The Centro de Arte Contemporáneo of Málaga is proud to present Life Is Like the Wind, an exhibition dedicated to Cádiz-born artist José María Báez opening on 30 November. Curated by Fernando Francés, the show features nearly 150 pieces grouped in 45 different works. Life Is Like the Wind adopts the form of a massive installation, where words take over the museum’s central space. Báez seeks a source of aesthetic, philosophical and pragmatic completion in the set-up, the conversion of the exhibition space into one huge installation by making the walls a living part of his own experience and the one he intends to share with the audience. Literature and narrative have an active presence in the show thanks to the artist’s use of poetic quotations, inserted in his paintings through Roman/Renaissance script. Báez engages in a conceptual and pictorial reflection by drawing on literary sources and musical librettos and appropriating admired artworks and artists.
I always strove to find quotations that were evocative without being outright descriptive, overtly explicit or conventional, ones that had metaphorical potential and often referenced the specificity of painting itself,” José María Báez explains. “In my choice of texts, I sought to avoid the descriptive and explicit, instead charging them with metaphorical significance and a frisson of mystery.
According to Fernando Francés, director of the CAC Málaga, “Báez has managed to materialise an installation about the importance of the written word. Colour, different typefaces and formats play a decisive role in conjunction with the exhibition set-up. Words have taken over the space in a game of meanings, languages and verses that guide the spectator’s gaze.”
Involved with poetic movements in his youth, for a long time Báez’s work maintained an active presence of literature and narrative through the use of poetic quotations, inserted in his paintings in the form of Roman/Renaissance script. The plot-like nature of his pieces required a close connection to installation. He began with figuration and ended up on a more conceptual plane where colour is the indispensable element, the key to revealing his works. In the artist’s view, both classical and contemporary art are in need of revision, for “art is always a document of our time”. Báez seeks a source of aesthetic, philosophical and pragmatic completion in the set-up, the conversion of the exhibition space into one huge installation by making its walls a living part of his own experience and the one he intends to share with the audience.
The work of José María Báez (b. Jerez de la Frontera, 1949, lives in Córdoba since the 1960s) exemplifies the pictorial trend of figurative expressionism that characterized the 1980s and was embraced by many other young Andalusian artists.
In the mid-1980s he introduced scripts of classical design in his works, which remained a constant feature of his oeuvre until 2009, when he began to use shorter but more elongated formats with increasing frequency: the written line dictated form, adding a layer of inexplicit yet highly significant meaning. The importance of these creations in Báez’s corpus is related to the early days of his career, for he started out as a poet. Writing and lines are therefore closely linked to one of the most relevant periods in his professional life.
In the late 1980s and early 90s, his work began to evince a noticeable absence of colour and more muted references to death and AIDS, a disease that afflicted several of the artist’s friends and was also related to larger issues of social exclusion and discrimination.
The exhibition at the CAC Málaga, Life Is Like the Wind, curated by Fernando Francés, brings together 135 of the artist’s pieces, grouped into 45 works. The show is more a compendium than a retrospective, as it only presents a segment of his production. The set-up is vital to understanding the exhibition: the four walls of the space play with the flow of the phrases, giving them a sense of continuity. There are no large gaps between the works and the corners, creating an impression of contrasted seamlessness.
The exhibition begins with the work Sin título. Abu Ghraib [Untitled: Abu Ghraib] (2008) where we read LA VIDA ES COMO UN VIENTO [LIFE IS LIKE THE WIND], a lugubrious, lapidary phrase that does not conceal a great truth but shouts it out loud. This diptych shows an image of the torture performed by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. A badly injured man, possibly dead, lies on the floor, though we only see his head. The entire image is black and white, like a photograph, except for the red wound on his temple. “Life Is Like the Wind” expresses a classical preoccupation immortalised in the Latin saying tempus fugit: time flees, time runs away, time flies. In fact, in 2010, shortly after completing this work, Báez stopped using texts in his works.
