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Juan A. Martinez, Art Critic

The 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 University.

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 prints.

JM: When did you come into contact with actual German Expressionist prints?

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 Paris.

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?.

GL: Yes.

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 internal conflict.

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.

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