As Guillermo Kuitca sits at a worktable in his Buenos Aires studio on a warm fall day, immersed in conversation, his hand never stops moving. Fascinated by pencils even more than by paint, he doodles incessantly. The entire surface of the table is his canvas, the round covering cut from a rejected painting, one that after repeated false starts he judged to be an irredeemable failure. His fresh marks jut up against the original renderings of bleachers in a sports stadium seating plan. “The painting never got it right, never went anywhere,” he says of the discarded work, dating, he estimates, from 1996. “I think I struggled too much.” Now, as one of Kuitca’s “Diarios,” or diaries, the canvas will have a second chance at life. By the time he’s finished, in a few months, Kuitca will have cleaned his brushes on it and jotted down phone numbers or e-mail addresses. The visual record of his daily existence in the studio, like the previous 40 or so he has made over the past 15 years, will be among the most transparently personal works in his oeuvre.
For the enigmatic Kuitca is an artist who has kept his creations and his persona tantalizingly elusive. At 48, he lives alone in Belgrano, a leafy enclave of private schools and ice cream parlors—“the least bohemian neighborhood in Buenos Aires,” he says with a hint of embarrassment—thousands of miles from the globe’s art hubs. He leads a quiet, work-filled existence. Even lovers, by his own accounting, have been few and far between. On the ground floor of his house, guarded from the sidewalk by an iron gate, he toils in a studio aided by two assistants who have been with him for almost 20 years. One, the daughter of his first and only painting teacher, he has known for nearly 40. The three eat lunch together daily on tall stools in the second-floor kitchen, next to where his living room ought to be. In its place is an installation of 20 toddler-size mattresses on which he has replicated road maps of far-flung places. Maps, of course, become obsolete as shifting powers draw new borders and ordain new names, a fact that Kuitca says will make the work more meaningful with time. Kabul, for instance, appears on one mattress, but the piece was made in 1992, long before the current Afghanistan war gave the capital’s utterance quite the punch it has today. “History somehow will make all these places have different resonances,” Kuitca says.
Like many of his artworks, the tiny mattresses, with their twisted, tangled roads, speak hauntingly of isolation, dislocation, loneliness. Almost always figureless, his paintings nevertheless bear an unmistakable human presence, like empty stage sets. Even his maps, which are sometimes geographically jumbled and nonsensical, allude to homes past and present and the journeys in between. His other motifs, such as airport baggage carousels, thorns, apartment floor plans and theater seating charts, repeat themselves obsessively, like stubborn fragments of recurring nightmares.