The continuation of this piece, like an elegy, is the acrylic and paper collage La faune bouge, tandis que la flore se déplie à l’oeil [Fauna Moves, while Flora Unfolds before Our Eyes] (1991), bearing the text MUETTES INSTANCES SUPPLICATIONS CALME FORT TRIOMPHES [SILENT ENTREATIES PLEAS STRONG CALM TRIUMPHS]. Although texts had previously appeared in Báez’s paintings, it was not until 1987 that he began to use fonts designed by Giovanni Francesco Cresci in the 16th century, based on imperial Roman script. Words first made an appearance in his works at the exhibition Sucio y limpio, where he incorporated the titles in each piece. Cresci is a font designed for visual harmony and unskilled hands, accepting human imperfection as a matter of course. As Báez explains, “The line drawn by the hand when making a letter is thicker at the beginning and moves from bottom to top, yet at the end of the stroke the arm is stronger and the line moves downwards, with the hand exerting greater pressure.” This feature is preserved in this type of font, where the eye of the beholder is all-important, as the letters are never evenly spaced and yet together have a perfect harmony.
The language of each phrase or quotation the artist chooses to paint into his works is determined by the source, which explains why we find texts and words in German, English, Italian, French and Spanish in the exhibition at the CAC Málaga. The artist used his own phrases in the polyptych Ruidos, gemidos, gruñidos, suspiros (1995), whose title is a Spanish translation of the English words written on it (NOISES / GRUNTS / GROANS / SIGHS), and in Sin título [Untitled] (2006), an oval composition on a black background with floral details bearing the text TODO ES REPRESENTACIÓN [ALL IS REPRESENTATION]. The latter is a companion piece to Sin título [Untitled] (2006), where we read a text by José Enrique Coca, EL DESTINO PROTEGE A QUIENES TIENEN MIEDO [FATE PROTECTS THE FEARFUL].
Other works that include reflections are El aire de la voz [The Breath of the Voice] (1993), with the same text as the title, quoting from Emilio Lledó: “Behind every man who speaks to us is the world that impels him to speak.” La sensación y la memoria [Sensation and Memory] (1993) was inspired by Aristotle’s claim that experience is sensation and memory. Sin título. Niestrath [Untitled: Niestrath] (1995) bears the words SCHWARZ WEISS SCHNELL SICHER [BLACK WHITE FAST SAFE] by artist Eva Niestrath. In Sin título. Bodegón [Untitled: Still Life] (1995) we read a phrase by Francisco Bejarano, BRISA MARINA EN UNA COPA DE ÁMBAR [SEA BREEZE IN AN AMBER GOBLET], which Báez also used on the poster of the 1996 Jerez Horse Fair, as he considered it a dazzling metaphor for this Andalusian city. The poster, consisting of three flat colour fields with nothing but this quote (aside from the pertinent details about the fair and its dates, communicated in a riot of colours), was highly controversial and generally unpopular with the people of Jerez, as it lacked the conventional familiar iconographic elements associated with this event. Even today, years later, many still recall that singular design. Another work, Sin título [Untitled] (1995), features a Spanish translation of Henri Michaux’s words, NO INTENTES ADQUIRIR NUEVAS FORMAS [DO NOT TRY TO TAKE ON NEW FORMS].
Other quotations appearing in Life Is Like the Wind are: Yves Bonnefoy, Sin título [Untitled] (1996–1997), TACHES DE COULEUR PLAISIRS BREFS CRAINTES [SPOTS OF COLOUR BRIEF PLEASURES FEARS]; César González Ruano, Sin título [Untitled] (1997), LOS LABIOS DE LA MAR LACRE DE ESPUMAS [LIPS OF THE SEA FOAMING RED]; Juan Eduardo Cirlot, Sin título [Untitled] (1997), TRANSPARENTE DILATA LO [TRANSPARENT EXPANDS THE] (left side) / HIELOS QUE BRUSCAMENTE LO [ICE THAT ROUGHLY THE] (right side); Vicente Huidobro, Sin título [Untitled] (1997), QUELQUEFOIS LA NUIT DANS LES MAINS SE DEFAIT [SOMETIMES THE NIGHT IS UNDONE BY THE HANDS]; Octavio Paz, Plomo [Lead] (1998), EL DÍA ABRE LA MANO / TRES NUBES / Y ESTAS POCAS PALABRAS [THE HAND OF DAY OPENS / THREE CLOUDS / AND THESE FEW WORDS]; Juan A. Muñoz Rojas, Sin título [Untitled] (1999-2000), NADA SE GUARDA Y EL AMOR MENOS QUE NADA [NOTHING IS KEPT, LEAST OF ALL LOVE]; Dylan Thomas, Sin título [Untitled] (1999-2000), BY SIPPING AT THE VINE OF DAYS; Avigdor Arikha, Sin título. Arikha [Untitled: Arikha] (2000), LA IMAGEN RECUERDA LA PINTURA REVELA [THE IMAGE RECALLS THE PAINTING REVEALS]; and Clara Janés, Sin título [Untitled] (2000-2001), MÚSICA Y HUMO CUANDO LLEGA EL REPOSO DE LOS OJOS [MUSIC AND SMOKE WHEN THE EYES FIND REPOSE].
