth recently devoted both their West End galleries to a comprehensive account of his recent work and, better still, arranged for the intense, quietly-spoken artist to discuss it with me. Together we looked back at the pathways that led to Kuitcas impressive new direction: his fascination with mapping and ergonomics, his exploration of modes of representation, his early facility for painting, and unusual for one so successful in the art worlds mainstream his lack of art school training.
The early years
Kuitcas parents were Russian, and Kuitca is a Ukranian name which probably used to be Kvitca. Though his work sometimes appears to nod towards constructivism, the artist (whose friends called him Gijé for short) maintains that his Russian background played no real role in his Buenos Aires childhood: Though my work could of course be connected to anything, it would be very false to say that feel it is Russian.
He has always loved to paint. Encouraged by supportive parents who were interested in the arts, he began his public art career exceptionally young with an exhibition at 13. Kuitca says that, though it was hard to find a gallery, such precociousness felt perfectly natural, and he has never seen why others might think it dangerous to show so young. Of course, he adds, I can now see that some of the work was not so good, but that can happen at any age!
He never went to art school, feeling those available at the time were too stuck in academic 19th-century practices, so instead he attended various workshops. Nonetheless, he doesnt see himself as a self-taught artist. His formal studies were of cinema, theatre and music, but always with the intention that these would feed into his visual art as, indeed, they have. Logically enough, Kuitcas own adventurous workshop teaching is now highly regarded: he has set up structured and wide-ranging programmes for young artists since he was a young artist himself, selling each three-year programme to a different institution.
Names and places, maps and mattresses
Now in his mid-40s, Kuitca has been best-known since the 1980s for his use of maps particularly his transcriptions of topography onto mattresses- and related representations of spatial and temporal relationships such as family trees and the floor plans of stadiums, prisons and theatres. The maps came from paintings made in his early 20s which showed aerial views of houses. Wanting to show the pattern beyond architectural details, he adopted maps because he liked the way they occupy a space somewhere between the abstract and the representational. That gave him, he says, room for pictorial action without being trapped in some pre-established language.
Kuitca was also attracted to place names, which he thinks of as being read out aloud so that the paintings are of sounds even more than of places. Commentators have suggested that the maps show the psychic through the physical and are therefore indirect references to the 1976-83 military dictatorship in Argentina. Kuitca accepts rather than embraces such readings: it was never my first intention to make a political statement. That was probably naïve, but I cannot control that, and I admit the possible crossover between the geo-political implications of the map and the historical facts. But while Kuitca may recognize the broader social implications of these works, he doesnt see them as personal to him, and always uses maps of foreign countries-perhaps, he says, because he wanted to distance himself from the self-referential art which was predominant when he began making them. Not that Kuitcas maps would be practical to use: they are more confusing than helpful, consistent with his always being more interested in them as placed to get lost in.
Concurrent with the maps, Kuitca also made works which, instead of places, used names from the phone book, these being just as foreign to him. Links between people are suggested by cartographic arrangements, which nowadays seem to prefigure internet connections a retrospective reading which Kuitca accepts provides some gains, some losses in the works resonance. The move from the family connections suggested through his early paintings of apartment blocks to the citywide listing of a phone book also mirrors the interest in shifting between scales in Kuitcas map works.
In 1994 both series merged in Kuitcas first major UK exhibition, a memorable installation at Londons Whitechapel Gallery featuring maps painted onto small mattresses reminiscent of childrens beds (20 of which were recently acquired by the Tate). These effectively brought together the personal statement of the works involving the names with the geographical concerns of the maps. I didnt think of it as an eccentric idea, he says. It was a perfect intersection between two types of terrain, an encounter between very public and very private space.
Ergonomics and architecture
Around the year 2000, Kuitca began exploring a subject which has become more resonant in the light of 9/11: the business of airport baggage handling. At first he produced fairly realistic and very large three-dimensional depictions of conveyor belts the machine as if removed from the airport domain, Kuitca points out, with no people or luggage. He also created diagrams of the movements of unclaimed luggage on the belts. Quite apart from the general stresses of airports, he says, we feel anxious waiting for our luggage to appear, and I also imagined the situation of taking the wrong luggage and opening it later to wonder whose it is. The process also carries an element of theatre, which Kuitca emphasizes in some pictures by replacing the rubber screens or flaps through which the belt-borne luggage passes with a velvet curtain. Again, he explores the boundary between personal concerns and the public stage in work which, as he describes it, sounds more political in its origins than the maps.
