The Craving Soul

A conversation between
Francisca Sutil and
José Zalaquett

José Zalaquett: Your first retrospective exhibition provides a coherent presentation of your work. The exhibition gives us the opportunity to follow the development of your creative process since you first started to paint three decades ago. It is inevitable, therefore, to start our conversation by asking you about the evolution and the completion of each work in the context of a lifetime’s artistic expression. When do you feel that a painting is finished? You reminded me some time ago that Gerhard Richter had the conviction that a work was concluded when he could say “what I have done means something, and that is as far as I go”. Braque, for example, said, “a work is finished when the idea is killed”. Many artists have pointed out that one extra brushstroke, once a painting is finished –which is often hard to distinguish– presupposes that, in reality, a new work has been started.

Francisca Sutil: The conviction that a painting is finished, of course, is something that is very personal. In my case, when I do a painting with pigmented gesso, for example, I feel that the painting itself reveals to me when it is finished, when it doesn’t need another layer, and nothing needs to be added to it, no more sanding… nothing. It’s ready! In the later stages of my work, in recent years, now that I am applying oil paint in vertical bands, which for me create spaces of light, what happens in the process is very curious. I am often surprised. I feel that there is a precision that progresses on its own. I do not know, however, where it comes from. I prepare the colors, taking all the time that is needed. Then I begin to work with them, step by step, applying band after band. I never have had the sensation that there has been a slip or a mistake. In any case, there is no possibility of going back in this process; I can’t decide that the band that I have just added or the last brushstroke doesn’t work, and then I can correct it. In theory, the next day I could feel that something in the picture doesn’t work, but, until now, that has never happened to me. I believe that there is a profound connection between spirit and matter, technique and materials that gives me the assurance that each step has been well chosen and confirms that all is going well, until the final moment which appears with similar clarity. I don’t feel that I have the option of adding anything beyond what the work itself is, and as the process of its gestation dictates.

JZ: Does the process that you are describing differ according to the materials that you use? You pointed out earlier that when you worked with pigmented gesso you felt that the work –in your own words– “gradually reveals itself”. On the other hand, you have also said that to use oil paint presumes that you are imposing something on the work. In the first case, it would be the paint that tells you what is happening, as it is the paint that tells you when the idea and the work are completed. In the second case, you yourself would transmit or impose your already-elaborated conception, or at least the germ of it, through technique, craftsmanship and your creative proposition.

FS: That is partly what happens, but not entirely. When I paint bands of color with oils, nothing is programmed. The disposition or the progression of the colors of these bands in their continuity and contigüity isn’t predetermined. I don’t have the order totally resolved before the work is finished. In fact, I have probably ‘thought it out’ beforehand. What happens is that while I prepare and mix colors, I think (not only with my mind) and, in addition, I make small tests to verify the quality of the paint, its plasticity and liquidity. Then when I begin to apply a color, everything is bound to work. In a certain sense, I impose myself and am in control, but the paint also speaks to me. For example, if I have just put a band of blue of a certain density, of certain characteristics of temperature and weight (I choose these words, but I could use others because every color speaks to me on multiple levels), I am then immediately sure how the contigüous band will be.

JZ: This process assumes that you have a perfect dominion over your own technical capacities, so that you can feel secure that what you are seeking to say is effectively achieved as you want it to be on the surface of the painting. You don’t want to have to translate and adapt what you want to say as the idea flows to your hand, from the hand to the brush, and from there onto the surface…

FS: Exactly! It flows. It flows in a tremendously natural way. Technique has become like a natural or mother tongue, almost an extension of my own self. After completing all of the preparatory stages (which take quite a lot of time, not because it is so time consuming in itself to prepare the pigments and implements, but rather because it also assumes achieving a predisposition, that I would say is spiritual). When I am ready to begin to work on a painting, I disconnect the telephone and close the door. No one is allowed to come into the studio, because I really do need physical control of my surroundings, in addition to total mental concentration. If I do not feel in a creative mood that day, I leave it for tomorrow. But if all the necessary conditions are there, the proper state of mind and spirit, the proper atmosphere in my surroundings, then everything connects, flows, and it all functions.

JZ: As to the development of your artistic production over these last three decades, one observes a search, a journey that is based on the possibilities and liberties that abstraction can offer, but it always goes hand in hand with an artist’s rigorous discipline in relation to the craft. It is surprising to discover how much investigating, experimenting and innovation there is in your work, in terms of techniques and materials; how much method and dedication there is in your creative work. How do you characterize the evolution in your work throughout the three decades that are included in this retrospective?

