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The museum and his building

The Creation of the Museum
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A small modern museum

Fernando Zóbel
Fernando Zóbel

[…] The point of departure was an excellent collection of Spanish art by the youngest generation of artists. Its owner and the principal promoter of the project was Fernando Zóbel, a painter who was born in the Philippines and who trained at Harvard, an experience that instilled in him a keen sense of responsibility and rigor. In 1955 he began his travels in Europe and Spain until he settled definitively in this country in 1961.

As soon as he arrived in Europe, he began his collection of Spanish art, which he undertook as a kind of moral obligation, aware of the beauty and aesthetic value of what was then still a recent trend (abstraction) and conscious of the merits of the new generation of artists working in the 1950s in whose work he recognized quality comparable to that of the Art Informel of other contemporary European artists or that of the Abstract Expressionists in New York. Although these Spanish artists had received a warm welcome abroad, they did not enjoy the national recognition they deserved. In 1960, aware of the unstoppable growth of his collection, Zóbel began to consider how he might find a suitable place to present these works publicly and in a manner worthy of their quality. Having ruled out Madrid, in the winter of 1962 he made several trips to Toledo in search of an adequate space. It was not until June 1963, however, when, in a now famous dinner at which Sempere and Torner, among others, were also present, the latter suggested the possibility of remodeling a group of buildings that dated to the Middle Ages in the old part of Cuenca, above the cliffs, for which as yet no use had been devised. (Torner lived in the city and was related to the man who served as mayor at the time.) A visit to Cuenca, where Zóbel learned that the municipal government was willing to transfer ownership of the buildings, sparked his enthusiasm. He immediately decided to begin work on opening a museum of abstract art in this small city in the middle of Castile.

On 30 June 1966, an informal, congenial celebration—with toasts of champagne and tapas of prawns—marked, finally, the inauguration of the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español. A small part of the collection, some forty works, was installed, and the first catalog, with photographs by Fernando Nuño, was published.


María Bolaños, "El futuro empieza hoy. Los comienzos de un pequeño museo moderno", in La ciudad abstracta. 1966: El nacimiento del Museo de Arte Abstracto Español , (exhibition catalog, Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 2006, [extract])

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Letter from Alfred H. Barr, founder and first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to Fernando Zóbel

3 March 1970


Letter from Alfred H. Barr, founder and first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to Fernando Zóbel
Click to increase the size of the image
Alfred H. Barr in Barcelona, 1967.
Alfred H. Barr in Barcelona, 1967.
Photo: Català Roca

Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
Counselor to the Board of Trustees Tel. (212) 956-2658
3 March 1970

Dear Fernando:

Thank you very much indeed for your note and the very beautiful book on "Museo de Arte Abstracto Español."

What you have done in Cuenca is surely one of the most admirable, indeed brilliant, works of art… a remarkable balance of painting, sculpture and architecture.

I hope that many Americans will come to see it.


Sincerely, with warm regards,
Alfred Barr

Mr. Fernando Zóbel
Fortuny 12–16
Madrid 4, España


AHB:jsw


"Extraordinary quality of the works selected"

It would be difficult to gather a better collection, to choose with sharper acumen among the mass of works by our generation of 1950, that generation which Zóbel, born in Manila, joined with enthusiasm at mid-decade: exactly in 1955. Definitive images that have been engraved permanently in our memory.

The ability of this museum in Cuenca to define and divulge the Spanish canon of his time, of his generation, a generation that was at that point still on the move, lay in the extraordinary quality of all of the works selected but also in its noteworthy (indeed, unprecedented) capacity to articulate "ingredients" that were distinct among each other. Zóbel shared the secret from the beginning with his two principal intellectual accomplices, his great friends Torner and Rueda, and with a few others, such as his colleagues and friends Sempere and Antonio Lorenzo—the latter a figure who was an even greater secret but who was an unmistakably sharp intellect, as he himself revealed in some of his texts from that period.


Juan Manuel Bonet, "Cuarenta años después (Algunos recuerdos conquenses)," in La ciudad abstracta. 1966: El nacimiento del Museo de Arte Abstracto Español, exhibition catalog, Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 2006 (excerpt).


