Purple Magazine
— F/W 2015 issue 24

Miquel Barceló

Miquel Barceló in front of Popera, 2015, mixed media on canvas

studio visit in Paris

photography by OLIVIER ZAHM
all artworks copyright Miquel Barceló


Miquel Barceló, born in Mallorca, is one of the world’s foremost painters. His work feels as free and inspirational today as it was in the ’80s, when he became one of the leading figures of the postmodern return to painting.

Miquel Barceló escaped fame, money, and success; he escaped New York and Paris. He lived for years in Mali, spent as much time as possible in prehistoric caves like Chauvet, and never stopped his journey — although he keeps a massive studio in the center of Paris.

His work challenges all recent art categories and definitions. It’s a constant search for what could be a primordial gesture, what could be shared with blind people, or the lost link between the human and the animal.


OLIVIER ZAHM — It seems that your relation to time is specific to you — an ancestral, almost archaic element mixed with the latest thing.
MIQUEL BARCELÓ – Way back when, Goya used to say: “Tiempo tambien pinta” — “Time, too, is a painter.” He said it because, as an old man, he viewed the paintings of his youth in another way. But it’s also true that time changes paintings as it deteriorates them. Pigments change. Pompeii red, for example, is due to an iron oxide whose temperature was raised suddenly by thousands of degrees, as in a ceramic. It’s baked painting. And, miraculously, it’s much more beautiful like that than it was before. Tiempo tambien pinta means, “Time affects painting.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — Time is an altogether different matter in painting than in photography.
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — The difference is easiest to see in portraits. When I was in St. Petersburg, I saw thousands of portraits. Painted people are never dead. The maidens and women painted by Goya are still very alluring. Painting brings things to life, whereas photography, as I’m not the first to discover, underscores their mortality. When you see photographs, you say to yourself that they’re all dead, but when you go to a portrait gallery at the Louvre, you never think they’re dead. Those are people in those pictures. I think painting was invented to bring out faces; it’s a sleight of hand that brings flesh suddenly into existence. The Egyptians, even the Copts, would put painted faces on sarcophagi to give them life. They made very naturalistic portraits for tombs — at Fayum, for example. Painted flesh became flesh. And I think that it’s this alchemy of paint becoming flesh that gives painting a sort of persistence. The first artists, at Chauvet and Lascaux, immediately found the material, the material of the grotto, its sweat, limestone, probably with the same stuff that I use for frescos, milk of lime, which they mixed with manganese pigment. The stuff would harden and make frescos. It made sfumato possible. And then they’d play around with their hands and make grids; they were “graphing” to bring out the image: they’re not drawings; they’re paintings. It’s very sophisticated.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you see a big difference between painting and sculpture?
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — There is, in fact, a difference. I make a sculpture simply when I make an object. If the stalactites are three meters long and contain 65,000 kilos of paint, as in the United Nations cupola in Geneva which I did, it’s still painting. A painting in relief is still a painting, despite the relief. It doesn’t matter much to me if it’s in two dimensions or three. In Malevitch, you see a layer no thicker than a fraction of a millimeter. That is vital; it is not a virtual reality. It’s actual, tremulous material. Everything I do is painting, except for the objects I create in plaster or clay. And I consider clay to be the mother of painting, the matrix of painting; it contains painting.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you mean?
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — All painting comes from clay. That’s something Picasso and Miró discovered, and I was lucky enough to discover it at a slightly less advanced age than they did. The fingers of the painter in the clay at Chauvet. The wall there was covered with a sort of very fine layer of clay: lime. The artists drew with charcoal, burnt bones, and the ends of burnt sticks — especially bones: bone char. That instantly gave them a magnificent black. But before they did that, an artist made an owl with his finger, just drawing it. I calculated; I did it; I redid it several times, and I managed to do it in nine seconds. I think that’s how long it took to draw that owl. It’s a gesture: two dots for the eyes, the beak, a sort of M for the wings, and then the two parallel lines, which he perhaps made several times with his hands, and the two pointed ears. Nine seconds. I tried filming myself with a camera. The first time, I did it in 10 or 11 seconds, the second time in nine, then eight, and then a little faster each time. But I think the artist did it in nine seconds. And it’s magnificent. And with that we have ceramics becoming painting. Then he adds manganese and starts to do the sfumato — the light and the dark — and it’s all there already. He works the content and the form. He works the outside, what lies behind the animal, and the animal itself, in a series of movements.

