English

Mambo

Luis Felipe Noé: I remember that one sleepless night I started painting and the next day I surprised Jorge by showing him a work divided into two canvases with their respective stretchers (a diptych), one of them turned around. In the top part, depicted in shades of grey, I had suggested a large woman’s head, like in a carnival parade, and in the bottom one the stretcher was reversed: on the wooden structure I had placed a paper cut-out (mounted on a piece of wood cut to fit the silhouette), in which, in bold colors, I alluded to a dwarfish body, also of a woman. This lower part, as usually occurs on the back of paintings, featured the title of the work—Mambo—plus the clarification “Paris 1962” and my signature. Jorge, who had always supported me in my work, nevertheless exclaimed: “At last you have done something worthwhile!” What did that mean coming from him, given that ever since my first exhibition he had really encouraged me? It signified an acknowledgement that I had achieved a new approach, at least for me. It was the first time I had done a divided work, that is to say, one that openly challenged unity. From then on I started to say to myself: it is enough to give meaning to the association in order for two to be one. Consequently, without reneging on painting, I began to discover Duchamp. Among his readymades I preferred those that associated two different things: for example, a bicycle wheel on a stool. But I was interested in particular in developing the violence of cutting pictorial atmospheres, not objects. I began to speak of “divided painting” and later “broken vision.”

Earlier, when people complained that my works based on stains lacked structure, I used to turn the painting around and, pointing to the frame, I would reply: “Here’s the structure.” In Mambo the irony of the right and wrong side became a single piece of evidence.

Years later I read an article by Mariano Etkin—in the newspaper Clarín of October 2, 1994—on the mambo as a music and its creator, Pérez Prado. That piece says something that helped me to understand why I called the work what I did. Etkin argues that transitions are practically nonexistent in the music of Pérez Prado and its juxtaposing effect “has to do with Stravinsky, but also with Stan Kenton: continuity by adjacency rather than by analogy.” The latter, I think, was the key to my intuitive affinity with the mambo of Pérez Prado.

But, of course, my Mambo was not an easy work to digest. Around that time there was a large exhibition organized by Germaine Derbecq, the wife of Pablo Curatella Manes, the initiator of modern sculpture in our country. Between 1959 and 1961 Germaine had worked at the Lirolay gallery in Buenos Aires as the curator—a term that did not exist then—of many exhibitions of artists of the new generation, whom she enthusiastically supported, and also as a critic for the French newspaper in our city (Le Quotidien). She (an equally excellent painter of great geometric lyricism) had conceived that Paris show at the Balzac room of the Creuze gallery under the name of Curatella Manes and Thirty Argentine Artists of the New Generation. Most of them belonged to the group Recherche Visuelle. I was there with three paintings: the work in question, La última cena [The Last Supper] and one more picture: Ensayo sobre la incongruencia del cuerpo místico [Study on the Incongruity of the Mystical Body]. I remember that while we were hanging our works, an artist allied with surrealism approached me and said in regard to Mambo: “I have not come to speak on behalf of the exhibitors, just on my own behalf, but I think out of respect for the seriousness of the exhibition you should not show that work.” Of course I exhibited it. Incidentally, Jorge and Greco were among the few people who supported me in that respect, while Ernesto and Rómulo, who did not participate in that exhibition, since they had just arrived in Paris, looked skeptically at Mambo. That must be why, many years later, in 2004, in a retrospective exhibition held in tribute to De la Vega at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (Malba), its curator, Mercedes Casanegra, decided to include the piece (the only work by another author in the show) on the grounds that we had lived through a moment of rupture together.

I must clarify that neither the stretcher nor the canvas that are reversed in the lower part of the work (where my signature and title are to be found) are now the originals from 1962. The thing is, at that time, due to economic hardship, I used that stretcher—whose canvas was blank on the front part—to paint another work. In the exhibition at the Bonino gallery that the four of us did that year, however, I showed Mambo as I had done in Paris. Later, based on photos, I reconstituted the part that was missing from the lower stretcher; in other words, the signature and title, since I still had the silhouette that was placed there.