"The moral duty of exhibiting abstract art in a dignified manner"

More than ten years ago, inspired by the superb quality of my colleagues' abstract work and noting to my dismay that the best examples of artistic creation in this vein were leaving the country, I set about collecting paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints. Little by little, the collection became more significant to the point that it surpassed any other devoted to Spanish abstract art that had ever been assembled. I began to feel a kind of moral duty to present this work in a dignified manner and show it to the public. […]

A visit to Cuenca convinced us that the Hanging Houses offered all the necessary conditions in addition to others we had not even anticipated. […]

In this collective effort, several collaborators intervened from the very beginning: Gustavo Torner, the museum's co-director; Gerardo Rueda, curator; Antonio Lorenzo, Eusebio Sempere, and Fernando Nuño, honorary curators—not to mention the enthusiastic support offered by many artists and aficionados, both in Spain and abroad.


Fernando Zóbel, Cuenca, February 1966; text from the Museum's first catalog.


"We wanted people to truly see the works on display"

Fernando Zóbel
Fernando Zóbel

[Ad] Reinhardt, I think, regretted the way in which traditional museums seem like cemeteries, brimming with works that are looked at piously, but that are not truly seen. A museum can be many things: a spectacle, a space for interventions, an educational center, the source of propaganda, etc. Ours, essentially, seeks to be a place where art may be contemplated, with all that that implies. We aim for nothing more, but that in itself may be much to ask. It may be more than what the majority of the museums I know aim to do, distracted as they are by their collecting, by their educational programs, etc. Keep in mind that that the museum in Cuenca was created by a group of artists, and we all agreed that what was essential, and the most difficult thing to accomplish, was to allow the works on display to be truly seen. And I think that we did manage to accomplish that to a certain degree. That can be out greatest source of satisfaction.


Fernando Zóbel, interviewed by Pancho Ortuño, Guadalimar, n° 35, October 1978, page. 34


"Exquisite but humble"

Fernando used to say that [the museum] had to be the most exquisite thing possible, but without looking like it was trying to seem like a big-city museum. It should be exquisite within humble means, not ostentatious, but as refined as possible. We ended up arriving at the conclusion that it had to be a blend of the cold, American-style museum with a certain Italian grace to it. In short: balanced.


Gustavo Torner, "«Todos los espacios y todos los tiempos…» (Una conversación con Gustavo Torner)", interview with the Director of Exhibitions of the Fundación Juan March in May-June 2006, in La ciudad abstracta. 1966: El nacimiento del Museo de Arte Abstracto Español, exhibition catalog, Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 2006, (excerpt).


"It offered recognition to artists ignored by their own country"

[…] The history of the museum went in tandem with the artistic activity of a generation of painters who turned towards abstraction in an adverse social, political and cultural context, one that was barely receptive to anything smacking of the avant-garde. It is well-known that the international success of these artists hardly had any local repercussions. For this reason, the appearance of Fernando Zóbel in the Spanish context as a collector and patron of his colleagues was extraordinarily important, because, for the first time in Spain, those artists found their work valued and supported to the extent that it deserved the creation of a museum. In this sense, the museum was a very relevant accomplishment, for it offered recognition to artists ignored by their own country. It was especially significant for the way in which it showed their work to the public.


Ángeles Villalba, "Enseñar a «ver», aprender a «ver»: Fernando Zóbel antes y después de 1966," in La ciudad abstracta. 1966: El nacimiento del Museo de Arte Abstracto Español, exhibition catalog, Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 2006, (excerpt).


"It taught us to look at a new kind of art"


In my view, the significance of this beneficial initiative promoting abstract art has not received sufficient recognition—as a guiding structure for the act of contemplation, as a critical instrument of vision that taught us to look at a new kind of art. The exemplary gesture of creating this museum goes beyond the anecdotal economic stimulus it provided or the moral resolve required to endorse, within the charismatic space of a museum, what was then a very polemical way of conceiving art: it represents the kind of pictorial observatory necessary to understand something as problematic as the idea of naked painting.


Francisco Calvo Serraller, "Fernando Zóbel: La razón de la belleza" in Zóbel, exhibition catalog, Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 1984


"It came about as an experiment"

The museum came about as an experiment, which I never thought of as something that would become permanent. It was to be a refuge for what I had devoted my efforts to fondly collecting. But we quickly saw that it served the public, and that it warranted concern for its survival. And that is where my problems began. For a long time I asked myself what the best way to assure its continuity would be. And I finally arrived at the conclusion that only the Fundación Juan March would be able to preserve and expand in a suitable way what was the founding concept behind this museum.


Fernando Zóbel, interview with José Miguel Ullán, "El pintor justifica la donación de su colección a la Fundación Juan March", El País, Madrid, January 23, 1981, reprinted in La ciudad abstracta. 1966: El nacimiento del Museo de Arte Abstracto Español, exhibition catalog, Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 2006.


