In 2007, a group of specialist fine art appraisers examined a group of paintings. Their independent conclusions: “decorative value…worth about $300 each.” In 2016, the mural-sized examples of those same paintings now cost more than $100,000. They are now en route to being considered masterworks. What happened?
No one cared about them, at first. The artist, Gil Cuatrecasas, worked with the most important color theorist of the 20th century, Joseph Albers, while attending the Yale School of Art in the fifties. He was friends with renown painters Louis Morris and Kenneth Noland and he painted intensely and single-mindedly for over twenty years on a unique body of work. Cuatrecasas shrugged off the anxiety of influence as a Spanish painter living within the shadow of the triumvirate: Dali, Miro and Picasso. Rather, Cuatrecasas’s paintings reflect the intimacy with which he understood color abstraction. With vibrant, saturated colors, these paintings indicate the significant contemporary artists Cuatrecasas personally knew and yet they maintain a unique perspective on color and abstraction that sets him apart. While he was a student at the Yale, he sought out other cutting-edge influences in New York such as the Abstract Expressionists. Cuatrecasas’s paintings look like the love child of Mark Rothko, Morris Louis and even obscure painter Harry Smith. For their time, these pieces were highly advanced and innovative, breaking ground alongside renowned artists of the time doing the same.
Many of Cuatrecasas’s paintings are 18-foot long colossal, paintings, and their apparently cracked and variegated abstractions are the makings of a transcendental botanist. Giant leaves appear etched into layers of filtered color through a process called decalcomania. This method is used for ink-blot tests by folding a sheet of paper with some wet paint on it in half to produce a duplicated image along the crease. The Surrealists championed this method, signaling allegiances with the theories of Sigmund Freud. But Cuatrecasas went a step further by creating massive scale abstractions through his process of diagonal, vertical and horizontal overlapping swatches of colors. His paintings are robust and they look like sunsets. Yet one hundred of these enormous pieces remained tucked away in storage, along with hundreds more, “sitting in darkness and silence, without a single showing, in over 40 years,” to quote Gil’s brother, Pedro, who discovered them in a security storage space with his wife Carol in 2004.
After their discovery, Pedro explained that at first, not one “art professional” was interested in exhibiting the work. Initially astonished by what Pedro and Carol found in storage, they spent three years copiously and painstakingly documenting these works to present them to the art world. For five years thereafter, they received rejection letters from the curators and gallerists they contacted. Pedro and Carol were stupefied by the lack of interest. They settled instead on making a 200-page coffee table book to give to their family and friends free of charge.
There is a simple answer why curators did not contact them back, enthusiastically even, about their discovery: auction house price indexes. The gallerists and curators Pedro sent the work to only had photographs, and never saw the work in person — some pieces are the size of large walls themselves. Knowing this makes a difference. When an art professional receives images of the work, they do background research by checking major biographical dictionaries as well as auction price databases. Pedro hired three art appraisers to review the work. The professionals checked the auction houses and significant international indexes. No work was sold at auction. There were no records of Cuatrecasas’s paintings anywhere. His work cannot be priced on precedence. Validation could only come through looking at the work. Because Cuatrecasas’s pieces cannot be priced, the appraisers thought they must have no value. The appraisers labeled the work with the pejorative term “decorative” and priced them a couple hundred dollars a pop. Cuatrecasas, in their minds, must be a nobody.
Sadly, the value of a piece of art is denigrated when there is an absence of published sources, of auction records, and of name recognition. The tragedy to art history is fairly clear: we are without a robust historical perspective as we continue to mythologize, fetishize, and commodify the few artists we know to praise when there are legions of artists like Cuatrecasas. These artists are just as good or better, but for whatever reason, they get sidelined. The art world’s pathological myopia is palpable, but who at the top has the courage to stop it?
Most art professionals who do not immediately recognize the name or the style of an artist are left clueless and indecisive when presented with a significant work of art. Ultimately they are insecure about recognizing art they can monetize, which in turn leads to their taking no action at all. Realizing that impairment and helping to correct it, while injecting new vigor and excitement about discoveries, is what the redM mission is all about. RedM’s educational mission can be the most understated goal in the arts, and yet it is most essential to it: redM seeks to expand the art historical canon by discovering and exhibiting the works of artists that may be as significant as the great masters in art history. We invite art patrons and collectors to be just as discerning as we have been in discovering these important treasures and to realize for themselves what it means to collect the works of exceptional redM artists.
by Janna Avner