The show also includes the pieces titled Retablo [Altarpiece]: Retablo I (1999), EL CONSUELO ES NECESIDAD DEL HOMBRE [CONSOLATION IS A HUMAN NECESSITY] by José A. Muñoz Rojas; Retablo III (1999), LA TRISTEZA DURARÁ SIEMPRE [SADNESS WILL LAST FOREVER] by Vincent van Gogh; Retablo VIII (1999) DIE HERZEN DER WALTENDEN SCHATTEN [THE HEARTS OF THE RULING SHADOW] by Paul Celan; and Retablo XI (1999), CLARA ESQUILA DE MAYO VOZ DEL CAMPO [LIGHT MAY SHEARING VOICE OF THE FIELDS] by Ricardo Molina. These four pieces are part of a series of thirteen works originally created to be exhibited at the former convent of Santa Clara in Córdoba. Báez’s idea was to assemble them like a massive altarpiece, which explains their similar dimensions, the repetition of the geometric composition in the background, and the slightly elegiac tone of the selected texts.
In the year 2000, Báez began using other typefaces. Juxtaposed with the Cresci fonts, the new types—derived from popular culture and commonly used in publications and advertisements from the 1940s and 50s—aspired to rival the culturalist impact of the old. We find them in texts borrowed from Derek Walcott in Sin título [Untitled] (2000–2001), LANDSCAPES OPEN ON A WATERDROP; Carlos Edmundo de Ory, Sin título [Untitled] (2002), SUBO A MIS OJOS [I RISE TO MY EYES]; César González Ruano, Sin título (2002), CORAZÓN NÚMERO NUEVO [HEART NEW NUMBER]; Jorge Luis Borges, Natura morta [Still Life] (2002), ECOS RESACA ARENA LIQUEN SUEÑOS / NATURA MORTA [ECHOES UNDERTOW SAND LICHEN DREAMS / STILL LIFE]; Wolf Vostell, Sin título. Vostell [Untitled: Vostell] (2003), SONO LE COSE CHE NON CONOSCETE CHE CAMBIERANNO LA VOSTRA VITA [IT’S THE THINGS YOU DON’T KNOW THAT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE]; Pspho Phale, Sin título [Untitled] (2003), HE RENUNCIADO A MIS SUEÑOS [I HAVE RELINQUISHED MY DREAMS]; and Pierre Reverdy, Sin título [Untitled] (2003), LE JOUR SEMBLE SORTIR LENTEMENT D’UN ETUI [THE DAY SEEMS TO SLOWLY EMERGE FROM A SHEATH].
In the year 2000, Galería Alejandro Sales in Barcelona celebrated its fifteenth anniversary by inviting various galleries to exhibit works by their artists at its venue. The Sevillian gallerist Rafael Ortiz was one of them, and he asked Báez to create something new for the occasion. The artist remembered that Joan Miró, when he returned to Spain after the end of the Civil War, concentrated on a print series he called Suite Barcelona. At the time the artist was enthusiastically reading the work of Patrick Modiano and fascinated by the mysteriously evocative quality of the names of his stories’ protagonists, so he let himself be carried away these suggestions and, ironically appropriating Miró’s title, devised his own Suite Barcelona (2000), a triptych with the names of six players associated with the Barcelona Football Club: FRANK DE BOER / RIVALDO, WINSTON BOGARDE / FIGO and JARI LITMANEN / PEP GUARDIOLA. However, these works were not shown at that exhibition as the gallerist was not partial to the football team Báez had chosen.
