Tantas historias

On Contemporary Art

Luis Fernández-Galiano 

Contemporary Art is a terra ignota for many, and even those of us who take it upon ourselves to follow it closely often suffer the disorientation and confusion of the explorer of unmapped territory. Certainly of no help is the lyrical and vacuous hermetism of a good part of art criticism, which a leading character in Dans la maison (the film by François Ozon, based on the play by Juan Mayorga) accurately describes as the most trivial of writing genres, few things being more potentially loathsome to a lover of literature than texts of exhibition catalogs. But le professeur Germain of Ozon and Mayorga would surely have enjoyed and benefited from the recent books by Javier Maderuelo and Valeriano Bozal, professors like him and specialists in contemporary art, who in clear and informative prose offer us maps of the artistic production of our times that are extraordinarily useful to anyone wishing to delve into this alternately abrupt and phantasmagoric terrain, but that also harbors episodes of violent beauty and works of dazzling insight able to throw light on our world and our lives.

Javier Maderuelo, architect and historian who has worked at the intersection of sculpture and landscape, recounts the vicissitudes of European art since World War ii with a double purpose: to question what he calls the ‘reductionist patterns’of American historiography and criticism; and to place in his European narration the most significant events and works of Spanish art. The result is a book that presents the tangled panorama of the arts in the second half of the 20th century with pedagogical clarity and critical sharpness: interpreting them in the broad framework of political and social mutations, but not at the expense of their cultural and symbolic specificity, materialized in works and episodes described with entertaining intelligence and illustrated with cool efficiency. Take, for example, the fascination with the everyday in 1950s London, with Paolozzi’s collages effortlessly leading to Richard Hamilton’s very famous one which parodied the Smithsons’ ‘house of the future’, or the frustrated utopias of those years on the other side of the Channel, with Guy Debord’s psychogeographic dérives, Constant’s New Babylon, or Yona Friedman’s Paris spatiale: architectural threads that are easily woven into the historic and artistic tapestry of Maderuelo.

Valeriano Bozal, whose intellectual output has moved from aesthetics to art history, has given new life to a text on Spain’s 20th century first published in 1991. Though substantially rewritten and updated, it maintains the two key features of the original: a somehow vintaged focus on painting and sculpture, notwithstanding a few pages on conceptual artists; and a documentary purpose, manifest in the painstaking enumeration of works and authors, from the ‘usual suspects’ Picasso, Miró, Julio González, or Dalí – who in this new edition has obtained a chapter of his own – to the more recent Tàpies, Chillida, Millares, or Saura, in an illustrated mosaic that reaches the first decade of the 21st century. Formidably informative, the book shows a stimulating combination of liberal ideas and conservative taste, which is refreshing because infrequent in the contrived domains of contemporary art, where the mere prospect of visual delight is suspect. Both Maderuelo’s tapestry and Bozal’s mosaic deserve a long life in print, and the authors the applause which even their skeptical colleague Germain would gladly grant. 

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