The travelers with no baggage of Antonio Seguí
Daniel Abadie, Antonio Seguí, Peintures, sculptures, gravures (1980-2004), Centre d’Arts Plastiques, Royan, France, 2005.
Claudel declared that poetry was thought surrounded by blankness. Like a pumping heart contracting to empty out before filling up again, poetic thought seemed to him to be a cyclic movement, an alternating mode in which cesura, like the margin of the printed page, or the frame of a painting – controlled a passage, a breath, making it possible to take another breath. To the contrary, it could be said of the painting of Seguí that for several decades it has represented an uninterrupted flow, a sort of constant wave, carrying in its current cities and cars, men and women, airplanes and clouds, trees and smoke. No hierarchy in this disorder where legless people are bigger than automobiles, passers-by larger than houses, trees higher than clouds; no logic, either, in their encounters or dispersion. The hand that traces them in charcoal on the white canvas seems simply to discover and to reveal a magnetic attraction between things and beings, a magnetism which decides for itself on the arrival of an image, its repetition or its confrontation with another. A type of automatism--in the sense in which André Breton used the term--is at work on the canvas and covers it evenly with these figures which reappear from one work to the next until only the edges of the painting seem to contain their proliferation. Although it is obviously figurative, the painting of Seguí is done in the style of works by Pollock or the abstract formalists of the second half of the twentieth century with their questioning of the classical focal point of painting, substituting for it equally active zones from one edge of the painting to the other.
However, in the similar density that Seguí seeks in his work, the artist sometimes plays with non-painting, producing faults in the continuum of painting. These can isolate a figure or a group of passers-by, create a change in register between the top and the bottom of the painting, suggest an image. In contrast to Claudel’s point of view on blankness, they do not isolate meaning; they produce it. It is this non-painting—containing in a sort of little mound or sugar-loaf an amalgam of figures, trees, and houses which should naturally have proliferated over the whole surface of the canvas –which suggests, more than the image itself, the association with Mont Saint-Michel, the title of this work. It is this same non-painting, this time covering the lower portion of the canvas, which Seguí uses in Los Sueños d’Aniseto or Con ideas en la cabeza in order to visualize, using a technique taken from the comics, the thought of a character which participates simultaneously in two registers of the painting: in the center, the body surrounded by monochromatic emptiness; above, with the head in the continuous texture of the image. What could be only a versatile technique becomes, through the multitude of uses which the painter makes of it, rich in meanings; a haze of smoke drowning the image (Cuando te vuelve a ver), a small island of painting in the white of the canvas (Gente a la espera de una cita de amor), a street divided into shadow and sun (Sin fundamentos), a new way of transcribing the perspective (Se creía Orson Welles). Seguí has sometimes represented this passage from the painted to the non-painted, from the explicit to the implicit, in the form of a ladder uniting the two zones (Subís si podés, La gran escalera) as if better to emphasize the exchange created in this way, intuitively turning to certain images from classical art, such as the dream of Jacob, where the ladder leads from the world of dream to that of revelation.
If, in a reversal of Claudel’s definition, the blank margin does isolate, with Seguí not the thought but the confusion continues—the confusion of cities, their movement, their interchanges—likewise the painter, as if to contradict this mechanistic writing which first covers the canvas with charcoal drawings, invents traps, creates ambushes for himself. For example, by dividing the blank canvas into equal parts covered by a different base color, in a sense implicit triptychs or quadriptychs, Seguí introduces into the painting breaks in continuity that the painter must then resolve. This manner of revealing the repetitive nature of the initial gesture, working against uniform coverage of the canvas with drawing requires a constant questioning: how does one finish naturally on a pink- or green-colored background, a character begun on ochre? The task of Seguí consists of causing the spectator, standing before the work, to no longer ask questions which the painter had to answer, making the evidence of the result mask the inventiveness, having the final effortlessness of the demonstration make of the painting not a “solved problem” but something which is given. However, it is in terms of questions that the painting of Seguí must be considered: the questions that a painter asks himself so that after years of experience the act of painting does not become transformed into the technique of an artisan. The work of this artist began to affirm itself at the time when the norm of abstract formalism had just triumphed in American painting. At the beginning, the generation to which he belongs—that of the European pop artists, from Hockney to Erró, or South Americans like Botero—by reintroducing a wave of images into painting seemed to break fundamentally with an abstraction which had become academic. If in the early years the image thus assumed a defining place in the work of Seguí to the point that the periods of his painting were identified through their subjects (Leçon d’anatomie, Carlos Gardel, Parc nocturnes…), a sort of constant thread has been established for two decades with these images of overpopulated cities whose iconography belongs to him so completely that the result is to think only about the type of paint used. Didn’t Karlheinz Stockhausen justly observe of one of his compositions whose themes were those of famous national anthems: the more obvious the “what” is, the more attentive we are to the “how”?
