Rafael Canogar

Was ‘pop art’ a term used by yourself or colleagues or was there a different terminology that referred a new figurative art movement in the 1960s and early 1970s?

I didn’t use the term ‘pop’ to describe my work in those years, but I was occasionally labelled as such by critics and art journals. The terms on which I mostly relied were ‘realist period’ and ‘chronic of reality’. I wanted to keep a distance from American pop, mainly because the Spanish social and political context was very different from the American one.

Rafael Canogar The Punishment 1969

Rafael Canogar
The Punishment 1969
Private collection
© Rafael Canogar Studio

Did you ever consider yourself (now or in the past) a pop artist?

I’m not a pop artist now, but I can concede to the fact that my earlier work had some points in common with this tendency. However, this is true only if you understand the label in a much broader and universal way than how it was promoted in the USA.

Did your work engage with current events in the 1960s and early 1970s?

My work was responding directly to abstract expressionism – or informalism – that had dominated the art scene up to that point. My work was included in different exhibitions abroad, which attempted to move beyond these movements and open new avenues, including: Kunst und Politik, organised by the Badischer Kunstverein in Karlsruhe in 1970; Menschenbilder, organised by the Kunsthalle Darmstadt in 1968; and many others focusing on the theme of ‘reality’.

How did you choose the subject matter for your work included in The World Goes Pop?

My imagery was lifted from a range of communication media from outside Spain. During these years I made many trips abroad and spent extended periods of time in the USA, where in 1965 I was a visiting professor, teaching painting. My work, with its ethical and critical dimension, was aimed above all to be universal. Perhaps for this reason I can’t quite recall where I took this image from, but I know that it was reproduced in some medium of communication, depicting something that happened somewhere. I deliberately chose not to invent the theme, in keeping with my pursuit of truthfulness. But above all, I desired to adopt a critical reading of Spanish reality.

Where did you get your imagery from (what, if any, sources did you use)?

I became aware that the configuration of a new iconography, as a testament to collective struggle, had to be introduced through a new language, less hermetic than informal abstraction. Realism gave me the possibility to channel my different aesthetic searches, besides giving me a moral support for my socio-political anxieties. This didn’t entail going back to figuration; it meant creating a new reality. My need for truthfulness drew me to the use of authentic clothes in which to dress my characters, frozen and hardened with glass fibre and polyester. At times they resembled empty carcasses, without a head, dehumanised, as a way to underline their objective condition: like archaeological metaphors, the remains of a new Pergamon temple.

Where you aware of pop art in other parts of the world?

Of course, I was aware of pop art. I was following aesthetic changes closely and pop was, without a doubt fundamental in opening up new forms of understanding and doing art; and offered a new way to relate to the intellectual and physical world.

Was commercial art an influence on your work or the way in which it was made?

With my work in those years I wanted, in a certain way, to break away from the dominant artistic and cultural consumerism. I was with a gallery that sold my informal abstraction very well, but my need to tackle my new aesthetic unrest gave me the strength to break away from the market. It was something born out of my conscience, stronger than the reliance on what was commercial.

Was there a feeling at the time that you doing something important and new, making a change…?

I always worked with the clear knowledge of how profound intuition could be. Intuition gave me the strength and security to break with my earlier work. A break for a majority but not for me, as it was just a continuation of my unwillingness to compromise my freedom. Informalism had been the most eminent expression of freedom, of the unique and unrepeatable, achieved through a direct and spontaneous type of calligraphy. Intuitive and passionate works, carried out with the urgency that the time, the age and its theories demanded. Self-affirmation and self-realisation were, in addition, the forces necessary to break away from the formal structures and aesthetic convictions of the time. As a result, with this vitality, with this cry for liberty that could not be contained, you did not want to domesticate these forces or attempt to repeat or academicise what felt like a cry out of time, as the context was changing profoundly. My development following this realisation was realism.

Was there an audience for the work at the time – and if so what was their reaction to it?

In 1965, when I exhibited my first works in Madrid, where I live, there were strong attacks, and curiously, if I’m not mistaken, they attacked me for having turned to and being influenced by pop art. But a few months later I exhibited these works at the Venice Biennale and they had a huge effect.

Looking back at these works, what you do think about them now?

I have had a long career as an artist, more or less sixty years of exhibiting. My painting developed – like my country, like me, like the world. My different periods are part of my life and my history. I see these works as part of me, they were timely and received consistent backing and following, but also discredit, like every living thing. I see this period as harmonically placed, as part of a before and after of many other moments of my long journey. I like them and love them, with no nostalgia.

September 2015