DONATIEN GRAU — You’re fascinated now with the Chauvet cave, which plays into the ancestral aspect of your work, but when did that fascination start for you?
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — I’ve always been interested. But I think I had already visited Altamira in the 1980s. It was a shock, and I felt there was something there very much akin to my work. Over time, that sense has only gotten stronger. It has to do with temporality. I had the extreme good fortune to see all of those caves more or less at the same time, and especially to take part in what was called the postmodern movement, in the ’80s.

DONATIEN GRAU — How did you react when you become so famous in the ’80s?
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — I needed to escape. I needed to formulate a different recipe, and I found it in Africa, in Mali, just as I might have found it in some other place. It was my way of going someplace where I could work, and especially where I wasn’t going to die, because at the time I saw death on the prowl, something terrible. All my friends were dying. It was as simple as that. They were dying in many ways, but mostly of AIDS and drugs, and sometimes suicide.

Gorilla skull at Miquel Barceló’s studio, Paris

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you feel there’d been an exhaustion?
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — It was a danger. There was so much money and so many commissions that I felt a need to protect myself. I did it several times. I knew enough to do it. When I bought studios, I bought them as far as possible from the city, some place where I could work. It’s a condition of being an artist; you have to be able to work. I need to work for hours at a time. I’m always saying that painting is an old man’s game because it takes a lot of time to learn. This sounds like a cheap quip, but I was already saying it to myself when I was 20.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is painting your favorite medium?
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — I did my first exhibition at 14, but I started painting very early. At eight, nine years of age, I was painting all the time. My mother gave me paint when I was very young. Later, I discovered art, which interested me; it was much bigger than painting. But I found that painting was the means that served me best to make art. I tried to do things with sound, with cameras, but things worked out best with painting. Painting surpasses the rest. The rest are tools, and painting has something extra.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you see the artistic situation today?
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — I think that now, after the postmodernist era, which ended well before the turn of the millennium, we’re living in a sort of “historicist” era, whose art closely resembles the art pompier of the 19th century. I mean these large works executed by a sort of giant hand, perfectly, flawlessly. The artworks are like any other objects. It’s hyper-technological, with a moral sort of thinking behind it and rather easily defined causes. It’s rather easily understood, too, and we’re dumbfounded before the scale, the formal perfection, and the terrible, fatal absence of gestures. The situation isn’t hopeless, but it’s something to take note of. It pretty much sums up my feelings about art’s current cutting edge. The Chauvet cave, the great aesthetic discovery of my life, is the opposite of all that. Same with Africa. For a long time, I thought Mali was my great discovery: that it was possible to live among people still living in Neolithic times, among animists, among people who have that sort of relation to the world, like the relation I had when I was a child in Mallorca. I had an animist view of things. I thought that if I kissed an octopus, I’d catch another 10. Things you do when you’re 10 years old. The Dogon continue to do them. Africa saved my life. Down there, you live or you die. You have no choice. There is no electricity; there are no roads, no cars. Food and everything else are simple in the extreme.

DONATIEN GRAU — Would you say that your discovery of Chauvet and of the Dogon was your way out of postmodernism and into the ancestral?
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — Yes, perhaps. It matched up because postmodernism had died a natural death, as I was fully aware. Postmodernism is something I had lived through. Those artists were my contemporaries. From Barcelona, when I hadn’t yet met them, I could sense we were doing something similar, whether it was where I was or in New York or Berlin. You sense it, and then you sense that it’s over. And then, of course, I felt the need to wipe the slate clean, take a radically new direction. That’s how I found it. I was never affected by that death-of-painting hogwash, which comes up time and again. It’s like the miniskirt — every 20 years, they pull it out again: the death of painting.

