Disney and Stravinsky, Atomized:
How Arturo Herrera Reexamines Border Areas of Modernism

He is represented with works in “The World on Paper,” the opening exhibition of the PalaisPopulaire. Arturo Herrera grew up in Venezuela, studied in Chicago, and conquered the New York art scene in the 1990s. Today he is regarded as one of the most brilliant current collage artists. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf met the artist in his Berlin studio and talked with him about his love for the Ballet Russes, Disney classics, the Modernist avant-garde, and the medium of paper.
Hanging in a corner are designs for wallpaper that Arturo Herrera showed at an exhibition in his Copenhagen gallery Bo Bjerggaard: printing sheets with giant collaged leaves and blossoms, ink blue. They look as though the Dadaist John Heartfield depicted illustrations from eighteenth-century botany books in collages. Indeed, says Herrera, he actually thought of a famous botanical encyclopedia, Flora Danica, which Georg Christian Oeder, the director of the botanical gardens in Copenhagen, initiated in 1761. For over a century, botanists and illustrators worked on volumes devoted to the herbarium, whose pictures are so decorative that they were immortalized on an eponymous Royal Copenhagen dinner service. The blue of the prints is the blue of the outer façade of the gallery, explains the Venezuelan artist, which is housed in a Modernist blue-and-white building that was part of the former wholesale meat market in Copenhagen. He wanted to bring the blue inside the gallery.

On this wallpaper, Herrera subsequently installed his most recent works. You can’t really call them “paintings.” On used aluminum offset printing plates with all kinds of motifs, he arranged a mix of collage and painting, and you can’t really say what is painted, cut, printed, or glued. Modern building facades, fragments of posters, comics, streaks, gestural brushstrokes, puddles, clouds, and points of color are all jumbled together. Some shapes look like shadows of branches, of trees. You can imagine visitors to Herrera’s exhibition strolling beneath these giant branches, trees, and berries and being drawn into these paintings as though through doors into a different reality.

Herrera thinks in terms of spaces, of staging, you quickly notice. He arranges a solitary, small, painted book on an egg-yolk-yellow wall like a medieval icon. Or he designs silhouette-like murals, like Half-Time (2016), in the restaurant of Tate Modern, which look like abstract stage sets. Although restaurant visitors walk past them everyday, you can envision dancers moving in front of this backdrop. Herrera can take books from a flea market, old film tapes, crime novels, and plays by Beckett and transform them with paint into artworks that transcend the boundaries between object, sculpture, painting, and literature, which we can see, read, and touch in equal measure. This is the case in his series of Berlin Singers (2010) represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, in which he breathes new life into opera programs. In The World on Paper, the opening exhibition of the PalaisPopulaire, he will also be represented with two untitled works.

The tidy, bright loft floor in a factory yard in the Neukölln district of Berlin where the 59-year-old artist works and stores works, looks focuses and organized, yet at the same time almost cheerful. Herrera realizes his often-large projects with a small team of employees. Today, only one assistant is present, who during our conversation calls out something to the artist from time to time. Herrera, who studied in Chicago and moved to New York in the 1990s, where he became part of the art scene, has lived in Berlin since 2003. He is extremely polite and friendly without being exceedingly professional. He talks fast, and very emphatically. You notice how much his work means to him. We sit down at a small tiled table and talk about his Disney works, with which he made a name for himself in New York in the late 1990s.

The road there began in Caracas, when the 16-year-old went with his parents to the Museo de Bellas Artes. It was here that he saw Modernist art for the first time, works by Hannah Höch, Duchamp, Matisse, Picasso, and Braque. “At the time, there was only a small collection of such works in Caracas,” relates Herrera. “They all stemmed from a private collector who had gifted them to the museum. There were no major works among them, nothing really spectacular. But it was the key enabling entry into this world.” Herrera also discovered two drawings by the Russian-French artist Léon Bakst, who at the end of the nineteenth century moved to Paris, where he became famous for his illustrations and above all for his opulent costumes and stage designs inspired by oriental symbolism that he created for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Herrera believes that his interest in Modernism opened him up to the possibilities of abstraction. A love story began for the young artist at the time: He fell in love with the avant-garde of modern art and dance, and when he went to college in Tulsa in the 1980s and during his subsequent studies in Chicago, with American pop culture, especially Disney.

