On Playing with Repetition and the Compulsion toward Originality. The Painting of Alfredo Álvarez Plágaro
For several years now, Alfredo Álvarez Plágaro has been calling his works on canvas “Identical Paintings.” In 1992 1991 he showed them in two parallel exhibitions in Madrid, under the title “Two Identical Exhibitions.” The same thing at the same time in two different places: this would seem to be a paradox.
Any attempt at comprehending Plágaro’s “identical” paintings of recent years by applying an art historical examination oriented on a chronological appraisal or developmental approach would be in vain, however. He has been giving all his paintings this title since 1989. One might almost say that he has been repeating himself for years, if this did not already sound disparaging. In other words: Plágaro eludes the compulsion toward originality by which every artist is otherwise constrained. As a matter of fact, his work consummates a double repetition: for one thing the artist follows the concept of repetition by executing what are actually disparate works series but calling them all “Identical Paintings.” Here, every new series of works obeys the rules of the basic scheme, according to which all works in a series should resemble one another. For another thing, every painting in every series repeats the composition of every other painting in that series. All parts within a single series are thus likewise “Identical Paintings.” Sometimes there are four such pictures, other times as many as fifty. But at least two are always necessary to form a works group.
The viewer’s first impression is one of irritation and bewilderment. Standing before Plágaro’s paintings, we begin almost inevitably to start comparing the individual works in a series. This involuntary search for differences between the ostensibly “identical” pictures stems from the fact that Plágaro combines the serial method with a painting approach and a motif that we otherwise associate with the artist’s individual signature. A series of industrially fabricated metal boxes made of polished steel, like the ones Donald Judd exhibited, would surely give us less pause, because there we would expect nothing less than exact replication. But Plágaro’s paintings mystify us for the very reason that they are unmistakably individual works of art repeated at will. His paintings consist of non-representational compositions: they show abstract, non-geometric forms that split up the canvas in a rhythmic pattern. The paths of the brushstrokes are sometimes aligned with the vertical sides of the picture and sometimes with the horizontal ones; they sometimes run parallel and at other times overlap. In some sections of the canvas, the acrylic paint is applied to the canvas in such a thick coat that it shines as if glazed; on other parts of the same picture the paint layer is almost as transparent as watercolor and the canvas shows through. In many cases, layers of different colors are applied on top of each other like a palimpsest, with various painting tools leaving behind their traces of brush hair, foam or metal.
Upon close scrutiny, one does ultimately manage to find slight variations in brushstroke and color density between the “identical” paintings. These deviations reveal the craftsmanship involved in their production and in the painting process itself, themes that come to the fore precisely due to the constant repetition of the pictorial object. The non-representational forms do not depict anything; they are thus not abstractions of something that went before, but rather they deal with nothing but painting itself.
In some pictures it is possible to discern a penciled grid showing through in lighter-colored areas, which evokes free associations with something constructed and repeatable. No matter how much each painting with its insistent brushstrokes seems to have the nature of an individual, one-of-a-kind creation, which in our traditional understanding of the métier indicates the originality of the artist, the grid still shines through to remind us of the principle of repeatability.
Plágaro calls his pictures “Identical Paintings,”, but can two handmade paintings ever be identical? The first artist to ask this question, and to paint the same picture twice, was Robert Rauschenberg in the experiment that gave rise to Factum I and Factum II, 1957. (Figs. 1 and 2) The two canvases show two pictures that are identical in formal terms. Rauschenberg has made a collage out of various photographic reproductions cut out of newspapers, a landscape photo and a series of calendar pages, and combines these with gestural brushstrokes that leave paint dripping down the canvas. Rauschenberg commented: “I was interested in finding out if a difference in emotional content would emerge between the two pictures. After I had painted both of them, I couldn’t tell the difference.“ Many art historians interpret his dry conclusion as a criticism of the myth of painting as a moment of spontaneous expressiveness, known as Abstract Expressionism, which many artists at that time were beginning to feel was mannerist and mere stylized showmanship. In the process, Rauschenberg sarcastically calls into question the “modernist attitude according to which the originality of the act of creation per definitionem precludes the repetition of the same thing.” Nevertheless, the viewer who looks from one picture to another immediately notices the differences in the gestural brushstrokes in both Rauschenberg and Plágaro. Does this mean that two identical pictures are not identical after all, even though Rauschenberg and Plágaro claim the opposite?
