Artist interview: Beatriz González

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

In the early 1960s pop was an unknown term. Unlike neo-figuración (new figuration) and interiorismo (interiorism), pop was part of a discourse happening abroad. Really pop art was absent from the medium in which I specialised: painting. Pop could be fashionable, a classification or an exercise, but it wasn’t the appropriate label for the work I was doing, or a vision informing my way of painting.

Towards the end of the 1960s, there was a big debate around the term pop. Initially Marta Traba established that [in Colombia] the conditions for pop’s existence didn’t exist, mainly because we didn’t have a consumer society on the scale of other nations. Without a doubt, later on in her critical articles she established the notion of local pop, which referred to artists like Carlos Rojas and Judith Márquez. Once we entered the 1970s, the term gained currency in the artistic language.

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

No, I considered my work a provincial type of painting. I’ve always considered myself more of a painter and within this remit I painted the joy of the underdeveloped. For me the type of art that I was doing could only circulate internationally as a curiosity. Mine was a provincial type of art without horizons, confronting the everyday: art is international.

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

The idea of taking images from everyday reality runs through my whole career. More than current events I was interested in what Félix Fénéon termed faits-divers. Starting with The Suicides of the Sisga and then with the furniture pieces, I appropriated press images. These included: gossip columns, accounts of trips by royalty and advertisements that I found in local newspapers (I still do it). I was particularly interested in the relationship between text and image (the captions) and minor printing defects.

As well as images extracted from the press, I also worked on icons from the time, ranging from Simón Bolívar and Queen Isabella of Spain, to the Pope and pocket depictions of saints. Above all I was focusing on a provincial everyday reality, universal symbols that underwent a process of transformation through their re-localisation in the Third World. For instance an odalisque by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres could illustrate a book dealing with exotic sexual practices.

I encountered these images in bookshops in the city centre [Bogotá], discoloured or badly printed and above all decontextualised. At times, without actively searching, I came across images of this sort on common objects, for example, packages that my sister sent me from London, on chocolate wrappings etc. These to a certain extent also belonged to the everyday realm I had an interest in.

How did you choose the subject matter for your work included in The World Goes Pop? / Where did you get your imagery from (what, if any, sources did you use)?

As a painter I started by revisiting canonical works from art history, like the Surrender of Breda [by Velázquez] and works by Vermeer and his followers, which were well received. My turn towards popular images and press cuttings occurred during a personal crisis whenI felt like ‘a lady who paints’. In the frantic search for a path, I came across an image in a magazine and I turned it into a painting.

The Suicides of the Sisga was inspired by a story that appeared in the press about a couple of young farmers in love: the man, guided by mystical insanity, convinced his girlfriend to commit suicide in order to preserve the purity of their love. Before jumping from the dam of the Sisga on the outskirts of Bogotá, the couple commissioned a professional photographer to take their portrait. The picture was then sent on to their families and when the news broke it was widely reprinted in black and white in local newspapers. As I already mentioned, the quality, or ‘the bad quality’ of the image, awoke my interest in this. I was attracted by the plain quality of the printed image, the simplification of the facial features, almost deformed by the discrepancy.

The Last Supper is one of the first furniture pieces I ever made. These qualify as a sort of objet trouvé, upon which I intervened. Between 1969 and 1970 I came up with the idea for the furniture works. In front of the building where I lived, there was a parking lot called Libertador, which had a Simón Bolívar painting reproduced on a hoarding. The hoardings of Bogotá were made in metal, rustic, not very big, very different from contemporary ones. One day I dared to approach a man who fabricated hoardings in a garage, and asked him to prepare me metal supports onto which I painted my paintings. A little later, I accompanied my husband, an architect, to buy construction materials in a neighbourhood called Los Mártires, identified by an obelisk celebrating the heroes of independence. There I found a metal bed, imitating wood. This piece of furniture was called ‘radio bed’, because embedded in its structure was a dedicated space for a radio; also, sectioned off by a sheet of corrugated glass, there was space for a lamp. We bought it with no specific purpose. At home, I was completing a painting on a metal sheet, the Señor de Monserrate, to be hung on a wall. When I began to ask myself ‘what should we do with the bed?’, it dawned on me that I should lie the painting on its back and fit it in the bed structure, and destiny made it fit precisely. The painting measured 120 cm wide, and the bed was also 120 cm wide. This moment still seems magical to me.

I didn’t paint the furniture; I simply purchased it and assembled it with a painting that matched the feel of the object. Later on I discovered the factory that produced the furniture and it was able to customise the designs for me. I was very interested in factory painters’ ability to mimic wood and marble [on metal], the ‘falsification of materials’: wood wasn’t wood; marble wasn’t marble; the power of simulation.

The subject matter didn’t develop in response to the reproduction of a real artwork, for instance The Last Supper; it drew instead on popular prints branded Molinari, and printed in Cali, that were sold in stores selling religious objects. The printer Molinari decided to intervene in the work of Leonardo and included the painter in the scene pretending he was one of Christ’s disciples. The Last Supper was especially popular in Colombia because in every household this image was placed above the main entrance door as a good-luck charm against thieves. In a way the image acquired its own life and many spin-offs were produced.

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

During the 1960s I wasn’t aware of it. In the art history classes taught by Marta Traba the furthest we got was abstract expressionism. In 1961 we went with her on a trip to New York. There we visited MoMA and we saw mostly abstract expressionist works, with Jackson Pollock above all. Pop was mentioned at the time but with little enthusiasm. Thinking about it perhaps I knew pop, but I didn’t like it. I remember seeing in the Latin American edition of Life magazine a critique of Claes Oldenburg’s kitchens, but this didn’t catch my attention. Again, in 1966 in Amsterdam I visited the Stedelijk Museum where I came across Robert Indiana’s numbers and some works by Tom Wesselmann but they were unrelated and extraneous to my painting. I considered them very distant from what I was doing in painting.

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

Yes, commercial art influenced me, especially when I saw it created with clumsiness. Works like Cúrese las Amígdalas sin operación and Sólo 10 Minutos diarios came out of advertisements in local newspapers. I was also interested in the accompanying text.

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

People couldn’t understand why I had abandoned my refined early paintings. With The Suicides of Sisga I changed, and shifted on the one hand, my interest from images inspired by Johannes Vermeer and Diego Velázquez to Antonio Molinari’s images, and on the other hand, I turned to bright colours and flat figures. This was considered a stark departure and was immediately rejected. Afterwards, when I exhibited my furniture pieces in the São Paulo Biennial in 1971, they didn’t encounter much appreciation among specialist and general audiences. At the time abstraction still prevailed. Nevertheless, in the catalogue Marta Traba described it as marginal art. It was the first time that the term marginality was used in relation to Latin American art. With the furniture pieces I had attached, without realising it, a counter proposal to international art.

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

No, really there wasn’t an audience for the works that followed the Vermeer and Velázquez-inspired ones. There were funny episodes. In the XIX Salon de Artistas Nacionales, I was accused of plagiarising a nineteenth-century painting of Bolívar that I used as a model. The colour palette and the theme of the paintings that were there were shocking and out of tune. I deliberately wanted them to be out of tune – these were the colours that I saw in shop windows, in re-interpretations of universal images that were made in the Third World. However, approval came from those people involved in dissident intellectual circles, led by Marta Traba.

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

I’m surprised by myself, for having taken such a valiant position in this moment. Yes, sometimes I see myself like a transgressor that didn’t fit in her time. 

September 2015