FS: I have always been profoundly interested in the evolution of the human being, both psychologically and spiritually. When I was young, I read Helena Blavatsky, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky…

JZ: A number of the artists that are considered to be the prime movers of abstract art, like Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich, were very interested in Theosophy and the writers that you mention.

FS: That’s right! Mondrian said that he would never have done anything if it were not for The Secret Doctrine, Madame Blavatsky’s book.

JZ: Today, those ideas about human beings progressing toward a final revelation, those beliefs of universal harmony that were so popular in Europe a hundred years ago, seem to have been put aside. Kandinsky said that the earth would be a paradise in the xxi century when compared with the situation in his time. Theosophy inspired a considerable number of the ideas that he expressed in his famous book About the Spiritual in Art. For many (and I include myself among them), his first abstract works still conserve great visual potency, but his eagerness to include everything in some kind of cosmic embrace appears rather innocent to us today. As for Malevich…

FS: Malevich for me is an example of inconsistency; he disappointed me. I admire his early period, when he was a pioneer of abstract art. In fact, when the From Cézanne to Miró show, which was so influential here at that time, was presented in Chile in 1968, he was one of the artists that made the greatest impression on me. Nevertheless, later in his life, he became a figurative artist whose work, which fell somewhere between folklore and naïve painting, didn’t interest me at all. I think that of the three artists that we are talking about, the one to whom I feel closest is Mondrian. Theosophical ideas served as an inspiration or a guide for him, but they also served as a means to undertake his own search into the evolution of the spirit, starting with his quest for harmony and abstract expressivity. He took it from there, step by step, with each stage pointing the way to what were to be new challenges for him, until he was able to express the maximum, in terms of composition and balance, with the simplest and purest methods.

JZ: I am very much in agreement that the development of your artistic production approaches Mondrian’s more than Kandinsky’s, without mentioning Malevich’s, who, as you say, involves renunciation. But when Mondrian reaches what appears to be a climax in that process of simplification and depuration, and seems to have reached his goal or the end of his road, he demonstrates that there is always a step further to go. His final works, the Boogie Woogie series, indicate that for him, taking a step beyond the evident culmination of his search brought him to a kind of joy-filled and colorful fragmentation of the square, which resulted in a celebration, something like a graduation party. Is it carrying things too far to look for an analogy in this process with the evolution of your own work?

FS: Well, to begin with, I’d like to clarify that it is a little presumptuous to think that I have reached the end of a stage in the evolution of my own abstract creative process that can be compared to Mondrian. But, on having said that, I do see some parallels. For example, when I decide that a series is finished or when I find that it is well along, the process of visual aesthetic evolution does not necessarily mean greater depuration, but rather that I am being led into other complexities. That has happened to me when I am exploring the density and quality of color in my works with bands of color and, even more so, with the presence of light, and different planes of its depth in the spaces between the bands… At times, I experiment with certain visual elements –points of light, for instance– that permit me to further that same search. But I always end up guiding myself by the same principle: each step indicates the next and each new stage can bring me closer to expressing the most with the greatest economy of resources.

JZ: Your journey is marked by cycles and periods of productivity that tend to manifest themselves, in your case, in the form of series. Besides, your series and the different phases of your creative itinerary go hand in hand with an evolution in the use of techniques, pigments and supports… Looking back, how do you see the evolution of the series of your works? At what point is it obvious that a new series is such, and that its identity must be recognized by naming it? With regards to that, I remember that Paul Klee said that he would hold a kind of ‘baptismal’ ceremony when he titled his paintings, naming them according to what the works themselves suggested, once they were finished.

FS: There is no doubt that my art has mainly evolved in series and that this progression goes hand in hand with my search and the innovations that have emerged from that search in terms of techniques and materials. But it has not been a uniform or uninterrupted process. I also run into periods of drought, one might say, that tend to coincide with the end of a series. After the Transmutations series, which I exhibited in 2003, for example, I took a break and then started working on what I am doing today, which is a new stage in my work, with a certain degree of continuity regarding painting itself, but with a variation in the spirit that moves the work. I am still not clear about what unites it all, what it is that defines this new series. When I discover it, the thread will surely be because the series has already run its course and then, at that point, as you suggested, like Klee (which I think was a really brilliant idea), I may baptize it. When the adequate word appears, one that seems to fit the series, it means that the cycle is closed or is on the verge of closing. That’s how it always happens.

