"Mario Carreño is the most versatile, learned, and courageous of the new generation," Alfred H. Barr, Jr. wrote at the time of the landmark exhibition, Modern Cuban Painters, which he organized for the Museum of Modern Art.(1) By the time of the 1944 exhibition, which highlighted the museum's surging interest in Latin American avant-gardes, Carreño was an established presence in New York. He had landed in New York four years earlier, en route to Havana after spending the past three years in Paris. But what had initially been intended as a brief stopover turned into a prolonged, if at times intermittent residence of more than ten years. Carreño would later describe his New York years as "one of the most fruitful periods for [his] painting."(2)
Settling quickly into a studio on Bleecker Street, in Greenwich Village, Carreño made his New York debut the following year at the Perls Galleries, where he would exhibit regularly over the next decade. At first working under the influence of the masters of the Italian Renaissance, whose heavy, sculptural bodies he had seen in Europe, Carreño moved progressively toward flattened geometries, abstracting more and more from the natural world. "A painting never has to be the imitation of the surrounding world," he wrote to José Gómez Sicre in comments solicited for the latter's pioneering text, Pintura cubana de hoy (1944), published to accompany the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. "A painting is an object created by a man. It has in itself the reality and individuality of all the objects made by men and reflects mankind's aspiration for serenity and permanent eternity."(3)
In distinction from Cuba's first-generation avant-garde, who connected modernism in painting to Cuba's burgeoning national aspirations, Carreño and the artists emerging in the 1940s took a more cosmopolitan approach to their practice. "The fact is," Barr observed, "that the Cuban painters are too much concerned with painting as a personal art of form and color to surrender their individuality to a collective enterprise with political implications."(4) In his mature practice, Carreño developed an increasingly abstracted language to convey Cuba as an open metaphor, drawing out the universality of its vernacular imagery through plastic color and geometric form. In his autobiographical Cronología del recuerdo, Carreño described the evolution of his work in 1947: "My painting began to show a quite personal aspect, divorced from the compositional concerns taken or inherited from the classical Renaissance tradition that had appeared since I arrived in Europe. It became less voluminous, giving way to planes of colors from which tropical characters emerged that could be guajiros, plants, or animals..."(5)
Noting this painterly shift in Carreño's style at his 1947 exhibition at the Perls Gallery, a reviewer for Art News commented: "Since his last show, his style has taken still another turn toward Paris and away from Cuba. The musicians and harlequins of cubism's gayest years put in an appearance here, in tropical guise, sometimes keeping company with palm trees, bellas señoritas, and pre-Columbian birds. Not to labor sources, however, Carreño is definitely skilled. . . . His pictures are compact, exuberant, decorative."(6) This more stylized aesthetic is exemplified in The Promenade, featured on the cover of the exhibition's brochure. Against a verdant backdrop framed by the flat, linear faces of distant mountains, Carreño's señoritas preen prettily under the heat of the Cuban sun, sheltered under parasols and refreshed by their fans. Their silhouetted forms, built out of a beautifully integrated fabric of geometric patterns and shapes, mingle and rhyme with the biomorphic figures that meet them on the veranda. A harmonious display of Carreño's color sensibility, The Promenade elegantly transforms the language of geometry into a genteel tableau. Bathed in the gentle tropical light, the young señoritas, their figures a brilliant mosaic of decorative pattern and lyrical color, coyly beckon, drawing us into their world.
1) Alfred H. Barr, "Modern Cuban Painters," Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art 11 (April 1944).
2) Mario Carreño, Cronología del recuerdo (Santiago de Chile: Editorial Antartica, S.A., 1991), 46.
3) José Gómez Sicre, "Notes on paintings in the exhibition," Modern Cuban Painters exhibition file #255, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
5) Carreño, Cronología del recuerdo, 65.
6) "Exhibition at Perls," Art News 46 (November 1947): 41.