“I’m a realist,” Bravo once allowed, adding, “but I transform reality.” A consummate and ever canny realist for his time, Bravo brought remarkable technical virtuosity to bear on his now iconic trompe l’oeil paintings of paper-wrapped packages. First exhibited in New York in 1970, the package paintings epitomize a decades-long practice shaped by excursuses through seventeenth-century classicism and contemporary Color Field abstraction. The packages mark Bravo’s first serious preoccupation with abstraction, following his beginnings as a portrait painter, and they occupy a singular position within 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 reflected. “He’d done paintings with string that resembled wrapped objects. Rothko’s work was also instrumental, but in a more indirect way.”1 At a distance from both the camera reality of the American Photorealists and the mythmaking bravado of the early Color Field artists, Bravo’s package paintings imbue commonplace objects with rich art-historical gravitas, imparting an old master touch to meticulously modern, hyperrealist canvases.
Though well pedigreed within the Western canon, the packages originated, at least anecdotally, from an unexpectedly pedestrian source. In the 1960s, while Bravo was living in New York, three of his sisters visited him and day after day returned to his apartment with shopping bags filled with their purchases. Piqued by the amorphous dimensions and tactile surfaces of the packages, he began his experiments in painting the tones and textures of wrapping paper and string. The intrigue of the packaging ultimately hinged less on the objects they concealed, Bravo later implied, than on the means of the concealment itself: “There’s some mystery in the wrapped packages, but what I really wanted to paint was the wrapping. I wanted to give a sense of trompe l’oeil tactility. I’m constantly realistic.”2
Technically sophisticated, with marvelously sensitive attention to detail and convincing illusionism, Bravo’s last series of packages evince his masterful command of classical realism and conceptual abstraction. If the packages of the 1960s kindled what Edward Sullivan has called a “life-long passion with substances that can change and transform their shapes through human manipulation,” the series started in the later 1990s, to which Red Package belongs, appeared “far more ambitious and complex than any of those done earlier and, within the history of his artistic career, they are far more transcendent in their meanings.”3 Artfully hyperreal, the wrinkled paper wrapping Red Package folds in on itself neatly, if not quite symmetrically, held in place by a single string that bisects the image, its cast shadow giving an implicit depth and shape to the object it contains. Bravo’s description of the soft sheen of the mahogany-red paper and its bright underside, depicted in precise and tangible detail, persuasively maintains the artifice of illusion. A painting of a (wrapped) painting, as is often inferred, Red Package meditates finally on the relationship between the painted surface and its underlying support, probing the limits of representation itself.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1 Claudio Bravo, quoted in Edward J. Sullivan, Claudio Bravo (New York: Rizzoli, 1985), 10, 36.
2 Ibid., 37.
3 Edward J. Sullivan, “Obsession and Meditation: A Decade of Work by Claudio Bravo,” in Claudio Bravo: Paintings and Drawings (1964/2004) (New York: Rizzoli, 2005), 254.