Mercedes Trelles Hernández, PhD
Luis Hernández Cruz is an essential figure in the development of Puerto Rican art in the second half of the twentieth century. Although he was not the first to introduce abstraction into Puerto Rican art, he has cultivated the form more assiduously than any other artist. His works have been in countless shows, he has created associations, and he has mentored and educated students. In this interview, Hernández Cruz discusses aspects of his education, his style, and above all, the way he paints and the way he sees painting.
MTH: I’ve heard you say that abstraction is your religion. Is that still your faith?
LHC: Abstraction was a religion, in the sense that I rededicated my life to art every day. I used that analogy because I believed, and still believe, that abstraction is the idiom that was discovered in the twentieth century. But I was never what you might call a fundamentalist, a fanatic. For many years I was a professor –I taught art history from the Renaissance to Contemporary Art including all the great masters throughout history. I could never be one of those fanatics that think abstraction is the alpha and omega and nothing else exists, because I was teaching all the other kinds of art every day. Plus, my studies had all been in figurative art, even academic art. I studied under Cristóbal Ruiz, and we painted from models. And later in my career, the figure reappeared– what I called the “anti-figure”.
MTH: At the University of Puerto Rico you studied with several figurative teachers: Cristóbal Ruiz, Fernández Granell, Carlos Marichal… How did you become interested in abstraction?
LHC: I met Damián Bayón when I was an undergraduate, in the late fifties. He was a visiting professor and he gave a class in art appreciation. He would invite people to his house –Pepe Echevarría, Schajowics, Miguel de Ferdinandy– they would all go there and there would be great conversations. Bayón opened the doors of his house to me. I remember seeing my first abstract painting there, a canvas of the bay in Venice by Guiseppe Santomaso. But that was an exception, because art exhibits didn’t come here then. I received the influence, if there was any, through books. It was Bayón who introduced me to the book Contemporary European Painting, by Jorge Romero Brest. It was a very influential book for me –so much so that later, when I was professor at the University, I brought Romero Brest down to teach a seminar for the Department of Fine Arts. So that was my first contact, but I immediately had others. When I got to American University to do my masters, I discovered Abstract Expressionism. And later, in the Philips Collection in Washington, I saw my first painting by Nicolás de Staël. That was the one that knocked my socks off!
MTH: One of the paintings that I’m most impressed by from your first period is Muro azul because although the color looks so free and atmospheric, the painting gives a very strong sense of structure. It gives the impression of something from the Art Informel school, but it’s constructed with great care…
LHC: If you look at the four works that are reproduced in the artist’s booklet published by Ediciones Artísticas de Puerto Rico –Qatrat, Penumbra, Ocaso anaranjado, and Muro azul– you’ll see that what they all have in common is the collage patch that becomes the central point from which I construct the work. I was doing a lot of collage back then. And you’re right, there is an element if architecture in those compositions. Of structure. At that point in my career I was putting some colors underneath and laying others on top. I was painting layer by layer so that the base would show through. I guess that was the lesson I learned from de Staël. I’d say I discovered the connection between color and composition with de Staël: how the bands of colors become bridges that you can build with.
MTH: A minute ago you mentioned a figurative stage in your career. You’re associated absolutely, however, with abstraction in Puerto Rico. There was even a point –especially in the sixties and seventies– when abstraction was perceived as the opposite, the antithesis, of figuration, and you were viewed as the embodiment of that antithesis.
LHC: The critics invented that out of whole cloth. Marimar Benítez, among others. I think Marta Traba had a lot to do with it. She’s the one that invented the notion of Resistance –that [Latin American] artists should not adopt U.S. forms. And abstraction was perceived as a U.S. form, despite the fact that, in my case at least, I had more admiration for, and influence from, the Europeans: Nicolás de Staël, Hartung, the whole French abstract school. But no matter what the critics said, I kept doing what I had to do. I had 46 shows. At that stage I did one a year, and I started to have shows abroad –in Latin America, the United States, and Europe. All that activity put me in the position of being “the abstract artist of Puerto Rico”. I didn’t invent abstraction in Puerto Rico, but that’s not what’s important. Kandinsky didn’t invent abstract art, but he made it high profile. He developed it as an idiom, he analyzed all its possibilities… So if abstraction is a religion, we need to talk about its saints: great artists like Vasily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, the Bauhaus school, Max Bill, Victor Vasarely…
MTH: Most of those artists are geometric. You mentioned the influence of the European “informalists”, but aside from that almost atmospheric abstraction, there are other moments in your work –the same late sixties, the late eighties– when you take a turn toward geometry.
