Antonio Vidal

Antonio Vidal, installation view, Neue Galerie, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Liz Eve

Four years have passed since the death of the Cuban painter and sculptor Antonio Vidal, but the story of his life is still full of riddles to be deciphered. His intellectual maturity is closely linked to the bohemian world surrounding the Café Antillano, on Havana’s Paseo del Prado, a space he inhabited alongside other writers and artists who have already passed into the nation’s collective memory. The voices of Hugo Consuegra, Guido Llinás, Pedro de Oraá, Tomás Oliva, José Álvarez Barragaño, and Raúl Martínez all resound in this place.

Antonio was an enemy of dictatorship and all forms of totalitarianism. Born in Havana in 1928, he was an integral part of the 1954 exhibition Contemporary Cuban Art: Homage to José Martí at Havana’s Lyceum. Known as the “Anti-Biennial,” it was a way of subverting Francisco Franco and Fulgencio Batista’s joint interest in establishing a Hispano-American Biennial. In this stance, taken by many of the emerging artists of the period, we can see the genesis of Cuban abstractionism, which rejected the separation of art from life in favor of its always controversial relationship with politics.

Like every artist, Antonio bore the weight of his contradictions. He dreamed of being a comic artist but placed a high value on his work’s relationship with texture, a sense of balance between planes, and the emotion of color. He was an exceptional teacher, a man of few words but precise movements. He taught his students that work couldn’t be cut short in order to complete an exercise; you had to feel, to live what you were doing. He also reserved a private world for himself, something which never ceased to shock even his wife, Gladys. The end of his life saw the furtive appearance of a series of erotic comics, his great secret for many years.

He allowed himself the twin luxuries of disdain for the market and mockery of fame. Awarded the National Fine Arts Award by the Cuban Ministry of Culture in 1999, his acceptance speech consisted of a single statement, “Thank you.” With his passing we mourn the end of an era: Vidal was the last surviving member of the Grupo de los Once (Group of Eleven) who changed Cuban art forever in the mid-1950s. He would never have imagined that documenta 14 would await him.

—Jorge Antonio Fernández Torres

Posted in Public Exhibition