Guillermo Kuitca

The 48-year-old Argentine has achieved international art stardom with his psychologically and politically charged paintings of maps, apartment blueprints and baggage carousels. On the eve of his midcareer retrospective, Kuitca proves as hard to unravel as his dark, haunting artworks.

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Guillermo Kuitca

Guillermo Kuitca

The 48-year-old Argentine has achieved international art stardom with his psychologically and politically charged paintings of maps, apartment blueprints and baggage carousels. On the eve of his midcareer retrospective, Kuitca proves as hard to unravel as his dark, haunting artworks.

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.

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.

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.”

What followed were compelling series that fell into place like dominoes. First came images of beds, often small and forlorn on the canvas. Then there was the apartment floor plan, middle-class and compact, with only one bathroom. The more varied ways he imagined it—outlined in thorns, filled with snakes—the more claustrophobic it became. The floor plan led to maps and theater plans and baggage carousels. The political content is there but discreet. Coming across a painting of a prison blueprint, Kuitca makes somber reference to the thousands of his murdered countrymen: “I wish Argentina had had political prisons.”

He used to wander into Rand McNally, a now defunct map shop in Manhattan, and gather up whatever caught his eye: Belgium, Honduras, a remote city in China. “Then I got the idea that I was looking at the map to get lost,” he says, “not to get oriented.” Lynn Zelevansky, director of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, says there has always been both a theatricality and an “existential ‘Where am I?’” to his work. “It’s like, ‘Oh God, is my bag ever going to come?’ If ever there was a place that’s nowhere,” she says, “it’s when you’re standing waiting for your luggage.” Olga Viso, director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, who spearheaded Kuitca’s retrospective, finds the power of his work in his examination of “everyday spaces that we inhabit” and how we try to systematize that experience. “There’s this familiarity, and then he pushes you into another realm,” Viso explains. “He locates you and dislocates you all at once.”

Kuitca’s early 20s, though creatively charged, were marked by substance abuse. From 1984 to 1986, he reveals in one of the final interviews, he relied on cocaine and alcohol to fuel his painting binges. “Those drugs were not social drugs. It was just at my studio. I would stay up for two, three days,” he says, and then would come down on a bajón, or “the low.” “My life was a mess, a complete mess.” He can’t, however, dismiss his output from that period,

including “Seven Last Songs,” a series of unsettling images featuring a baby

carriage ominously sitting at the top of a staircase. “Actually, I think those works are so emotionally loaded,” he says. Finally, on a 1987 trip to Europe, his parents’ distress weighing on him, he quit cold turkey.

His cocaine problem had not stopped him from gaining notice in Europe and Brazil, where, a few years later, Zelevansky, then a curatorial assistant at the Museum of Modern Art, saw his work. Comparing his intriguing integration of Christian symbols, like a crown of thorns, with those of Frida Kahlo (the daughter of a German Jew), Zelevansky recalls, “it was really all there.” She gave him his first American solo museum show, in 1991, which included a small installation of mattresses. “We both felt very strongly that the beds needed to be directly on the floor, that they shouldn’t be on a platform,” says Zelevansky. “So people kept sitting on them, and they kept breaking.” After they were broken three times in 24 hours, she says, Kuitca consented to a platform.

Well on his way to international art stardom, Kuitca went back into analysis, this time without telling his parents. For one thing, he didn’t want a referral from his mother. “It needed to be something that didn’t have to do with the family,” he explains. Though he says it was as natural as going to the optometrist, he insists the sessions had no effect on his thinking as an artist. “Really, there are no lessons for life, but definitely there are no lessons for artmaking,” he says.

To this day, in fact, the creative process remains a struggle for him. “I try almost daily to kill the paintings, and it always holds my interest,” he says. “Obviously, you have to work hard doing that; otherwise, you just become a painting machine.” On the phone shortly before my trip to Argentina, he is pleased to report that he may have reached a turning point with one particularly ornery canvas. But when I arrive, he is back to being frustrated by the work, which he laughingly dubs the “bad sister.” Still, there has been a breakthrough: He realized that the vast, dark, heavily fragmented abstraction portrays a war zone. “You know, it’s not a secret that painting is like a battleground,” he says, “for me and for probably every contemporary painter.”

Kuitca has a tough time articulating how he even begins a painting after the canvas is stapled to the wall (he detests the bounce of stretchers): “A few brushstrokes without really much in mind,” he says. “It starts with no real force, even detachment. Sometimes it happens that the first five minutes is an incredible charm.” Some important details, he jokes, feel ready-made by “stupid decisions,” like buying a roll of canvas two meters high, though he also claims to “like the fact that painting is about limits.” “There was a time when I started to find beauty and interest in unfinished paintings, but not unfinished in the way that modernism and Matisse established—obvious, unpainted surfaces,” he says. “It was trying to find something completely arbitrary, and that would be the moment that I would finish the painting. So I would say, ‘Next time the phone rings, I’ll stop.’ I thought that it was incredibly potent what you could add to a painting by quitting the work, because the impulse is to complete it actually, to go back to it.”