Paradoxically, it was Igor Stravinsky who built the bridge between the avant-garde, ballet, and mass culture. He composed the music for the most famous pieces of the Ballets Russes, including Le Sacre du printemps (1913), which Walt Disney used for a central sequence of his film Fantasia (1940). But whereas in Stravinsky’s work a young woman dances herself to death in a sacred ritual, Disney has dinosaurs rumble over the earth like an elemental force. “It is all very closely connected – Stravinsky, Modernism, and all the stuff around me at the time,” says Herrera. “Disney’s lines are for the most part completely abstract, the way he drew the outlines of his figures and cartoons. To me, it looked like Brâncuși or Hans Arp. He had a similar frugality and reduction. Most of the European illustrators who emigrated ended up at Disney. They drew all these figures: Bambi, the three little pigs. And somehow, the drawings are reminiscent of European Modernist abstraction. So I resolved to take the language of this Disney line and fragment it in order to create something new.”

Even back in the 1980s, Disney was of interest to artists in New York, not only to Warhol, but also to the Pop and Street Art scene, where artists like Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring developed psychedelic and archaic-reduced formal variants of Disney characters as critical reflections on the American way of life. But when Herrera made his breakthrough in the late 1990s, he encountered a transformed, post-conceptual New York art scene, which after the Reagan era and in the middle of the AIDS crisis focused on race, gender, and identity policy. Collage and paper were popular media in the galleries. The African-American artist Kara Walker had just become famous for her silhouettes. At first glance, they look like historicizing Southern state idylls. In actual fact, however, they are a shadow theater of cruelty reflecting racism, pornographic fantasies, slavery, and sexism.

Herrera’s drawings and collages are also seething. While they may remind some of the drippings of Jackson Pollock or the violent brushstrokes of Franz Kline, in this abstract-expressionist allover mutilated, fragmented comic characters emerge, headless dwarves and Snow Whites, limbs, paws, and eyes. It was the time when West Coast artists like Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley staged Disney children’s worlds as an American nightmare in installations and performances, as a sign of political violence and lost innocence. In Herrera’s work, too, there is something akin to a breach of taboo. But it always remains unclear, floating, striking a balance between form and content. Herrera steers the iconography of abstract Modernism, of American Abstract Expressionism, with psychologically charged fragments from mass culture, in an absolutely uncanny and at the same time seductively beautiful direction.

But unlike many artists, who in 1990s New York wanted to make a clear political statement with their work, Herrera eschewed clarity. “Instead, I thought about how I could further fragment these pieces and scraps of paper, which I had torn out of their original context, in order to produce something that opened up something new without having a didactic message – something that opened up different situations and connections. I wanted to keep the whole thing more open, more ambivalent, more ambiguous, rather than maneuver dialog in a certain direction.”

Using the means of collage, Herrera mimicked painterly gestures. He sprayed, painted, and blotted colored paper, which he glued onto the picture like painted, abstract forms, lines, or brushstrokes. Like a painter, he built his paper works out of layers, but instead of moving wet paint “back and forth” on the canvas, he shifted fragmentary images, pieces of paintings or drawings, producing depth, abstract image spaces, and atomized narratives. “I generally take these motifs from mass culture, dump them in the blender, and look to see which fragments survive and manage to enter into new configurations.”