"Discernment in the selection of works"

The museum in the Hanging Houses in Cuenca has earned great notoriety, in Spain and abroad, in the short period since its inauguration a year and a half ago. This is owing, undoubtedly, to the following three reasons: its location in Cuenca in such a picturesque and intriguing setting as its famous Hanging Houses; in the museum's design itself, with all that it has successfully achieved in terms of the installations, the architecture, and the discernment in the selection of works; and, finally, the very nature of the museum's contents, for, as its subtitle indicates, the institution confines itself to presenting Spanish abstract art.


Rafael Santos Torroella, "El Museo de las Casas Colgadas—Una lección museística," El Noticiero Universal, Barcelona, July 19, 1967, quoted in La ciudad abstracta. 1966: El nacimiento del Museo de Arte Abstracto Español, exhibition catalog, Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 2006


"The museum shows us a way of seeing"

These paintings are sufficient to appreciate the high quality of the generation of Spanish abstract artists, which is what the museum has specialized in, although it also includes a representative sample of works by young artists. Some of the works by the "New Generation" help clarify what is now happening in the Spanish art scene. […] The museum shows us a way of seeing, fortunately, for that is what gives it coherence. Responsible for this are Zóbel, Torner and Rueda. One may spend a good while in conversation with any of them.


Juan Antonio Aguirre, "Plano del Museo de Cuenca", Artes, no. 100, Madrid, September 1969, quoted in La ciudad abstracta. 1966: El nacimiento del Museo de Arte Abstracto Español, exhibition catalog, Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 2006.


"An example of faithfulness to a style"

The Museo de Arte Abstracto, in Cuenca, is among the foremost international museums of contemporary art. This is not because of the number of works in its installations but rather because of its specific character, its absolute adherence to the movement it represents, the selection of works on display, its location in the so-called Hanging Houses, the intelligent arrangement of the works, and, among many other things, because it presents a panorama of Spanish painting exclusively within the specific and universal tendency of abstract art. This faithfulness to a style gives the museum its strikingly clear profile. There are many museums in which the most diverse styles become mixed up in rooms that clumsily gather together good artists who are nevertheless aesthetically opposed, from figuration to abstraction. […]
The museum in the Hanging Houses brings together only one tendency: abstract art. The unity in its presentation and, above all, the selection and extraordinary placement of paintings and sculptures, without the boring assembly-line approach of works in rows as is so often the case in other museums, are what lead it to earn the highest appraisal.


Eduardo Westerdahl, "Museo de Arte Abstracto", El Día, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, April 19, 1977, quoted in La ciudad abstracta. 1966: El nacimiento del Museo de Arte Abstracto Español, exhibition catalog, Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 2006


"Impeccable discernment"

[The museum] has managed to bring together seven hundred works by one hundred fifty contemporary Spanish artists who share in common (besides what has already been mentioned) the fact that they have created non-figurative works of proven quality. This last point puts us on the path of what I believe can be considered the essential characteristic of this museum's trajectory: its impeccable discernment in selecting works. For, indeed, that is exactly how we must describe each and every decision that has shaped its trajectory, from the initial wisdom in deciding on a location to what was at the time its revolutionary approach to designing exhibition spaces, initiatives that were owing to Gustavo Torner's beneficial influence; the same must be said of the choice of a monographic theme for the collection and the fact that the museum has avoided falling into the difficult commitment implied by donations of works, which on the one hand provide much relief from an economic standpoint but on the other can seriously detract, from an aesthetic standpoint.


Francisco Calvo Serraller, "Fernando Zóbel: los beneficios de una pasión," El País, Madrid, January 27, 1981, in La ciudad abstracta. 1966: El nacimiento del Museo de Arte Abstracto Español, exhibition catalog, Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 2006


"A dialogue among artists"

[…] The founding of the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español was an event without parallel because it represented a dialogue among artists. The owner of the collection was an artist, as were his colleagues who amicably assisted him in the enterprise. This was, undoubtedly, praiseworthy because of the selfless generosity of every one of them, but above all it was astounding, because all of them were "working" on what is most difficult: They were working on themselves—that is, on what their own generation was producing and, by the force of momentum, what the following generations might go on to produce.


Francisco Calvo Serraller, "El Grupo de Cuenca y la historia del arte español," in El grupo de Cuenca, Caja de Madrid, Madrid, 1997.