“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.