Untitled, 2012, mixed media on canvas

DONATIEN GRAU — It seems that even during the postmodernist period of the ’80s, you never stopped believing in the modern; you never stopped believing that one could integrate and progress. Would you agree?
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — I know the history of art well, and the history of literature, too. I use it. I used it. In the ’80s, perhaps I felt obligated to make references — in the Libraries series, all those books — references that I wouldn’t make now. I was insulted when everybody called us the “young savages” and all that because although we took part in the punk aesthetic, I was far from a savage. I had already read In Search of Lost Time three times. I was not an ignoramus. Maybe I wrote on all those books, put in all those titles, to say, “Look, by the time you started reading, I’d already read at least 5,000 books.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — Now that we’ve covered the ancestral and the postmodern, I think we can proceed to the “historical” modern. Your encounter with Miró was very important to you.
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — Yes. Miró was in Mallorca. He was the first artist I had tremendous respect for. The artists in Mallorca were friends of my mother’s. She painted when I was little. They painted almond trees in bloom, things I disdained, but I learned from them. I disdained it, but it also amused me. I called it “dough-impressionism” because it was more like pastry than art. It was almost edible. I disdained all that, but Miró was an artist I had always admired. I was friends with his grandson, David. Miró had this place, an old, typically Mallorcan house, that he used as his studio, and it contained paintings he’d started. There’d be a little blot in the middle, and he’d be waiting for something to happen. The blot would prompt the rest. It was beautiful. He was very timid and wouldn’t speak, but I understood everything he said. There was even a cat that had died there in the house and dried out. He’d pinned it to a canvas so that something could happen. And accidents would always trigger something. I’ve always used that as a principle — with termites, with everything. The accidents of relief, or of things: you accept them. To paint is to accept. Just as you accept your own aging, you accept that there are other forces in painting besides yourself. And you intervene as little as possible. You learn that as soon as you intervene, you ruin it. It’s a process of acceptance. It’s close to tantric or Buddhist principles.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Picasso was your other great object of admiration.
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — I’ve always liked Picasso. Even more than Miró. Picasso is sort of the complete model — not only as an artist but for his engagement with the world, for his vital way of being and the way he made painting a way of life. I decided very early on that I would never hold down a job. I had read the Situationists, who said, “Never get a job.” I recall discussions with my conceptual friends, who’d say, “You’ve got to become a professor, find some way to earn your daily bread, so you can then do what you like because if you’re going to live like an artist…” And I’d say, “No. I will never get a job; my only work will be painting.” The words were from the Situationists, but the way of life was from Picasso.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Being a painter who works with ceramics, plaster, welding iron — that also comes from Picasso. Right?
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — Yes, but I’ve always been careful not to do pastiches of Picasso. And yet I’ve managed to do horned animals, beasts, bulls, all without going down the exact same path. Ceramics are a common point with Miró and Picasso, but I started younger than they did. They discovered it when they were already 60 years old. I started at 30 in Africa. That’s another thing Africa has given me: not ceramics but clay. It’s not even ceramics because it’s not baked. We say ceramic when it’s been fired. It’s alchemical; it gets shiny; it’s dry earth. There, the houses are earth mixed with straw. I liked those houses so much I started making portraits of my friends in earth and then firing them. I learned the technique from Neolithic times, from 5,000 years ago.

DONATIEN GRAU — You’re also close to Picasso in regard to being a painter of women.
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — The great importance of women in my painting is obvious, but it’s not as direct as it is with Picasso. I have not depicted as many women as Picasso. Women make up one of his major subjects. I’ve done it from time to time. If you look at my portraits, you’ll see they’re people — or specters, rather. Women are seldom very happy to appear in my portraits. I’m often berated for that reason.