Grid and repetition
If Plágaro had really wanted to create identical pictures in this sense – ones that would be fully indistinguishable for the viewer – he would not have chosen an individual painterly gesture like the brushstroke. The faintly visible pencil grid with which Plágaro covers his canvases and which serves him as replication aid gives us a clue. While the visible brushstroke insists on individuality, the grid points to the mechanization of a signature style. This becomes evident if we look at the serial art of the 1960s, which constitutes an intensive examination of the theme of repetition. While Robert Rauschenberg drew on the individual, expressive brushstroke in Factum I und II, albeit ironically, in examples of the serial art of the 1960s the individual handwriting of the artist is frequently taken to be adverse to the intention of seriality. Therefore, John Coplans, who curated the pioneering exhibition “Serial Imagery” at the Pasadena Art Museum in the late 1960s, while acknowledging the key position of a painter like Ad Reinhardt, discerns a deficit in the way he applies paint. In the early phase of his layering of paint on the canvas, Reinhardt does not seem to him to be “neutral” enough. In the 1960s, the mechanization of artistic production, the grid and also industrial fabrication take on central significance. In Frank Stella’s “Black Series” paintings, executed between 1958 and 1960 and consisting of bands of black color starting in the middle of the canvas and running parallel to the edge, what is apparently a mechanically produced even color density is emphasized. The bands of paint are applied in such a way that no brushstrokes are visible. This principle of repetition is tied to an extinguishing of the individual style and, as in Rauschenberg, conveys a reaction against the purported “uniqueness” of the American Abstract Expressionist painters. In the works of Carl Andres as well, the creative process becomes a “mechanical/machine process” when he arranges industrially produced, identical parts as the components of a work, for example metal base plates arranged to form walk-through sculptures. Thus, in Minimalism, “conceptual production is serialized by developing or setting up a system just once and then repeating it ad infinitem.”
Plágaro leaves this 1960s notion of seriality behind. He does not exclude gestural elements by drawing on industrially produced parts and eradicating every trace of the artist’s handwriting; instead, he underlines precisely what is personal about the painterly brushstroke.
The shifting roles of artist and viewer
This doesn’t mean, however, that with the emphasis on the painting process and on individual hallmarks Plágaro is reviving the traditional concept of the artist-as-genius whose every brushstroke is an intuitive expression of his innermost being on the way toward creating a unique masterpiece. In fact, the principle of repetition as a way of attacking this claim to uniqueness looks back on a long tradition. Plágaro instead insists at the same time on the process of painterly execution of each and every picture. This distinguishes him from a whole series of contemporaries who are much closer to him in time – but not content – than the proponents of Serial Art. The topic of repetition intrigued many 1980s artists as well. The American representatives of Appropriation Art, for example, drew strongly on theoretical concepts and worked to subvert or give up completely the concept of originality, referring among other things to the thesis put forth by Roland Barthes in “Death of the Author.” These artists “appropriate” the works of other artists and exhibit them under their own name, with the meaning to be found in the very gesture of replication. For these conceptual works, the details of execution are usually not particularly significant. In the above-described work by Rauschenberg as well, it sufficed for the artist to execute the experiment just once. In Plágaro, however, the repetition of the painting act becomes the very engine behind his artistic endeavors.
In his concept, Plágaro transfers part of the creative process to the viewer. This happens in two respects: I refer here specifically to the “Identical Paintings” series that was on view at Galerie m Bochum in 2007. The fifty individual pictures have an unusual rod-like format. The length of the lower edge, seven centimeters, almost corresponds to the depth of the wooden frame onto which the canvas is stretched, five centimeters. Through their narrow, high format in combination with the extreme depth of their profile, as well as by virtue of the way they are presented, these pictures take on the character of objects in space. The fifty pictures are arranged on the wall eight centimeters apart. Lined up in a series, the positive elements, picture planes and unpainted side edges visually interwoven with the intermediate wall spaces, the impression arises of a single wall object. This object changes depending on where the viewer is standing. His perception of the work oscillates, the negative wall surface in concert with the unpainted edges changing the look of the picture as the viewer moves in front of it, triggering a kind of optical irritation. This deception of his perceptual faculties involves the viewer in the work.
But that’s not all: the second intervention in the classic role distribution between artist and viewer calls for a concrete act. Plágaro delegates part of his creative authority to the collector, gallery owner or curator. The picture objects in a series are variable in number and the collector or curator is free to choose the desired elements and decide how to arrange them on the wall. There is no need to show the complete series; the paintings can be installed in any number, as long as there is at least a pair. The orientation, i.e. whether they are to be hung vertically of horizontally, and where ‘up’ and ‘down’ are, is likewise up to whoever installs the work. In keeping with the serial character of the works, they do however come with one rule that must be observed: in hanging, the distance between works is defined by their depth. With this involvement of the other – the collector, the gallery owner or the curator – Plágaro takes aim at hierarchical thinking in the roles taken by artist and viewer and makes the viewer co-producer. Because of this process of interaction, there is no longer one, self-contained work. Depending on the specific constellation of elements, the work is continually created anew. A vital aspect of Plágaro’s oeuvre unfolds in this exchange. The principle of Identical Paintings provides a structure in which the individual artwork and, with it, the overarching idea behind these works pass over into a social process. The artist does not definitively conclude his works, but instead hands them over as open artworks to those who install them. The author is not dead – he is merely collaborating with his audience.
 The works were originally placed next to one another at Leo Castelli, New York, in 1958. Today they belong to LACMA, Los Angeles (Facktum I, 1957) and MoMA, New York (Facktum II, 1957).
