“I am very much interested in the unusual, the unexpected, the strange,” Bravo once observed. “I like to make pictures based on the things that we generally see around us in daily life, but then take them in unexpected directions.”  Such a transfiguration of the commonplace characterizes his remarkable studies of wrapped packages and paper, a series begun in the mid-1960s and reprised in the past decade. Both a riff on the still-life tradition and a critique of contemporary formalism, these works epitomize a career that bridged representation and abstraction, classicism and modernism, with finesse and painterly erudition. The packages first appeared, at least anecdotally, in response to a seemingly pedestrian source. Bravo lived in New York in the early 1960s, and when his sisters visited they brought back shopping bags of myriad shapes and sizes filled with their purchases. Fascinated by the amorphous dimensions and tactile surfaces of the packaging, he began his experiments in painting cloth and paper.
The earlier packages mark Bravo’s first serious preoccupation with abstraction and strike a balance between mimetic realism and the essentialist monochromes of color-field painting that dominated the artistic landscape of the 1960s. “I think that I was originally inspired to do these pictures after looking at some works by Antoni Tàpies, whom I greatly admired,” Bravo later reflected. “He’d done paintings with string that resembled wrapped objects. Rothko’s work was also instrumental, but in a more indirect way.” Bravo brokered an intermediate position, drawing on the vocabulary of color-field abstraction to give visual clarity to the startlingly veristic paintings of packaging and papers tied in string that he had begun to create.
The intrigue of the paper packaging rests less in the objects they once concealed, Bravo suggested, than in the means of the concealment itself: “What I really wanted to paint was the wrapping. I wanted to give a sense of trompe-l’oeil tactility. I’m constantly realistic.” Almost hyper-real, the wrinkled vermilion sheet of Red Paper hangs from a single string, its protean, sculptural body retaining the memory of folds and creases from its earlier function. The crisp sheen of the paper, here an ideal medium for the study of natural light and shadow, softly amplifies the artifices of painterly illusion. No longer tasked with wrapping a package, the paper transforms into a subject in its own right: elegantly shape-shifting, vitally anthropomorphic, and lucidly monumental.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1) Claudio Bravo, “Conversation with Edward Sullivan,” in Claudio Bravo: Paintings and Drawings (1964/2004) (London: Marlborough Gallery, 2006) 144.
2) Bravo, quoted in Edward J. Sullivan, Claudio Bravo (New York: Rizzoli, 1985), 36.
3) Ibid., 37.