The paintings of Gil Cuatrecasas were exhibited at the LA Art Show 2018 last week (Jan 10-14th). His booth of large acrylics—depicting vibrant, botanical chucks of color crosshatched like Joseph Albers’ early optical studies and densely layered like white noise or confetti— will be the prelude to a major 2020 retrospective at American University Museum in Washington, D.C.
Gil Cuatrecasas died of cancer in 2004 and died without anyone understanding what painting might have truly meant for him. His distrust of the art institution was matched by his reclusive passion for applying paint to canvas in non-obvious ways; his paintings are both densely layered and palimpsestically scraped away, as the ridges of dried paint crack open to reveal under-layers of complementary color schemes. Cuatrecasas is one of the few besides Sam Gilliam, Morris Louis and Sam Francis within the Post-Washington Color School to employ Helen Frankenthaler’s brushless folding techniques of tachisme (“blotting” in French). For some reason, few art historians know the name Cuatrecasas, yet his painting methods established the aforementioned artists with whom Cuatrecasas exhibited in the 1950s as go-to, household names. This method of blotting the canvas is among other innovative techniques of the Post-Washington Color School that verges into Lyrical Abstraction, like creating creased patterns by folding a freshly painted canvas into halves, similar to Rorschach tests.
Found in a storage unit in D.C. by the artist’s brother, Pedro, around 2004, Cuatrecasas’s art was relocated to be shown in Los Angeles, a city anathema to the shy and sensitive executions of an introverted creator: Cuatrecasas eschewed promoting his art during his lifetime and removed himself from inner and outer art-world cliques. Cuatrecasas’s sister, Theresa, mentioned in interview that “Gil should have been a monk.” After a stint of national and international traveling exhibitions in the 1960s, Cuatrecasas rolled up hundreds of his massively sized works (some 40 feet-long) and placed them in a storage facility. There his works remained forgotten until his death. Now posthumously upraised by Pedro, who is eighty-one-years old and encouraged by others of the Cuatrecasas family—Lisa (daughter of Pedro), Carol (wife), Theresa—the artist and his work live on, somewhat. This much is known because the entire group sat in the booth throughout the weekend.
Cuatrecasas takes part of his imagery from the platonic silhouettes of nature: leaves, dendritic ridges and oceanic currents create recurring patterns within the large 19 works exhibited at the fair. Aneta Zebala, the conservator who cleaned and re-stretched Cuatrecasas’s canvases, stated: “Joseph Albers created an homage to the square… Gil Cuatrecasas created an homage to the leaf.” Cuatrecasas did work with Albers as a student at Yale in the late 1950s. Art historian Donald Kuspit is quoted on the gallery website that *represents Cuatrecasas (Artist Discovery Group), calling the artist “an original, major 20th century master.” Art historian Robert C. Morgan, also described Cuatrecasas as “a tour-de- force in contemporary abstract painting.” Nevertheless, the artist remains in the shadows; even as a “highlight” on the LA Art Show 2018’s museum tours, Cuatrecasas is generally unknown to the art world. Moreover, it also doesn’t help that the pop-surrealist-crystal studded skulls (a transparent derivative of Damien Hirst’s) often compel more selfies-with-art-backdrop at these fairs than a dead painter’s colorist preoccupations might: “Qwatro-what? How do you pronounce that name?” seemed more reactionary than inquisitive questions of those passing by his booth.
The artist’s decision to not promote his work has caught up with him, as his presence at the fair was eclipsed by art works with hashtags and memes embedded in a totally new form of communication that is the twitterverse, fake news, and pseudo Kim-K’s; one discovers the final turn of the screw for an artist’s career is not keeping up with the world’s wooly changes. Granted, Cuatrecasas himself will never be “selfie ready” because the artist is no longer alive, though no alive artist who is market viable today seems truly preoccupied by getting work into museums—said artist might only care about whether they’re “trending” enough for collectors. The art world’s myopic reaction to Cuatrecasas, its resistance to rejiggering another painter into the canon based on the merit of the artist’s artworks alone, is a cautionary tale for certain creatives who expect recognition for what they do.
*The collection of Gil Cuatrecasas is no longer represented by Artist Discovery Group and will soon have its own website.
-- Gelt, Jessica. “Brother rescues 400 lost works from storage unit by late Spanish artist Gil Cuatrecasas,” (Los Angeles Times, Arts & Culture section, 18 Feb 2016, Sec. E, p.1) -- All quotes from Cuatrecasas, Pedro. Gil Cuatrecasas, The Torino Collection (1970-1976), An Undiscovered Treasure. San Diego: privately published, 2013. -- Cuatrecasas, Pedro, M.D. Gil Cuatrecasas, The Torino Collection (1970-1976), An Undiscovered Treasure. Copyright Pedro Cuatrecasas, Library of Congress Catalog-in-Publishing Data. Encinitas, California, 2013. -- Artist Discover Group. "The Cuatrecasas Discovery." -- The Cuatrecasas Discovery, from Rediscovered Masters. (video above)
Featured Image: Dancing Horses, 1974. Acrylic on canvas.
Janna Avner is a creative technologist living in Los Angeles who recently cofounded Femmebit, a yearly digital new media festival celebrating women artists. Janna graduated from Yale in 2012, and is currently a professional painter who curates shows, exhibits paintings, and writes as much as time permits. Her research and art practice was selected for “What Future: The Year’s Best Ideas to Reclaim, Reanimate, and Reinvent Our Future,” a best-of-the-year anthology, published fall 2017, by Unnamed Press. Janna’s work also centers on the relationship between empathy and art, as well as technology’s effects on the physical body that lead to self-exploration and self-understanding. She hopes to inspire her friends and community through art that speaks to the human condition in today’s polarizing political climate, and to facilitate means of psychological transcendence. For more information, check out www.jannaavner.com.