Visitors to the Phillips Collection, accustomed to the generally sunny, French disposition of the paintings on view there, may find themselves baffled and, initially, put off when they wander into the upstairs rooms currently devoted to a retrospective exhibition of the works of contemporary Argentine artist Guillermo Roux.
Roux's paintings are far from gloomy but, in overturning polite convention, they can be strange, mystifying, provocative. When he does a "Portrait of Iris Scaccheri" (1982), for instance, it is under the table that he looks, focusing upon the lady's exposed ankle. Other works seem explicitly fetishistic. In "The Necklace" (1975), an enticing female leg in a pretty net stocking comfortably curls up -- all by itself -- in an elegant 18th-century chair.
Though intense, this image somehow isn't shocking. The artist's sensuality is poetic and affectionate rather than materialistic and mean-spirited, and his sensibility is refined, thoughtful. Furthermore, he's consummately skilled. His means fit his expressive intentions.
Working with watercolor in a highly unusual way, Roux "builds" (as he has said) his pictures in layers, so that in the end the surfaces and colors resonate. In this respect they fit the Phillips' ambiance. Similarly, he works and reworks his still-life drawings and collages to the point that, at their best, they seem at once evanescent and "real," miragelike yet precise.
Roux was born in Buenos Aires in 1929. His life, like his art, to some extent reflects recurrent dualisms in Argentine culture, between new Latin America and old Europe, between cosmopolitan Buenos Aires and the remote countryside.
Trained initially at the European-inspired Beaux-Arts School in the Argentine capital, he traveled in 1956 to Italy, where, intending to spend three months, he apprenticed to craftsmen restoring old frescoes and mosaics and stayed five years. Upon his return from Europe, he abandoned his native city for a long sojourn in a faraway Andean town. After a year's visit to New York in 1966, he settled again in Buenos Aires; now he works and lives there and in Paris.
Of the artist's early works, only three are included in the Phillips exhibition. Two date from his Italian period, egg-tempera paintings that foretell Roux's lifelong interest in the human figure and in perfecting a given craft. The third, a decisively posed but informally executed black-and-white sketch of a "Reclining Nude" (1966), suggests that contact with American painting of the time had a liberating effect. (He says he looked hard at Hopper, de Kooning and Diebenkorn.)
From this we jump to the early 1970s and witness, without transition, Roux's artistic coming of age. (Fittingly, the exhibit is not installed in chronological sequence; not a true retrospective, it should have been called "The Mature Works" or something like that.) His idiosyncratic voice, his melding of a highly personal form of surrealism with postimpressionist techniques, also quite personal, are fully evident in "The Dining Room" (1972) and "The Band" (1973).
In the first of these pictures, the room, with its pastel-colored 19th-century wainscoting, is faithfully rendered, but there is something strange going on. A couple of the chairs levitate with a will of their own and, in the process, seem to cut off human conversation. What a boring, long-ago afternoon it must have been -- all we see of the two seated gentlemen is their feet.
In "The Band," a group of five musicians, rendered with snapshot verisimilitude in their old-fashioned blue uniforms, are seated out-of-doors, as if to be photographed after a Sunday concert in a provincial town. Again, there are intimations of a remembered long-ago event, and, again, levitating out-of-scale chairs play an active role.
The curious transformations in these and other paintings of the time, such as the enchanting "Play Interrupted" (1973), are pretty straightforward but they're so subtly done, and so sneaky-funny, that we accept their magic. Others, such as "Tennis Player" (1974), with its crouching figure cut off at the knees by the net, are like illustrations of metaphysical jokes -- the laughs they provoke come too quickly.
Roux ups the ante, though, when he begins to deal with erotic reverie, often combined with musical themes and delivered with understated hilarity.
"The Gioconda" (1975), for example, titled after the age-old popular name for the Mona Lisa, shows a female whose fragmentation is so thoroughly improbable -- hand and arm change effortlessly to gartered thigh to fashionable hat -- that the famous enigmatic smile is almost literally transposed to the face of the viewer. "The Serenade" (1976) depicts a nude torso of Modigliani sexiness (and afire with Modigliani colors) being celebrated by a mandolin-playing lover who is invisible, except for the hands. "The Visit" (1975) is perhaps the most passionate of all of these pictures -- flesh and inanimate object (a chair, again) are rendered so intensely it is impossible to tell which is the object of the greater desire.
The artist's strictly musical subjects -- "Begin the Beguine" (1972), "Pavanne" (1977), "Malaguena" (1985) and others -- are similarly fragmented (the neck of the stringed instrument being almost always detached from the body) and invested with similar poetic intensity.
Fragmentation and the interchangeability of animate and inanimate objects are essential to Roux's purposes -- both suggest the intimate connection he posits between perception and memory or imagination.
He is very like Ce'zanne, who broke the box of Renaissance perspective by rendering objects (the edge of a table, for instance) discontinuously -- exactly as he saw them and not as they were supposed to be. Except, of course, there's a major difference. Roux is a surrealist; his headless figures can be interpreted as a conventional surrealist notation that the unconscious is more crucial to our understanding of the world than rationality.
He's also Latin American. What is important to him, as to many Latin American writers and artists, is not visual observation, per se, but metaphorical transformation. The way we actually see things is dependent upon how we feel about them; hence, we see nothing whole. Memory, contingent upon imagination, is the essence of the artistic enterprise; hence, as soon as we observe, much less "record," anything at all, it changes. There is sadness in all desire, he is saying, as in a musical note or air, which, once played, cannot be recaptured.
Roux's more recent mixed-media still-life pictures (combining drawing, painting and collage) are much cooler and more precise -- it's as if he feels the need to see things as clear-headedly as possible, to return to basics. Even so, similar themes constantly pop up: It's very difficult to tell what is animate, and what not, in a picture such as "Lily in a Vase, Metallic Pieces and Pear" (1985), but everything in it has been imbued with life by the artist's skill and passion.
Like Chardin, who through his life wanted to be celebrated by the Royal Academy for something other than his memorable still-life paintings, Roux occasionally essays grander, more complicated themes. His "Self Portrait in an Interior (1985)," with its cubistic arrangement of planes, suggests this is not his me'tier.
The exhibition was conceived by Argentine art critic Rafael Squirru, formerly with the Organization of American States here, who convinced Phillips Collection Director Laughlin Phillips of Roux's merits. Consulting curator Willem de Looper organized the show in collaboration with the Argentine Embassy. Citibank Argentina provided financial support. The exhibition continues through April 3.