 Barbara Rose, 1973, quoted in Viola Vahrson, Die Radikalität der Wiederholung. Interferenzen und Paradoxien im Werk Sturtevants, Munich 2006, p. 42.
 Ibid., p. 43.
 John Coplans, “Serial Imagery,” Serial Imagery, exh.cat. Pasadena Art Museum, Alhambra 1968, pp. 7-20, p. 12f.
 Katharina Sykora, Das Phänomen des Seriellen in der Kunst. Aspekte einer künstlerischen Methode von Monet bis zur amerikanischen Pop Art, Würzburg 1983, p. 122..
 Elke Bippus, Serielle Verfahren. Pop Art, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art und Postminimalism, Berlin 2003, p. 67.
 Ibid., p. 67.
“Since I did my first two identical paintings I have never gone back to painting pictures that were supposedly different”
What could lead a 28-year-old artist to announce that, from that moment on, he would only paint identical pictures? Why did he replace the reference text of his first ‘catalogue with a back’ with a hard, resonant ‘loop’ sentence saying, “The most important thing is not what is but what it is several times.” What made him prepare his presentation in Madrid in two separate galleries, under the title Two identical exhibitions? More importantly, how does he justify maintaining this determined effort after more than twenty years? Too many questions, but after such a long time we can be certain of one thing: this is not a haphazard choice; it is a conviction, a lucid revelation presented with a touch of humour that is relaxed and aware, cool and measured.
I admit that I am one of those who find that early, drastic decision surprising, mainly because of the historical moment and the social context in which it took place, but also because it represented a turning point with respect to his earlier work. It is reasonable to wonder what Plágaro was painting at that time, before he started painting identical pictures. Let us go back to the second half of the 1980s, when voices began to be heard criticising the expressive, self-affirming painting based on gesture that dominated in the young Spanish studios. At the time Alfredo Alvarez Plágaro was painting large pictures in which many things happened: pictures full of simplified figures that occupied the whole of the canvas or paper; images that crowded together and were spread across the surface in a fluctuating rhythm, taking serpentine directions and occupying multiple spaces, with some connections to the world of the comic. It was a style of painting with a tapestry-like effect, that can be traced back to a way of painting that was all the rage at that time at the school of fine arts in Bilbao, but it can also be related to the way Joaquín Torres García arranged his planes. It was all very synthesised, joyful and natural and invited spectators to let their eye travel along the routes indicated by the simplified figures, the details and the fragments. And there was always a vein of humour. For example the titles he gave to his paintings were often based on a scene, which—even after reading the title—you could only just make out among a multitude of possibilities, such as “Woman sheltering two children with her legs” or “Three eyes in the centre to the left”. In these works small windows opened, often suggesting spaces in flight, the painting material was dragged across in large sweeping gestures and the limits between the figures were defined.
When he exhibited his first identical paintings, the motifs had become something like ideograms mixing between the colour of the background and that of the canvas, but soon after that, at his double individual exhibition in Madrid, the synthesis had brought the paintings to an attractive cleanness, with a dialogue between the colour and an easy-flowing, linear way of drawing. There were no words accompanying the images in the catalogues, but rigorous care was taken in maintaining the scale in the reproductions and completing them with technical details. The statement of what was being evoked was replaced by data describing what the painting was. In the double exhibition, Plágaro dared to take on several challenges: he converted the painting into painting modules, increasingly presented as objects; he played and invited people to play with the concepts of original and copy, series, repetition and innovation; and he distributed between the galleries identical paintings that he arranged in different ways, according to the characteristics of the exhibition areas. Basically, and in a conscious way, he demanded that the work be of an open nature, to the extent of leaving the spectator to decide on the number and arrangement of the pieces that made up his identical paintings. He only imposed two conditions, two rules: a painting can never be shown individually, two paintings is the minimum; and the distance between the modules must be proportional to their depth.
Plágaro is following a solitary path, and this is rare among his generation. At his individual exhibition at the Erfurter Kunstverein gallery, Michael Vignold made some perceptive observations about this: “The artist sets up a game between the original and the reproduction. The repetition is painted; it is not based on a mechanical or technical process. This brings us up against the following paradox: each element is an original work of art; no element is an identical copy of another and therefore each pictorial manifestation is an original invention. Both painting and reproduction exist in their own right; they are equal and identical.” The explanation is simple: Plágaro starts one painting and then leaves it to start reproducing it on an identical support. He does not use flat colours or fill in pre-set geometrical shapes. He does this in a rational—but not cold—fashion, in such a way that the repetition precedes gesture and intention, and even general appearance and detail. It is a question of subtle differences in time and material.
