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The Santa Fe New Mexican


Esteban Vicente Dreaming With An Open Mind

By Teri Thompson Randall

July 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Santa Fe New Mexican. All rights reserved.

But in the life and work of painter Esteban Vicente (1903-2001), that saying may have its rare exception. When the Spanish-American painter died last year, 10 days shy of his 98th birthday, he left behind a body of work that spanned more than 60 years and traversed an extraordinary range of feeling and technique.

Vicente was the longest surviving member of the first generation of American abstract expressionists. Known as the New York School because of their concentration in that city, those artists originated what is now considered to be the first American artistic movement of worldwide importance.

By 1975 the art world had lost almost all those innovative painters - Jackson Pollock, Hans Hoffman, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb, to name a few. Yet Vicente lived and continued to paint with freshness and vitality for another quarter century. Only his longtime friend Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) - who, in the 1940s, kept a studio next door to Vicente's in their apartment building on 10th Street - approached this longevity.

A retrospective of Vicente's work opens today at Riva Yares Gallery with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. The exhibit features 50 major works from 1951 to 2000 and presents a fascinating look at the evolution of Vicente's style and technique over the decades - from collage, through an emphasis on form, and concluding in a celebration of light and color. (Twenty-five of the paintings will be shown at one time, with the remaining 25 rotated in during the course of the exhibit.) The show runs through Aug. 5.

Fortunately Vicente received due recognition during his lifetime. In 1991 King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofa of Spain presented Vicente with the Gold Medal of Honor in the Fine Arts, the country's highest cultural award, shared by such luminaries as Pablo Picasso and Joan Mir.

And in 1998 the Spanish government honored Vicente with his own museum in Segovia, the Museo de Arte

Contemporneo Esteban Vicente, for which Vicente personally selected the works for the permanent collection.

One of the many noteworthy aspects of Vicente's career was that it was not until 1950, at the age of 47, that he settled into a definite style of painting, said gallery director Dennis Yares during a recent interview. A late bloomer by most

standards, he then proceeded to have a 50-year career.

Historians have described Vicente's work as a merging of the two schools of abstract expressionism - the color field painters (exemplified by Rothko, Newman and Clyfford Still) and the American action painters (such as de Kooning, Pollock and Hoffman).

In this exhibit, the 10 paintings that Vicente created between the ages of 93 and 97 are the most beautiful and compelling. It is impossible to look at them without feeling that they represent the outpouring of a life dedicated to painting, and moreover that the painter was communicating something vital and sacred.

Into his final paintings, Vicente integrated the light and colors of his garden with his own interior landscape, Yares said. A sampling of titles from this period reveals a mystical subject matter: Wisdom, Pleasure, Infinity, Order, Sun Rising, Intuition and Infinity.

In his catalog essay, art historian Edward Lucie-Smith writes that abstract expressionism was sometimes, and rightly, criticized for its overly grand gestures and self-conscious exposure of the inner self.

"In the course of his long career, Vicente succeeded in shedding all that," Lucie-Smith continues. "What makes these late paintings so pleasurable is not only their wit, but also their extreme lightness of touch. Nothing is excessive; they are economy personified both in terms of technique and of actual expression."

Yares, who met Vicente on a number of occasions, recalled him as "a noble, noncompromising gentlemen painter," who dressed well, loved to tell long-winded stories (that could run in installments over the course of days), and had a marvelous sense of humor.

Once, when a reporter asked him to reveal the secret of his longevity, he responded, "I eat one mothball every day."

And to a struggling student, he once said, "Technically speaking, if you make a mistake, scrape it off."

Born in Spain in the small town of Turegano, Vicente grew up in Madrid and was educated by Jesuits. In the 1920s, he enrolled in Madrid's premier art school, the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, where he studied sculpture; Salvador Dal was one of his classmates.

In his early 20s, he turned to painting and developed close friendships with poets associated with the Generation of 1927 - Federico Garca Lorca, Juan Ramn Jimenez, Rafael Alberti, Jorge Guillen, as well as filmmaker Luis Bunuel. His studio became a meeting place for intellectual and artistic discussion.

Vicente left for Paris in 1929, where he met Picasso, an already well-established compatriot. Picasso urged him to stay in France and become part of the colony of Spanish artists residing in the city, but Vicente did not wish to become part of that group.

With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Vicente returned to Spain to fight on the Republican side and was employed as a camouflage expert. Yet his eyes were already turned to America, thanks to his marriage to an American, and in 1936 he crossed the Atlantic and settled permanently in the United States.

The Spanish Republican government appointed him its vice consul in Philadelphia, where he worked until the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939.

Although Vicente's first solo U.S. show was in New York in 1937, the real story of his career began in 1950, with

his inclusion in the Talent 1950 exhibit at the Sam Kootz Gallery, along with de Kooning, Pollock and Rothko.

In addition to his painting, Vicente maintained a strong commitment to teaching, and over the years he held visiting artist positions at various institutions including University of California at Berkeley, Princeton, Yale, the University of Puerto Rico and New York Studio School. Between 1977 and 1979, he was artist-in-residence at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque.

"I don't think there is any right or wrong in art," he once said. "There is only real or false."

The artist believed that solitude was a necessary condition for creativity but drew a careful distinction between solitude and isolation, which can have an impoverishing effect. Painting springs from painting, Vicente said, and "one couldn't be a painter in the Sahara."

Vicente wrote several essays that offer a glimpse into his creative process. In his 1964 essay titled "Painting Should Be Poor" (meaning restrained, spare, meager), he wrote, "Most of the time, while working, one is waiting for the moment of concentration. It doesn't last long. You are struggling with everything that constitutes painting - rejecting, analyzing - and finally there is a moment when the painting responds to you. Then you act.

"Sometimes you look at a finished painting, and you don't know how you did it. That's the result of the moment, not of an accident."

"The most essential thing is to be able to dream," he continued. "That is the job of the artist. The only way to dream is by being aware of reality. The dream without the sense of reality drives an artist to romanticism. The Spanish mystics have a strong sense of reality. I don't think one can be a mystic without it.

"To dream, as Unamuno says, you have to be awake. It is the opposite of what people think; you have to dream with your mind open."


Esteban Vicente, 50-year retrospective

Opening reception 5-7 p.m. today, July 5; exhibit through Aug. 5

Riva Yares Gallery, 123 Grant Ave., 505-984-0330

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