CONTINUOUS TRANSFORMATION. Miquel Barceló is one of Spain’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, known for his relief-like mixed-media paintings, expressive bronze sculptures and ceramics. I visited him in his Paris studio before his current London exhibition of Ceramics at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in London Ely House opened on December 8th.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Miquel Barceló, you were born on the island of Majorca in 1957. Please tell me about your early years as an artist?
In the beginning of the 80s people from New York, or Zurich or Milano, saw my paintings as punk art, like the Neo-expressionists or Transavantgarde. But I was always an isolated figure from an island, never part of a group, and I was never happy when people called me a nouveau sauvage because I was not nouveau and I was not so wild.
Why did you go to Naples for six months?
Because Lucio Amelio invited me to do a big painting for the exhibition he dedicated to the earthquake of November 1980, and I was happy to do that because I was there when that happened. Naples was very interesting to me, because I met Joseph Beuys and Cy Twombly and many Italian artists that are still my friends. It is curious, Naples is a very Spanish town, sometimes it is more Spanish than Spain, and it was very familiar to me. We don’t have a volcano in the city of Palma, but we have a mountain with a castle, a big bay and a big cathedral on the sea, and my house in Italy had the same relation with the sea and the mountains as my house in Majorca.
After that you visited New York and became a friend of Andy Warhol?
Andy did my portrait my very first day in New York. My first exhibition in New York was with Leo Castelli, because Leo saw my paintings in Paris when I was age 25 and had a ten thousand square metre studio in a big totally empty church next to the Marie Curie hospital. It was fantastic for a Spanish guy to have the use of a church; I was like the pope of my own religion. Even in the very coldest days of winter I worked every day, and Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend and many others saw my paintings there for the first time. I used the perspective of this enormous chiaroscuro church many times in my paintings. When they decided to destroy it to make a new part of the hospital I left for New York for a couple of years.
Did you also meet Jean-Michel Basquiat?
Yes, and Basquiat visited me in Majorca and stayed for a week in the summertime. If he had not died so young he would have become a great painter.
Did you meet the poet and critic Rene Ricard?
I met him in New York a couple of times, but I never spent a lot of time with Rene. He was often very drunk and high.
You were not?
Sometimes I was, but not all the time. For my work, I cannot be drunk or high. I don’t know how to paint if I am too drunk. Even Jackson Pollock only drank when he didn’t paint. These two activities are very intense – either you drink or you paint.
“Art is fed by art.”
Miquel Barceló: ESCÓRPORES DRETES, 2019-20 Ceramic 65 x 44 x 39 cm (25.59 x 17.32 x 15.36 in) Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg · Seoul
Photo: Eva Herzog Image © The artist
Miquel Barceló, was Jackson Pollock one of your heroes?
Yes, when I was very young in Majorca, because of his physical relationship with the painting. I almost always paint the canvas on the floor. Many times I think that my canvas is like when I do snorkeling; you are floating and you go inside and you come back, and you go inside and you go back up. To me it is a bit like that. This physicality is very important in my work.
How did you feel as an artist in Spain, when there was still Franco’s dictatorship?
My only thought was to escape, but in the seventies I had no passport. If you didn’t do your military service – which I didn’t – you didn’t get one. Finally they decided that I was psychotic, a schizoid, and so could avoid military service. As soon as I had my passport the first thing I did was take the train to Paris, to Amsterdam, to London… I was born on a little island and have this necessity to move. People in the island either move around the world or, like my brother, who hates to travel, never move outside the island. I went to Paris, to America, I found a way to paint in Africa.
You travelled around with sketchbooks, like the painters of the past, painting portraits and self-portraits in the studio, but at a certain point you stopped figurative painting. Why?
In ’81, before the show with Castelli, I was in Naples and the south of Italy. I was very poor and sleeping in a little pensione that cost almost nothing. I started to do a very simple self-portrait of the artist in the studio. My relation with reality is through painting, but when I believed it was becoming like a brand I changed. I managed to go on, to escape to myself. Now I’m more than 60, and I see my work as I always have. I go in one direction and suddenly I change, but finally, I come back to something I did before. When you look at my art you can see all these relations.
Is your life full of contradictions?
Contradiction is the right of the artist. When I look at myself I’m a human contradiction. I like black in the morning and white in the afternoon, both with full conviction. This was something Picasso also did.
Did you ever meet Picasso?
No, I met Miró, but never Picasso, although I know his work very well. I just finished an exhibition in the Picasso Museum in Málaga, and two years ago I had one in the Picasso Museum in Paris.
Are you somehow close to Picasso?
He was Spanish, and short, and I do ceramics – Probably that’s why! (laughs). I admire his work very much. It’s fantastic.
Why do the cave paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux and the sea stand out as being very important for you?
The old master artists such as contemporaries of Velázquez or Caravaggio did art for the same reason that I do. When I see the cave paintings, I believe this is the proof of that. I feel so close to the artist in Chauvet that he can be my brother. In Chauvet there is a group of lions, and every lion has his own different personality, is not generic. Each one is like the work of the renaissance painter Piero della Francesca.
