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. “I’m now creating paintings that combine realism with a tendency toward abstract minimalism,” Bravo explained in 2005. “It’s a union between those two tendencies.” A riff on the longstanding still-life tradition and on postwar abstraction, the package paintings occupied an idiosyncratic position within the artistic landscape of their time, straddling venerable modernist debates over “art about art,” realism, and illusionism.
Though well pedigreed within the Western canon, the packages originated, at least anecdotally, from an unexpectedly 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 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.”
Technically brilliant, Beige and Green Package distills Bravo’s extended allegory on the art of painting into a mundane, irregular geometry, the wrinkled folds of wrapping paper neatly tied with a piece of string, whose cast shadow gives an implicit depth and shape to the object it contains. The exquisite tactility of the wrapping—the soft sheen of the paper, its subtle creases and indentations, its superb chiaroscuro—heightens the artifice of the illusion, an effect amplified by the ambiguity and mystery of the very thing that the paper conceals. In his dazzling techne, Bravo renders a commonplace, otherwise unremarkable subject—a beige and green paper package—into a strange, extraordinary semblance of itself, testing the limits of realism and representation. A painting of a (wrapped) painting, as is often inferred, Beige and Green Package meditates finally on the relationship between the painted surface and its underlying support, probing the limits of representation itself. “I’m a realist,” Bravo once remarked, “but I transform reality.”
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1 “A Conversation with Claudio Bravo,” Claudio Bravo (Naples, Fla.: Naples Museum of Art, 2006), 8-9.
2 Claudio Bravo, quoted in Edward J. Sullivan, Claudio Bravo (New York: Rizzoli, 1985), 37.
3 Ibid., 10.