LHC: I am not an artist that always stays on the same track. Nor, of course, do I change constantly. But I take advantage of all the opportunities. There are times in my career when I’m more figurative, others when there’s more geometry. Geometry was always a passion of mine. In 1965, I was commissioned to do some murals for the Medical Center, and with the money I got I took my first trip to Europe. There I saw works by Vasarely… everyone knew him. In Europe there was a spirit of renewal that had a lot to do with geometric abstraction. I also came in contact with the work of the Venezuelan painter Gego and the Brazilian Sergio de Camargo.
I came to geometry through sculpture. I had been experimenting with some small sculptures with wooden dowels. I moved from there to depth paintings, collages made of wood and metal screen. I did “structural painting”, as Ángel Crespo called the modular paintings that I showed at the Casa del Arte, and I also did some fiberglass pieces. They’re works that clearly show the desire, the pull toward sculpture, toward incorporating real space, using modules. The pull toward construction… For me, those works were a reflection of the experimentation that was in the air. What’s incredible is that I, here, in Puerto Rico, would have been thinking along those lines. But since I was interested in modernity, I ha to do it. I experimented for four years. Then I started doing organic painting, which is what has really characterized me. It’s at the center of my career.
MTH: It’s true that in your career there have been a lot of changes, but none, perhaps, has been as a dramatic as the change that took place in 1970, when you began the “organic” works. In this show, the curator, Federica Palomero, included a small series of prints –the Suite 14 paisajes– that serve as a kind of axis around which the work turns, and it helps to explain this change. The same thing happened a little later with Historia de una pasión, once again a series on paper, which seemed to herald the change toward figuration.
LHC: Those two series are very important. But the Suite 14 paisajes is not an isolated case. I also did a series of drawings based on the writings of Khalil Gibran. And some drawings in black crayon. Paper is a good illustration of the transitions in my work. The shift –from geometry to organic form; the “archeological” stage as it’s been called– was striking. I remember I took a show to Spain with the new works (I had already shown de geometric works at the Institute of Hispanic Culture in Madrid in 1968) and Luis González Roble, who also knew my work in fiberglass, told me: “The truth is, you needed something, you had left something unfinished”. Historia de una pasión also plays an important role. And it has only been shown previously once, in the eighties. I remember that it caused a sensation and people wanted to buy it, but in pieces. I realized that that wasn’t a good idea, so I didn’t break up the series.
MTH: The shift toward organicism coincides with the beginning of your long career as a teacher, first at the Art Students League of San Juan and later the University of Puerto Rico. What influence did teaching have on your work?
LHC: Modernity, which in my opinion is the same as abstract art, is the art of the twentieth century. Believing that, I decided to spread the gospel to make it better known, and I set myself the goal of doing that. Which is why I taught in all the art schools : the School of Plastic Arts, the Art Students League of San Juan, the University of Puerto Rico. So teaching gave me the opportunity to disseminate what I believe. I had to do it. I was so conscious of my mission that I left disciples: Wilfredo Chiesa and Julio Suárez both studied with me. But it wasn’t just that I taught; teaching influenced me, too. It kept me from being single-minded, and it grounded my method of composition. For many years I taught painting, composition, and color. I remember in particular teaching that every painting can be decomposed into three color elements: dominant, subdominant, and subordinate (which I would called the little scream). Every time you look at a great painting in the history of art, you can decompose it into those three elements of color that create the rhythm of the composition. And I guess that from teaching that principle so much, I’ve integrated it into my own painting. I even realized, for example, that in each of the panels of the stained-glass window at the Fine Art Center, there’s a red square. That was the little scream. It’s in every one of them and in every one of my paintings.
MTH: I’ve noticed that many of your paintings, especially from the 1970 on, have a raised surface, almost like a string, that borders the areas of color, and it seems to be the effect of the impasto. However, all the paintings have a controlled look, so in a way that raised surface is almost a drawing…
LHC: Oh, I call those veins or arteries. I started using modeling paste. You can raise the texture a little with that. I’ve never been interested in impasto, texture for texture’s sake. I was never an Expressionist. But with modeling paste I could create those veins or arteries that defined the forms and gave the painting an organic look that fit in very well with the type of composition I was doing during those years. Before starting a painting I would do a pencil drawing on the canvas. But the veins or arteries are not necessarily a translation of that drawing. I think of the surface of the painting as a skin, and the veins, then, are underneath. Of course, in this case, the arteries are visible, but what they are is the definition of the form.
