Reflections on the Identical Paintings of Alfredo Álvarez Plágaro
Time after time Alfredo Álvarez Plágaro paints again his Identical Paintings. Identical pictures, hung above or beside each other with uniform spaces between them, compose together a single work, though each individual element remains recognizable. On actual viewing, that which can be described so briefly and tersely in its basic structure evokes immediate astonishment and perplexity, for a picture painted repeatedly in precisely the same way cannot be easily accommodated to established notions of a work of art as a self-contained, unique and non-repeatable entity. However, a glance at the history of modern art shows that stimulating and consequential innovations always went – and go – hand in hand with a decisive questioning or even negation of rules that applied until that time. Through such an “attack of art against itself,”i since the late 19th century the idea of the uniqueness of a work has been called into question above all through work-groups of pictures with the same motifs. With his pictorial series devoted to Rouen Cathedral (after 1892) to the haystacks or, finally, the water-lilies, Claude Monet numbers among the first painters who in this way discovered for themselves the principle of the series and consequentially transposed it into their work. Thereafter and extending into the immediate present, work in series became important for an increasing number of artists; among the best known, meanwhile classical examples are Paul Cézanne’s variations on Mont Sainte-Victoire, the Pier and Ocean pictures of Piet Mondrian, the Meditations of Alexej von Jawlensky or Josef Albers’ series Homage to the Square, comprising almost 1,000 pictures, to name only a few examples.
The pictures of such a series are based on their own respective rules, subjectively determined by the artist, which can apply for instance to the motif, the format, the nature of the pictorial structure or the choice of colors, and which every picture repeats in variations. The repetition lends the series its unity, while the deviation lends the individual picture an identity within the group. Thereby, no picture in a series is entirely like another, yet all are to be seen as equals. Just as there is no hierarchy in a series, there is also no beginning and no end. The pictures stand side by side but not in the sense of a respectively progressing step or as the derivation of one from another in progressive sequence. Undoubtedly, the development of pictorial series is historically important for Plágaro’s Identical Paintings, which in their totality themselves comprise an almost ungraspable series. In comparison to the traditional painting of a single picture, a shift of emphasis can be perceived from the earlier pictorial series onwards. While in the individual picture the object represented stands in the foreground, in a pictorial series – even if the same motif is repeatedly chosen – it is tendentially less a question of the object than of painting itself. That which is inherent in the pictorial series as a tendency is radicalized by Plágaro, for his pictures thematize painting as something repeatedly begun anew. In the pictorial series one is essentially dealing with variationsof a basic rule, and each individual picture can also be regarded independently of the others. In contrast, each of the Identical Paintings bears the principle of seriality within itself and is motivated through an attempted repetition of something which is always the same.
Since the Identical Paintings are comprised of like elements, they stand within the context of serial painting. The idea of the purely serial construction of an individual work developed among the post-war avantgarde when some artists began to construct works out of reduced, uniformly repeated forms.ii François Morellet, for example, structured the pictorial surface through lines or simple geometric forms in a grid; Ad Reinhardt constructed pictures out of black squares; Jan J. Schoonhoven developed reliefs from simple grid-structures.iii In these works, through the repetition of elements that are always the same, seriality and all-over planar structure took the place of classical composition.
