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José Luis Cuevas

Retrato del artista by  José Luis        Cuevas

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Oct 01, 2001
Location: Mexico
Topic: Interview with José Luis Cuevas
Interviewer: NakedArt

LatinArt:  What led you to become an artist at such an early age?

José Luis Cuevas:  Well, what made me (an artist) was definitely a precocious talent, the fact of having been close to art, shall we say, through some books which appeared at the home of my grandfather. We lived at my grandfather’s house, which was a paper and pencil factory and having seen a book on Rembrandt that came to me by way of my sister. I was quite small, I must have been some 6 or seven years old, more or less. But I quickly took possession of that book and began to study. I still remember that the book was not in color, but in sepia. And I remember the cover (the book disappeared afterwards, of course), but the cover showed a self-portrait of Rembrandt with his wife Saskia, Rembrandt still young, recently married of course, with Saskia and there they were, both with a glass raised, drinking to life.

LatinArt:  Although you had other ideas, you were often associated with the Ruptura movement.

José Luis Cuevas:  Look, many terms regarding this new figurative art, came from an American author called Seldon Rodman, who wrote a book called "The Insiders" published in the United States in 1959. In those times, in New York, the fashion for the art-world was Abstraction in the United States and Europe, but there was an understanding that there were other artists working in figurative art...making art that was different. It was no longer the previous expressionism, the abstract expressionism, the expressionism of the Germans or even the expressionism of José Clemente (Orozco). Even though I was very young at that time Rodman included me in the "The Insiders," where by the way, I take up more space than Francis Bacon, who didn’t at that time have the fame he was to acquire later. Francis Bacon is not mentioned until the last pages, being shown more than anything else as another neo-figurative artist working in England. And I, being Mexican, had a chapter dedicated to me.

LatinArt:  What do you think of all this? Can you tell us about your association with this now historic group? What type of relationship did you have with these artists?

José Luis Cuevas:  I identified myself with all of them in some way, there were some Americans like Rico Lebrun and others. I was to meet them later and enjoy good friendships with them. In those times they were people much older than I was. I was very young then. And I believe that the most important figure of the Insiders, as Seldon Rodman called them, was Francis Bacon who shortly afterwards acquired enormous prestige.
But it’s funny how things are. In the year 1959, the same year "The Insiders" appeared, I was in Brazil and exhibiting at the biennial in Sao Paulo, and I won the international drawing prize. It was the first important international award I received. Francis Bacon was also exhibiting with splendid pictures at the biennial, but failed to win any prize. The timing is that "The Insiders" appeared and both of us exhibited in Brazil, yet I was ahead of him and I won the prize.
In those times I remember that the grand prize of the biennial was won by an English sculptor, Barbara Hepworth. She won the sculpture award at the Sao Paulo biennial, I won the award for drawing and Francis Bacon didn’t win anything.

LatinArt:  What do you think of your technique and the selection of materials and media as a contribution to that time and now?

José Luis Cuevas:  Well, I always used traditional materials, and in a way continue to use them with a modern technology used by many artists today, although artists no longer like to use materials from all eras. A little over two years ago there was shown at the José Luis Cuevas Museum. This exhibition was the last in which my wife Bertha – who was very enthusiastic about this exhibition called "Homage to the pencil"- intervened as director of the José Luis Cuevas Museum. The idea of this exhibition was that with a simple pencil, a modest instrument used not only by painters but also by writers and, in fact everyone, could invent an entire world, and in one way this is what I have done because, as I said at the beginning, I was born at Los Alchis, a paper and pencil factory. That is, it was my first working instrument, my first creative instrument, when I was still a child.

LatinArt:  Can you tell us of your subjects of prostitutes and madmen? Why have these subjects been important for you?