Other painters prepare sketches and use them to increase the scale in a mechanical way, to curb excess emotion and to enable them to finish the work later with a more controlled and deliberate hand. Plágaro keeps obstinately to repetition, trusting fully in it, as if he knows that his certainty enhances the result. He has frequently shown that he is in tune with the Dadaists through the humour contained in gesture and attitude. As in an abstract painting by Francis Picabia, he is determined to stage the intentions of his painting before our eyes, showing his critical attitude towards current behaviour. His humour is dry, as if he does not expect immediate recognition and is aware that it his duty to be inflexible in defending his project and that, if necessary, time will prove him right. Like Picabia, Plágaro indicated this in an interview in which he revealed his reasons and intentions: “I focus on playing with one single element: the classical painting (the concept of a painting). It is an artistic object par excellence, and I submit it subtly, through repetition, to all kinds of torture to see how long the painting can manage to keep on being a painting without, so to speak, killing it […] Before going on, I must indicate that when I refer to a painting I am only referring to one painting, not to the complete sequence of repeated paintings. My pictorial groups are not one painting split into many parts but simply one painting repeated several times. I should also explain that I carry out this type of innocent torture in the supremely classic pictorial tradition using frame, canvas, oils, acrylic, fine brush and large brush. I do not use new materials and techniques such as the latest industrial paints, paint guns, polycarbonates, digital prints or photography, which would make my task easier as a torturer of the painting concept.” It is a perfect combination: there is no negation of painting, only a tenacious attempt to indicate a change of approach to it. Plágaro has separated himself voluntarily from the general way of thinking of his generation and embarked on a difficult search, supported only by the certainty with which he undertakes his project. Indeed, since his initial announcement, he has not ceased in his attempts to search for intensity and rigour for his project and to strengthen it. Aware that his determination tries the limits of the artistic circles in which he moves, he knows that although he can put some concepts into practice, others remain in the field of utopian ideas. For example, he can fill the space of a gallery with one single model of identical paintings, taking his project to the extreme of apparently denying diversity, by not putting a variety of works on offer. However, he is not permitted to show identical works in two galleries on the same street—one of which is famous and the other not—as a way of demonstrating the impact of the social environment, and of artistic circles, on the work done quietly in the studio. Because, basically, Plágaro is asking himself why a solitary act becomes public, and his approach is not hesitant or indirect.
In a detailed text published for Plágaro’s individual exhibition at Sala Amárica, Silke von Berswordt-Wallrabe analysed the concepts of ‘series’ and ‘repetition’ in the history of painting since the late 19th century and suggested that Plágaro was producing twin paintings, an idea that is certainly fitting. These are twin paintings, gestated side by side. Indeed, Plágaro referred to them in 2008 as being “of twin gestation”.
However, the question remains: why paint pictures that are the same? The idea comes from a concern, and a way of thinking that is similar to what is happening on the European scene and which the work of art demands of our painter. Faced with the weariness produced by an abundance of images and a paucity of ideas, Plágaro remains warm in impulse but becomes increasingly thoughtful. One way of according a leading role to thought is to delay the appearance of the image, to cool off the process by stopping it or at least slowing it down. Breaking up the support, fragmenting it and converting it into elements—autonomous twins—is an excellent solution. He soon realises that his painting has warm characteristics and that the new process brings him closer to cool ones, in the post-minimalist tradition. The option is successful: it eliminates detail and reference in his painting, which has become a dialogue between the support and the materials, which acquire more and more autonomy. The idea that what is painted is a fragment becomes increasingly important, as does the relationship between the art work and space, the element and the void. His paintings are autonomous objects that can only be understood, or made complete, through complicity and repetition. Moreover, they can change in shape and size according to the wishes of those who show them or own them; they are definitely open to different options and can reach the extreme of almost disappearing before invading the space. This project is extremely lucid and clarifies many of the questions raised initially.
Plágaro reiterates and duplicates. He paints two paintings at the same time, and, by doing so in a fully conscious way, triggers a series of decisions that are foreign to the way of working of the Spanish painters of his generation. He later narrows down the painted surface, but his way of deciding on the space needed for the representation is consciously pictorial. He plays with ideas like serialisation and fragmentation but he does not do so in an analytical way that is cold and constructive: he gives guidelines, he sifts the surface of the painting. He does not announce his intentions, instead he describes a work plan or a way of working to which he will be faithful, even if it means swimming against the tide. He gives himself precise rules, but leaves other people the freedom to decide on the characteristics of the work and to arrange how it is to be exhibited. To make it possible for the identical paintings to be arranged in different ways, Plágaro gives them independence, thickness, dimensions; he converts the painting-modules into pictorial objects. The paintings grow side by side: there is no copy or cooling off of the process, only distance, to which the act of painting is added. In a way, the painter appropriates himself, but is also aware that repetition creates a sensation of rhythm and that on reviewing each element the spectator inevitably becomes involved in the game of observing by looking in detail at the paintings, the occupied surface, the textures. These principles belong both to post-minimalism and to the most rigorous painting practice: the eye vibrates, it jumps from one module to the other, and the modules are hand painted, including the details. The temptation of the infinite work, in which the painting is a fragment of an Ariadne’s thread, or of a pictorial fabric is present. Plágaro uses a great variety of resources; the paint may be more or less liquid, and lightly or heavily applied using a fine brush or a large one. Without being figurative, the painting acts as its own point of reference. As in the most geometrical paintings of Piet Mondrian, it is worthwhile intensifying the painter’s project by looking at the painting even more closely, to the point of discovering the drawn lines that precede the repetition.
