Miquel Barceló speaks with Alain Elkann ahead of his exhibition, Ceramics, at Thaddaeus Ropac London
CONTINUOUS TRANSFORMATION. Miquel Barceló is one of Spain’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, known for his relief-like mixed-media paintings, expressive bronze sculptures and ceramics.
Miquel Barceló, you were born on the island of Majorca in 1957. Please tell me about your early years as an artist?
In the beginning of the 80s people from New York, or Zurich or Milano, saw my paintings as punk art, like the Neo-expressionists or Transavantgarde. But I was always an isolated figure from an island, never part of a group, and I was never happy when people called me a nouveau sauvage because I was not nouveau and I was not so wild.
Why did you go to Naples for six months?
Because Lucio Amelio invited me to do a big painting for the exhibition he dedicated to the earthquake of November 1980, and I was happy to do that because I was there when that happened. Naples was very interesting to me, because I met Joseph Beuys and Cy Twombly and many Italian artists that are still my friends. It is curious, Naples is a very Spanish town, sometimes it is more Spanish than Spain, and it was very familiar to me. We don’t have a volcano in the city of Palma, but we have a mountain with a castle, a big bay and a big cathedral on the sea, and my house in Italy had the same relation with the sea and the mountains as my house in Majorca.
After that you visited New York and became a friend of Andy Warhol?
Andy did my portrait my very first day in New York. My first exhibition in New York was with Leo Castelli, because Leo saw my paintings in Paris when I was age 25 and had a ten thousand square metre studio in a big totally empty church next to the Marie Curie hospital. It was fantastic for a Spanish guy to have the use of a church; I was like the pope of my own religion. Even in the very coldest days of winter I worked every day, and Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend and many others saw my paintings there for the first time. I used the perspective of this enormous chiaroscuro church many times in my paintings. When they decided to destroy it to make a new part of the hospital I left for New York for a couple of years.
Did you also meet Jean-Michel Basquiat?
Yes, and Basquiat visited me in Majorca and stayed for a week in the summertime. If he had not died so young he would have become a great painter.
How did you feel as an artist in Spain, when there was still Franco’s dictatorship?
My only thought was to escape, but in the seventies I had no passport. If you didn’t do your military service – which I didn’t – you didn’t get one. Finally they decided that I was psychotic, a schizoid, and so could avoid military service. As soon as I had my passport the first thing I did was take the train to Paris, to Amsterdam, to London… I was born on a little island and have this necessity to move. People in the island either move around the world or, like my brother, who hates to travel, never move outside the island. I went to Paris, to America, I found a way to paint in Africa.
You travelled around with sketchbooks, like the painters of the past, painting portraits and self-portraits in the studio, but at a certain point you stopped figurative painting. Why?
In ’81, before the show with Castelli, I was in Naples and the south of Italy. I was very poor and sleeping in a little pensione that cost almost nothing. I started to do a very simple self-portrait of the artist in the studio. My relation with reality is through painting, but when I believed it was becoming like a brand I changed. I managed to go on, to escape to myself. Now I’m more than 60, and I see my work as I always have. I go in one direction and suddenly I change, but finally, I come back to something I did before. When you look at my art you can see all these relations.