It is exactly this problem which today is at the heart of Seguí’s paintings; how to paint in a manner that is always new, a series of signs—men wearing hats, mugs shaped like faces, tantalizing women, walking figures…perfectly familiar, without repeating the paintings which bring them together? Seguí has found a painter’s solution to this: not to keep with the classical norms of painting. As he had begun, in his engravings, to combine techniques, enriching etchings or monotypes with watercolor until they eluded any classification (original? multiple? watercolor? aquatint?), in his painting Seguí draws with charcoal, paints in acrylics, pastes pieces from newspapers or magazines, breaking all the ordinary rules of painting and in this way making it necessary to consider the initial charcoal drawing as only the pretext for the work. Perhaps it is in this approach toward painting that we need to look for the reason for these manuscript portions which, in a recent series of paintings, fill in the gaps of drawing, as legible as the latter, but like it, also deprived of definite meaning by their cuts and their supposed overlaps.
Seguí does not propose, even by integrating writing into them, that his paintings be read. His sense of freedom, his profound humor do not make demands. As some of his characters seem to run toward each other whereas others seem to flee, his images expect the spectator to bring to them his own portion of meaning, his own dream. Because it corresponds in this way so completely to the definition that Umberto Eco gave of the open work, the painting of Seguí can continue, inventing itself anew each day, making us go by turns from canvas to canvas, from shadow to light, from day to night, from fullness to emptiness, and from the earth to the sky.
© 2005 Daniel Abadie
Daniel Abadie, Antonio Seguí, Musée des Beaux-Arts/Villa Steinbach, Mulhouse, France, 2003.
How many trees does it take to make a forest? And how many people to make a crowd? If the tree, as popular wisdom teaches us, can keep us from seeing the forest, what does the individual who crosses from nearly one end to the other the work of Antonio Seguí conceal from us? Identical and always different, he is both the witness (in the sense in which Marcel Duchamp understood this term when he talked of oculist witnesses and the figure striding along in the painting. His arrival, however, seems to be due to chance when, after a period of matiériste painting (1958-1962) juxtaposing abstract canvases and figurative evocations where references to Burri or Dubuffet abounded, in 1962 Seguí
deliberately gave figures the most important place in his work, thus breaking with the predominance of abstract art and placing himself from then on among the first ranks of the new figuration and of pop art.
Seguí’s man has no face—whether he is an anonymous silhouette filling the space of the painting to transform it into a city or an urban theater or an isolated figure which seems only to pass by—not that he is deprived of eyes, a nose (on the contrary, a rather prominent one), a mouth . . . but he is without a physiognomy as if to better allow us to identify ourselves in him, to lend him our features. He is thus in action, this marionette that Monsieur Teste seemed to have killed, the critical image of man, our image.
Because it is penetrated by a constant interior truth which gives it coherence, one often does not easily see how diverse the work of Seguí has become while remaining one. From the first canvases inspired by old photographs to small constructions of cut wood (done in the mid-60’s), the distance even considering only the surface of the works seems immense, as big in fact as that which exists between the Exercices de style and the Parcs nocturnes, the Textures chromatiques of the 1980’s or Multitudes.
For the painter, the issue is to express – and to express again but always in a different way – this alienation which separates the individual from all that belongs to him to reduce him to his social behavior alone, to a model image. In order to do this, Seguí uses, impartially, the tragic and the laughable, elegy and satire, just as he makes dark asphalt or the transparencies of the rainbow in watercolor, or the photographic precision of charcoals on canvas, or the stenographic shortcut of a drawing that is purposely caricatural.
