José Guerrero

Granada, 1914-1991

José Guerrero was born in Granada in 1914. His father died in 1929, and at the age of fourteen, José interrupted his schooling to begin a work pilgrimage: carpenter, apprentice carver; he also worked in an electromechanical workshop, and in a chocolate factory. He managed to be admitted as a night student in the School of Arts and Trades, but he was to give it up after a clash with a teacher. One of his classmates stepped in to make available to him the most original studio in Granada: the tower of Granada cathedral where, three centuries before, Alonso Cano had worked.

The Civil War came to him by surprise while he is doing his military service. But even so, he took advantage of being on several fronts to draw open or panoramic spaces, which helped him to overcome the horror of the conflicts.

When the war was over, he went back to Granada. The sale of several pictures enabled him to install himself in the capital of Spain where he entered the San Fernando High School of Fine Arts. There he had teachers such as Daniel Vázquez Díaz and Lafuente Ferrari. To survive, he did posters for a cinema in the Gran Via of Madrid.

He was awarded a scholarship by the Casa de Velázquez in 1942 and its director introduced him to the gallery owner Juana Modró. He changed over to being a drawing teacher in the French Liceum.

In 1945, with a scholarship from the French government, he moved to Paris to study al fresco painting at the École des Beaux Arts. The discovery of modern art produced a profound impact in him, but he was especially impressed by the works of Matisse, and likewise those of Picasso, Miró and Juan Gris. He travelled all over Europe and between 1947 and 1948, he lived in Rome where he met his future American wife. In 1949 he went back to Paris where he met Palazuelo, Chillida and Sempere. He married Roxanne and they went to London to live for a time, then to jump across the Atlantic to New York where, in 1951, Guerrero obtained American nationality. At the age of 36, he painted his last figurative picture – a self portrait – to then definitively threw himself into abstraction.

Through the gallery owner Betty Parsons, one of the most important dealers of the recently born New York School, he met Sternberg, Rothko, Motherwell and Kline.

He learnt engraving techniques in the prestigious Atelier 17. He also coincided with Lorca in the group of Spanish intellectuals in exile. Guerrero put his stakes decidedly on informalism, which he was to develop during the rest of his life. He gained his first international recognition on exhibiting his work at the Art Club of Chicago, together with Joan Miró.

He then began a long period of psychoanalysis which was to make him reach better personal well-being and to develop certain lucidness in the judging of his own work.

As from then, his work varied completely: influenced by the abstract expressionism of Rothko, Clyfford Still or De Kooning, and also by the “action painting” of Pollock or Franz Kline, he created compositions where his vital tension between spaces, colours and abstract forms remains patent.

In 1963, he committed himself to the new Juana Mordó gallery in Madrid, and in 1965, bought a house in Cuenca, which was at that time one of the most vanguard enclaves of modern art. There he made friendship with Gustavo Torner, Fernando Zóbel, Gerardo Rueda, Manolo Millares and he met up again with Eusebio Sempere.

In 1966 he took an active part in the creation of the Cuenca Museum of Abstract Art, and he also painted. As from then, the Guerrero family was to reside in New York, but spent every summer between Cuenca and Granada.

In 1980, an exhibition called “Sala de las Alahajas” (the Jewel Salon) in Madrid, supposed for Guerrero his definitive recognition as one of the capital references of Spanish modern painting. 1985 was the year when José Guerrero, did for Estiarte, the suite New York – Madrid, in etching and acquatint, of which we have two examples in this collection. It was also the year when he was awarded the Gold Medal of Fine Arts.

He died on 23rd December 1991.

And with these words, Francisco Rivas describes him as “poetry, a frank look, a complicit smile, a wicked wink and an overwhelming contagious vitality (…) His speaking was very simple, but tremendously effective and stimulating, like his own painting”.

His work can be appreciated in the Guggenheim Museum of New York, in the Madrid National Museum Reina Sofia Art Centre, in the Cuenca Spanish Abstract Art Museum and in the José Guerrero Centre in Granada.

“Blue has a lot from my infancy. It was the colour in which I painted the skirtings of my house … it was indigo blue. With this blue, the women, my mother, made a wad to whiten clothes. Red has … not a thing of tragedy or anything less … red … the red ochre dye that we used I the towns of Andalucia - a red taken from the earth. It is not a vermillion at all, but has its beauty … and they are practically the most important colours for me, red and blue.”

Julio Juste talks about the painter: “For Guerrero, paintings seem to act like living beings; they breathe. His American experience takes him to accept that shapes talk and they are expressed through movements, oblique trajectories and gestural technoscapes. In spite of his great rupture with his English formation, on his arrival in New York City, there are formal vital signs which stand out and that José Guerrero vindicates expressively as the identity of his style, based on the experiences of his childhood and adolescence: the curves, the oval shapes coming from feminine anatomy and the cemetery recesses ( …). Of a vivacious look, with an oriental touch, a broad smile, José Guerrero was prone to metaphors and parables, to pristine gestures and he exercised a flexible imagination that enabled him to identify apparently opposed things: for him a match could be an arc or a penitent.”

Exhibited Works

  • New York-Madrid I y II”, etching and aquatint, 1985.
  • “Composición I y II", mixed technique on paper, 1983.