The CAC exhibition also includes verses measuring over two metres long by Miguel Sánchez-Ostiz—Sin título [Untitled] (1996), EL GRIS DE LOS ENEBROS LA ASPEREZA DEL TOMILLO [THE GREY OF JUNIPERS THE ROUGHNESS OF THYME]—and Pablo García Baena: Sin título [Untitled] (1996), DE TU PELO QUE AHOGABA LA VOZ EN MI GARGANTA [OF YOUR HAIR THAT THROTTLED THE VOICE IN MY THROAT]; Sin título [Untitled] (1996), UN COLLAR DE MIRADAS INSOMNES [A NECKLACE OF INSOMNIAC GAZES]; and Sin título [Untitled] (1996), ETERNAMENTE HIERE RÁPIDO VUELA Y MATA [ETERNALLY IT STINGS SWIFTLY IT FLIES AND KILLS]. The last text was taken from the painting The Knight’s Dream (ca. 1645–1660) traditionally attributed to Antonio de Pereda, a painter from Valladolid. The inscription on the unfurled phylactery held by the angel could not be more laconic or profound. In the middle is a bow and arrow, poised to shoot, with a sun behind it and the Latin text AETERNA PUNGIT / CITO VOLAT / ET OCCIDIT, which translates as “Eternally it stings, swiftly it flies and kills”. In 1995, Báez received the Navarre Painting Prize, and with it a chance to exhibit at the Museo de Navarra in Pamplona. Throughout the period in which he worked with texts, solo shows required him to prepare specific works related to a particular idea or theme. These four pieces were part of the exhibition project he devised for Navarre. The museum’s temporary exhibition hall was shaped like a large rectangle, and the format, distribution and scale of the works was determined by that floor plan, although they were also informed by the red and blue versions of artist Reiner Ruthenbeck as external references. Another work featuring Baena’s words but in a different format is Sin título [Untitled] (2002), AQUÍ ESTUVO SU BOCA [HIS MOUTH WAS HERE].
The longest piece is undoubtedly Mi cuerpo es mi pintura [My Body Is My Painting] (1995), consisting of 40 small canvases with the following texts: MI ANSIA [MY LONGING] / MI BURLA [MY RIDICULE] / MI CAUTELA [MY CAUTION] / MI CENSURA [MY CENSURE] / MI CERCO [MY FENCE] / MI CERTEZA [MY CERTAINTY] / MI CINISMO [MY CYNICISM] / MI CONGOJA [MY DISTRESS] / MI DESAZÓN [MY DISMAY] / MI DESDÉN [MY DISDAIN] / MI DESEO [MY DESIRE] / MI DESVELO [MY WAKEFULNESS] / MI ECO [MY ECHO] / MI EDAD [MY AGE] / MI HERIDA [MY WOUND] / MI HIEL [MY BILE] / MI HUELLA [MY FOOTPRINT] / MI IMPULSO [MY IMPULSE] / MI JUEGO [MY GAME] / MI LÍBIDO [MY LIBIDO] / MI MIEDO [MY FEAR] / MI NAUSEA [MY NAUSEA] / MI NOMBRE [MY NAME] / MI PASIÓN [MY PASSION] / MI PIEDAD [MY PIETY] / MI POLLA [MY COCK] / MI PUDOR [MY MODESTY] / MI QUIETUD [MY STILLNESS] / MI RAZÓN [MY REASON] / MI RENCOR [MY BITTERNESS] / MI SOBORNO [MY BRIBE] / MI SOFISMA [MY SOPHISTRY] / MI SOMBRA [MY SHADOW] / MI SOSIEGO [MY SERENITY] / MI SUDARIO [MY SHROUD] / MI TEDIO [MY TEDIUM] / MI TEMBLOR [MY TREMOR] / MI TIMIDEZ [MY TIMIDITY] / MI TORPEZA [MY AWKWARDNESS] / MI TRAMPA [MY TRAP]. Although this work may be installed vertically (as it was the first time) or horizontally, as at the CAC Málaga, the pieces must always be arranged in alphabetical order. In a conversation with artist Bill Beckley in 1997, Louise Bourgeois said, “For me, sculpture is the body. My body is my sculpture.” This polyptych, which trades “sculpture” for “painting”, was originally made for the 15th Salón de los 16 in 1995. It is an attempt to construct the artist’s secret identity and the vast number of registers that converge in painting.
