Lorna Scott Fox
Jeff Koons didn’t know how right he nearly was when he told a reporter from El País that his monumental flower sculpture Puppy had an ‘untamed’, ‘belligerent’ quality. The next day, Monday 13 October, a florist’s van pulled up outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and two men proceeded to unload a delivery of shrubs as if to stick them onto the giant dog looming over the esplanade. It so happened that Koons, though failing to produce the works for the Jeff Koons Room inside, had kept to schedule with Puppy and no more greenery had been required since Saturday. For this reason a member of the autonomous Basque police, the Ertzaintza, checked the numberplate of the van – and found it to be false. When he asked for identification, he was shot in the back (and died the next day). Three men fled; one was caught later with the help of passers-by, while 12 anti-tank grenades and a remote-control device were found in the pots.
Vol. 19 No. 24 · 11 December 1997
I was digusted to learn, via Lorna Scott Fox’s Diary (LRB, 13 November), that the work of Agustin Ibarrola has been deemed ‘not up to scratch’ for inclusion in the marvellous new Guggenheim in Bilbao. Since I came across a sample ofhis drawing in from Burgos Jail, in 1964, I have thought him to be a supreme draughtsman, who balances wonderfully between ‘distortion’ and the lifelike in his images of people hunched and metallised and scorched by durance, whether in prisons, coal mines or the armed forces. His 15 black and white images in that booklet have remained with me as distinctly as Picasso’s drawings, ten years earlier, of an old man and a young woman, perhaps more distinctly.
Ibarrola drew faces sculpted into dark stones by hunger and torture, arms and hands growing into bludgeons, bayonets or clumps of barbed wire. The inflictors are as denatured as the victims. Although he had tried to kill himself after interrogation and torture in Burgos under Franco, he could still look without blinking at the lineaments of brutality. His images are smeared without loss of clarity, his lines broken yet strong. Some of them were done on flimsy paper apparently with charred stubs, then smuggled out of his cell. It is not a matter of sympathising with him because he was a martyr: it is a question of seeing the distinction of his style, whatever the subject.
It looks as though the people who selected for the Guggenheim, whether in Euskadi or New York, are the usual cosmopolite pseuds and poltroons whose taste for tat and kitsch has made a desolation of so many galleries over the past thirty years.