In this permanent game of seesaw, the work of Seguí finds references among the artists who all rejected the formalism of abstraction and wanted to recreate a place for the everyday, even the banal. It is significant that it was neither the pop artists who had just come into prominence (Lichtenstein, Warhol, Wesselmann…) nor the New Realists, which Seguí’s move to Paris in 1963 brought him closer to, that the work of the young painter resembled: he took as his guides artists like Larry Rivers – whose Bonaparte portraits also influenced Arroyo – David Hockney and Allen Jones. On the periphery at that time, it avoided his being drawn into a group, leaving the door open to inquiry, imagination--this freedom which in his world is called the pleasure of painting.
But for Seguí, figuration does not mean a rejection of abstraction; quite the contrary, he uses it as a means of extending the figurative image, of giving it a different capacity. With a system similar to Francis Bacon’s -locating the figures in a painting in an abstract geometrical structure, thus creating for them a present yet indefinite place- Seguí succeeds in condensing to the point of absurdity the figures in Box with gentlemen (1963), without doubt the first work in which he uses this technique. It is the same principle, this time materialized in the form of a wooden cube painted completely blue to signify the sea, from which caricatural figures of bathers emerge in Punta del Este, and which he uses, in the form of a column, in constructions which double in the mid-60’s his pictural work. But beyond their plastic function -to suggest a space without determining it- these boxes are also cages, figures of confinement and alienation. The carefree bathers will no more emerge from their sea than the gentlemen will escape their frame, for it is often when it seems the most cheerful that the work of Seguí reveals itself at its darkest.
At one time, however, the space may be determined within the image through a network of geometrical lines as an enclosure, as the work of Bacon has proved in its repetition, a rather tiresome formula, if not an artifice. Seguí has been able to avoid this problem not by renouncing this powerful contrast of lines and swarming of figures but by having the arbitrary cut off of the cage simply coincide with the limits of the canvas. In this implicit closed universe that the four sides of the painting demarcate, movement seems suspended, fixed. The figures which cross the canvases of Seguí hasten, take longer strides in vain; they will never leave the confines of the transparent bowl where they move about like captive fish: these travelers with their pointless steps will never get past the limits of the frame.
This fruitless yet frenetic agitation which has been taking place in the paintings of Seguí since the 80’s finds a strange echo in other paintings where the pace of the figures gets slower, if not to say motionless. Then glances, whether they are resting on something like those of the strollers in the Parc nocturnes showing buttocks, breasts or flys or lost in the inaccessible part of the painting (which, with their backs turned to the viewer, the absent figures of Paysages champêtres or Distancia de la Mirada -even certain of the works of the series dedicated to Carlos Gardel- contemplate) have to express the movement.
Nostalgia for the world of Argentina is an essential part of the work of Antonio Seguí in that it introduces a sort of distortion in his painting, a sort of non-adherence to the image: nostalgia for a country left behind, but a country so like the new (isn’t it said of Buenos Aires that it is the most European of the South American capitals) that it permits the distance of the look (and even criticism) without risking involvement with exoticism. In this “infrathin,” as Marcel Duchamp would have put it, recess, the critical distance vis-à-vis the image, its examination, is created.
In reality, the work of Seguí is set with traps. Presenting itself with the greatest simplicity, marked by a lightness that its obvious humor seems to confirm, it first appears as an elegiac image, a distant, ironic comment on the world when it is in fact a moral reflection, a lesson in seeing. When it makes the top of the Eiffel Tower bend over and then brings it back into the picture, the painting of Seguí tells us that our world is a prisoner of exterior constraints for those who can see them. If striding figures construct the rhythm and the structure of the canvases, it is the figure of the legless person in his soap-box on wheels which is insidiously recurrent in his paintings. These cities, so joyous in their animation and their primitive design are, for those who look at them carefully, cut-throat, in the first sense of the term, for a number of heads there are deprived of their bodies and the Songe d’Aniseto is very much a nightmare. It is very nearly the figure of the crucifixion which, by way of allusion first, then explicitly, has found a place in these paintings as if better to reveal the tragic nature of the painter’s vision beneath the charming surface.
As he invites us to follow, by means of a line traced on canvas, the look the nocturnal strollers in his parks cast at the objects of their desire, we must follow Seguí in the long tour of his series to learn how to see, within his fishbowl canvases, the figures of our world writhe about with no hope of exiting. Whether they obviously keep an eye on us or purposely ignore us, turning their backs, they all remind us that only a thin film of paint separates their world from the one in which we move about in every direction inside the bowl.
© 2003 Daniel Abadie