by ANNA McNAY
Arguably one of the most significant Spanish artists of the 20th century, Manolo Valdés (b1942, Valencia) works across a variety of media. He draws his inspiration from existing paintings that he likes, and then reinterprets fragments of them – usually faces – as large-scale paintings and sculptures. His work – and his life – is influenced by the developments in art history, and, like a magpie, he takes methods, media and ideas from his predecessors. He is permanently on the look out for images and interpretations and his enthusiasm and excitement are palpable.
Studio International spoke to him at the opening of his solo exhibition, Manolo Valdés: Recent Work – Paintings and Sculptures, at Marlborough Fine Art, where his daughter, Regina Valdés Montalvo, kindly acted as interpreter.
Anna McNay: Your exhibition here at Marlborough Fine Art brings together recent paintings, sculptures and works on paper that will give visitors an overview of your visual language as a whole. Your initial training was as a painter. How did your career develop and your style change over the years?
Manolo Valdés: Artists traverse disciplines very easily, whether it be etchings, paintings or sculpture. Not just today, but even in the 20th century, artists like Matisse and Picasso were readily doing it. In my case, I take an image from another artist and reread or reinterpret it, so, on top of doing a painting, if I also make a sculpture from the same image, then the reading and interpretation of the original image will become deeper and more complex. I never know whether I’m going to be more interested in a painting or a sculpture, so I work on both simultaneously. There will be periods where I focus more on one medium, and periods where I focus more on the other.
AMc: How do you go about selecting which work you want to respond to and reinterpret?
MV: I only interpret or comment on paintings and works that I love. It’s a matter of how to take a work by somebody that you like, which is why you pick it in the first place, and, from that, creating another painting. The painting that I create is autonomous from the original image. I place myself in front of the original image in the same way that an artist would sit in front of a tree, a lake or a landscape. The starting point is always the same. I could never speak to an image that I don’t love.
AMc: Do you always go to see the original and work from that, or do you sometimes select something from a book?
MV: I usually see it in person. The books serve a purpose when it comes to remembering, but they don’t give you the texture, or indeed the scale.
AMc: Your scale is obviously a lot larger than the original, though.
MV: Generally, yes. My starting point might be something from Velázquez, for example. Then, from that painting, I pick a fragment. Generally, it’s a head. Between when that head was created in the 17th century and now, so many things have happened in art history: material paintings, abstraction, pop art … What did pop art teach us? It taught us large scale. So when I look at and reread that image from the 17th century, I can’t stop thinking and block out everything that’s happened in art history between then and now. Everything that’s happened becomes a tool with which to reinterpret the original image.
AMc: During the 1960s, you formed Equipo Crónica, an artistic team that used pop art to question Franco’s dictatorship in Spain and the history of art itself. The work you produced with this group was largely labelled as pop art, but I wonder how affiliated you felt to pop art in the UK and US?
MV: From the perspective of being a little ingenuous and living in a society that, at that moment in time, didn’t have any liberties, we thought that the pop art movement was missing political meaning, content and message. So we tried to integrate a social meaning and message into pop art.
AMc: When the group dissolved in 1981, you reinvented your work. What changed? Did you take out the political element, for example?
MV: Yes, I took out the political message from my work as it evolved. But, by the end of Equipo Crónica, our message had already changed, because we were now living in a democracy. We no longer had to fight for things that we had already fought for and achieved. So much time has passed and, if Equipo Crónica were still active, I have no idea what we’d be painting now.
AMc: Can you say a little bit about your working process, because it really is unique, with the burlap. How did you come to start working with this material?
MV: The catalogue of methods and materials is there and each artist simply picks it up from his predecessors. Very early on, I adopted the concept that all materials can be useful. I was 16 and in Valencia in a very traditional fine arts academy when I first went to Paris. When I got there, I saw Pierre Soulages for the first time and how he put a big white canvas on the floor and just dumped the paint on it and spread it about with a piece of wood. And then I saw how Robert Rauschenberg put a large dissected eagle on a canvas. From that moment on, I realised that, to paint, you don’t just need a paintbrush. I discovered freedom: visual freedom and artistic freedom. From then on it was a case of “everything goes”.
AMc: But you do have quite a recognisable style.
MV: I do, because part of the game, part of the art world, is that you need some kind of an image that is recognisable, some kind of a brand. Paintings and art and creation never come from nothing; they come from other artists and bits and pieces of other works. Everything that comes out new is always a reading of something else that’s already been done. That’s the goal: you have to produce a product that’s different from a previous product. When you do something different, that’s when people start to recognise it.