While in the case of such serial pictures repeated elements, often the simplest and countable ones, form a closed structure, Plágaro dissolves the physical unity of the work. He splits it into identical but inherently complex elements in order to bring these together again in constellations. The splitting of a work into equal elements can also be found, for example, in Minimal Art. Yet if one compares a work by Donald Judd, for instance, with Plágaro’s Identical Paintings, the differences emerge more clearly than the similarities: Judd was essentially concerned with a new definition of the relationship between work, viewer and space, whereby the respective concrete experience should play the principle role. In order to assure the priority of such an experience of the work by the viewer, the work as such may not draw the interest of the viewer in the traditional sense. Consequently, Judd avoided signature and gesture by employing precisely identical and anonymous elements which were essentially based on industrial production techniques and materials. In the case of Plágaro, on the other hand, it is a question of pictures which are obviously individually painted. Precisely because the Identical Paintings deal consciously with the medium of painting, the multiple repetition is irritating. Various bronze castings of a traditional sculpture offer as little cause for wonder as a graphic in an edition of hundreds, although each of these castings or prints admittedly demands to be seen as a work alone and independent of the others. Even a multiplied “specific object” makes perfect sense in the theoretically based context of Minimal Art. Painting, however, continues to be associated with a subjectively created, unique work. Even if pictorial series and serial painting have relativized the validity of this conception, a picture that is multiply and exactly repeated still seems paradoxical. With his Identical Paintings Plágaro thematizes precisely this contradiction, unresolvable through conventional criteria, between the apparently individual image and its continuous repetition. Through painting identical pictures, he questions the identity of the individual picture.
Plágaro’s assault on the individuality and identity of the painterly work, however, goes even farther. With respect to the number of elements, for his Identical Paintings there applies purely and simply the basic rule that at least two elements should be brought together into a constellation. When Plágaro paints a particular number of the same pictures – whether five, nine, 12 or 16 – this number is merely to be seen as a possibility; it is less a question of a definitive given than, far more, of a recommendation on the part of the artist, necessarily limited upwards in quantity. Ultimately, it rests within the discretion of the viewer to determine the number of elements to be hung. Yet not only the quantity but also the sequence of the elements can be newly stipulated with each new installation. In this way, Plágaro permits the viewer an extraordinary freedom but at the same time gives him the responsibility for a conscious decision, as well.
Time after time Alfredo Álvarez Plágaro paints again his Identical Paintings, in mixed media on canvas on wood. Even the painting process itself is unusual: Plágaro does not paint one pictorial segment to the end and then reproduce it once or multiply but builds up the pictures simultaneously, field for respective field and often in several layers, whereby the elements rest side by side. Thus a pictorial element does not come about “all of a piece” but grows slowly together into a whole, parallel to its “picture-siblings,” from individual fields.
The painterly process, which progresses step by step, can be imagined on the basis of the picture. The pictorial plane is most often divided up into clearly demarcated color fields of different sizes which are in part derived from the basic forms of geometry but in part seem more free, more amorphous. Not only in their form but also in their coloration and their materiality, the individual fields are distinguished one from the other. Velvety, matt areas of color thus press against lacquered, gleaming ones. Impastos of paint applied with a palette knife alternate with extremely thin ones that are absorbed by the untreated canvas. Several layers of paint, one on top of another, surround areas of canvas that have been left free. Glowingly clear colors contrast with dull, broken ones. Vertical traces of brush, spatula and scraping within a field of color contrast with horizontal or diagonal accents within another. Plágaro repeatedly undermines these complex and variously combined strategies for separating the painted areas from each other by permitting the contours to flow together or deeper layers of color to shimmer through or by applying veils of wax and resin over parts of the pictorial plane, sometimes spreading across different fields of color. In this way Plágaro plays with contrasts and interactions and creates a multiplicity of relationships within the pictorial plane of one element which continue in an even more complex manner in the interplay of several constellated elements. The pictorial structure of each individual element is characterized in particular by the tension between that which divides and that which connects. This tension between isolation and integration is altogether a fundamental characteristic of the Identical Paintings: on the one hand, the elements are recognizable as individual entities, on the other they require a larger context.
If one attempts to characterize Plágaro’s painting, associations arise with the abstract painting of the 1950s which strove for the expression of subjectivity. In their construction out of demarcated fields of color and in their restrained dissonance the Identical Paintings recall, for example, the inner conflicts in the pictures of Philip Guston. Whereas in the case of Guston there frequently remains, even in the non-representational pictures, a clear concentration on the pictorial center and thereby the suggestion of a distinction between figure and ground. Plágaro’s pictures are distinguished by their balanced but entirely un-hierarchical planarity. In this regard they demonstrate parallels to the compositions of Serge Poliakoff while, at the same time, seeming by comparison significantly more disparate and less intent on harmony. In a manner similar to Poliakoff’s compositions, with the Identical Pictures associations of an indeterminate spatiality sometimes arise, but one which, in the case of Plágaro, can never be fixed and rapidly subsides again. Even if Plágaro’s painting in some respects demonstrates parallels to the abstraction of the 1950s, it nonetheless seems distinctly more sober and, in its distantly staged awkwardness, almost ironic. Plágaro plays with visual habits and the resultant expectations without ever fulfilling these entirely.
