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Actualizing and reinventing art icons through the forms of time: in interview with Manolo Valdés

Alice Zucca

Sep 26, 2022

Manolo Valdés at Opera Gallery in Paris during the opening of his exhibition, Manolo Valdés: Recent works
Courtesy of Opera Gallery, Paris



Manolo Valdés (b. 1942, Valencia, Spain) is particularly known for his unique way of drawing inspiration from art history and his singular approach to forms, colors, materials, and textures. Widely considered to be among the most influential artists working today, for over 60 years he has been delving into and reexamining the works of the great masters. The great Spanish artist, creator of the iconic portraits of women that have become his signature style, has identified his own poetics from the very beginning, working within the figurative tradition and drawing inspiration from the most celebrated masterpieces of the past, to reinterpret them in a completely modern way. Indeed, in order to get his creative juices flowing, Valdés "takes control" - as a pretext for reinterpretation - of the most famous masterpieces in Western art history, such as those created by illustrious old masters as Diego Velázquez and Henri Matisse, and then reinterprets them in a modern key. This acts as the beginning point for the development of his works.


Valdés’ works take the form of a recurring and stylized representation of canonical figures, which are then removed from their original context, modernized, and rendered three-dimensional. The new iconic creations appear to be enriched with a new vitality that makes them extremely contemporary while still maintaining their inherent royalty and importance. As a result, the artist takes on the role of an image seeker - Manolo Valdés selects a subject, a key theme, and then narrows down its myriad interpretations by developing it in a series, giving us a singular and up-to-date representation in the process. Valdés is an artist who can truly show how art does not remain static but rather evolves, develops and changes with time. It is apparent that his paintings and sculptures are driven by a great desire to convey something fresh and new but with a deep understanding of the past - this can also be seen from his approach to the various materials, the use of wood, priceless alabaster, glass, or the fusing of resin and metal to produce modern, beautiful, and one-of-a-kind pieces.


One of the most notable qualities of Manolo Valdés is in fact his dexterous manipulation of a wide variety of materials. He achieves almost illusionistic results that are capable of evoking a tactile sensation, and he is able to give a sculptural three-dimensionality to figures and characters that were previously condemned to the two-dimensionality of the canvas. Valdés brings historical figures to life, reinterpreting their function and perception by manipulating their medium of manifestation. The intervention of the artist reshapes painting's plastic ideals, while his emphasis on color reimagines sculpture's character. The plastic materialization of the drawing reveals a delicacy that offers visual and poetic lightness to even the most imposing and monumental works. 

Recently opened on the 16th September 2022 at Opera gallery in Paris, Manolo Valdés: Recent works is the new major exhibition by the artist, offering a selection of works from his recent production. With exceptional new paintings and sculptures, the exhibition provides a panoramic picture of the artist's unrelenting creative evolution, from the years invested with Equipo Crónica to the present day. Indeed, at the age of 80, Valdés is in full swing, and with great enthusiasm he shows no signs of slowing down the lifelong commitment to his art and research. The exhibition also continues outside the gallery walls, thanks to Opera gallery's collaboration with the Bristol hotel, located a short walk from the gallery, which will host four important sculptures.


On the occasion of the opening of the exhibition, we spoke with Manolo Valdés about this new important presentation, his artistic evolution and inspirations, approach to art, and the creative process.



Installation view of Manolo Valdés, Recent works (16 Sept - 13 Oct, 2022) at Opera Gallery, Paris
Courtesy of Opera Gallery, Paris



Alice Zucca (AZ): You're one of the select few who've managed to immediately arrive at the essence of your own artistic investigation so quickly. You have created a very close and natural connection between the milestones of art history and the material, utilizing a wide variety of mediums. It's true that you've been interested in the nature of things and figurative painting - opening a fruitful conversation with the great Spanish Masters and not only - since your early twenties in the 1960s. These elements appear to constitute the primary foundation of your work even now. As an artist, how have your views and practice evolved since then?


Manolo Valdés (MV): Yes, naturally they have evolved. When I take an image from Diego Velázquez or from Henri Matisse and try to comment on it, I see that my view of the same work is different than when I was 20 years old. This means that when I stand in front of the same painting the result is very different and has evolved. That’s the reason why the same images have accompanied me my entire life. It is also why I have always found a different reading than I did originally. Each subsequent reading has also led me to use different materials. In the beginning, I was very interested in wood to produce the sculptures and worked heavily with etchings and drawings. In other times, I explored large formats and materials like bronze and stone. Lately, I’m rereading some works by Velázquez and Matisse, among others, with new materials like resin and glass.


AZ: An ironic tenor that permeates all your production has never waned over time. Indeed, this has become an integral part of your plastic reflections on time, forms and art. How important is this playful approach in your production and how does this relate to history and life itself according to your point of view?