JZ: Today, looking back, how do you evaluate the sequence of your series and of your technical innovations? I understand that ever since you were an art student, you sought a singular technique; a vehicle that would allow you to move ahead with your experimentation and search along the routes that you felt you should follow. The first steps were the different methods of printmaking that you invented for your early graphic works. Then there were the projects for glass sculptures, followed by handmade paper, the pigmented gesso technique, and the use of diluted oil paint or huileàl’essence… And so on!

FS: I believe that the changes in materials and techniques throughout my career have occurred in order to prepare me for the next step. I have always felt that I needed to delve deeper and that required innovation, a shift in terms of materials, supports and everything else. The technical turns responded to a need to be in harmony with what was happening to me spiritually.

JZ: What do you mean by delving deeper?

FS: I am referring to the depth of field, that is, to be able to go deeper inside of the visual experience in the same manner that the spirit goes permeating understanding. There are elements that have been repeated throughout my entire career. For example, I have always sought transparency and light. That search already appeared in my early prints, which were made with oils even then, and not ink. I made them that way intuitively, because I had the sensation that oils were more transparent than ink.

JZ: In that case, did you ink the plate for the print with diluted oil paint?

FS: I used oils diluted in neutral printer’s ink. But it was the oil paint and not the printer’s ink that provided more potentiality for light. That quest for transparency has been a constant in my career, with the exception of my handmade paper, where it only occurred occasionally. Paper is much more opaque. Its charm is its opaqueness, its frontal sensation, but not its transparency. Before the handmade paper, when I settled in New York, I tried to express both transparency and the idea of evolution through my designs for spiral structures in glass. The works, however, were never produced. I had envisioned them as being ten or twelve feet tall, at least twice the size of a tall person. The idea was that the spectator could move inside them, feeling a sensation of evolution. Maybe the idea was a bit naïve, but it was a necessary and unavoidable stage in my own development.

JZ: Some of the shapes in your projects for translucent sculpture are reminiscent of Ellsworth Kelly’s investigations in form…

FZ: Kelly has always interested me, although I don’t think he had any influence on my projects for spirals in glass. What perhaps had a greater impact on me was the minimalist tendency of the 1970s. When I was making those designs for sculpture, that movement was in vogue in the United States. I especially remember the glass structures of sculptor Larry Bell, not so much for their forms, but for the possibility of creating transparent volumes. The early work of Naum Gabo was also an important reference… The truth is that I don’t really know. But in the period I was preparing handmade paper, which came later, I believe that I really registered Kelly’s impact.

JZ: I’d like to clarify what you’ve said about handmade paper…

FS: Handmade paper is a vehicle which offers the same potential as paint. I never separated the support from the pigment when making paper. The pigment was incorporated into the paper. The two elements became one. But, as I said, it is not a vehicle that facilitates the search for transparency, even though in some of these works I was able to advance in that direction.

JZ: What is the common denominator that you feel runs through the different series, through all your work?

FS: The themes in my work or its content as such, are an imponderable for me. Each series represents my concerns about how to express my search at any given stage. A stage, in this case, can be a period that can last for years. In each stage, there is a conversation between the contents and the medium. At times, I take rather drastic formal decisions. For example, in the Fragments of life series, I decided that the most appropriate format was a square one, because it was the most neutral and produced very little distraction. In the last ten years, in reality, I have discovered that each time that I do a vertical painting, I return to the square in a certain sense. In one series that I did in the 1990s, I returned in part to irregular forms, because I felt that this was what was needed to achieve what I was trying to find and produce at that moment. But then when my work became more firmly based on pictorial technique, I chose the most neutral format possible, so that visual concentration would be focused on the painting itself and not on its contour.  

JZ: That convergence between the theme developed in a series and the medium of pictorial expression doesn’t always occur…

FS: Precisely. At times, a series acquires a different form of pictorial expression, like in the Spaces series, which is composed of watercolors, huiles à l’essence, India ink, oil paint on linen, and works with pigmented gesso combined with oil paint.

JZ: Many artists have worked in series. Sometimes the factor that unifies them is a certain figurative motif, as in the case of Picasso’s Las Meninas, or Braque’s series on the artist’s studio or about the Ánades. Some artists have done abstract series. But, no matter what the case may be, there are examples of artists who produce long, continuous series, like, for example, Morandi’s still-lifes or Albers’s homage to the square…

FS: Throughout an entire lifetime…

JZ: It is difficult to adjust your series to one or the other model.

