Interest in abstract art came late to Spain. The most important Spanish vanguard artists always remained within the channels of figurative art. As the historic initial movement came to an end, when abstract art had spread throughout the world, Spaniards were living in a self-sufficient regime. This isolation of the country during the first decades of the dictatorship contributed in delaying the introduction of abstraction.

Foto Ornitóptero
Ornitóptero, 1962
Fernando Zóbel

The regime looked askance at aesthetic manifestations which spoke a cryptic language which was unquestionably subversive and foreign. The ease and freedom with which painters and sculptors applied paint and used materials offended institutions which preferred art of the academy praising national values.

Therefore the creation of abstract art at the end of the nineteen fifties entailed a little more than adopting an aesthetic; it meant taking a stance and risking condemnation at a politically difficult time. This should be remembered if we are to understand the ethical meaning of these stances and all the difficulties entaled, which contrast with today when Spanish artists can avail themselves of any subject, technique, style or material with total freedom. A further reason for remembering this has its connections with this museum. The fact that here paintings and sculptures may be contemplated in calmness, positioned in the singular spaces of this Gothic building, can lead to an aesthetic consideration of works which in the past often flew the vanguardist standard and were subject to critical rejection and scorn.

Almost all the artists represented here, were in an evolving stage in the nineteen fifties. They lived abroad, mainly in Paris and Rome, and travelled to different countries where they could view art which had been created in Europe, well aware they could not do the same in their home country. I am not suggesting that they attempted to copy the forms or the styles that they saw there, but rather they were trying to paint and sculpt in freedom, in accordance with their temperaments. They wanted to create abstract art without being held under suspicion.

Foto Intervalos azules
Intervalos azules, 1971
José Guerrero

If we concentrate on the works here we will see that they are neither American abstract expressionism nor French lyrical abstraction, nor op art or constructivism, although in each of them external influences can be appreciated, as is logical. They exhibit a very Spanish style which has been traced by critics and historians to the paintings of El Greco, Ribera, Velazquez and Goya, to the tragic and mystical thinking of Spain’s poets and to the temperament, half fiery and half sober, of the Spanish character. But, leaving aside clichés of what “Spanish” is supposed to mean and despite the different styles which can be recognised in these artists, there is no doubt that all the works exhibited here share the feeling of being part of a family, which gives the museum a unique character. This feeling, uniting a generation, has nothing to do with the highly diverse subjects, styles or techniques. It is the genesis of a dream: the triumph of abstraction, which comes from their having been comrades in battle, and above all friends. We are indebted to them for having shown us how to rid ourselves of prejudice to see, understand and love modern art.

But we should not merely resign ourselves to discovering these similarities and the empathy radiated by these works; we should also note the huge differences that make each artist’s work a different world which expresses itself in its own inimitable language.

To be able to develop their work and project it critically and socially, virtually all these artists at some moment in their lives joined to organise collective exhibitions and publications. These groups help us to understand the different aspects of this excursion into Spanish abstract art.

There are five groups which polarise this effort: Dau al Set in Barcelona, El Paso in Madrid, Parpalló in Valencia, Gaur in Vitoria and the founding of the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art in Cuenca. These are the most notable landmarks in the period commencing at the end of the nineteen forties.

The artists of the group Dau al Set (1948-1953), including Antoni Tàpies and Modest Cuixart, who helped with its foundation, started from fantasy and surrealist automatic writing to reach material abstraction.

El Paso (1957-1960) was founded to enliven Spanish contemporary art. Among its members were Manuel Millares, Antonio Saura, Luis Feito, Manuel Rivera, Rafael Canogar and Martín Chirino. All of the artist, although from varying personal stances, fashioned a vigorous, abstract, non-objective language which was liberating and very typical of committed painting in the fifties and sixties.

Amadeo Gabino and Eusebio Sempere, together with other Valencian artists, formed the Grupo Parpalló (1956-1961), an attempt to create abstract art which, nevertheless, based itself on formal qualities, recovering the experimental tradition of the constructivist vanguard.

Foto Marrón y Ocre
Marrón y Ocre, 1959
Antoni Tàpies

Basque painters and sculptors, among them Jorge Oteiza, Nestor Bastarretxea and Eduardo Chillida, founded the group Gaur (1966-1970) as a “Basque cultural front” for abstract and non-objective art which, in the case of the sculptors, was strongly constructivist and geometric. In this way, these two latter groups formulated the other extreme of Spanish abstraction.

Some artists in all the groups gathered round Fernando Zóbel and the painters Gustavo Torner and Gerardo Rueda to create the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art. But this story perhaps requires greater attention.

Fernando Zóbel was born in Manila (Philippines) and studied at Harvard University. His many journeys to the United States, France, Italy and Spain helped him understand perfectly both American abstract expressionism and European non-objectivism. From 1955, he began to travel to Spain and grew interested in the work of the then incipient abstract artists. When he definitively settled in Spain in 1961, he encouraged them by acquiring their work; for some he was their first purchaser. The moment came when his personal collection was sufficiently full and coherent for him to feel the social obligation to show it to the public.

Foto Galeria de la Mina
Galería de la Mina, 1965
Manuel Millares

He was aided by the artists themselves, especially by Gustavo Torner and Gerardo Rueda, who were the first curators of the collection. They persuaded Cuenca Town Council to give them part of the Hanging Houses, which had recently been restored, to be used as the site for the museum which opened in 1966.

Some of the painters started to move into the abandoned upper part of Cuenca, whose buildings then were lying in ruins. Zóbel, Torner, Saura, Millares, Rueda, Antonio Lorenzo, Sempere and José Guerrero found homes and at the Museum Jordi Teixidor and José María Yturralde contributed their help. This was how the miracle occurred; the renovation, through art, of a neighbourhood with the Museum of Abstract Art at its hub.

By 1980 the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art of Cuenca was already very well-known and had received various prizes and international publicity. The collection had grown in tune with the museum’s physical space. What had begun as the personal and enthusiastic initiative of a group of friends now called for professional attention and dedication which was beyond its creators. Fernando Zóbel decided then to donate the collection to the Fundación Juan March. It was accepted and increased both through the foundation’s funds and with the acquisition of the collection belonging to Amos Cahan, an American doctor who lived in Spain and collected fifties and sixties’ art.

Now a stable collection, selected so as to give coherence to the creative efforts and the aesthetic achievements of a generation, has become a tribute to those artists who risked more than they expected to receive.

Catalogue of the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español (Fundación Juan March), de Cuenca. Javier Maderuelo


Author: James Presley

I am an artist and I love it. What do I have to do to live from what I love? I'm not dying or cutting me bloody ear off, that's for sure.


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