Sculpture, work in progress

DONATIEN GRAU — I think one peculiarity of your art is that you don’t consider the Neolithic or Picasso or Miró a heritage to draw from. They’re sort of present before you.
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — Yes. Art is always contemporary. If you’re someone who likes to set things in order, you might look at the Chauvet cave and say that we could view art as a sort of very long decline from there. I don’t think that’s a good way of looking at it, but if you want a linear order, you might say that the Chauvet cave is a form of perfection. They were in total empathy with the animals. They depicted the animals as if they knew them. They spoke the language. We don’t understand that anymore; we don’t know it. When you look at those lions, each has an age, a name, a history, a life, as if it were a group portrait by Rembrandt, where everyone had his station. We can’t even see that. We’re incapable of even reading that painting. Today, with our unskilled eyes, we think it’s symbols. It’s stupid. They understood something about animals that we are in no condition to understand. One immediate big question is: how did an artist manage to paint a lion, which is an extremely dangerous animal, in such a way as to depict the entire morphology of the living animal? It snarls before attacking its prey. The painter saw things that we’ve seen, but we’ve seen them in documentaries with wide angles. How did the artist see that? The male and female lions rub against each other before they mate. All the morphological details are there: the balls clinging to the male lion’s tail, the bristling fur. You can feel the sexual stimulation in the rubbing just before they mate. It’s magnificent.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Why do you like to paint animals so much?
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — It’s beautiful. There’s a thing I’ve often tried with people in my studio: I show somebody one of my big octopus paintings. Ten days later, he comes back and says, “You’ve really made progress with the octopus,” when I’ve done nothing at all. The reason is that when you see the octopus, you assimilate 20 to 25 percent of your experience. Especially if you’ve already seen a bunch of things and are pretty saturated. When you stop by again you see another 10 percent, and you think that extra 10 percent was my doing.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a new world today. It’s no longer the world you knew in the ’80s and ’90s. There’s been a considerable shake-up in art; there’s a steadily increasing use of technology, an increasingly multimedia or process-driven art. I hear you have a collaboration going with Philippe Parreno. How are the two of you managing that?
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — Philippe Parreno is a pure thinker, a bit like a mathematician. He’s a poet. My best friends have always been poets, from a very early age. We’re working on a project we’ve been talking about for years. There was a brief interruption because he fell ill, but we’re back on track now. I think Philippe and I complement each other rather well. The idea is to project drawings inside cuttlefish, which will then carry art within them. I’ve also collaborated with a dancer called Josef Nadj. We did a thing in clay called Paso Doble. It’s a performance with clay, a man onstage using his body as a tool. I hate putting myself on display, so it was a rather violent exercise. The idea was to have a wall and a floor of wet clay and use the bodies to draw in them, but to do so very quickly. Peter Brook proposed a joint project, and I liked the idea of working with MIT, of drawing with thought. The images would appear as holograms. You’d draw only with your thoughts. An audience would take part. Somebody would say, “horse,” and I could draw a horse. The horse would appear in three dimensions; you could draw in space as well. But, well, I think Peter Brook was too old, and I’m not very good with collaborations. Things work best for me when I can do what I please. With Philippe Parreno, however, I’m doing what I please, and so is he.

Sculpture, work in progress

DONATIEN GRAU — How do you view your relationship with new technology?
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — If I need to know the morphology of a pig, I look up pigs on Google. I’m not fascinated or intrigued by technology. I find there’s a certain melancholy to the absence of flesh. I like our common friend Alberto Manguel, who has a magnificent house in Poitiers where one room at the entrance contains everything that’s electronic — the telephone, the fax, the computer, it’s all there — and then in all the rest of that enormous house there isn’t even a doorbell. I think there’s electricity, but barely. It’s great. I think that’s just great, very clever. I’m much messier, so there’s technology more or less all over the place. But I don’t have a bad relationship with it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Your relation to earth, to clay, suggests one of the great problems of the contemporary world: ecology.
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — Yes. I’m part of the ecological movement, but we have some serious disagreements — over bullfights, for example. In general, I get on well with ecologists. I have a farm. I breed bulls and pigs in Mallorca. And I slaughter animals. I breed them, but I also know how to slaughter them. I can kill a sheep… I do it all the time. I slaughter a 300-kilo pig every year. I’ve been doing it for 30 years. I’ve slaughtered a lot of pigs. But I love animals. Whenever I’m upset, I go see the animals. I go among the cows, or the donkeys. They’re born; they die; they screw. They do everything perfectly. We must observe animals more closely than we do. When I made some money in the ’80s, I bought a vast piece of land, and everyone said to me, “You’re crazy!” It’s a huge tract of stone and mountain, on the sea, but very wild, in the northeast of the island, in the farthest corner, as far as possible from Palma. It’s an empty place. I started getting native animals, donkeys, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, with several dovecotes, and then there are eagles. All of the animals roam free and come to eat in the evening. There’s a vegetable garden. I have a greenhouse. My instincts were good; I did it at the right time because it takes years. The trees I planted in the ’80s have now grown tall. It’s a beautiful thing to see. There’s a single tower, dating back a thousand years. It’s an Arab watchtower. Then in the 12th century, they built a house, originally a hunting lodge for the king of Mallorca. It’s lovely. There’s a big cemetery on my property, and some very deep caves. Go in there and you can spend hours inside. It opens out like a cathedral, and I do spend hours in there. My friend George Condo and I went in there in total darkness, as I recall, to see the light emerge: ultraviolet light. Caves are places where images form. I think the dead, our ancestors, are in caves. Even today, in Africa, they take ancestors into caves. Caves, ancestors — all of human memory’s in them. A cave is a good place to be, yes, even today. Many of my paintings resemble caves.