How old are these cave drawings and paintings?
Chauvet is 37,000 years, the oldest we know. Lascaux is 17,000 years old and Altamira is 15,000 years. It’s crazy how old they are.
Are you attracted by animals in your work?
Yes, there are a lot of animals. I also live with animals. In Majorca I have beautiful bulls, 25 pigs, 20 lambs, a lot of pigeons and chickens and big turkeys. It’s a farm, with many dogs, but I prefer to paint one dog who is always with me called Fosca. Dogs finally look like you, and I like to do portraits of my animals because they look like me, but also portraits of my mother, because I look like her, and my daughter and my son are variations of the same thing. It’s good to use the things we have around us. It was good to be in Africa because there I have zebras and other exotic things.
You explored Africa and you also discovered the sea?
The sea is very much like the situation with painting. You are alone in silence, looking, and controlling your breathing. It is like a very long meditation. Some years ago, I started to do yoga meditation with my girlfriend, and I realised this is exactly the same thing we do in the sea, because when you do snorkeling or diving you control your breathing very well. I don’t do yoga very often, but I go diving and snorkeling almost every day, except when the weather is very bad. Winter or summer, my favourite activity out of the studio is to swim and dive, and I like to see fish. But the thing I like the most is the space and to be on watch.
On 8 December you opened the Ceramics show at Ropac Gallery in London. Have you always worked with ceramics?
Yes, about one third of my work time is for ceramics. Doing ceramic is like construction work and painting at the same time.
Not only do you work in ceramic but also in bronze, like your “Big Elephant” in Union Square in New York?
It is an elephant in bronze, standing on its trunk, but was made in plaster and after that we cast it in bronze. Sometimes bronze is easier for big things, but I do ceramics directly myself. The reason painters love ceramic is because it is direct. You put it in the oven, and that is a kind of alchemy.
“Contradiction is the right of the artist.”
Miquel Barceló, do you also work on etching and lithography?
Paris was the capital of these techniques and nearby on the street here was the lithographer of Cézanne. Goya did lithography and etchings, and so did Picasso and Rembrandt. It is a technique de peinture, a different way to see your own paintings.
You are preparing a series of paintings for a large show at Galerie Ropac in Pantin. Are these paintings a synthesis of your life?
Something like that, where you put everything on the table, even skeletons, because in some of them are the bones of the face and the head. I cannot say these paintings are revisiting my work, but many objects of my life are there together.
Do you work every day?
Yes, I work a lot. Many hours in ceramics, in etchings, in paintings, in many different things. I like to go from one thing to another without a plan. My big pleasure in the morning is to decide at the last moment if I will paint or do etchings or do ceramics. I love the feeling of being free to decide at the last second. With paintings I decide everything in the last second, sometimes I work eight hours and then cancel everything. That’s also a very nice feeling, to paint eight hours on a big painting and then put white on it. You go home tired and dirty and with nothing achieved.
What do you now show in Rome at the Scuderie del Quirinale?
Inferno of Dante, it is a group show. About 15 years ago I did work about La Commedia: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. There was an exhibition of these three in the Louvre.
Recently you illustrated La Métamorphose of Kafka for the publisher Gallimard. Do you enjoy doing book illustrations?
I love to do that, and Metamorphosis is a book I know so well, and that I read in Spanish as a teenager when Kafka was a big discovery, changing me and how to see the world.
What about Spanish literature?
I love Cervantes, and Spanish poetry is one of the best. I read a lot of poetry. From my very young days many of my best friends are poets. I always have poets around. I’m always close to poetry, and poetry feeds my world, my work.
Do you often visit museums?
The only way I leave my studio for weeks is to see art, I can go to the St. Petersburg museums and stay for weeks. I love to do that. Every time I go to Madrid I go to the Prado for four or five hours. In London recently I spent my time in the National Gallery. Art is fed by art.
Do you have a special relationship with Africa?
I went by accident to Mali, one of the worst places on Earth, but then I fell in love with the country; it’s so beautiful and so animist. I learnt ceramics with the women in Mali, because in Africa the tailors are always men and the ceramicists are always women. The men laughed at me when they saw me doing ceramics. The women showed me how to choose the earth to make clay, how to prepare the clay, waiting days until it is ready, and afterwards to cook it. For me, Mali was the discovery of all these things, and I understood everything much more through Africa. I have the feeling that when we became rich, suddenly everybody became stupid. For me, Mali was like a medicine against everything. To come back, to touch earth.
Were you inspired by that simplicity of life?
It’s very hard to live in a place where life is so fragile, almost nothing, but at the same time I liked being able to do art things by necessity, not because 20 people were waiting for my paintings. To do something because I needed to do it was like a cleaning.