First the traditional painting breaks into fragments, and narrows down almost to the point of disappearing, becoming three-dimensional modules in colour. Then it multiplies and invades the walls, returning the pictorial effect to the spectator. Twenty-four years have passed since this painter’s strange decision to paint identical pictures and to be faithful to the principles of painting as a plastic art while working tenaciously at destroying and denying them. He has done this without taking short cuts, using his own paintings. Twenty-four years have passed and Plágaro, without renouncing any of his objectives, has succeeded in getting us to re-construct the painting. But the painting slips through our fingers: it occupies the whole room; it searches for its dialogue in the corners; it escapes onto the ceiling; it transforms the exhibition area. And I imagine that Plágaro smiles and prepares another turn of the screw with the same tenacity as he did 24 years ago.
Alfredo Álvarez Plágaro: A Passionate Dadaist
Rhythmic color fields pulsate in the Identical Paintings of Alfredo Álvarez Plágaro. Horizontally, vertically or diagonally they meet up, delimiting or overlapping one another in complex relationships evoking tension or harmony. The overall pictorial vocabulary and painterly structure of the Identical Paintings – with the complexity of their coloration, their materiality and the relations between the individual color fields – supply an abundance of sensory stimulation and arouse in the eye of the viewer the desire to explore and discover the painting.
And then the works repeat themselves multiple times, further intensifying their magnetic appeal. Identical in motif and composition, they exude an astounding self-confidence in their two- to fifty-fold replications.
This repetition serves to multiply the specific pictorial idea, given it the kind of added emphasis that a single work could never muster. The gaze of the observer wanders from picture to picture, carefully comparing them, and thus perceives both the variances in the paint application and the fine differences in the respective elements of the works even more keenly. These subtle discrepancies are not systematically planned, but are rather the result of the painting process: Plágaro always works simultaneously, letting the works come about as “twins during a single pregnancy.”1 Each work is thus at once original and reproduction. This is where a wonderful paradoxical game begins – one that calls into question conventional valuation criteria.
At first glance, the building up of individual elements in the Identical Paintings seems to follow all the classical compositional rules. But then there is the fact that the paintings do not demand any definite orientation in terms of where up, down, right or left are located. They can be rotated at will and are readable from all sides. Just like the orientation of each painting, the positioning of the paintings in a set in the overall view is likewise not specified. They can be arranged in any number of serial variations, whether next to or above one another, as a block or as a row, and still retain the status of a work authorized by the artist. Something that never fails to amaze, and which can be experienced anew in each work, is how Plágaro manages in every picture to create by way of a non-hierarchical and balanced picture plane the possibility of a multitude of equally compelling views, and, what’s more, to extend this further to the numerous presentation options for the respective series.
The Identical Paintings can moreover be split up and displayed in different places in completely divergent constellations. In this extraordinary installation freedom the only prescribed rules are that the same orientation and the same spacing between paintings must be observed for all elements of an Identical Painting series and that, if the set is broken up, at least two work elements must remain together.
The unequivocal positioning of picture and viewer that is inherent to classical pictorial composition is suspended in this work concept, and our viewing habits are deprived of any clear orientation or security. This paradoxical play with repeated and individual works, the multitude of possible viewpoints and the versatile arrangement options stand conventional rules and definitions of a classical artwork on their head.
But what does this concept, which elevates the multiple repetition of a work to a principle and presents itself in such an unconventional form, tell us about the creative work and identity of the artist?
Vital for our understanding is this postulate formulated by Plágaro as the basis of his work: “The most important thing about it, is not what it, is but that it is repeatedly what it is.”2 With passionate consistency he has been working since the late 1980s on the radical implementation of this postulate, making repetition itself the actual motif of his artistic will. Since this will expresses itself in a medium like painting that per se contradicts reproducibility, this is and remains a paradoxical enterprise from repetition to repetition. Simultaneously painted pictures can by virtue of the very way in which they are crafted never be identical, despite sharing the same design. Insisting nevertheless on calling them Identical Paintings and thus postulating their sameness already in their title multiplies this contradiction exponentially and turns it into an ironic comment in pictorial guise.
The concept of originality that is so essential to our understanding of painting, just like the difference between original and copy, is annulled in Plágaro’s work. As ‘both in one,’ his images provoke and attack the very foundations of the classical artwork and call into question their exclusivity.