Meanwhile, Kuitca had branched out into numerous depictions of building-related plans. He started with large institutions like hospitals, prisons, theatres and cemeteries but soon became more interested in the equipment than the spaces- confessional booths, workout machines, slot machines, peep show booths and in the particular actions, from praying to masturbation, which went with the equipment, as opposed to the more passive roles of spectators. This led him to consider the science behind such layouts: the way that there are established ergonomics for the optimum height of gambling tables and so on, in order to influence how users act. I found this horrible but fascinating, says Kuitca. It is scary when you start thinking that all the measurements work the same way whatever the functions. And the paintings work in the same way, so US congressional seats are equated with peep shows and confessional booths. (Not so illogical, some might think.) Some of these plans are also shown as Nocturnes-blue and black visions, which suggest flying over such places by night when there is no activity. And there are also many collage-based works in which spaces, especially theatres along, perhaps, with their meanings appear to be in the act of either formation or disintegration.
During all this time, Kuitca had been producing large round diary paintings as a parallel stream of work. They started by chance in 1984: I had a circular table in my studio. For practical reasons I needed to cover it with cardboard, then found without discipline that I covered it with notes, phone numbers, to-do lists and doodles. I wasnt drawing much at the time, so I found I was capturing things which would otherwise have gone nowhere. Kuitca then developed the idea further by covering the table with rejected canvas and using paint on it. He began to think that these informal activities added up to a kind of journal: I dont write much, so a visual diary made sense, he explains. It was somehow poetic to write them over failure except that a rectangular painting made round takes on a different dynamic and need no longer be a failure. They remain functioning notes, but at rates varying from two to five months per canvas, Kuitca had produced 38 such table diaries when he displayed them titled to a vertical format as wall-mounted paintings to great acclaim in Venice last year. The sequence is ongoing.
With such a variety of past work, it is no surprise that Kuitca has moved on yet again. It is true that, after a break of several years, he has returned to map themes in some of his recent works; there are in a new highly fractured style, some on paper, and one a giant and laborious oil. The shows dominant painting, however, take their starting points quite differently, from Analytical Cubism and the work of Lucio Fontana.
To create them, Kuitca walked up and down in front of large canvases, making short diagonal strokes matching his walking rhythm-an action in line with Pina Bauschs statement that walking is enough. The modern choreographers saying stuck Kuitca forcibly in 1980 and he has often quoted it since as the source of his particular minimalism of means. In this context it also connects to his interest in moving different scales, the human and the infinite: were those paces taken before the abstract void?
Robert Storr, in his essay for Hauser & Wirths new works equates Kuitcas new works with archeological digs for the partially buried monuments of modernism, curious to find out how their recombinant elements might result in new form. As such, they seem to Storr more a matter of recovering useful fragments of other eras in order to reconstruct painting than of using painting to critique its own heritage.
That may be so, but there is a sense in which these paintings contradict both their sources. Those in a cubist style differ from the Cubists in starting from abstraction, whereas the original point of Cubism was to represent the world from a number of viewpoints. Kuitcas works addressing Fontana contradict the Italian by turning his physical slashes in the canvas, designed to be radical incursions into the paintings space, into illusory representations of those slashes.
This is all of a piece with two characteristics of Kuitcas work as a whole. Firstly, it deals with space in fascinating ways, especially in its pulling back-and-forth between two and three dimensions. Are Kuitcas concert halls pictures of two-dimensional schema intended to represent three dimensions? Or are the paintings themselves plans? One could even ask if sound and emotion are implied as additional dimensions. The Cubist and Fontana styles add a new spin on that push-pull between dimensions, and a third new style appears to combine two types of space: the Cubist and the architectural.
Secondly, Kuitca tends to position his work at the boundaries between apparent opposites: abstract and representational, public and private, personal and political, presence and absence, meaning and use. These new works are poised between original reinterpretation and mere copy, between homage and critique. And its those tensions which give the work much of its charge.
- Matias Duville