FS: I agree. I think that there is a bit of both. I really believe that there is continuity in my work and, in this sense, it is one long series, but it is expressed in waves or stages, or, if one wants to use a musical comparison, in ‘movements’.

JZ: As to the other distinctions that we are accustomed to making, there are those that, in terms of abstract art, differentiate two great currents, among other possibilities. There are those that emphasize the gesture, like Pollock, Kline or de Kooning, and those that emphasize –for lack of a better term– the design, such as in the case of Kelly, Barnett Newman or Mangold. This second current is identified as more ‘Apollonian’, colder and more calculated than the first, which is more spontaneous, warm or ‘Dionysian’. I have a hard time applying a distinction like that (supposing that one accepts it without any questions) to your work.

FS: I think that the motivation or the concern of the abstract expressionists in the United States was metaphysical, existential; there was a certain content, which was not necessarily formal, as was the case of the second group of abstract artists, like Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler or Morris Louis, who were more formal. In my own work, and I agree with you on this point, it is hard for me to identify with these categories, because they provoke in me  metaphysical uncertainties about life and death, as well as an infinity of questions that we make in reference to the psyche, the meaning of religiousness, etc. These questions, that continually besiege me, manifest themselves, when I paint, as vibrations or as a diversity of aesthetic expressions. For example, all of the varieties of red that can be found in many of my paintings, as well as the intensity of colors, connect with something that cannot be identified, but that is a part of my unconscious, more than having anything to do with formalities. That thought evokes what Matisse said about illuminating “the mind’s eye”.

JZ: In that sense, your work may deceive the casual spectator.

FS: Yes. And I believe it is fine that it does produce a deceptive sensation. It doesn’t deliver all of the information right away; it creates a kind of suspense. I speak of the suspense that consists in what the work reveals, apparently, something that it may not be. This dichotomy, this tension gives it more life. For example, on seeing the distribution of the bands of color in a painting, it looks, at first glance, as if something is completely calculated, but, after looking for a moment, one perceives that this it is not the case. It is precisely at that point that the difference can be found between my painting and any intentionality of design. In fact, I would say that my series are more visceral than thematic. That is to say, I don’t develop variations or explorations that are concerned with a formal theme. I really offer a road to reflection and emotion. But, perhaps, as in the Spaces series that was born in 1996, where oils and gesso are present, we can find both aspects. On the one hand, the expressive gesture, free, quick and intense, at the moment of applying the gesso, and, on the other hand, when I apply oils, it seems like a different gesture: calm and precise, with a thoughtful, meditative character.

JZ: Perhaps what you want to say is that you express an ‘inner need’, although not necessarily in the special sense that Kandinsky employed that phrase.

FS: That is the way that I feel. What happens is that everything that I feel when I paint is not revealed in my work. I invest a great deal of energy in the action of painting and I take risks; surprise and control go hand in hand. It is an action that places me in a situation of great vulnerability, but, at the same time, it allows me to make decisions with assurance, ones that have been internalized and, therefore, are sustained in something that has been carefully thought out or, better said, felt. I think that what makes the results coherent is not so much that they have been planned, but that they emerge from the interior, where they have achieved their coherence –although it may only consist in the coherence of the doubts– that I have managed to express. In regard to this, I like to recall Picasso’s famous phrase: “I don’t seek; I find”. He used to say that the first four hours in his studio were unproductive; he had to relax, lose himself, and then once he was lost, he was able to do something that was worthwhile. I identify with this, although in a different way, because Picasso assembled and disassembled as a titan, in his own unique way. I don’t function that way: my own comings and goings, delays and preparations before I start to work are like a phase I need before I can surrender and lose myself.

JZ: The relationship between the eye, the hand and the spirit… In an earlier conversation, I recall a phrase that made a lot of sense to you. What was it? That the soul incites the feelings needed to penetrate the mystery?

FS: Exactly. It has to do with our need for stature or depth, or, perhaps, for penetration. The soul is restless, it is hungry, but it doesn’t know very well for what…

JZ: And it is that anxiety, that hunger of the soul, which forces the senses, as you say, to penetrate the mystery.

FS: Yes, and there is nothing that is more profoundly human than trying to penetrate those mysteries. Art can be a privileged path in that search. Herbert Read wrote that without art, modern man would lose the horizon.



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