In 2003, bored by a process that he worried was becoming too formulaic, Kuitca

traded his brushes for scissors and spent the next three years making intricate paper collages. When he felt ready to paint again, he says, “I found that I had this sort of privilege to start from some kind of zero.” It was 2006, and he had a weighty deadline looming—the 2007 Venice Biennale, where he was to represent Argentina. He began with a long canvas and decided “to move, or to walk, along the canvas.” Then he remembered something Bausch had said: “Walking is enough.”

“It’s a very simple phrase, but [coming] from a choreographer, it makes a lot of sense,” Kuitca says. Brushstrokes made in tandem with the movement, he found, created faceted marks harking back to cubism. As he experimented, he discovered that, depending on how he played with the shadows, the marks could also look like slashes, which alluded to the Argentine painter Lucio Fontana, though he says no nationalism was intended. “I thought, Okay, this is funny,” he recalls.

As a young man, Kuitca made the very conscious decision to stay in Buenos Aires but not to be classified as a Latin American artist. Under those circumstances, his ascendance is all the more noteworthy. Kuitca’s distance from contemporary art hot spots like New York, London and Berlin has not always been easy for him. It wasn’t the Chelsea openings and parties that he missed, nor did he have trouble finding a dealer—he has long been represented by Sperone Westwater in New York and Hauser & Wirth in London, both prestigious galleries—but he did yearn for a simple collegiality. “I thought that my life was a limbo,” Kuitca says. “I mean, I live here, [but] my work was never shown here, never sold here, and I lost contact with my colleagues here. I needed to create something that would somehow put me back in contact with other artists.” In 1991 he founded the Studio Program for the Visual Arts, colloquially called the Kuitca Fellowship, for 20 young artists. He’d wanted to operate the workshop through an art school, but since he’d never attended one himself—the Buenos Aires options were far too traditional, particularly in his day—he was deemed unqualified to teach. Instead, he teamed with a local foundation. The fellowship, for which Kuitca typically spends one day a week in a workshop setting with the artists, now attracts hundreds of applicants from Argentina.

He has also taught in the U.S. at Skowhegan, where no one seemed to mind that he has no degree. Linda Earle, Skowhegan’s former executive director of programming, describes Kuitca as both a rigorous and open-minded teacher who helped students shake free from their entanglement with theory. “He has a kind of ironic distance from it, a sense of humor about some of it, that was very refreshing,” Earle says. “Theory can be inhibiting. He also wasn’t as interested in autobiography. He starts out with the object and talks from there.”

Kuitca was a gentle critic, by Earle’s recollection, which doesn’t come as a surprise, considering how he talks about friends occasionally dropping by his studio. “I know by their faces whether they like a work or not, and I will get moody because I didn’t get the approval I was looking for. I mean, I can’t take rejection, because it’s not human,” he admits good-humoredly. In words that would shock some of his provocateur peers, he adds, “Indifference is fine.”

So it was with no small degree of horror that he endured the 2003 opening night of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) at Buenos Aires’s grand Teatro Colón, for which he had designed the sets. Since the opera tells of a ship’s captain cursed to roam the world for eternity unless he can find true love, the centerpiece, generally speaking, is a boat. In Kuitca’s version, there is a stand-in: a lonesome baggage conveyor belt. Suffice it to say, his vision was not universally adored. When Kuitca was brought onstage to take a bow, he was pelted with dog food. He recalls the conductor turning to him and saying, “I believe this is for you.” Traumatized by the brouhaha that ensued in the Argentine media, he was nevertheless uncowed. If anything, he says, “I wasn’t happy with the results, because I thought it was too conventional.” His drawings for the set became the basis for an exquisite silk book printed this year by Dyenamix in New York, and more crucially, Kuitca started painting “all this stage fright–related work”—smashed and exploded theater seating plans. The drubbing also didn’t stop him from accepting a commission to make a curtain for Norman Foster’s Dallas opera house, opening in October. His creation: a subtle monochromatic seating chart of the space, so the audience, in the moments before the curtain rises, will stare at an abstracted view of their own hierarchy. After a second showing of the work-in-progress to the Dallas powers that be, he reports, “They called it a huge improvement. That doesn’t mean they liked it, because before, it was called a disaster.”

He was equally chagrined when he delved into the nitty-gritty of planning his retrospective, which opens at the Miami Art Museum in time for Art Basel, before traveling to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, the Walker Art Center, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. The curators were busy procuring pieces belonging to collections all over the world—but the works weren’t necessarily traveling that far. “You’d be surprised how many works were never picked up,” he says with a laugh. A by-product of the heady art boom, it seems, was the common case of collectors running out of room to display all their trophies, thus stowing their goodies in warehouses or simply entrusting them to the safekeeping of galleries. “I was offended,” he says. “You never hung it? Did you ever see it? I think it was very weird.”

Kidding aside, Kuitca is weary of making art sacrosanct and rejects the heroic myth of the artist’s nearly biological need to create. One winter day over lunch on New York’s Upper West Side, he notes that the apartment he rents nearby during his stays in the city is too small for painting—and he doesn’t miss it nearly as much as he longs for his dog, Don Chicho. In the past seven weeks, “I did one sketch,” he admits somewhat sheepishly. “I’m still proud of myself for being able not to paint for long periods of time,” he claims. “I shouldn’t say that out loud. This idea that if you can live without doing it, then you are not meant to be doing it—that’s bulls—.”

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