If, for the sake of simplicity, the Identical Paintings have thus far been described as “pictures,” this is not entirely false but also not entirely correct. Even if Plágaro works in the medium of painting, he creates no classical paintings. Thus, he does not apply the canvas to stretchers but pulls it over rectangular wooden boxes and laths of the most various sizes and proportions, from a compact square all the way to long, narrow laths. The often extreme formats of the pictorial supports, untypical for painterly works, largely reflect the forms of the elements constituting the picture. Thus, through stripe-like color fields, long, narrow formats appear additionally elongated, while through correspondingly concentrated color formations, wider rectangular forms seem compacter. Thereby, the painting always remains restricted to the frontal plane, while the sides show the raw, untreated canvas. The boxes or laths have a depth of up to as much as 10 centimeters, by means of which the individual elements are clearly recognizable as object-like, tangible individual parts that are aligned according to a regular rhythm. Like the planarity of the painting and the emphasis on painterly materials, the object-like character of the elements hinders every suggestion of illusionism. The Identical Paintings represent no condition outside their own reality but demand the concrete grappling with that which they are. Even if this cannot always be easily formulated with a traditional vocabulary.
Time after time Alfredo Álvarez Plágaro paints again his Identical Paintings, which can be joined together in a variety of ways. With the installation of his Identical Paintings, Plágaro permits the viewer a degree of freedom that for traditional paintings is inconceivable, downright astonishing. So far as the number of identical elements respectively joined together is concerned, only one rule applies: by every conceivable division into smaller groups, at least two elements should always remain side by side. It thereby follows that only the works conceived by the artist in two or three parts cannot be further divided, works with more elements, on the other hand, always being divisible. Even greater possibilities of variation are offered by the ordering of the parts: the individual elements can be put on the wall in horizontal as well as vertical sequences, as a block or in a long row. The distance between the elements, which on principle must be arranged in parallel fashion, corresponds to their respective depth. In this way the elements are indeed recognizable as individual parts, yet at the same time their connection is also apparent and permits each individual element to be seen and understood only as part of the respective whole.
If one has decided on a particular number of elements and a preferred sort of grouping, there arises the fundamental question where above, below, right and left are; a question that in the case of a traditional picture is superfluous, since the positioning is unequivocably preestablished. Whether one has a single element or several elements of an Identical Paintings in view, at the moment of looking at it one perceives a balanced picture only imaginable in this way and not otherwise and therefore obviously conclusively composed. This observation is indeed correct, but it does not exclude others that are just as correct, for the elements of the picture can be rotated. Since with all the elements it is a question of the most varied rectangular forms, four respective directions are possible for orientation, whereby all the picture-elements should be equally aligned. Every possible arrangement – above each other, beside each other, as a block, etc. – is possible with the four different orientations of each identically arranged individual element, so that the total number of possible ways in which the pictures of every Identical Paintings can appear is multiplied to an ungraspable degree. With every rotation there is a completely new, autonomous and consistent general view, while the previous one(s) cannot be remembered. Each of the possible hangings causes a new picture to come about which seems conceivable solely in this particular way. The experience of apparent clarity and exclusive validity of the respective view just seen correlates with the knowledge that the other possible views appear just as consequential and well-balanced. That which is scarcely imaginable as an intellectual concept is vividly and verifiably realized by Plágaro through his Identical Paintings.iv While in the case of figurative pictures – all the way to the putatively upside-down paintings of Georg Baselitz – top and bottom are clearly defined, this does not from the start seem a matter of course for certain abstract, concrete or constructivistic works. On closer examination, however, it is revealed that even in the case of pictures with a reduced vocabulary of forms, as a rule there is only one possible orientation. As an example one could point to the compositions of Piet Mondrian that are built up from right-angles, the non-colors of black and white, as well as the primary colors blue, red and yellow. With this basic vocabulary Mondrian creates such a sensitive balance in his pictures that even the smallest alteration would disturb the harmonious equilibrium. One could just as little rotate the picture as one could shift a line or exchange two colors. In general it can be observed that the balance in the case of pictures that are composed of non-identical form-elements and are not symmetrically composed is ensured in only one a single way.
