The greatest artist in the world

Prospect Magazine

The greatest artist in the world


An art market boom generally catapults a relatively unknown artist into the major league, with suitable price tag. I think I know who the next superstar will be

Guillermo Kuitca, Mozart-Da Ponte I (1995), oil, pastel and graphite on canvas: “a visual drama running from the stalls to the upper circle…”

Some great artists achieve fame and fortune early in their careers, like Picasso or Jackson Pollock. Others labour in poverty, recognised only after their death, like Modigliani. But there is a third story—of artists who are widely-known, highly regarded and whose work is even expensive from a relatively early point in their career, but whose reputation is, at some point, radically revised upwards. They move, so to speak, from the top 100, into the top 20. Francis Bacon, for example, has long been seen as an important British painter—and a good painting would have cost you £1-3m a decade ago—but it is only in the last five years that he has become one of the greatest postwar painters, with price-tags to match Rothko and Pollock. Lucio Fontana and Yves Klein are similar artists who have shot up the pecking order during the contemporary art boom of the last decade.

Every time the art market booms, another handful of artists get this warp factor nine treatment and I believe I have a candidate for the next boom—the 49-year-old Guillermo Kuitca. He is Argentina’s leading painter. His work was displayed prominently at the 2007 Venice Biennale by its director Robert Storr. He is represented in the US and Europe by heavy-hitting commercial galleries—yet he is little known outside certain collecting circles. This year he is the subject of a magnificent travelling retrospective—Guillermo Kuitca: Everything, Paintings and Works on Paper, 1980-2008—organised by three of America’s major institutions, the Miami Art Museum (until 17th January), the Albright-Knox in Buffalo, New York (from 19th February to 30th May) and the Hirshhorn in Washington DC (from 21st October to 16th January 2011). It is the artist’s first survey show in the US in 15 years.

Kuitca’s oeuvre is original, impassioned and striking. Born in 1961, the precocious artist produced his first major body of work in his mid-twenties. His inspiration was the German choreographer, Pina Bausch, the inventor of a stark blend of theatre and modern dance. He painted large canvases in which he depicted typically Bausch-like stage sets—vast and melancholic, dotted with chairs, or a bed. In the corner of one, a pile of canvases lean against a wall in a pool of water. In others, spotlights illuminate microphone stands, prams and the occasional isolated figure, amid large, loosely painted expanses of single colours, but of many tones. Mournful grey-blues and crimsons predominate. “You can do everything in theatre, nothing in a painting,” he said at the time. It was easy for Kuitca to map Bausch’s mood of emotional desolation onto Argentina in the 1980s, with its missing persons and bereaved families. Hence titles like Nobody forgets nothing.

These were strong paintings, which captured a national trauma, and they have been widely praised. But, in stylistic terms, they were nothing new—rather illustrative, and derivative of the allegorical German neoexpressionism popular in the 1980s. Kuitca’s artistic breakthrough came in the 1990s, when he abandoned both the narratives and the melodramatic brushwork of his scenographic pictures. The viewer encounters the new work in this exhibition like a revelation.

There are the darkly painted canvases covered with a white chalky tracery. From a distance they look like the skin of an elephant, a marvellous texture as a work of art. But as you approach, the white lines turn out to be the outlines of a giant illogical map, constructed out of parts of different maps, mapped onto each other. It’s a map of maps—like so much of Kuitca’s other work an easily understood symbol, yet one with heaps of possible meanings. Perhaps it is an image of man’s presence on the planet? Or a memorial to 20th century aerial bombardment?

Kuitca painted his maps onto mattresses, and arranged them in rows—an array of oneiric platforms that recalled the grids of minimalism (like Christian Boltanski’s rusting tin boxes) and the strange juxtapositions of surrealism’s “objects,” like Man Ray’s iron with nails. Kuitca also began a long series of works based on the seating plans of famous theatres and concert halls, in which these diagrams shimmer in white mist over monochromatic backdrops, or are refracted into exploding patterns—a visual drama running from the stalls to the upper circle. Kuitca is cataloguing sites of collective imagination, and playing ironically with the numerical logic behind the organisation of these spaces. And perhaps he is also voguishly referring to the modernist utopianism of these places, where man’s highest achievement, art, is consumed collectively in acoustically perfect environments.

Then there are the Kafka-esque architectural floor-plans of imaginary institutions—prisons where the beds are set outside the cells, labyrinthine hospitals, vast stadiums, or tiny apartments, laid out like an airport runway—and the ever-present theatre plans, but with the seat numbers set outside the seat places. I must also mention the smoothly-painted airport luggage conveyor belts, always empty, with suggestive titles like Tragedy and Terminal—images of the facelessness of globalisation, as iconic as Ed Ruscha’s west coast gas stations from the 1970s.

Works like this are likely to be seen as a blueprint for the course that painting will take in the future—and for several reasons. It is not just that Kuitca boldly presents architectural plans as abstract art; nor that there is a fusion of large-scale drawing and painting; neither is it only because, like Andreas Gursky’s photographs, Kuitca’s paintings have a very contemporary sense of the scale of organised human activity.

The key is that he brings together two opposing traditions, returning painting to something it used to do very well—symbolism and allegory—but with the motifs and lessons of conceptual art. What I mean by this, is that, like a good conceptual artist, he takes pre-existing scientific forms of visual representation—mostly diagrammatic—but he deals with them like a good old-fashioned painter, not just with his alluring palette and brushwork, but with the iconic messages the subjects communicate. The diagram becomes symbol. I think there’s far more of a future in this kind of strategy than in the calculatedly negative tactics of his 1990s contemporaries—the “bad painting” of Luc Tuymans or Albert Oehlen, or the seductive painting of documentary photographs pursued by Marlene Dumas.

Among Kuitca’s smartest works are a series of two-metre square panels in which he paints his own enlarged designs for the covers of recordings of Wagner’s ring cycle (The Ring, 2002-03). The album covers move through time—from the 1940s to 1990s—and geography—from postwar Europe to modern America—and modernist styles—from cubism to digital manipulation—and even conductors, from Wilhelm Furtwängler through Solti, Boulez and then James Levine. It’s a brilliantly conceived, cryptic postwar history lesson, worthy of Gerhard Richter. Smart curators at the Serpentine, Camden Arts Centre or Modern Art Oxford should be dialling America now, to ensure this exhibition comes to Britain.

  1. March 4, 2010

    arie levit

    hi Ben Lewis you got it all wrong! please GOOGEL…”who is the greatest artist in the world?” find out the real answer! and fix it befor it’s to late!

  2. April 10, 2013


    I absolutely love Guillermo Kuitcas work. He is differently make his mark! Love life, love art.

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Ben Lewis

Ben Lewis
Ben Lewis is a documentary filmmaker and art critic 

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