In various periods individual artists or whole art movements have devoted themselves to the question of what defines art, trying to break through dogmatic value systems. Alfredo Álvarez Plágaro claims to have been influenced here by the spirit of Dadaism, the anarchic artist movement of the early 20th century that proposed an answer to this question that was more radical than anything that had gone before. Affected by the experiences of the First World War, artists formed Dada as an international art movement that rejected all bourgeois value judgments in the art world and society in an effort to provoke, shock and polarize. Their attack was directed at the dictates of traditional aesthetics, which had in some cases become entrenched as dogma, along with the cult of genius of the late 19th century – both of which Expressionism had been unable to topple. The goal was to liberate and broaden our concept of what constitutes art. In their provocative actions, cabaret performances and readings, as well as in collages and pictures, the Dadaists devoted themselves to all that is irrational and random, spontaneous and absurd. In the process, they made use of modern communication media such as flyers and magazines as a way of spreading their ideas and artistic program. Irony and humor, provocation, destruction and the embracing of randomness were their essential means of representation.
Plágaro explicitly places his work in the tradition of Dada. While his attack on today’s conventions at first appears subtle and understated, its implications are extremely radical. At the center of Plágaro’s art, and the focal point of his attack, is the classic panel painting. In keeping with its traditional form, the artist uses wood and canvas as support, applying oil and acrylic paint with a paintbrush and other tools. Plágaro develops an intuitive pictorial language in his painting that is dictated by the interaction of colors and surfaces and freed of the need to be an abstraction of a reality outside the picture. With these painterly prerequisites, the Identical Paintings would at first seem to meet traditional expectations of what a painting should look like. But in fact they virtually lead the viewer astray in order to then turn around and be something completely other than expected. In his conceptual application of painterly means, Plágaro lodges an attack on the traditional definitions imposed on the artwork in terms of form and content, taking them to the limits of what is possible – not to destroy it, but to create a work that can demonstrate its validity as art even outside these conventions.
Instead of establishing a classic pictorial composition and a single defined viewer perspective, the Identical Paintings present several possible views and varied forms. Instead of maintaining the customary picture format, they confront us for example as unusual attenuated steles. Instead of aspiring to originality of form and content, they proclaim their uniformity. Instead of extolling the genius of the artist, they make the person installing the work an essential part of the overall concept. Despite crossing all these boundaries, however, they are still in all respects art.
When Plágaro sums up his postulate as: “My painting is self-contained; it needs neither an explanation nor a justification, because its original goal is simply to repeat itself,” the independence and irony expressed therein attests to the profundity of his Dadaist humor. For this intention of “simply repeating himself,” which may at first glance seem so succinct, ultimately aims at breaking through conventions in order to emancipate the work, the artist, the person installing the work as well as the viewer. By reducing his motif and radically pursuing his postulate, Plágaro launches an ironic game with the classical concept of art, one that does not exhaust itself in its absurdity but instead begins again with renewed passion in every Identical Painting. And so he proceeds to repeat himself from picture to picture. Driven by a radical free spirit and aware of the possible implications of what may seem like an absurd activity, he continues to create Identical Paintings.
Translated by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida
1 Alfredo Álvarez Plágaro, statement made in April 2008.
2 Alfredo Álvarez Plágaro, basic postulate of the Identical Paintings made in 1989.
 Alfredo Álvarez Plágaro, statements made in 2005 and 2008.
 Dadaism can only be summarized briefly within the scope of this paper, without going into the diversity of this artistic movement and its various currents.
 Alfredo Álvarez Plágaro, statements made in 2005 and 2008.
 Alfredo Álvarez Plágaro, statement made in April 2008.
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.
On the “Identical Paintings” of Alfredo Álvarez Plágaro
Plágaro firmly and ineluctably transforms the traditional relationship between spectator and painting. His Identical Paintings at once carve up and reproduce the image field, so that the gaze is neither focused on a single field of view nor is it drawn into a self-contained “visual realm.”1 Plágaro’s paintings inescapably and almost painfully shift the view away from the painted space of the individual paintings and pull the real space between the pictorial elements in. In contrast to the painting series and variations of Claude Monet or Josef Albers, in Plágaro’s Identical Paintings the eye does not linger on any variation, extension or intensification. One’s gaze flits rapidly from painting to painting and on—without finding anything other than a repeat of what has already been seen.