José Luis Cuevas:  Well, these were my subjects which I discovered at a very early age. When I was still an adolescent I began to walk around the poorer areas of Mexico, and I became a kind of chronicler of these underworlds. I often visited the hospitals and drew in the hospitals. I also drew cadavers in the dissecting rooms of the medical schools. Afterwards I would also visit the brothels, the whore houses, or I would draw the street walkers, the women who engaged in prostitution in the streets of Mexico, in the poorer areas. Afterwards, I also began to go and draw the patients in the insane asylum in Mexico City. And there I would go to draw as I spent hours and hours drawing, observing the mentally retarded and, in fact, it was as though I was preparing myself for a better knowledge of the terrible aspects of human existence, the illness, the madness, the prostitution. And in that way I began to take these walks through those Dantesque worlds when I was 17, 18 years old, until I was 20, more or less.
I believe the things I read at that time also had a great influence. I read a great deal of Dostoyevsky, all his works, such as "Crime and Punishment", "The Brothers Karamazov", "The Insulted and Humiliated", in fact all Dostoyevsky’s work, and I had a great admiration for this Russian author, and also the aspects of his life, his illnesses, his sufferings, the fact that he too had been in prison, for example and, curiously enough, other subjects which I was to deal with later, such as violence and crime, which were later subjects for me. I wrote a book on crime that was called "Crimen cuevas", dictated in New York City in 1968.

LatinArt:  Knowing of your confrontation with the Mexican school and muralism, how would you now evaluate the muralist movement, if this were possible?

José Luis Cuevas:  Well, In Mexico, when I appeared in the world of art, painting had a political content, it was the work of Diego Rivera and all the coordinators of that movement. Through newspaper articles I wrote, and by means of a manifest called "La Cortina de Nopál", which was also published in English as "The Cactus Curtain", I looked for new paths for Mexican art, for national art. This generation I belonged to was later called "The Generation of the Rupture"...but, in reality, I was the rupture. What happened was that afterwards many young artists of my same generation joined this movement which resulted in something very important, a change in national art. I believe that this manifesto of mine called "The Cactus Curtain" also influenced the writers of the period, and those who made different forms of art. At that point there is a change within national culture, and I should say that I am proud to have brought about this change.
People ask me now, how did I dare to attack such established artists, who were also very violent, such as Siqueiros and Diego Rivera...that it could have been rather suicidal. Well, I can’t say that I had any guarantee on how the confrontation with these artists would turn out, but I also believe that it is important to mention the fact that by then I had galleries showing my work in the United States, in New York and in Washington. So, if they attacked me in Mexico, at least I had the art critics of the United States in my favor. Because in actual fact, from the time I began to show in cities such as New York, magazines as important as Time Magazine or The New York Times, and afterwards Newsweek, began to take an interest in me. That is, I was in the international press, in a very widely circulated enterprise. So, clearly, the attacks appearing in the Mexican press affected me less.

LatinArt:  Many critics talk of the 50's to 60’s in Mexico, while speaking at the same time of what was happening in the United States. How have you experienced this?

José Luis Cuevas:  A theme for the year 1968 was theme of violence and crime. Well, I remember that I was staying at a hotel very close to Washington Square, and I was dealing then with the subject of crime and the subject of violence, and I would look out the window and see Washington Square and see the mounted police who came to disperse the protestors, since 68 was the year of the great student revolutions. In May the revolution had taken place in Paris, and afterwards in the United States, in New York, I could look out the window and see the violence in Washington Square. And this was exactly the theme I was dealing with. Afterwards, turning on the television one could see the assassination of Robert Kennedy live, then that of Martin Luther King, which was another crime at that time. Even the attempt against Andy Warhol, the pop artist, who also in 1968 was fired on by one of his superstars, as they were called then. Afterwards, I was to return to Mexico, after finishing my work, and the student movement began in Mexico, terminating with the crime of Tlatelolco.

LatinArt:  On what are you working at the present time? What are your new projects?

José Luis Cuevas:  Well, lately I have been working alot on sculptures. I am a sculptor who discovered my vocation as a sculptor rather late, approximately some fifteen years ago when I did my first sculpture. The first important, monumental, sculpture is The Giantess. I did this in the year 1991, and it stands in the center of the patio at the José Luis Cuevas Museum. Precisely in these days I will be inaugurating a sculpture in Mexico City, within a very short time since it has now been finished and is going to be placed in the Paseo de la Reforma and Palmas. It is an enormous bronze horse. A horse which is not like horses, but as I imagine a horse could be.

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