AMc: Where do you look for your inspiration? Who are your art historical influences and sources?
MV: I go to museums and look at actual paintings. Sometimes I even look at real objects from the point of view of paintings that have interpreted those objects. For example, I like sunflowers because Van Gogh painted them and I only like apples if they look like Cezanne’s apples! I might even like a person more if they look like a painting that I’ve seen and like. It really is just painting in general that influences me. One time I was making a series of paintings of rain. During those couple of months, it rained outdoors but I didn’t even bother looking at the real rain; I just looked at interpretations of rain by other artists or in literature.
AMc: So you turn to literature as well as painting?
MV: I’m referring specifically to literature that comments on art. It’s a complementary commentary and it helps you see a work of art from a perspective that you might not otherwise have seen it from. Or it might help you see an aspect within the painting that you would otherwise have missed. Everybody reads a painting differently. I’m always looking for a sentence or an image or something to take with me to help me create a new image: it’s like a treasure hunt. I just look to see what I can take. Whenever I go to a museum, aside from just enjoying looking at things, I’m always wondering what I can take away with me. When I go to the dentist or doctor, I have to look at every magazine in the waiting room, hoping I’ll find an image. I’m always looking.
AMc: Do you, in that case, also read criticism of your own work?
MV: Yes, I do. When it is good, it makes me happy; when it isn’t good, I’m not so happy. But I’m at a point in my career where I’m more focused on the critics who can teach me something by looking at my work critically and intelligently. Sometimes they might pick up on something useful I hadn’t seen. Generally, a lot of artists put a lot of emphasis on critics and their criticisms, but, ultimately, next day, there’s different news.
AMc: You have been splitting your time between Madrid and New York for the past two decades. Do the different cultures influence the work you make in each place? Or is it more about having greater access to different museums?
MV: Exactly! It’s about having more access to more information. From the point of view of being a hunter of images, I find more in New York. I always say that, in New York, while it’s not always the best of the best living there, the best will, at some point in their career, go through New York. More so than Madrid. But Madrid, of course, has the Prada.
AMc: You have a commission coming up for some monumental sculptures in the Place Vendôme in Paris.
MV: Yes, the sculptures are between about 12 and 15 metres tall. Monumental sculpture excites and motivates me because it’s a type of art that really affects its environment.
AMc: Are you making new works specifically for the Place Vendôme?
MV: Some of the pieces going there are new, but they weren’t made thinking specifically of the Place Vendôme, because they will then travel to other cities, where they will be interpreted and seen differently. When you think of a city such as Paris, it’s not the same, for example, seeing a sculpture in the Champs Elysées, where people are just driving by, as it is in the Place Vendôme, in the middle of a pedestrian area. The same sculptures would also look very different in the White Nights of St Petersburg. The audience would have different reference points, so the readings would also be very diverse.
AMc: Do you have a large studio with lots of assistants?
MV: I have a large studio in Madrid. What I really have in terms of assistance is the support of a foundry, because I need a lot of equipment and robots and machinery.
AMc: Are the sculptures all bronze?
MV: Some are bronze, some are painted bronze, and some are aluminium. Depending on the image I am reinterpreting, I pick the material that I feel is appropriate. Aluminium is very light, so it allows you to create a much bigger sculpture. It is also very reflective and, if the surface is very large, it will reflect even more. My instinct tells me which material to use for which image.
AMc: Is it important for you that people recognise which works you are responding to?
MV: No. In fact, I think it’s good that each person takes what he or she wants from my work. I recently had a show in New York City, on Broadway, and it spanned 68th Street on the Westside all the way to 166th. The idea behind it was for all different sorts of people from all of these neighbourhoods to see it. The sculptures transitioned from being outside the Lincoln Center and the opera and the ballet to neighbourhoods where there were no such cultural offerings. It was very interesting to see how, depending on where they were geographically, the sculptures were interpreted very differently by the public. A more culturally developed public, for example, will see a sculpture and say: “Ah, this is Velázquez”, recognising the influence. The administration left a phone number that people could call to comment on the sculptures. The further you got from the more culturally centred neighbours, the more diverse the commentaries became. Someone called in and said: “The one with the hat is Lady Gaga!” They didn’t recognise it was from Matisse. I find that really great. It’s all worth something. The importance for me is that my art suggests something to you as a viewer: anything.
• Manolo Valdés: Recent Work – Paintings and Sculptures is at Marlborough Fine Art, London, until 16 July 2016.