In the history of art many innovations of the image have been associated with frustrating the traditional expectations for pictorial representation: Pablo Picasso’s Cubism fragmented the depth of perspectival space; Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist compositions hindered the representational identification of the painted forms; Marcel Duchamp eschewed the formative and shaping hand of the artist; Theo van Doesburg substituted the deliberative composition of the image by means of a mathematically “controllable structure,”2 and Lucio Fontana even slashed through his canvases and opened them to real space. Finally, in the 1950s artists like Ellsworth Kelly, François Morellet and Frank Stella reduced painted forms to squares of the same size, straight parallel lines or black bands of equal width which “forced illusionist space out of the painting at constant intervals.”3
In essence Plágaro too uses a repetitive uniformity to undermine the expectation of a unified pictorial composition. The forms are not connected in any balanced order; their homogenous sequential arrangement instead simply breaks off at some point. Thereby the painting becomes an object: as in Stella’s shaped canvases and the minimal sculptures of Carl Andre or Donald Judd, Plágaro’s works are not limited by the painting done within the bounds of the canvas but from outside by the edges of the (picture) objects. A harmonious relationship between the different parts of a painting or sculpture was not and is not “credible”4 for the artist—it needed to be destroyed to correspond to the fresh perspective being shed on the world.5 For the same reasons many artists also rejected painting itself, with its often subjective and expressive brushwork and its complicated “illusionism” of a space produced pictorially.6
Plágaro unites these two opposites that had previously appeared irreconcilable: the objective side of seriality and the subjective side of painting. They combine—and at the same time continue to exist as incompatible perceptions. The fascination with Plágaro’s Identical Paintings derives not least from the unity of what would seem to be discordant—painting and object. The uniform repeatability we readily accept in bar- or panel-like decidedly three-dimensional objects appears downright provocative in the medium of smooth, fluidly applied and color blending brushstrokes. The gaze is unremittingly prompted to compare and affirm sameness, which owing to the appearance of relaxed smoothness and “handwrit” fabrication process is ultimately not conceivable. There are in fact differences, but they are largely irrelevant. With the astonishing homogeneity of the paintings one experiences a precise command of the approximate, a disciplined control of the fleeting and a regularity of the unpredictable that is nearly beyond belief. It is precisely the smoothly blended, “unique” strokes of the painting that convey this unrelenting rigor.
Plágaro thus “frees” the painting from its confinement to the closed image field—but neither through an expansive prising open of the image composition nor through a minimalization of the pictorial forms.7 It is rather the utmost control over the painting process which allows him to go beyond the limits of the image. In this manner Plágaro develops a stirring sensorial painting without enclosing it within the area of the canvas. His Identical Paintings dismantle, multiply and destroy the identity of the single “painting” they add up to and by the same token carve up together.
In the 1990s Plágaro’s Identical Paintings were composed of considerably different traces of paint and consistencies of color. Some sections gave a rapid gestural impression, others were softly flowing; there were sharply defined thick, opaque painted areas, some even smoothed over, partly coated with transparent wax or resin. Each painted setting was markedly different from the one adjacent—in material, orientation, dimensions and color effects. The eye mainly followed these similar color deposits from one image element to another and seized less on the different formations within a painted area.
With the newer works made since around 2005, the paint strokes seem rather more similar to each other—in their fluidity, transparency and brush structure. But the difference in visual comprehension of them is yet more pronounced. Each color, each arrangement now works as a flowing, in most cases even fast movement, which draws the gaze in wholly different directions with different approaches and color moods. One’s attention becomes so lost in individual movements, angles, layers, the energy of colors, transparencies and shadows it is even less possible to grasp these paintings as a whole. Their elusive, shifty processes and the evolution of the colors call for an empathic viewing—the eye follows along with the pictorial patterns. At the same time, however, the repetitive objectuality of these paintings refuses to allow the eye to become immersed in a particular visual realm. The cool acuity and rational control which is felt in these works asserts itself in this contrary appeal to the spectator, but so too do the sensory processes of the spatial and fluid color gradients that are felt in their contrast with the rigid edges and repetitions.
It is not only the visual forms that are repeated from canvas to canvas but also the inner movements one is led to by the traces of color and through which each individual impulse is so perceptibly discernible from the others. With each wash of color, each rudiment of shape, another speed, another direction, another determination and mood attunement is experienced—and too there is another experience of space, transparency or opacity, a colored luminescence or an earthy dullness. Each of these executions functions fully independently from the others. They are related to one another neither through systematic increments nor through contrasts; they do not join together, they are not even in opposition—they instead simply have a different effect each time.
One experiences the isolation of this repeated pictorial gesture all the more keenly upon discovering that this is precisely how Plágaro fabricates these paintings: he does not paint each complete painting and copy it in the next but instead creates each individual pictorial arrangement by identical repetition across the whole series of image elements.
Between the different pictorial impulses which are repeated from canvas to canvas we establish a connection that could be described using the concept “guidance”: a pictorial gesture has been determined through the “guidance” or “influence” of another. Ludwig Wittgenstein considered this relationship, the “concept ‘because’ (or ‘influence’ or ’cause’ or ‘connection’)” in his Philosophical Investigations: “Make some arbitrary doodle on a bit of paper. – And now make a copy next to it, let yourself be guided by it. – […] But now notice this: While I am guided everything is quite simple, I notice nothing special; but afterwards, […] I feel as if there must have been something else; in particular when I say ‘guidance’, ‘influence’, and other such words to myself.”8 In contrast to this successive relationship between model and emulation, in Plágaro’s Identical Paintings this reference “floats” homogenously and simultaneously between the similar realizations. The repetition is indistinguishable from what it is modeled after; the pictorial gesture exists as the shared impulse in all of the equivalent realizations.
