Infanta Margarita encapsulates a hugely progressive period of Valdés’ career. Coining a distinctive Pop idiom that tonally sits somewhere between the celebration and denigration of mass culture enacted by US Pop Art and Soviet Realism respectively, Valdés creatively channelled the instability of Post-War Spain – attributable to Franco’s regime – into the Equipo Crónica group, which he founded in 1964 with Rafael Solbes and Juan Antonio Toledo. In a satirical riposte to Franco’s nationalism, Valdés and the Equipo plunged deeply into Spanish artistic heritage; three-dimensionally reworking the paintings of Francisco Goya and Diego Velázquez – such as the latter’s Queen Mariana (c. 1652) – to create subversively modern, faceless sculptures in bronze, onyx and wood. In so doing, the Equipo indelibly redirected Spanish art history, creating an aesthetic that was at once profoundly knowledgeable of the work of Spanish Old Masters, immune to the temptation to mythologise this work, and fundamentally, breathtakingly original.
Rubens como Pretexto represents an ethereal re-imagining of Peter Paul Rubens’ masterpiece of the same name (c. 1635). In their extraordinary monumental scale, the relative positions and postures of the three women are instantly recognisable from the original, but their lavish environs are inventively replaced by a dense brown backdrop that renders the graces spectral and isolated. With delicate, fine draughtsmanship, the women’s contours are lovingly traced by Valdés in homage to Rubens. Mining the Museo del Prado for canonical material, Valdés became obsessed with the transmutation and dissemination of legendary traditional works into both paintings and prints for maximally wide distribution. Reappropriating the very cultural-products of ‘high culture’ that formed the basis of Franco’s aesthetic agenda, Valdés succeeded to democratise it by distribution; exemplifying here his fluency in the language of Art Brut.
Desnudo de Mujer can plausibly be read as a kind of morphological eulogy to the female form, a Mediterranean, Picassoid recollection whose sumptuous minimal beauty stands in deliberate contrast to the more jagged and harsh sculpture of artists like Antonio Saura within the Informalismo movement. Carved and smoothed to stunning life-size, the work is testament to Valdés’ status as both sensualist and polymath. Valdés is careful to incarnate within each of his sculptures the most unique and beautiful properties of the material composing it, and the huge variety of materials out of which Valdés has brought the best include lead, zinc, bronze, wood, alabaster, marble, glass and silver. While Valdés had created sculptures during his time in the Equipo Crónica, these were confined to sequences such as The Painter (1973) and Cayetana (1975). It was not until 1982 that Valdés began to experiment as thoroughly with sculpture as he had with other media, adjusting the strength of his wood, the brilliance of his alabaster and the potency of his bronze to achieve very different aesthetic effects from a given theme.
The process behind Desnudo de Mujer evidences these claims of unparalleled craftsmanship. As a wooden work, its process follows an intricate, wood-specific schema. The artist begins with detailed sketches from which he generates plaster forms enlivened with incisions and marks; often in the shape of Valdés' inimitable hat. Transferring the plaster sculpture to expanded polystyrene, Valdés uses the resultant cast as a basis on which to choose a type of wood; using root woods if he desires the grain to disperse in different directions, and hard wood if he envisages a polished sheen to the work’s finished patina. Assembling and moulding the pieces with a wood lathe – making natural cracks and gnarls essential to the character of the finished work – Valdés exercises his visceral skill as a craftsperson.
The beauty of this triplet of works, then, can fittingly be ascribed to a tripartite cause. We can partly put it down to the artist’s staggering competence – differently manifest across different media – with practical and artisanal procedure. Second, the works’ appeal is partially in their building on a comprehensive knowledge of Spain’s fascinating artistic heritage. And finally, the works body forth a conceptual art whose originality and political potency are unmatched by any other Spanish artist of the period.
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