Over the course of half a dozen interviews in New York and Buenos Aires, as the October opening of his midcareer retrospective nears, Kuitca reveals himself sparingly. It’s as if his omnipresent three-day beard and the long scarf he habitually wraps high around his neck are there to shield him. Though engaging company, with an easy sense of humor, he obstructs any attempt to dissect his psyche and biography on a quest for clues to the meaning of his art. (One friend calls him “a little cagey.”) He shrugs off an oft-speculated connection between the maps and his grandparents’ emigration from Russia but does allow, with a chuckle, that he may have started thinking about baggage carousels after once waiting futilely for a lost suitcase. Biographical explication is an approach that, though he cannot dismiss entirely, he finds particularly American and “ultimately superficial.” “I don’t accept looking at art through the artist’s experience or identity,” he says. “I give so much credit to the work itself. It holds the elements, the truth, the story, the past, the experience. So we might ask it, ‘Who are you?’ and eventually I get a clue to me, but not the other way around.”
That he believes his canvases are more likely to offer insight into him than vice versa is perhaps understandable when one considers that his mother is a psychoanalyst. (His adept deflections are also put in perspective.) When Kuitca was growing up, his mother had two offices in their house, one for adult patients, the other for children. “I was part of that tradition when, if you had a fever or a cough, they would take you to the analyst, not to the doctor,” he explains, pointing out that Buenos Aires has the most shrinks per capita of any city in the world. Kuitca’s first visit to an analyst was at age three. “I hated it,” he says definitively, if curiously. Unlike adults, who typically stretch out on the couch and try to remember their dreams, children undergoing treatment are handed paper and crayons. “They make you draw,” Kuitca says, “and they make interpretations.” He was sent again at seven or eight for his allergies and asthma, conditions he believes the therapist cured, though he still loathed having to go. “It was traumatic because every child has dark areas, places that were obscure and unknown to us and that we wish were different,” he says. Clearly, it wasn’t making pictures that bothered him; by nine he had a private art instructor. “I knew that the kids that went to my home to get treatment with my mom were also painting and doing drawings. As a kid, you have a box with all your materials. I remember stealing crayons and watercolors and pages from other kids,” he confesses. “That was my little revenge. I don’t know if she ever knew that.” Freud would no doubt have a field day with that one.