DONATIEN GRAU — Earlier in our conversation, you spoke of acceptance. I think the idea is to accept not just time, but also the world around us, and to love it.
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — Yes, of course. It’s a Buddhist idea. In recent years I’ve made parchment paintings. Since I haven’t been able to travel to Mali over the past three or four years, I’ve gone to the Himalayas to walk. And I like those Himalayan cave paintings, those fifth-century Buddhist and tantric paintings. To get to Mustang or Zanskar or Ladakh, you have to go on foot. I sleep in the temples. I like to draw on those parchments. When I went to a monastery, I stayed a little longer. The monks said their mantras, and I painted. One day I said to them, “You know, each of my paintings was once a life, a kid, and now it’s a hide, a parchment.” So they said, “Yes, but it’s the same with us. We use drums that were once lives, except that it is peasants who kill them, not we.” I replied, “Yes, but it’s the same with me. I didn’t do the killing, either.” They said, “But it is you who take charge of it.” I like that. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you hold on to your optimism these days?
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — I don’t know how I do it. Maybe it’s because I have a good time. I’ve got a new girlfriend. Maybe it’s that. I don’t know. I’m fairly optimistic in general.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And with the catastrophes we’re living through — the ecological disaster, the political disaster? You can’t go to Mali…
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — It’s true. I’m very aware of it. There are plenty of reasons for melancholy, and sometimes I do fall into a funk over these things. I feel like they’re piling absurdity upon absurdity. At the moment I’m conducting a new campaign against oil prospecting in the Mediterranean. I’m always involved.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In your youth, you occupied an island.
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — Yes. We managed to save it. It was Dragonera, a very small island off the west coast of Mallorca. I’m proud of that because it’s now a natural park. We occupied it, and I was the one who organized the movement.

Miquel Barceló in front of works in progress, some mixed media on canvas and on paper, 2015

DONATIEN GRAU — You’ve inspired several authors, like Hervé Guibert and Paul Bowles, who’ve made you a character in their stories. How do you position yourself with respect to being a hero?
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — I don’t know, but I have trouble seeing myself from a distant perspective. It’s rather boring to be a painter. Painters are people who do the same thing every day, who’ll stay in the studio for two months at a time. Every now and then I go to Africa to get some air, to get out of the studio. I go from one studio to another. For years, I’d spend four months in Paris then take a plane to Bamako — a pretty rough and sometimes dangerous 24 hours of travel — and then shut myself in the studio among the Dogon. There it was the same. The Dogon knew I mustn’t be disturbed, so I’d do nothing but paint from dawn until it was time to eat. They’d say, “Djagwa!” which means “Dinner’s ready!” or “Breakfast’s ready!” So I’d eat chicken and rice, or whatever there was, and then keep working until sundown. And afterwards I’d go drink beer with my buddies. They’d show up at the house with lots of friends and girls. It was like that every day. And it’s the same in Paris. In Mallorca, I do exactly the same thing, except that I go swimming or diving, and then my friends come over. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — Paris, finally, has become your home base.
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — Yes. I like Paris. I’ve never known why, but I like it. There are plenty of reasons to hate the place. But I like literature and cinema, and Paris is a great town for that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And you’re a great European.
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — Yes. At some point, I decided that I was European. I said to myself: I’m not American, and I prefer living in Europe. I already see Europe as a teeny little country, so I chose the city that suited me best. For a long time, I’ve considered that city to be Paris. It’s not London or Berlin or Barcelona. Paris is a crossroads of places and ideas.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Your studio is next to the Musée Picasso.
MIQUEL BARCELÓ — Yes, exactly. I realized that my Parisian life had taken place at the intersection of the Rue de Rivoli and the Rue Vieille-du-Temple. The Rue Vieille-du-Temple means the Musée Picasso and the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac where I will have my next show. The Rue de Rivoli meant the Louvre, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the Jeu de Paume, where I’ve done exhibitions. If I head just a little east, I hit the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais, and farther south the Cimetière Montparnasse; no, there’s no cemetery down there. [Laughs]


[Table of contents]

F/W 2015 issue 24

Table of contents

purple EDITO

purple NEWS

purple BEST of the SEASON





purple BEAUTY

purple LOVE

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purple SEX

purple NIGHT

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