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.