"Painting," Manolo Valdés has said, "is learned from painting" (Valdés quoted at www.artesseleccion.com). This credo has resulted in the playful, sometimes irreverent way in which Valdés has tackled his artistic forebears and their formidable legacy. Looking at Matisse como pretexto of 1987 and Rubens como pretexto of 1988, one can already appreciate the breadth of his vision and his artistic erudition, to say nothing of the wide range of painters who have become his unwitting targets. In these works, Valdés has taken works by each of the titular artists and has created his own versions. But these new versions vary hugely from their originals. Matisse's celebrated Nu rose, now in the Baltimore Museum of Art, has lost some of the vibrant palette for which the French artist had been so renowned, as well as much of his celebrated sense of line. Instead, Valdés has deliberately and humorously restricted his palette to a strange harmony of greys and other almost dun colours, while removing many of the details of the original. He has presented his own version on a new, colossal scale which results in the reclining nude appearing like some boxed giant. And he has created a picture that has a rich sensuality in its actual surface, bearing the traces of the artist's own movements and resulting in a very different effect to that of the original.
This exposure of the artistic process, which is so evident in the surface of both these paintings, appears all the more pertinent considering the choice of artists whose images have been taken and granted their strange new incarnations. Rubens is celebrated for his sketches, which contain a great vitality and of which a great number are housed in the Prado Museum in Spain's capital, while of all Matisse's pictures, perhaps Nu rose was the one whose gradual development was best captured in a series of photographs showing each stage of its evolution. This in itself adds a level of knowingness to Valdés' selection of source images, as it is the artistic process itself which he is exploring and exposing through these humorous appropriations.
Valdés had already looked to the art of the past for source material and as a rich source of potential plunder for years before the eventual collapse of the Equipo Crónica group of which he was a founder, before moving to New York. As it was arguably the home of Pop Art, it seems logical that Valdés should choose the Big Apple as his home. However, while his work shares a sense of humour and a love of iconoclasm and giant-killing with Pop, Valdés had originally used these as a forum for political critique and protest. At the same time, nothing could be further from the Warholian manner of execution of a picture than the intensely gestural, materialistic surface of Matisse como pretexto and Rubens como pretexto.