The gaze is then driven forward in two ways, first by the repetitive sequence of objects and second through the pictorial impulses. This drive forward has no beginning and no end; one follows it back and forth and in all possible directions. The expressive impact is thereby blended in in a minimalistic, mechanically repeating rhythm. It is revealed from impulse to impulse, repeating from canvas to canvas, and with it the pictorial application of color disintegrates within each panel in movements that are alien to and divergent from one another and which repeat from painting to painting. These colored gestures are so sensorially convincing that the spectator’s grasp is never lost in illusional spaces or colored veils but instead one feels the cold mechanics of the repetitive object that combine with fluid approaches to painting.
Two kinds of movements penetrate and contradict each other at the same time: in one the eye is drawn along colored streams, veils, solidifications, speeds and luminous escalations that spread across each canvas in an identical repetition. And in the other the gaze pursues identical formats in each work in their respective particular rhythm on the wall—compact, dense, distended, sometimes even overwhelming. The proportions of the panels and their number influence the work’s impact just as do the artistic processes in their reproduction and rhythmic repetition. Only one thing is never to be experienced and never to be established for the eye: a calm, inwardly limitable state—a form. The individuality of each of Plágaro’s works proves itself in the particular interplay of very different movements, which the spectator follows along with continuously from element to element and color impulse to color impulse.
The individuality of a work therefore develops from the moving perceptions of the colors and shapes that never come to rest. The sequences flowing on and on and erratically repeating traverse the entire work beyond the boundaries of painted and objectual shapes and create a shimmering impression of effects as marked as they are impossible to pin down. As such it seems only logical that the artist establishes neither the arrangement of the individual elements nor their sequence. These panels have neither a given “top” or “bottom” nor is there any clear plan for hanging them (side by side, one above the other or in groups). In the exhibition presented here, some works increase in openness beyond measure as they cannot be looked on as a whole when arranged in a sequence of rows. A narrow frieze extends over several walls; 150 identical vertical elements line the inside of a “pavilion” with a U-shaped floor plan; a series of horizontal elements extends up to the ceiling and a little further into the space from the center of an exhibition wall. These arrangements overcome the distance of a pictorial frontality every time.
As uniform and controlled as these works may seem at first glance, the more erratic, inconsistent and contradictory they prove to be in the spectator’s attempt to bring his visual impressions in line with a rule. The regular nature of the artistically irregular and the objectual reproduction of the subjectively working color fluxes instead produce impressions of paradox and constant irritation. As the artist himself has pointed out, the repetition of the seemingly unrepeatable also contains elements of humor and irony. He has even remarked that the source of inspiration for his paintings was Dadaism. What is in fact comparable are the shattering of the harmonious image and the unpredictable and unsystematic combination of contradictory modes of action. Ever new and lacking the rule of harmonization, each individual pictorial impulse and every point of departure develops a sequence. As astonishing as it seems, precisely the most rigorous repetition opens painting and the image to a particular, unregulated freedom.
1 Max Imdahl designated harmony of the image objects as visual harmony of their arrangement as a unity of Bildwelt (visual realm) and Bildfeld (image field). Max Imdahl “Marées, Fiedler, Hildebrand, Riegl, Cézanne. Bilder und Zitate” (1963), in: Max Imdahl, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 3, ed. Gottfried Boehm, Frankfurt a.M. 1996, pp. 50 ff.
2 Theo van Doesburg, letter to Anthony Kok from 23 January 1930 on his Arithmetische Compositie created during that period, quoted by Evert van Straten, Theo van Doesburg. Constructor of the new life, exh. cat. Kröller-Müller Museum Otterlo 1994, p. 101.
3 Frank Stella, “The Pratt Lecture” (Winter 1959/60), in: Brenda Richardson, Frank Stella. The Black Paintings, exh. cat. The Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland, 1976, p. 78.
4 In the text “Specific Objects,” Donald Judd summarized his rejection of works consisting of many parts as follows: “Painting and sculpture have become set forms. A fair amount of their meaning isn’t credible.” Yearbook 8, 1965, quoted by Donald Judd, Complete Writings 1959-1975, Halifax, Canada 2005, p. 184.
5 According to Judd’s view, the traditional “compositional effects” are based on “a priori systems” that are “pretty much discredited now as a way of finding out what the world’s like.” Bruce Glaser, “Questions to Stella and Judd,” Art News, September 1966, quoted by Gregory Battcock (ed.): Minimal Art. A Critical Anthology, New York 1968, pp. 151 ff.
6 With three-dimensional objects, Donald Judd’s opinion was that “[t]hat gets rid of the problem of illusionism […] – which is riddance of one of the salient and most objectionable relics of European art.” Judd 2005 (see note 4), p. 184.
7 On the different strategies in Europe and the USA for opening traditional European panel painting to concrete space see Erich Franz, “Painting and Concrete Space,” in: A New Departure. Painting and Concrete Space, exh. cat. Situation Kunst (für Max Imdahl), Kunstsammlungen der Ruhr-Universität Bochum a.o. (touring exhibition) 2011, pp. 230-259.
8 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, p. 177, p. 175.