“Amazing is the word for the paintings by Claudio Bravo,” raved the critic John Canaday, for The New York Times, in his review of the first package paintings, exhibited at the Staempfli Gallery in 1970. “Amazing. Really amazing. So amazing that the question as to whether these paintings are works of art or only staggering technical exercises is beside the point. Which must mean that works of art is exactly what they are.” 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 packages and string. Across a decades-long career that encompassed portraiture, still life, and landscape, the package paintings stand among Bravo’s most celebrated works, exemplars of his inimitably modern approach to classicism. A touchstone throughout his career, the package paintings provided him with a ready, and keenly reflexive medium through which to look back upon the history of art and, latterly, his place within it. “At first, my work was very realistic,” he considered. “Later on, when I had shows in New York, I started becoming a little more abstract. I’ve been aligning myself more with the priorities of modern art without ever forgetting the fact that I’m a realist. As you get older, you become younger. . . . I’ve taken a trip through the history of art in my paintings.”
The package paintings epitomize a decades-long practice shaped by excursuses through seventeenth-century classicism and contemporary Color Field abstraction. These works marked Bravo’s first serious preoccupation with abstraction, following his beginnings as a portrait painter, 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 commonplace objects with rich art-historical gravitas, imparting an Old Master touch to meticulously modern, hyperrealist paintings of paper-wrapped packages tied with 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.” 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, to which these paintings belong.
“The initial stimulus, however, was a very simple mundane one,” Bravo once explained. “Three of my sisters had come to stay with me from Chile. One day one of them came home with a number of packages and placed them on a table. I was fascinated by their forms and I painted them. I went on painting wrapped packages in many different ways, investigating the abstract possibilities of the forms while still creating recognizable objects.” Although 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.”
Formally sophisticated, with marvelously sensitive attention to detail and convincing illusionism, Bravo’s last series of papers and packages evince 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, from which Purple and Beige Paper derives, 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.” Bravo returned frequently in conversation 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.” He claimed a precedent in late Titian and Velázquez in particular—“I certainly have these artists in mind as I go about trying to evoke greater poetry and a sense of light in my art”—and described his “search for a classical type of precision,” bringing together his “interest in the rare and the uncommon with visual aspects that are indeed quite contemporary. . . . I guess that my entire career has been a continuous development of the same phenomenon.”
Purple and Beige Paper figuratively unwraps the package paintings, deconstructing the paper and string and recasting them into artfully amorphous volumes interlocking and suspended in space. The crisp sheen of the papers serves as an ideal medium for the study of natural light and shadow, softly amplifying the artifices of painterly illusion. Centered on the canvas, the wrinkled papers take on a protean, sculptural quality, their forms retaining the memory of earlier folds and creases; loosely entwined, the painting’s eponymous subjects transform into objects in their own right: elegantly shape-shifting, 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.”
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1 John Canaday, “Art: The Amazing Paintings of Claudio Bravo,” New York Times (November 21, 1970).
2 “A Conversation with Claudio Bravo,” Claudio Bravo (Naples, FL: Naples Museum of Art, 2006), 8.
3 Claudio Bravo, quoted in Edward J. Sullivan, Claudio Bravo (New York: Rizzoli, 1985), 36.
4 Bravo, quoted in Edward J. Sullivan, “The Artist Speaks: An Interview with Claudio Bravo,” in Claudio Bravo: Painter and Draftsman (Madison: Elvehjem Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1987), 25.
5 “Conversation with Claudio Bravo and Edward J. Sullivan,” in Claudio Bravo: Paintings and Drawings (1964/2004) (New York: Rizzoli, 2005), 144.
6 Edward J. Sullivan, “Obsession and Meditation: A Decade of Work by Claudio Bravo,” in Claudio Bravo: Paintings and Drawings (1964/2004), 254.
7 “Conversation with Claudio Bravo and Edward J. Sullivan,” 140.
8 Ibid., 141, 147.
9 “A Conversation with Claudio Bravo,” 8.