Claudio Bravo (1936-2011)
Claudio Bravo (1936-2011)
Claudio Bravo (1936-2011)
Claudio Bravo (1936-2011)
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Claudio Bravo (1936-2011)

Celestial Blue Paper

Claudio Bravo (1936-2011)
Celestial Blue Paper
signed and dated ‘CLAUDIO BRAVO, MMVI’ (lower left)
oil on canvas
39 ½ x 47 ½ in. (100.3 x 121 cm.)
Painted in 2006.
Marlborough Gallery, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
New York, Marlborough Gallery, Claudio Bravo, Recent Work, 6 May-7 June 2008, p. 10, no. 8 (illustrated in color).
Further details
1 Claudio Bravo, quoted in Edward J. Sullivan, Claudio Bravo (New York: Rizzoli, 1985), 36.
2 Ibid., 37.
3 “Conversation with Claudio Bravo and Edward J. Sullivan,” in Claudio Bravo: Paintings and Drawings (1964/2004) (New York: Rizzoli, 2005), 144.
4 Edward J. Sullivan, “Obsession and Meditation: A Decade of Work by Claudio Bravo,” in Claudio Bravo: Paintings and Drawings (1964/2004), 254.
5 “Conversation with Claudio Bravo and Edward J. Sullivan,” 140.
6 “A Conversation with Claudio Bravo,” Claudio Bravo (Naples, Fla.: Naples Museum of Art, 2006), 8.

Lot Essay

The transfiguration of the commonplace found new meaning in Bravo’s extraordinary studies of wrapped paper packages, first exhibited to great acclaim at New York’s Staempfli Gallery in 1970. Informed by the Spanish School of painting, in particular Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbarán, the package pictures marked an early inflection point in his career as he turned away from his success as a society portraitist and embraced the radical possibilities presented by the packages, a quotidian tabula rasa. A touchstone for the artist’s subsequent still-life and vanitas paintings, the packages provided him with a medium through which to cycle through the history of art, revisiting age-old problems of illusion, mimesis, and abstraction. The packages reemerged in Bravo’s work in the late 1990s, marking the culmination of a career that had bridged representation and abstraction, classicism and modernism, with finesse and painterly erudition.
Bravo’s package paintings epitomize a decades-long practice shaped by excursuses through seventeenth-century classicism and contemporary Color Field abstraction. These works marked his first serious preoccupation with abstraction, and they occupied a singular position within the artistic landscape of the 1960s. At a distance from both the camera reality of the American Photorealists and the mythmaking bravado of Abstract Expressionism, Bravo’s paintings of paper imbued ordinary objects with rich art-historical gravitas, imparting an Old Master touch to meticulously modern, hyperrealist paintings of paper and string. The series summoned multiple points of origins, as Bravo acknowledged. “I think that I was originally inspired to do these pictures after looking at some works by Antoni Tàpies, whom I greatly admired,” he reflected. “He’d done paintings with string that resembled wrapped objects. Rothko’s work was also instrumental, but in a more indirect way.”1 A more distant source lies in the paintings of wrapped packages by nineteenth-century century American artists like John Haberle, John F. Peto, and William Harnet, working in the early modern tradition of trompe-l’oeil painting. Bravo often affirmed his connection to that European past, from Greco-Roman antiquity to the venerable still-life tradition of seventeenth-century Spain, from which his paintings descend.
Though well pedigreed within the Western canon, the packages also originated from a surprisingly pedestrian source. In the 1960s, when Bravo lived for a time 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 crisp, tactile surfaces of the packages, he began to paint their 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 While Bravo took exception to associations of his work with Surrealism—“I live too much in the present world”—he found stimulation in the small serendipities of everyday life. “I am very much interested in the unusual, the unexpected, the strange,” he remarked. “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.”3
Formally sophisticated, with marvelously sensitive attention to detail and convincing illusionism, Bravo’s last series of papers and packages evinces a masterful command of classical realism and conceptual abstraction. If his paintings from the 1960s kindled what Edward J. Sullivan has called a “life-long passion with substances that can change and transform their shapes through human manipulation,” the series reprised in the late 1990s, to which Celestial Blue Paper 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.”4 Bravo returned frequently to the nature and nuance of an “old age” style and to the vitality of expression freed from obsessive technique. “It’s about paring down what you paint, trying to get at the essentials,” he mused. “The poetry of a given scene is extremely important and can only be evoked by an artist with a great deal of experience behind them. Simplification goes far beyond skill.”5
Celestial Blue Paper figuratively unwraps the package paintings, deconstructing the paper and string and recasting them into an artfully amorphous volume suspended in space. Softly illuminated against a warm, sand-colored wall, the paper billows out from the string that encircles it and from which it hangs, its shape-shifting crinkles and curves dissolving into light and shadow. Through the artifice of illusion, the paper takes on a protean, sculptural quality even as its forms retain the memory of their earlier folds and creases. The paper’s changeling identity—celestial, even allusively angelic—is at once vitally anthropomorphic and classically monumental. “You look at a package, it’s a paper surface with shadows and highlights and colors,” Bravo reflected. “It’s an obsession I’ve had all my life. I would say I haven’t changed all that much, but I have evolved. I have developed all the possibilities that this genre has given me.”6
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park

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