MTH: So far we’ve been talking about the formal aspect of your painting, and your career as an isolated element. But you have been one of the artists most concerned about creating connections, forming groups with other colleagues. During the sixties you worked a great deal with Domingo López and Carlos Irizarry when they were THE geometric painters, THE avant-garde. In the late seventies you created the Frente group with Lope Max Díaz, Antonio Navia, and Paul Camacho. And the eighties you were the moving force behind the first Congress of Abstract Art. Where does that urge towards union come from?
LHC: They say that in unity lies strength. Each of those moments was different. Between 1966 and 1969 –with Domingo López and Carlos Irizarry, and later Tito Bourraseau– it was because we were the avant-garde. We were trying to make our way into the mainstream of international art. Here in Puerto Rico, all the art was figurative at the time. The creation of Frente came at another difficult time. Félix Rodríguez Báez was the director of the School of Plastic Arts. The only thing that Fran Cervoni wanted to teach there was academic drawing; he wanted it to be a sort of commercial arts school, not fine art. At UPR, the situation was also tough. The environment for exhibits was not modern at all. We wanted to attract an audience. I guess we were a little pretentious when we called the group “Frente, the Movement for the Social Renovation of Art”. But we had good shows. And what was most important, we met and talked. There were four of five of us (later José Gabriel Martínez, Oscar Mestley, Jaime Suárez, and Carlos Sueños joined the group), but we felt like we were an avant-garde. The artists’ groups were a kind of defense mechanism. The Congress of Abstract Artists was something else, though. At that moment, two-thirds of the artists in Puerto Rico were practicing abstraction. The international scene had change. The ironic thing is that the Congress came about at the same time that there was a turn in my work toward figuration…
MTH: The abstract-figurative work –what you’ve called “anti-figures”– was also controversial when it first appeared” it shattered the view of your work as abstract in the extreme. But what’s most interesting to me about it is that clearly there’s great spatial tension in it. On the one hand you have the suggestion of figuration, with its resulting illusionistic space, and on the other hand you seem to want to negate that illusionistic space when you introduce certain patterns –swipes of the brush, commas, stripes or lines– that call attention to the two-dimensional surface. The result is always a figure veiled by the painting, rather revealed in it. And the result is also a new space, so to speak, in your work: not atmospheric like Muro azul, or literal and geometric, or the suggestive bas-relief “jigsaw puzzle” effect in the archeological paintings.
LHC: The ten years of the anti-figures are a survey of the history of twentieth-century painting. The swath of color recalls the looseness, the surprise of the nineteenth century when Impressionism merged. But those swaths of color last into the twentieth century, into the work of Pollock. And I undertake a kind of research of that work. I may not even have known what I was doing at the time, but it’s a research project that evolved. Later, the swaths of color became longer, and they culminate in the lines that cover the figures. But your comment about space is very interesting, because the space of abstraction is two-dimensional, and when I got into the weft of the figure, other kinds of space appeared: atmospheric space, the space of illusion. But always counteracted by the two dimensionality of the swath of color, the line, the square. I think that return to the figure had a lot to do with the moment, with the spirit of the eighties. Very important abstract artists –Janes Bernik, Philip Guston, Victor Pasmore, for example– returned to figuration. It was a process. I had a field day painting flowers and fruits, but they burned out as quickly as they had come, and I went back to abstraction. In fact, the stage of lines –the stage in which people have seen a reading of another historical style, Kinetic art– led me back to geometry and abstraction.
MTH: When we began this conversation, you talked about abstraction as your religion. But I’ve also heard you say that today, abstract art is an academic art…
LHC: The styles that were developed in the late nineteenth century –like Impressionism– had deteriorated by the mid-twentieth century, and they had become academic. Abstraction was the new language, or artistic idiom, of the twentieth century. But it’s not a language of innovation anymore. I’ve talked a lot about the history of art, and it’s clear that today, it’s the legacy of Duchamp that is producing the new language, through installations, works of art that include stage sets, the theater; painting. But just because I recognize that abstraction is academic, that doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop painting, or that what I do is outmoded or academic. In the contemporary scene, there is always an exception. For example, in the realm of installations and the heirs of Duchamp, a figure like Gerhard Richter appears -Richter’s legacy endures, he can do figuration and abstraction and he innovates in painting. I have a lot more to paint, a lot more to say. And I’m going to keep saying it in the language of abstraction.