MV: When I place myself in front of another artist’s work, the first condition is that I must like it a lot and from that moment, the dialogue, which is always playful, begins. When I place my easel in front of Reina Mariana (Velázquez) I tell myself that I’m going to work on only one of her parts. For example, her face or her headdress. In the original painting, those two elements in the aggregate measure 40 or 50 cm and are made up of specific colors. I ask myself: how can I reinterpret this so that it can have an even bigger impact? Immediately, in my head Pop Art images appear. With their giant scales, I say to myself that it would be wonderful to create on a giant scale (3 meters). That way I can get the impact I was seeking. After playing with the scale, I begin to think about different materials and how to introduce them into the work. I’m inspired by the materic painters like Jackson Pollock who were able to incorporate drops of paint into their works. It’s part of the game, it’s a festive and fun process that evokes great passion in me. It’s not my intention that the viewer recognizes my travel throughout Art History, I just want them to enjoy the sum of so many things.



Manolo Valdés in his New York Studio
© Manolo Valdés, Courtesy of the artist and Opera Gallery, Paris 



AZ: Whether paintings or sculptures, the expert way in which you deal with the various materials conveys a powerful energy and vitality that nearly gives the viewer a tactile feeling. Can you tell us more about the role of matter in your creative process and your relationship with the various materials? How do you choose one medium over another? What is your relationship with sculpture and painting? What medium are you most comfortable with? 


MV: Materials have always conditioned my work. When I got to Paris at age 15 I saw that Robert Rauschenberg used a stuffed bird and that Jasper Johns hung a neon tube on his paintings. I also saw Niki de Saint Phalle fill a tube with paint and would shoot on a painting to obtain a strong impact. Then I saw that Constantin Brâncuși was using a handsaw to achieve variations on the wood instead of an electric saw. I realized that I should limit myself. I discovered freedom and I stopped going to the paint store for materials. I made my own oil because I knew I could get the texture just right. At this moment I also started to get very interested in seeing pictures of other artists’ studios. I tried to look and see which materials they were using. Last weekend I was at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City with my grandkids seeing rocks and meteorites and a piece of granite piqued my interest. I’ve been thinking about it since then and how I can incorporate it into my work. 


AZ: Your recent production - on view at Opera gallery in Paris - takes inspiration from constructivism. Could you please tell us more on your relationship with geometry and how you actualize constructivism in your recent works? How do your sculptures take references from the philosophy of suprematism and the artists who blend geometric patterns with spiritual pureness? How did Kazimir Malevich influence you and what do you appreciate the most in the research of this great master? 


MV: I’ve always been interested in Malevich. Two months ago, at the MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art) in New York City I saw one of his paintings and all of a sudden, he was back in my head. One doesn’t know how that happens and it becomes an obsession. When I get to the studio, I think about confronting these images with a wooden head. Simultaneously, I’m investigating resins, which I’ve spoken about. At this point comes the task of organizing all the chaos. You can see the results of this organization in the works that are currently exhibited at Opera Gallery in Paris.



Manolo Valdés
Constructivismo como Pretexto II, 2022
Bois polychromé
110.5 x 97.8 x 50.8 cm (43.5 x 38.5 x 20 in.) 
Courtesy of the artist and Opera Gallery, Paris 



AZ: Many of the sculptures in this exhibition are your iconic figures, such as the heads with butterfly adorned headdresses, woman wearing extravagant ornaments, an iconography that has been an increasingly important component of your monumental sculpture during the past few years. What is your relationship with the figure of the woman? What interests you the most in Sandro Botticelli's figure of Clio? Also, since the beginning of your collaboration with the Equipo Crónica, Las Meninas (1656) has been a great passion of yours. Could you please tell us more about your relationship with Velázquez and your figures of Reina Mariana and the Infanta María Teresa?


MV: The Prado Museum is in Madrid, close to where I was born. It was and continues to be a reference point for my work. Within the Museum, specifically Velázquez’s work and the specific paintings Las Meninas (1656) and Velázquez’s Reina Mariana are paintings that have inspired many artists. They are paintings that are very interpreted, by literature, paintings, and even music. I saw a book once that compiled more than 200 different interpretations of the Las Meninas (1656). I wanted to be one of the artists that added to that. I’ve worked with these images since the first time I saw them and as recently as last week. The “woman” has a very important presence in Art History and you find her in every era. It’s a mystery to me how certain images come into my head and others do not. When I work with these female heads, I like to contrast them with painting images of different styles from that head and that ab initio [from the beginning] are contradictory. 


For example, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City I used broken pieces of metal on these heads. Another example is when I saw in central park butterflies buzzing around a person’s head. I then walked into the Metropolitan Museum of Art and saw butterflies everywhere. A few days before I hadn’t even thought about butterflies. At this moment, as I’ve already noted, heads, have their headdresses in shapes inspired by Kazimir Malevich. I’m also currently obsessed with color and the transparencies that glass and resin offer me. I’m now casting in glass in addition to metal. Once again I’m using what I learned in Paris when I was 15. 



Manolo Valdés: Recent works is on view at Opera gallery in Paris from September 16 until October 13, 2022. For more information please click here