Juan A. Martinez, Art
GUIDO LLINAS THE
PRINTMAKER: An Interview/Essay
post-WWII emergence of abstract expressionism as the major international
trend in art - The New York School, Informalism, the COBRA group - soon
reached Cuba. In 1953 a young group of artists came together under the
name of Los Once or The Eleven, coined from the number of participants
in the group's first exhibition. This group lasted for two years (Havana
1953-55), and was followed by a smaller one of five artists - Guido Llinás,
Tomas Oliva, Hugo Consuegra, Raul Martinez, and Antonio Vidal - who
practiced a more consistent form of abstract expressionism and continued
exhibiting until 1963. Llinás, one of the leading figures in the
formation of Los Once, calls the latter group Los Cinco or
The Five. The core artists of both groups introduced a radical new
direction into Cuban modern art: [Fee, automatic abstraction, end turned
to New York as the new Mecca of avant garde art.
Guido Llinás (b. 1923) is one of the pioneers and most consistent
practitioner of abstract expressionism from Latin America. He received
early, but little, artistic training, turning to abstraction in the
early I950s. By the end of that decade he developed the boldest
adaptation of abstract expressionism in Cuba. In Paris, where he has
lived since 1963, Llinás has become a master pointer and printmaker,
known for his dynamic techniques of painting and woodcut and his
automatic and dramatic abstract images. He likes to work in long running
series - Signos, Pintura Negra, Homenajes - in which black is the
prevalent "color." White often acts in counterpoint to the
black forms, and is achieved in the paintings by a negative process that
exposes the canvas, and in printmaking by the surface of the paper
itself. According to Llinás he does not invest any color with
symbolism, and he thinks of black and white as colors, His choice of
color is a matter of intuitive personal preferences. The same goes for
the iconography of his work. Unlike mainstream Abstract Expressionism
and closer to the ideas of Ad Reinhardt, he believes that the work of
art is a concrete visual fact and the rest is literature.
Over the years Guido and I have conversed extensively about his long
career as an artist, the nature of his art, and issues relating to Cuban
art and culture. Wanting to capture some of Lliná’s memories and
ideas in a more precise and permanent manner, he agreed to a taped
interview, which took place in April 2002 in his Parisian home. The
following text is part of that interview and concerns his production as
a printmaker, the subject of the present exhibition at Lehigh
JM: When did you begin making prints?
GL: When I arrived in Havana (from Pinar del Rio), I had not done
prints and soon found out that there was a group of printmakers led by
Carmelo Gonzalez, who worked in woodcuts inspired by the Mexican school
of printmakers, About that time I come into contact with a book of
German Expressionists' woodcuts and I realized there was more to woodcut
than what Carmelo's group was doing. Tomas Oliva and I began to be
bothered by the traditionalism and pretentiousness of Carmelo's group
work. So to spite them, we took any piece of wood with texture, inked
it, and rubbed paper on it, ending up with stained abstract images. We
then sent them to the print exhibitions organized by the Gonzalez group
and they were like a bomb. For Carmelo those were not prints, but we
insisted and they had to accept them. Once they were on the walls, he
come to look at them with a magnifying glass as if they were Renaissance
JM: When did you come into contact with actual German
GL: Here in Paris I saw for the first time real prints of the
German Expressionists, which I only knew in Cuba from reproductions in
magazines and books. They impressed me even more.
JM: Tell me about your development as a printmaker in
GL: Well, I arrived in Paris in 1959 with a scholarship from the
Revolutionary government. I did not know what to do and told (Wifredo)
Lam that I was interested in making prints and asked him if he could
help me to identify and to enter a printmaking studio in Paris. Lam said
that I could enter the studio of Hayter, who did metal prints with a new
technique he invented, but that he could not guarantee
entrance because Hayter had very few positions available. He was a
friend of Hayter, so he phoned him, and the next day I was working in
Hayter's studio. I worked there for various months, but it was a very
mechanical technique. Hayter's new technique basically consisted of
obtaining a plate and image of five or seven colors in one impression,
where as before, you needed a plate for each color. It is precise work
and I do not have the patience or the manual skills to do such a work. I
would take those plates of Hayter and cut freely into them, but the
problem was that it had to be precise. Those plates require two or more
levels of bites, which are meticulously inked with soft and hard rolls
to obtain various colors in one impression. The problem is that all of
the printmakers who were there did the same thing. When I went to the
Salons and sow a collective print exhibition, I knew those who had gone
through Hayter's studio. You can't get out. It is a kind of knowledge
that you apply ~to printmaking~ and it traps you. I did not make many
prints using that technique.
