Eminent curator Robert Storr, who has known Kuitca for years and included his “Diarios” in the 2007 Venice Biennale’s International Pavilion, says the specifics of Kuitca’s life story are less relevant to understanding his art than “the way in which sublimation operates. You can feel the pressure of private realities and private truths, and that pressure is all-important, but knowing them is not what the work is about, in part because they remain in some degree mysterious to Guillermo.”
Still, Kuitca’s personal history is nothing if not compelling. All four of his Russian Jewish grandparents immigrated to Argentina, a country filled, not unlike the U.S., with foreign-born refugees and fortune seekers. In Buenos Aires, a city with a significant Jewish community, his mother and his father, an accountant, created an assimilated and secular life for Kuitca and his sister. Kuitca, in fact, jokes that his first solo gallery show, held when he was a precocious 13, substituted for a bar mitzvah. His teacher, Ahuva Szlimowicz, had pushed him to show, though the gallerists his father approached warned against a premature debut. “No one said I was a genius,” Kuitca says wryly. The exhibition of Expressionist paintings was far from a disaster, though he does now laugh at the all-black getup he wore to the opening and at his titles, which he shamelessly lifted from Carly Simon songs. But he had a seriousness of purpose, and, he adds proudly, “it didn’t take me a single day to go back to work again.”
At around 16, the prodigy discovered a new passion: theater. He enrolled in a directing course, thinking ideas about staging might translate to painting. He recalls simultaneously becoming “cynical about how much you could achieve in your painting. There was a time when painting was not even in the landscape of contemporary art—and it wasn’t painful for me. It was just like, I got the message. I didn’t want to carry a torch.” His burgeoning interest in theater came against the backdrop of Argentina’s brutal dictatorship. As he watched many of his mother’s colleagues flee and the children of family friends added to the tolls of the “disappeared,” he wondered if painting could ever be politically relevant. Kuitca’s own family kept under the radar. Though he says he has never asked his parents why they stayed in Argentina—and why they stayed quiet—he suspects they dreaded the prospect of becoming immigrants like their parents. “There was a lot of daily life, at least for people like me who were not in danger of being…I don’t know…,” he says, trailing off.
Despite the regime’s political oppression, there remained a cultural openness, and Kuitca was able to attend a performance of Pina Bausch’s avant-garde dance theater. He was besotted. Once he could sell a couple of paintings, Kuitca, then 19, bought a ticket to Europe and made his way to Bausch’s home base of Wuppertal, Germany, where he passed a month as an acolyte. He returned to Buenos Aires as a theater director. “I saw the [Bausch] company as a group of dancers who had given up dance, and I felt like a painter who had given up painting,” he says, though in retrospect he explains that his twin pursuits did not block each other. “Still, I had to put myself into small self-restrictive conditions to start to paint again, in 1982, like to paint with whatever was at the studio at the moment, not moving the brush beyond the necessary, not moving myself from the chair, etc.” He also came to see that he’d gotten into the habit of placing people on his canvases with the mind of a director blocking actors and that, using the lingo of the theater, “the drama was really much more intense without the figure.”