Miquel Barceló: Tòtem, 2019
Installation view, Miquel Barceló: Metamorfosis, Museo Picasso Málaga, Málaga, 2021. Image © The artist
Miquel Barceló, Planta ensofrada, 2019. Ceramic. Franz Kafka’s La Métamorphose (Paris: Gallimard, 2021). Photo: François Halard, 2020 © The artist
Miquel Barceló Installation view, Miquel Barceló: Metamorfosis, Museo Picasso Málaga, Málaga, 2021 © The artist
Miquel Barceló Gregor Teenager, 2019
Watercolour for Franz Kafka’s La Métamorphose (Paris: Gallimard, 2021)
Photo: André Morin © The artist
Miquel Barceló Allumettes, 2015.
Miquel Barceló: Installation view, Cupula Mercat de les Flors, Barcelona.
Photo: Pau Fabregat © The artist
“Art is a big lesson of humility.”
Miquel Barceló, how long did that African cleaning last?
I was in Africa through 1987 to 2010, a few months a year. I have many houses in different places in Mali: in Gao, in Ségou; and I built my house in the Dogon, on the cliffs, a beautiful place. The Dogon house is a symbolic form of the human body. The house has a head and legs and a beak.
Sometimes you are living remotely in Africa and other times you are at home in Majorca?
For many years, I was four months in Africa, four months in Paris, four months in Majorca. Three seasons. I would go to Africa every year in November, when you start to be cold, and come back to Paris in February at the beginning of the good days, and afterwards go to Majorca. Now I am between Majorca and Paris, and I spend one month in Asia and one month in Kenya.
Do you work better in Majorca than in Paris because there are fewer distractions?
Less visitors, and I need this tradition, this company with animals. This is healthier for me.
Where do you go in Asia?
I have a studio in the south of Thailand. It is a very wild place with nobody; no restaurants, no hotel, nothing. It is a perfect place to paint because it’s just the sea, coconuts, and nothing. Now I have this new place in Kenya, on the sea, but I don’t know if we can go back, because everywhere in Africa is in trouble.
Where do you feel more well-known, accepted and understood?
Paris is my town. I don’t live in any other city. This is my city, Paris. I spend a lot of time in Barcelona, New York, even Madrid, London, but I never come back. In Paris, I always come back. I love to be in Majorca, but Paris is the city I choose. It is a very literary city, and I love to go into the street and recognise the Stendhal bookstall or that Madame Récamier lived here. It is full of memories, everywhere, and that’s very good.
Do you like Italy?
Very, very much. I spend a lot of time in Italy. I would like to come back to Rome a little bit, but I always go to Italy to work on a specific thing. I was painting in Caserta and also in Vietri sul Mare, for three years I was doing these big ceramics from Majorca. I had a big, very run down house, on the sea between Salerno and Amalfi. It was also so beautiful to see Paestum and Pompeii, where you see the same clay and the same pigment, manganese, as when you take a ceramic from Greece or from Campania. I like this idea that we work with the same materials for the same reasons with the same techniques.
You never wanted to do anything else?
We need art. We believe it is always new. When Cézanne paints an apple it is the first apple in history, and then when Giacometti paints the same apple on the table, it is again the first apple in history. When I paint a horse or a dog for me it is the first artist who paints the dog in history. Millions may do it before I do, but it is always a big necessity, a deep necessity; to be, to exist. We do art because we need art.
How is art today?
As always, we need to find the good ones. Even in the caves there was very bad art. Maybe I will cancel my painting and do another painting on top, why not? Art is a big lesson of humility.
Do you work by yourself?
I always work by myself because it’s my privilege, because to work with our hands is something we need.
You don’t even have a model in front of you?
Sometimes I have models, but not always. One of my paintings is called La Solitude Organisative (Organisational Solitude). It’s a good title, because you are alone, but you work like a constellation of being all alone.
Do you sometimes have a moment of emptiness, when you don’t know what to do and your art is not as good as you want?
Yes, but destruction is a good medicine. To destroy a painting is good to do. I think I destroy as many paintings as I make, and that’s part of the business.
Who are the first people you show your paintings to?
I always send the image to very close friends and ask what they think about it. Bruno Bischofberger is one of the best, he has a fantastic eye, and knows my work very well for many, many years. He knows exactly when it is good. Now Bruno is retired and doesn’t have a gallery anymore, but he is still a collector.
Now you are with Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. Being so talented were you always followed by very important art dealers?
Yes, and it was also good because my favourite artists were also with these galleries. In the group with Bischofberger were Andy Warhol, Basquiat, Clemente, Schnabel, a few more like David Salle, and me. I was very happy among these artists. Then Leo Castelli was also Warhol, and Jasper Johns, Lichtenstein; very good company that I was always very proud to be among. It is the same now with Thaddaeus, but the number of artists is bigger. It was good when it was only 10 or something like that.
Are there too many today?
I don’t think it is too many; it’s just the way it is now. Before we met in bars, but now artists meet in the galleries and after in the parties. But these last pandemic years there were not so many parties!
Do you have many artist friends?
Yes, always, but I don’t go out so often. In the 80s, I was out every night. I was never a big drinker, it is not my thing but I was out every night, coming back at five or six. In Paris, it was funny, but it was always out. It is a good city to do that.
Miquel Barceló portrait 2020 Photo François Halard © The artist
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