A Conversation with Guido Llinás
Ricardo Viera, curator at the Lehigh University
RV: Wifredo Lam was a mentor, an inspiration and a friend to you over the years. How did this relationship develop and grow?
GL: The first time I saw Lam and his painting was in his show at the Vedado Lyceum in 1943. I did not live in Havana; I went from Artemisa, where I worked as an elementary school teacher. I had seen reproductions of his works in magazines and catalogues. I was amazed, the reproductions did not give you any idea of what the paintings were like. I believe it was the first time I saw the painting and not the subject. I had been painting on my own for several years. I was self taught. I had already seen paintings by Amelia (Pelaez) in which the colors were surrounded by black and the background and the subjects evidenced the same interest in chromatic intensity, without natural representation of light, just as in Lam's work. Rather, it was painting over the plane of the canvas. I knew the theories from books and magazines, but it was the first time I had it in front of my eyes.
Years later I met him when Los Once was trying to exhibit work and become known with works outside the tradition of so-called "Cuban painting" or ''Havana School." With the help of Manolo Couceiro, who was able to find places in which to exhibit, Los Once opened the first openly abstractionist show, with variants spanning from postcubism to geometric abstraction. Seven painters and four sculptors participated in the exhibition. The newspapers named us "The Eleven" (Los Once). This group continued to exhibit for two years, creating somewhat of a stir in artistic circles.
Lam supported us and attended our openings, and there I became closer to him. In 1957 I returned to Paris and frequented his studio almost every Sunday with the sculptor (Agustin) Cardenas, while Lam prepared Spanish dishes for lunch. He helped me to show my work in galleries.
RV: How did you keep in contact with Lam after the 1959 Revolution?
GL: When Castro came to power in 1959, I returned to Havana in January and in September I was already back in Paris, on a scholarship. I had to justify the scholarship, and Lam suggested (Stanley William) Hayter's printmaking studio, which was very difficult to get into, but a call from Lam was sufficient. And so for several months I learned the technique of etching, with only one plate and only one pass on the flotbed press to obtain many colors. I kept in touch with Lam until his death. I pushed his wheelchair many times, accompanying him and his wife, Lou, to restaurants years later. I went into exile in 1963, on the same plane in which they arrived in Prague, where a mob of photographers and reporters awaited him. I was in the entourage, entering through the VIP area. I attended his cremation. And I have continued to visit Lou and their children up to this day.
RV: I have watched you attack a piece of plywood with the guataca cubana. This is a forceful and direct method. How does your approach to printmaking differ from that of painting?
GL: For me there is no "conceptual" difference, they are just two different media. In printmaking it is easier and more comfortable for me to use automatism, and the surprise is more complete. When I paint I see what is happening; the surprise comes when I take away with a stream of water the areas or strokes made with the acrylic.
RV: Usually printers carefully place registration and colors. Your work possesses great spontaneity and has an eclectic appearance. How is this possible?
GL: I attack the wood plate, pointed with India ink, tearing off areas, making slits that expose the wood. Later I ink with thick black and then put it through the flatbed press. Up to that moment I do not know what it is going to look like, since it is the inverted image of what I engraved on the plate. With color the process is the same, but I have to use two or three different plates. This process makes everything more complicated, takes away spontaneity, etc. I have devised some tricks to avoid the super-imposition of hues, but even so, I prefer making prints in black and white.
RV: You have made your home in France for 40 years. Why did you leave Cuba?
GL: Fate or luck. From my adolescence, I have had encounters that have decided the direction of my life. From age 19 to 24, I lived in Artermisa, a city in the Pinar Del Rio Province. I worked as an elementary school teacher and I met and became friends with the Nardo brothers. Our friendship has lasted up to the present. Helio Nardo was a librarian and a leader of the Libertarians anarchists, who gave me the whole process of the Russian Revolution to read, so that when I arrived in Havana, and the last dictatorship period of Batista was already in place (which was nothing compared to the one that came later), I knew what to expect from the situation. I have never been a believer. I have only believed in painting.
I knew Fifo (Fidel Castro) from the Cadenas Square at the University of Havana. I was studying Pedagogy and he was studying Law with my brother Rene. When the myth of the Hero started, I knew it was a mystification. Since I was a teenager, I had participated in student political activities, with the orthodoxy of Chibas, and in the 26th of July Revolution Movement that promised a Republic.
When he declared himself a communist and placed himself under the Russian wing, I could not just stay to say that I had been deceived. When he set the famous limits: "with the Revolution everything, against the Revolution nothing", and it was he who controlled the limits, I realized that I had to leave.
I was a Professor of Visual Arts at the School of Architecture and in two years I saw what was coming full speed ahead. On May 20, 1963, I landed in Prague on a Cubana plane (also carrying athletes) that Lam suggested, in case I had "problems" at the airport. During the trip, one thousand feet in the air, he came to my seat to ask me: " Llinás, do you think we will get there" I told him: "Wifredo, sit down and don't make waves."
In exile everything went well. Altmann paid for my trip from Prague to Paris, Arcay got me a job at the Denise Rene Gallery, one of the most important ones. I arrived in May, and in July I was already working with Denise Rene, with my papers in order, legally in the country, and with a salary.
RV: What is your philosophy that makes you consider black a color, equal to all other colors?
GL: For me, black is a color as any other, and even if racists do not believe it, there are many different kinds of black. At Denise Rene, I was in charge of the stock. Vasarely, who aspired to immortality, wrote in detail on the back of his paintings the mixture he used in his squares, circles, etc. To the eye, they all look the same but in the simultaneous contrast with other colors that were mixed in, the visual effect he was looking for worked.
I use black with Prussian blue, with dark red, etc. and even the pure black-black can be different. It is not the same when you dilute it with turpentine as when you use it straight from the tube. Motherwell, Kline, (and) de Kooning have used different kinds of black. You know, a painting is like a symphony, in music the "colors" vary.