Just as in economics and politics, the art world is often separated by geography into the center and the periphery. For the past 30 years, the center has always seemed to be New York City, but even here, the world’s flatness has taken its toll. “Antonio López García” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, a retrospective of a Spanish realist painter largely unacknowledged outside of Spain, is another outburst in the fight to equalize periphery and center.
The show is meant as an accompaniment to the MFA’s current overview of Spanish Baroque painting, “El Greco to Velázquez.” Though this is a grand gesture putting a contemporary painter in direct competition and dialogue with the art history giants of centuries ago, López García seems to be up to the challenge.
His paintings are more often than not about silent contemplation of the world around him, an almost religious meditation that is uniquely similar to the vegetable still-lifes of Juan Sánchez Cotán and the silent portraits of Diego Velázquez in the larger show. López García’s work is by no means aggressive like so much of contemporary art. Rather, it pulls a viewer slowly but insistently into the artist’s love of life and the world around him.
Combining sculpture, painting, drawing and relief work, “Antonio López García’s” body of work is as diverse as it is engaging. Running from his earlier work more focused on magical realism to recent paintings and drawings that are as close as possible to reality, curator Cheryl Brutvan has organized the exhibition in such a way that the viewer is slowly brought through time as López García’s career develops. This makes for a particularly coherent view of the artist’s work rather than singular snapshots. A smooth transition is visible from López García’s surreal depiction of a lone child seemingly floating outside of a doorway to the flat, straight-faced painting of an open refrigerator that characterizes his realist style.
This piece, among others in the exhibition, shows the artist to be a kind of excavator of his own life and surroundings. Drawings featured in the show, as well as one of the MFA’s own paintings, depict López García’s bathroom: the sink, the doorways, the tiny sliver of space that alludes to privacy and intimacy. We as viewers gain a sense of closeness as we approach these works, a feeling that the artist has let us inside his own private sphere as guests. Brimming with hospitality and warm-heartedness, the work in “Antonio López García” is far from exclusive or pretentious.
It is interesting to see such a show brought to Boston and not New York, to the MFA and not the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both acknowledged sources of mid- and late-career retrospectives. Though López García is well known as an artistic genius in his own country, he is largely underappreciated here in the United States. That such work can travel from a foreign country to a non New York-centric museum in the United States is a testament to the passion of those supporting the show and the globalization of the art world.
The hallmark of López García’s work is a kind of luminescent humanity that infuses daily life with a glowing sense of wonder and awe. His drawings, including “Pumpkins” (1994-95), are filled with exact details, but they rise far beyond description. Sure, the drawings are realistic. But that does not preclude the artist instilling the drawing with his own fascination with the living world; every curve, every wrinkle and every line of the pumpkins is recreated with love rather than a cold eye toward photorealism.
A large part of the artist’s body of work is made up of cityscapes. Immersive, towering paintings of Madrid’s back alleys and sprawling vistas, the works are not so much landscapes as they are emotions filtered through the lens of the city. Above all, they have a sense of specific locality. Looking at the paintings, it is eminently clear that they go beyond a visual dialogue; they transcend fact and bring us reality. This is how López García sees his city and the world around him: a never-ending place of tiny light-flooded corners, each of which must be picked apart, painted in colors filled with weight and nostalgia, and put back together into reality.