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The collection

A collection of Spanish Abstract Art

Interest in abstract art came late to Spain, where the most influential avant-garde artists always remained within the domains of figurative art. When the historic avant-gardes came to an end and abstract art spread throughout the world, Spaniards were living in a self-sufficient regime.

The isolation the country lived in during the first decades of Franco’s dictatorship further contributed in delaying the introduction of abstraction. The regime looked askance at aesthetic manifestations that spoke a cryptic language that was unquestionably subversive and foreign. The ease and freedom with which painters and sculptors applied paint and used different materials in their work offended institutions that favored an academic art that praised national values.

It thus comes as no surprise that producing abstract art at the end of the 1950s in Spain entailed a little more than adopting certain aesthetic values —it involved taking a stance and risking condemnation during a politically difficult time. This should be remembered if we are to understand the ethical magnitude of these stances and all the difficulties entailed by these artists—in sharp contrast with today, when Spanish artists can avail themselves of any subject, technique, style or material with total freedom. It is important to remember this now that the paintings and sculptures in the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español may be contemplated in absolute calmness while enjoying the singular space provided by this Gothic building, which could lead us to a mere aesthetic consideration of works that in the past flew the avant-garde standard and were subject to critical rejection and scorn.

Almost all the artists represented in the museum’s collection were still in a formative stage during the 1950s. They often lived abroad—mainly in Paris and Rome—or travelled to different countries in order to become acquainted with the art that was being produced at the time in Europe, well aware that they could not do so in their home country. I am not suggesting that they attempted to imitate the forms or styles they saw outside of Spain, but rather that they were trying to paint and sculpt in freedom, as well as in accordance with their temperaments. They just wanted to create abstract art without being held under suspicion.

Spanish Abstract Art Collection
Spanish Abstract Art Collection

If we focus on the works of these artists, we will see that they don’t belong to American abstract expressionism or to French lyrical abstraction, nor to op art or constructivism, although each of them shows external influences, as is to be expected. But, above these influences, these works share a Spanish style that has been traced by critics and art historians to the paintings of El Greco, Ribera, Velazquez or Goya, to the tragic and mystical thinking of Spain’s poets and to the Spanish temperament, half fiery and half sober. Leaving aside clichés of what it means "to be Spanish," and despite the different styles that can be recognized in these artists, there is no doubt that all the works exhibited in the museum feel as if they are part of a family, which gives the museum a unique character. This feeling, which brings together a whole generation, has nothing to do with the highly diverse subjects, styles or techniques that can be admired in the museum, but with the genesis of an aspiration: the triumph of abstraction, a common aim for these artists, who were comrades in battle and, above all, friends. We are indebted to them for having shown us how to rid ourselves of prejudice in the process of seeing, understanding and loving modern abstract art.

But we should not limit ourselves to discovering these similarities or the empathy radiated by these works—we should also note the huge differences that make each artist’s work an independent realm with its own unrepeatable language.

In order to produce their work and project it, both critically and socially, virtually all of these artists collaborated in collective exhibitions and publications. The groups they formed can help us understand the different aspects of this excursion into Spanish abstract art. Although there are other, more circumstantial—but no less important—groups, in which many of the artists here represented gathered at some time or another, five of them polarize this effort: Dau al Set in Barcelona, El Paso in Madrid, Parpalló in Valencia, Gaur in Vitoria (Alava), and the collective that created the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español in Cuenca.

Spanish Abstract Art Collection
Spanish Abstract Art Collection

The artists of the Dau al Set group (1948–1953), including Antoni Tàpies and Modest Cuixart, who helped with the foundation of the journal, started practicing fantasy and surrealist automatic writing, and ended reaching material abstraction.

The El Paso group (1957–1960) was founded to enliven Spanish contemporary art. Among its members were Manuel Millares, Antonio Saura, Luis Feito, Manuel Rivera, Rafael Canogar and Martín Chirino. Starting from varying personal stances, these artists fashioned a vigorous, abstract, non-objective language that was as liberating as it was characteristic of committed forms of painting in the 1950s and 1960s.

Amadeo Gabino and Eusebio Sempere, among other artist from Valencia, formed the Parpalló group (1956–1961) in an attempt to create an abstract art based on formal qualities, thus recovering the experimental tradition of the constructivist avant-garde.

Basque painters and sculptors such as Jorge Oteiza, Néstor Basterretxea and Eduardo Chillida founded the Gaur group (1966–1970), conceived as a Basque cultural front for the development of an abstract and non-objective art that, in the case of the sculptors, became strongly constructivist and geometric. We could thus say that the Gaur and Parpalló groups formulated one of the opposing poles of Spanish abstraction.

Finally, artists from different groups gathered around Fernando Zóbel and the painters Gustavo Torner and Gerardo Rueda to create the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español in Cuenca. But this story requires greater attention.

Zóbel was born in Manila (Philippines) and studied at Harvard University. His many journeys to the United States, France, Italy and Spain provided him a better understanding of both American abstract expressionism and European non-objectivism. Starting in 1955, he began to travel to Spain and grew interested in the work of the then incipient local abstract artists. In 1961, when he settled permanently in Spain, he started purchasing works by many of these artists—in some cases he was their first purchaser—until the time came when his personal collection became sufficiently large and coherent for him to feel the social obligation to show it to the public.

Inauguration of the museum on July 1, 1966, Mesón Casas Colgadas, Cuenca. Photograph: Fernando Nuño
Inauguration of the museum on July 1, 1966, Mesón Casas Colgadas, Cuenca. Photograph: Fernando Nuño

Aided by many of the artists whose work he collected, especially by Torner and Rueda, who were the first curators of the collection, Zóbel persuaded Cuenca’s town council to cede the use of part of the Hanging Houses, which had recently been restored, and where the museum opened its doors in 1966.

Soon, some of the painters represented in the museum started moving into the upper quarter of Cuenca, whose buildings where then lying in ruins. Zóbel, Torner, Antonio Saura, Manuel Millares, Rueda, Antonio Lorenzo, Sempere and José Guerrero were amongst these artists, while Jordi Teixidor and José María Yturralde contributed their help at the museum. This was how the miracle occurred: the renovation, through art, of a neighborhood with the museum as its hub.

Gustavo Torner and
Fernando Zóbel, 1971. Photograph: Fernando Nuño
Gustavo Torner and Fernando Zóbel, 1971. Photograph: Fernando Nuño

By 1980, Cuenca’s Museo de Arte Abstracto Español was already very well known and had been honored with various prizes and international acclaim. The collection had grown, as had also the exhibition spaces in the museum. What had begun as a personal and enthusiastic initiative of a group of friends now called for a professional attention and dedication that was beyond the possibilities of its founders. It was then that Zóbel decided to donate the collection to the Fundación Juan March, which accepted the endowment and increased the number of works in the museum both through its own funds and with the acquisition of the collection previously owned by Amos Cahan, an American doctor who lived in Spain and collected art from the 1950s and 1960s.

Now a stable collection, selected so as to give coherence to the creative efforts and the aesthetic achievements of a generation, the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español has become a tribute to those artists who, we must remember, risked more than they expected to receive.