Only in the case of a few works of the New Concrete Art, based on geometric-serial and/or completely symmetrical structures, is a rotation of the picture possible.v This applies, for example, to some of the reliefs by Jan J. Schoonhoven or to the early pictures by François Morellet and Frank Stella. But while some of these works are constructed of a firm grid of serially repeated form-elements and are often starkly reduced in color, as well, Plágaro at first glance paints more traditionally, apparently according to compositional rules, which makes the possibility of a rotation of the picture seem all the more astonishing. A picture like Peinture (1956) by Morellet, for example, very quickly opens up to the viewer through its simple structure. If one has grasped this system, one can trace it from memory, and were such a work not quite completely painted, anyone who has understood the concept could theoretically insert the missing form-elements into the system. Plágaro’s Identical Paintings offer no such possibility. The composition of each individual element follows as a constellation of non-identical form-elements with no immediately perceptible regularity and no objectifiable system and is therefore in every orientation too complex in order to be correctly and completely remembered or predicted. While in the works cited the artistic achievement consists principally of the concept and the execution itself remains comparatively anonymous, Plágaro’s painting, for all its underlying conceptuality, is ultimately subject to individual, repeatedly subjective decisions and individual placements which, admittedly, are relativized in their individuality through repetition.
As pictures initially painted individually, the single elements of the Identical Paintings at first glance and in their balance seem to follow the principles of composition, which in itself would exclude the possibility of rotating the picture. The concept of composition is traditionally connected to notions of a harmonic, well-balanced whole which only seems imaginable and thereby definite in its given form. It is precisely this definitiveness which Plágaro’s pictures, in their calculated capacity for multiple views, do not offer. As “multi-compositional” pictures, so to speak, they carry the principle of composition to its absurd extreme and are thus, in the last analysis, anti-compositional. What already applies to the individual elements applies all the more to the constellation of multiple parts. Just as Plágaro questions the idea of composition, he dissolves the form of the work in a similarly subversive way. Through its multipart nature and the various possibilities for ordering the individual pictures, the Identical Pictures can assume an ungraspable multitude of forms. While the individual pictorial elements possess a clear, tangible form, the picture assembled from them has no predetermined form of appearance; its multiple compositional capacity thus becomes an essential characteristic.
Time after time Alfredo Álvarez Plágaro paints again his Identical Paintings, which resist every sort of explicitness. If one attempts to describe them, every sentence can only conclude with a qualifying or relativizing formulation. The Identical Paintings are neither entirely painting nor entirely object, they contradict the idea of the self-contained individual work and are far more than an alignment of identical elements. The individual elements are physically tangible, yet the pictorial constellations made from them can never be visually fixed. While categories of orientation usually taken for granted, like above and below, right and left, lose their spatially ordering significance, beginning and end repeatedly occur anew. Individual elements join to form unities which can dissolve at any moment and be replaced by others. Yet even if Plágaro’s Identical Paintings resist every unambiguous definition and every classification into conventional categories, it would be fundamentally false zu describe them as arbitrary. It is far more a quality of these works that they indeed follow firm rules yet at the same time permit a great degree of freedom. In this way they admittedly communicate no certainties and raise more questions than they offer answers.