I also had problems in Paris because the galleries did not accept
black black and white prints. They consider them violent. And the French
have never understood prints. They regard them as good for
illustrating books or exhibition in the waiting room of doctors
and dentists. They believe that prints should be delicate
and mine are too aggressive. The gallery directors would tell me
up front that if I wanted to exhibit I had to bring color prints or aguafuerfes.
I began to do aguafuerte and continued to do woodcuts.
In regard to the woodcuts, I went off the traditional or accepted
scale and began to do large prints. No one here in Paris was doing
prints larger than 50 centimeters. Inspired by prints I had seen
in New York, I began to do prints of one meter by a meter and a half.
They are big, expressive and they have a presence. They are the
equivalent of painting, just another way of expressing one self. It is a
medium that I find convenient because of my way of working. I rip off
the pieces of wood with an African ax that I bought at the flea market.
I did not buy it because it was African, but because it allowed me to
subtract large chunks of wood in one scoop. It is the
instrument I use to maKe my woodcuts. The wood for the matrix, I
usually find it laying around.
JM: So you have been doing woodcuts and aguafuerte since
the early 1960s?.
JM: Today are your woodcuts better acceptecl?
GL: Well, in Europe as a whole I never had problems showing
my woodcuts because I did so in the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden,
Germany, etc.), which have a long tradition of woodcuts.
JM: And in Paris?
GL: Here they continue to make woodcuts to illustrate books. It
is difficult to exhibit my large woodcuts. The medium is still not
generally accepted as an independent art form.
JM: Have you illustrated books?
GL: Well, my introduction to book illustration is connected
to my aquaintance with Roberto Altman, who came to live in Cuba during
World War II. I met him through a common friend when I was still living
in my native Pinar del Rio. I sold copies of a book of poems by Cucalambé
(Cuban 19th century popular poet) that Altman had illustrated with
woodcuts. When I returned to Havana to give him the money and the
unsold copies, I visited his apartment and saw for the first time
paintings by Cuban modernists like Amelia Pelaez, Rene Portocarrero, and
Mariano. I also saw the wood matrix for his illustrations of the
Cucalambé book. They were an inspiration for my first ventures into
woodcut at that time. Early on in Paris I met a dealer who had a gallery
named Biren, where I had my first Parisian exhibition. He defended
woodcut as an art in its own right and gave me various exhibitions
of woodcuts. I even formed a group of printmakers named Xylotraces,
which included an Italian, various Parisians, and myself. We exhibited
as far as we could as a group, but disbanded because of
JM: To return to my question, have you illustrated books?
GL: Yes. I did one with Julio Cortazar. We were friends. Altman
had the idea and Julio and I agreed. It was a collaborative
project. He did a special text that could be interpreted in many
different ways. My part was to make woodcuts whose
images interrupted the text at key places. We met various times
and discussed the form and placement of my images in relation to the
text. I have also collaborated with Michel Butor, the renowned
Nouveau Roman author, on 3 books - Le Long du Fleuve, 1985, Fibres
1987, and Aisles, 1987. I met him at a dinner at Altman's house,
where I sat next to him at the table. After the dinner, Butor told me
that he had heard that I was a good printmaker in woodcuts. He
then said that he was interested in collaborating with me on a book, I
had just met him and was vaguely familiar with his name, so I did not
give him a definite answer. I waited to speak with Altman, who once
again connected me with a book collaboration project. I did the
prints, black and white abstractions, and he would write in the white,
hole-like areas of the page. Black was the dominant color. His writing,
which does not have an absolute logic, filled the "holes."
Recently I collaborated in a book with my friend the Chilean writer
Waldo Rojas. All of the above books have been exhibited in many
libraries. They are in the collection of the National Library of France
and French National Patrimony owns one of my large woodcuts.
JM: Have you exhibited your prints outside of Europe?
GL: Yes, I exhibited them in Cuba and recently in the United
States. They usually have been shown in mixed exhibitions of
paintings and prints. My largest print only exhibition is at Lehigh
University in Pennsylvania. I am very excited at the prospect of
exhibiting over fifty of my prints together.
At this point, my interview with Guido Llinás went in a different
direction, exploring other aspects of his production and path as an
artist. He spoke of his early, but meager, training in art and his
introduction to Anarchism while still living in his native Pinar
del Rio. He talked of his move to Havana in the late I940s and of the
formation of Los Once, followed by Los Cinco (The Five) in
the late 1950s. He also spoke of his falling out with the Cuban
Revolution and the move to Paris in the early 1960s. Most importantly he
discussed his long-starding artistic philosophy, a personal variation of
Action Painting, and his unique automatic technique. My aim in
concretizing Llinás memories for publication is to help in the process
of making him a remembered master of abstract expressionism.