Raúl Martínez: La Gran Familia

Earlier this month, Havana curator Corina Matamoros was in New York for the North American launch of her bilingual book Raúl Martinez: La Gran Familia (Ediciones Vanguardia Cubana). At The 8th Floor gallery space in Manhattan’s Flatiron district, Matamoros spoke movingly of her relationship with Martínez over the years. An edited version of her comments will appear in an upcoming post on Cuban Art News. But first, here’s an interview with Matamoros about that took place earlier this year, when the book’s publication was celebrated in Havana.

Congratulations on the book. How long did it take to write?

I started three years ago, at Raúl Martínez’s house, seeing all his artworks and papers. Abelardo Estorino, Martínez’s life partner, still lives there. He gave me access to all the artwork, which was very, very useful. And the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes [where Matamoros is curator] has a big collection of Martínez. So those are the two main collections that I started to study.

It’s the first book about Raúl Martínez. In Cuba, there are not many art books published, because they are very expensive to produce.

What are you hoping to accomplish with the book?

I think that the first book about an artist is always a starting point for the researchers and scholars who come after. This book doesn’t cover Martínez’s art in its entirety. I focus on certain key points that are important in his creative trajectory.

My first goal was to organize and date the abstractions. Martínez’s abstract work is known—everyone talks about it, and there’s a lot of it. But almost none of it is signed and dated. We don’t know when various works were done. There are many styles: color field, drip painting, tachisme—everything. But nobody knows the progression. So I did an in-depth study of the abstraction and established a progression, an order, to the work. I think this is important for subsequent researchers.

What are some of the other key points you make in the book?

An important point is how Martínez took popular culture and Pop Art, and with these two ingredients made something entirely different. He transformed an important international trend in a manner that spoke of the Cuban Revolution. This is very important in his work, and the book has a chapter dedicated to his vision of popular history.

Also…most people who are familiar with Martínez’s work know and like his abstraction, and his paintings of heroes. But there was a long period in which he painted everyday individuals, many individuals. Gente, gente, gente, gente. He took hundreds of photos, many of which found their way into his paintings. Going through these photos, I realized that he had an enormous anthropological vocation. He wanted to portray the entire society—children, the elderly, factory workers, agricultural workers, bakers, a woman doing domestic chores.

Critics have described this as a period of stagnation or repetition. It’s a part of his painting output that is less appreciated. But I think that it’s the heart of his work—this pronounced interest in visual anthropology. For this reason, the title of the book is La Gran Familia, after the title of one of his exhibitions. I chose this to emphasize his great interest in creating a portrait of a society.

Could you give us an idea of the other topics you cover?

There’s a chapter on his working processes. Martínez was a great graphic designer and a great photographer, and all of that influenced how he went about making his paintings. This chapter demonstrates, graphically, how he used and re-used certain motifs. An image in a photo would be used in a painting, a drawing, a mural, a collage… It’s a way of understanding how he worked.

Another chapter is dedicated to José Martí. This chapter has no text. I don’t think you miss it. Because Martínez loved Martí—he painted him in every possible way. It wasn’t necessary to add words.

And then there’s a chapter on criticism: how the critics valued his work, how they sometimes got it and sometimes didn’t. It’s a way of seeing him as an artist in his own time.

That, more or less, is the book. There’s also a chronology, and a list of all of his exhibitions, then the texts in English.

Why did you decide to make the book bilingual?

English is very important. It gives the book much greater range, and more renown. Martínez is part of a group of artists—like Ángel Acosta León, Umberto Peña, and Antonia Eiriz—who were very important in the 1970s but, in the political isolation in which we lived after the Revolution, are very little known outside Cuba. They’re great artists, with a profound connection to other Latin American artists of their time. But they’re separated by the political context.

For that reason, it’s very important that the book is in both languages. So that what was happening in Cuban art during those years becomes better known in other latitudes.

Raúl is one of the Cuban artists who was most attuned to North American art. And that’s an interesting phenomenon in his creative trajectory: he experimented, very fast, with art movements that took decades to develop in the US. Abstraction, Pop, literalismo—whatever interested him he absorbed very quickly. He was one of the Cuban artists closest to the poetics of North American art. But at the same time, totally Cuban.

Raúl Martínez: La gran familia is available for purchase at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana and in the US through Pan American Art Projects in Miami (via email at miami@panamericanart.com) and Magnan Metz Gallery (Taylor@magnanmetz.com) and Cuban Art Space (cubanartspace@gmail.com ) in New York. The list price is US$50.