THERE IS AN APPARENT simplicity to the works of Manolo Valdés. Yet it is only a master draftsman who can capture such elegance so effortlessly and produce an art teeming with intricate richness of meaning, if one just scratches the surface. Throughout his distinguished career, painter and sculptor Manolo Valdés (born1942, Valencia, Spain) has dedicated himself to the reinterpretation of the canon of Art History, carving a place for himself as one of the most celebrated artists of our time, with works ever present in the most significant collections the world over. What makes his art transcend beyond the aesthetic is what it reveals to us, the viewer, about ourselves, by the meaning he applies to his work.
To view his oeuvre is to bear witness to an ongoing preoccupation of the female form. In his canvas-based works, he distills the features of the female face to a few expertly confident lines reminiscent of Matisse’s drawings, and to simple chiseled features in his sculptures, homing in on the form, eliminating unnecessary detail and capturing only the essence in nuanced lines and gentle curves.
Not content with the reduction of form and color, there is a fervent repetition, each time exploring and searching for a new balance of line, color, texture and scale. Often working on multiple large canvases simultaneously, he layers, places, analyses and shifts, searching for the right combination, waiting for the painting to reveal itself with each application. For those who saw the 2018 Opera Gallery retrospective in Geneva, the first in 20 years in the city, they would have been able to trace the timeline and development of his technique, one experiment next to another.
Cabeza con mariposas, 2018 Bronze with gold patina, edition of 8 42 x 90 x 35 cm
Subverting accepted modes, Valdés disrupts a traditional understanding of what a painting is by sewing fabrics onto the surface, layering with painted paper, and affixing objects to the canvasses, altering the flatness so they exist in two states, both as paintings and sculptures, offering a tension that defies classification. The result is that Valdés challenges the limitations of our classification of art, our need to classify, and our understanding of what is acceptable as painting. In his recent works he has started to attach pieces of mirrors to paintings, literally bringing the viewer into the picture. The viewer’s reflection completes the composition in a wholly unique, personal experience.
The sculptures on the other hand can (and do) take on yet a further dimension with each new setting in which they are displayed. The geometric elements can be admired in a new way if displayed in a city context, where the geometry compliments, or in a park where the structures are in contrast with the natural backdrop. Similarly, the butterfly forms will be read in a different way in an intercity installation, where real butterflies are seldom seen, or if installed in a park, their natural habitat. A domestic setting will offer yet a further interpretation.
Odalisca II (2018). Mixed media on wood 195 x 379 cm
On visiting his outdoor exhibition in Valencia in 2017, in Santiago Calatrava’s City of Arts and Science, I was struck how all these layers of meaning came together in the sculptural works; a celebration of form, material, light, and scale, all fared against the distinctive and futuristic design of the buildings around it and the park lands further beyond. When installed in Paris’ Place Vendome (2016), yet another layer of interpretation absorbing the revolutionary history of the square, or on Singapore’s Orchard Road (2017) yet another, or New York’s Park Avenue (2014) another still. I would encourage a pilgrimage to see his Reina Mariana, on permanent display at the Monte Carlo casino, vigilant of the ships on the horizon, and how she changes with her environment.
For Valdés, the palette often relies on the intrinsic color of the materials he uses: white marble, gold brass, bronze, hessian browns and copper greens. When he does apply paint, it is predominantly ultramarine blue, similar to that of Yves Klein. From the Middle Ages and up until the 19th century, blue, and not pink, was the feminine color reserved exclusively for the Virgin Mary, the most idealized of the female faces. This was largely to do with the preciousness of the pigment: to arrive at the brilliant ultramarine blue paint, the pigment was extracted from lapis lazuli, a mineral found in mines in Afghanistan, so rare and expensive (at times more so than gold), it was used only for the most sacred. Reds and pinks were used for the masculine denoting Mars, war, passion and strength, all attributes associated back then to men. The gender-color balance was reversed by the Victorians only 100 years ago, assigning pinks to baby girls rather than to baby boys.
Regarding this shift is to serve a reminder that meaning is a fleeting fashion. That what we think of as a feminine ideal is temporal, rendering our socially accepted indicators of meaning as meaningless.
This use of art historical references to explore modern understandings of meaning is not new in his work. Valdés started his career in Spain as a “Pop artist with a twist” under the group name of Equipo Crónica with partner Rafael Solbes.
Following the death of Solbes in 1981, Valdés moved to New York where, using the language of Warholean Pop, he was able to bring to date the lessons of artists such as Velázquez, to make them relevant now. A good example is the authority his Las Meninas sculptures demand when installed in a gallery space. Their distinctive regal form and shape have a Pop aesthetic yet are totally captivating, much as the original painting of Velázquez in the Museo del Prado in Madrid is startling when one first makes eye contact with the Infanta’s commanding stare.
This search for meaning and challenge of classification is a modus operandi for Valdés. Be it looking for external sources or introspective artistic exploration, or the meaning that he is applying to his works, through surface, texture, color, art historical knowledge, or social commentary, his work speaks of a man in search of a greater understanding of the human condition in its entirety.