If one perceives this openness as an essential characteristic of the pictures, one can pose the question of their underlying attitude. As works of Concrete Art the Identical Paintings illustrate nothing and initially present themselves to the viewer as a purely artistic formal invention. At the same time, however, they exist in the world and under certain circumstances can reflect events, atmosphere or structures of existence in the broadest sense of the word. Generally speaking, one can proceed from the assumption that a traditional panel picture structured around a central perspective and following the rules of proportion corresponds to the notion of or at least the wish for an ordered, largely explicable world.vi The Identical Paintings, on the other hand, reflect a reality that scarcely admits certainties. In a time when state structures are dissolving and new ones coming about, in which religion has long since lost all relevance as a pattern for explaining the world, in which a dogmatic socialism as well as an unchecked capitalism are called into question, in which ideologies and utopias have just as much lost their guiding power as the belief in a continuously advancing progress, in which political orientations – to the right as well as to the left – are losing profile, a harmonic work of art with an unequivocal message would be implausible and nothing more than decoration. In as much as Plágaro’s works make breaks and disparities perceptible and avoid unambiguous designations, they lend expression to an attitude characterized by skepticism and doubt and bear witness to a disillusioned view of reality.
Disillusioned, however, does not mean hopeless, and it would surely be inappropriate to impute to the Identical Paintings a pessimistic general tendency. Yet if one poses himself the question whether the Identical Paintings can be seen as a comment on contemporary reality, it is useful to summarize once more the experiences made possible by the works: since in their multiformulaic nature the Identical Paintings have no fixed form, they challenge the reader to determine the respective appearance himself. Within certain rules the viewer is free to give the work a form, to actualize this and, if he likes, to change it. Through the knowledge of the possible changeability, the respective moment of contemplation acquires a particular weight. As multiply repeated pictures that permit various views and are thereby de-individualized, the Identical Pictures leave considerable free space for individual experience.
One could now go so far as to see the structures of action and experience made possible by the Identical Paintings as paradigmatic for a possible form of conduct in a formless, continuously changing world in which false and correct are increasingly difficult to distinguish. To be sure, there exists the possibility to make free decisions within a certain framework, but this is also always bound up with a responsibility for the resulting action and its consequences. A situation felt to be formless, processural and changing thus proves itself to be, to a certain degree, formable. Once made, decisions are thereby not inviolable but can and must always be tested and, if necessary, revised. Plágaro permits such possibilities to be subtly and unobtrusively experienced, yet without combining them with explanatory or didactic demands. The Identical Paintings amaze, surprise and irritate – on a long-term basis.
Because nothing is certain, Alfredo Álvarez Plágaro paints again his Identical Paintings, time after time.
i Gottfried Böhm, “Werk und Serie. Probleme des modernen Bildbegriffs seit Monet,” in Daniel Hees and Gundolf Winter (eds.), Kreativität und Werkerfahrung. Festschrift für Ilse Krahl zum 65. Geburtstag (Duisburg, 1988), pp. 17-24; here p. 17.
Even in the early 1930s some concrete or constructivist works were created which can be regarded as antecedents to serial painting. Certain pictures by Wladyslaw Strzeminski (1893-1952) should be particularly stressed in this context. See the exhibition catalogue Constructivism in Poland 1923-1936. BLOCK Praesens a.r. (Essen: Museum Folkwang, and Otterlo: Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, 1973), ill. 38-41a.
iii Comparable tendencies can be found in more recent music, particularly that of Steve Reich, Terry Riley and the early music of Philip Glass.
iv With two gallery exhibitions that ran parallel in Madrid in 1992, Plágaro found a particularly appropriate exhibition concept. He divided each of the Identical Paintings into two groups and formed constellations of these in the two galleries in different ways. With groups of identical pictures there thus came about two completely different exhibitions.
v In contrast to Plágaro’s Identical Paintings, even in the case of a different alignment the works referred to offer the same view. A rotation of 180 degrees seems to be possible if, with respect to one axis, the work is symmetrical. A rotation in all directions is in general only possible if a work has a regular exterior form (e.g. a square or circle), is composed of serial elements and/or is entirely symmetrical.
vi Gottfried Böhm, p. 24.
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