However, it would be too one-dimensional to view Herrera’s compositions from a purely formal perspective. Indeed, he deals with an aspect of Modernism which has long gone down in art history, but that was marginalized for a long time – as “too much, too crazy, too decadent, too close to handicrafts, to fashion, too exalted, too entertaining – or simply as too “decorative.” Modernism’s struggle to create a new, revolutionary aesthetic is reflected in the functionality of the Bauhaus, the clear, bold designs of Le Corbusier and Gropius. Yet there was also this other, absolutely experimental side, which had similarly radical ideas.

One should not forget that while Le Sacre du printemps was viewed by Parisians in the 1920s as being “de rigueur,” an absolute must, the premiere in 1913 was an absolute scandal, and the performance had to be broken off due to a screaming, swearing audience. The Ballets Russes was not only one of the most important ballet ensembles of the twentieth century, but also a Modernist workshop that merged dance, music, visual arts, and fashion into a unique Gesamtkunstwerk. Sergei Diaghilev worked with icons of modern art, including Georges Braque, Coco Chanel, Giorgio de Chirico, Jean Cocteau, Juan Gris, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, and Eric Satie. The Ballets Russes was a motor of movement, incredibly progressive. And it surely sketched a modern image of humanity with the same intensity as the Bauhaus. Nevertheless, in the canon of history it occupies a strange, somewhat exotic position. While Léon Bakst, who created the costumes and set designs for many of the productions, is held in high regard today, he is not considered an important twentieth-century visual artist.

And Disney’s Fantasia was, in 1940, as a new kind of Gesamtkunstwerk created in the middle of a world war, initially a flop. The amalgamation of cartoon, classical music, and references to modern painting was highly praised by critics, but rejected by mass audiences. It was only thanks to restored versions brought out in the 1980s and 90s that the film achieved cult status. And it was precisely these border areas, in which high and popular culture, mass taste, and dandy-like, gay sensibilities mix, that interested Herrera. Like a true Modernist, he deconstructed the ingredients of this decorative, musical, and always also somewhat peculiar culture. The result is micro-narratives about taste, painting and style, as well as violence, power, suppression, and forgetting.

Herrera’s work also has to do with countering one-sided, official art history with different, alternative perspectives. The series in which he works with books, replacing paper or canvas, show how lovingly he does this. In 2015, he “decorated” books he found at flea markets for his series Day Before 100, processing not only the cover but also the pages with collages, screen prints, and painting. He costumed the “worthless” books like a performer in an opera, equipping them with abstract stages. There is always a tinge of irony, for example when a black-and-white Humphrey Bogart in a film book is given a kind of abstract plumage, or when the Archive for German Postal History is transformed into a Polke-like painting. But it is not only history that can be read anew in these book artworks; so can death.

All of these books were read, collected, kept, and then, after their demise or after a household clearance, carted off to the flea market. Herrera lovingly attends to these forgotten legacies, to forgotten biographies, styles, utopias, information. He does not mediate them through didactical reappraisal, but through visual composition. “The process in which I dissect things into fragments and then implement them on different levels produces something like a rhythm for me. Can some people read it musically? Of course. It’s the same for me. Only I can’t read notes.” Asked whether the visual flow of his works and installations is decisive, he replies: “Yes, it is very precisely orchestrated in order to create links between all the contradictory motifs. The rhythm produces a sort of message.” This is apparent in Berlin Singers, Herrera’s collage series in the Deutsche Bank Collection. The programs of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin that Herrera processed and transformed into prints also come from flea markets. They are filled with CVs and portraits of singers who felt like they were stars in the 1950s but who today have been virtually forgotten. They tell the story of a forgotten culture in postwar Berlin, in which the modern building of the Deutsche Oper, the performances and stars, were symbols of democratization and a new beginning. In Herrera’s versions, all that remains of the singers’ faces are fragments, which are embedded in abstract compositions. But what is perceptible in this deconstruction is the absolute will to be modern, to find a form that goes to the limits – the feeling of an enormous, revolutionary upheaval that we can reflect on again, particularly in today’s world.