Sin título [Untitled] (1993–2000), featuring the text VITALI SCHERBO, is an unusual work in acrylic, oil, collage and silver leaf on cloth-lined paper. Báez’s predilection for specific individuals has produced a large constellation of proper names, as illustrated by this piece dedicated to Vitaly Scherbo, the Belarusian gymnast who won multiple gold medals at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. There were many others, including the architects Gunnar Asplund and J.J.P. Oud, the graphic designers Paul Rand and Saul Bass, the Ukrainian pole vaulter Sergey Bubka, the composer Lili Boulanger and even Jacques Fesch, the French murderer who became a devout Roman Catholic in prison.
Báez also finds inspiration in the titles of works by other artists, which he appropriates for his own purposes. For instance, the text in Twombly (1993), WILDER SHORES OF LOVE, is the title of a 1985 painting by Cy Twombly, and Sin título. Kippenberger (2000–2001) features the phrase DIE WAHRHEIT LIEGT IN DER WOHNUNG [THE TRUTH LIES IN THE APARTMENT], the title of a work painted by Martin Kippenberger in 1984. We also read MANE THECEL FARES (numbered, weighed, divided), a transliteration of the menacing words which a mysterious hand wrote on the wall of the hall where King Belshazzar held what was destined to be his final feast before Cyrus the Great entered Babylon in triumph, in the work Sin título. Archives & Documents (7) (2003–2005).
The words of others allow us to trace a particular geography, as the texts unerringly lead to reflection and conceptual intent. “But I never intended to renounce the pictorial sphere, the incarnation that constructs and defines the visual, so I decided to embrace a kind of borderline ambiguity, in the manner of Boetticher’s low-budget films,” the artist remarks. Indeed, the written word has great power. For instance, in the work Sin título (1991), where we read HER HAND ON MY DICK UNDER MY RAINCOAT, if the artist had chosen to paint this scene, it might have gone unnoticed, but the words inevitably get our attention. Seeing that phase written out in the aforementioned classical Cresci font gives the work a scandalising connotation. In the early 1990s, the AIDS pandemic triggered a strong reactionary movement. A moralistic halo descended on the world, claiming that the disease was some sort of punishment for active sexual licentiousness. The artist’s reaction to this behaviour was to use texts lifted straight from porn magazines. A New York gallery took an interest in his work at the time, but in the end it decided not to exhibit his creations. Today’s society is more “used” to visually shocking images, thanks to the uncensored rawness of televised news broadcasts, the press and online media. The modern viewer’s eye is not easily surprised, but the truth and power of the written word still has the ability to shock us. Few things today can make us recoil, but painted words are harsher than images.
The exhibition concludes with Barlach (1991) and the text DER TOD [DEATH]. Literature was not Báez’s sole source of inspiration in these years. He also looked to musical librettos, among other works, and found composers like Hans Pfitzner, Bellini, Felix Mendelssohn and Bizet immensely useful. At other times Báez chose to appropriate works and artists he admired, as in this final piece, whose text is the title of a 1925 sculpture by Ernst Barlach. It is a document of its time, and the emotional states of each era ultimately converge. For Báez, reality is obstinate and always has a presence in everything we do.
José María Báez (Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, 1949) began his creative career in the field of literature, founding the poetry journal Zaitún (Córdoba, 1968–1969) with Rafael Álvarez Merlo and others in 1968. Over the following decade, he gradually transitioned to the visual arts and played a prominent role on the Spanish art scene from the moment his first solo show opened in 1970. In 1980 he was awarded the New Expressive Forms Grant by the Spanish Ministry of Culture, and in that decade he worked steadily in the fields of pictorial creation and public art while also curating exhibitions. Báez has had numerous solo and group shows and participated in ARCO and other prestigious art fairs on many occasions. His creations can be found in a variety of public and private collections. He currently lives and works in Córdoba.