In the hot, hot, hot month of July, I traveled to Spain on an art-viewing excursion. The following is a report of my sightings.
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
A natural first stop in Madrid, the Prado is Spain's Louvre and holds an extensive collection of European art, much of it from the Royal Collection. Among the most prized pieces are Velásquez's Las Meninas, which has been reinterpreted by many artists, most notably Picasso, as you will read later in this report. Also well known and on my list of art to see up close was The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted by Hieronymus Bosch in the late 15th/early 16th century. It's surreal and seemed so ahead of its time. It was also surrounded by swarms of tourists just like when I saw the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.
Reina Sofia, Madrid
Next was the contemporary art museum for a face-to-face meeting with Picasso's Guernica, his famous work about a Spanish Civil War bombing. Several more Picasso paintings and sculptures live in the museum, but my favorite discovery was an astonishing exhibition of paintings filled with simple lines, patterns, and animals by Martín Ramírez. I was immediately drawn to them, but couldn't spend enough time looking at them. It wasn't until later that I learned Ramírez had schizophrenia and spent most of his life institutionalized near Sacramento.
Streets of Spain
The public art in Spain is impressive and makes me wonder why most of ours is so tame. An unusual, graphic red bridge sits beside the next museum on my itinerary in Bilbao, train stations held massive artworks, and graffiti and street art were clearly welcomed -- many legal walls line the city streets. I met up with my friend and KQED's Art Director, Zaldy Serrano in Madrid; we agreed the graf styles looked very tight and, as he said, "like they didn't have to hurry up."
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
This museum is a stunner. The Guggenheims know how to get down. Their Bilbao branch has Frank Gehry's curvy metal architecture, which he compared to a crate of loose bottles, and one of Louise Bourgeois's largest spider sculptures crawling towards the river outside. Her spiders are about the childhood fears grown-ups are afraid to express -- a giant spider rising out of a river was doubly terrifying and awesome.
My hotel was across the street from the museum and I nearly fainted when I saw Jeff Koon's Puppy towering outside the back door. I'd heard of this enormous Terrier made of flowers and knew he'd been exhibited in Bilbao, but had no idea that the locals loved him so dearly, they'd adopted him permanently. Judging from the museum shop's postcards, I think Puppy was at his best, most flourishing, colorful state this month. He looked greener in the past. That dog was only the beginning. A two-story Jenny Holzer LCD text installation and The Matter of Time, the most amazing Richard Serra steel sculpture I've ever wound my way through, blew my mind on the first floor, along with classy galleries of important works by Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Yves Klein, and James Rosenquist, among others. There was a Robert Rauschenburg exhibition of nearly a hundred found metal collage sculptures called Gluts (the delicate Poached Summer Glut was lovely), and a solo exhibition of work by Anish Kapoor, another mind bender.
One large gallery in Kapoor's show had a high ceiling and held a cannon and what looked like an industrial preparation area. The corner of the room was obliterated with a bloody, chunky, red substance, splattered maybe twenty feet high. I couldn't look at it at first. I didn't want to. It looked horrific, like someone murdered The B.F.G. in there. But I sucked it up and entered the gallery at just the right time, when the performance took place. A jump-suited man ceremoniously loaded a bucket-sized red wax bullet into the cannon, took a long pause for dramatic effect, and launched it, SPLAT, into the wall with the rest of the goop. It stuck, and then crumbled off like its predecessors, adding to the pile on the floor. Next door, a yellow vortex filled one huge wall and made my eyes cross. Even standing right next to it, I thought it was painted flat with shading but it was, in fact, concave. In the next room, a somewhat similar, white, convex Pregnant bump protruded from the wall. If you stared at it at a certain angle, it disappeared. Kapoor has an acute knack for messing with one's perception. He also seems to be living out one or more of Freud's psychosexual stages. Near the pregnant bump was a graphically carved lady part coated in rich red pigment powder, and in the next room, endless piles of concrete poo on palettes created a maze through the gallery.
This is Kapoor's latest work. He and a friend developed what he describes as a digital printer of 3D objects. It seemed more like a food processor that can handle concrete, since the output resembled the piles of thick spaghetti coils that come out of a Play-Dough Fun Factory. I overheard someone saying it looked like specimens of the end results of eating various foods, and I had to agree. Despite the fact that his work makes me uneasy, Kapoor's show was clearly a stand out.
Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, Catalonia
Joan Miró had a hand in creating this museum before his death in 1983. It houses many of his works, including paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and even huge tapestries. Since I'm typically drawn to the newest contemporary work, most memorable for me at this location was a temporary exhibition of video works by Pippilotti Rist, who is nicknamed after Pippi Longstocking. Entering the darkened galleries, waiting for my eyes to adjust, I stumbled into a room filled with people laying on the floor staring up at amorphous screens playing dream-like videos that are hard to remember in detail. I remember seeing a woman sort of floating and drifting in water, eating flowers -- strange visions that appear as a dream. Rist is interested in how we perceive imagery when our muscles are relaxed and collaborated with a musician for the videos' soundtracks, which added to their mesmerizing effect. She also created carefully-planned pillows and carpeting in specific color palettes for her viewers. I'm a big fan of artists who get people to lay on the floor on a hot summer day.
Museu Picasso, Barcelona, Catalonia
Ending with another mandatory stop (according to travel books) the Picasso Museum is in Barcelona's Barri Gótic, an old town cobblestone neighborhood. Nestled into the skinny streets, the museum begins with Picasso's illustrative pieces, which I found most interesting, along with lots of his early impressionist work, including portraits of his parents he made at age 16. There were two galleries filled with his many cubist interpretations of Velasquez's Las Meninas which were a fitting, rounded-out end to my whirlwind tour of Spain's art and cultural history.
Oh yeah, and on my last night in town, Spain won a big soccer match or something.