Ironical Gold: José Angel Vincench’s Conceptual Abstraction by Donald Kuspit

Gold, traditionally regarded as the most precious of all metals, is the perfect metal….It flashes like light and in India is allegedly called “mineral light.”  Its nature is fiery, solar and royal, even divine. Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, Dictionary of Symbols (1)

The only sure affirmation is the negation that begins all ironic play: “this affirmation must be rejected,” leaving the possibility…that since the universe (or at least the universe of discourse) is inherently absurd, all statements are subject to ironic undermining… W. C. Booth, A Rhetoric of Irony (2)

Looking at José Angel Vincench’s geometric abstractions, one can’t help being stunned by their luminosity--the light inherent in their gold, the most precious of all minerals, all the more so because of its symbolic import—and their innovative, idiosyncratic geometry.  Gold is universally regarded as a sacred material, a symbol of transcendence, like the sun that rises above the earth it shines on.  We cannot live without its miraculous light, and we value gold because it is imbued with that light.  It is a peculiarly abstract material, a sort of immaterial material like light.  Gold is the most malleable of metals; working with gold leaf, as Vincench does, is to bend light to one’s aesthetic and expressive purpose.  Vincench rises to the sun, as Icarus did, but unlike Icarus he does not fall, nor burn himself as he touches its light:  it represents his idealism—the idealism of Cuba, of socialism, the glory of its Communist revolution, its anti-capitalism, even though, paradoxically, capitalism treasures gold, claims to have the Midas touch that turns everything into gold, presumably for the benefit of everyone, as Cuba’s socialism presumably is.  As Vincench writes, “gold is about obsessions of power and economy”—power over the economy gives one political power, and with that emotional—“spiritual”--power.  Thus the paradoxical doubleness of Vincench’s gold:  it represents Cuba’s socialist idealism—and ideal climate, alive with flourishing nature and tropical sunlight—and capitalist idealism, evident in its pursuit of gold.  Capitalism values entrepreneurial individualism, socialism values communal effort, each convinced that their values will produce a new Golden Age for humankind. 

The geometric forms in Vincench’s idiosyncratic abstractions punch holes in these ambitions, not to say pretensions.  In the various abstractions in the Autonomia series geometric forms, many triangular, others parallelograms, some barely touching—usually two angles meet—others standing alone, spread across the flat surface.  It is broken into incommensurate pieces, fragments that don’t harmoniously cohere, but eccentrically—and tentatively, insecurely—relate.  The works are precarious, absurd constructions, as two of them—the second, Autonomia #5, and the last in the series of six, Autonomia & Activismo--make particularly clear.  In the latter work Vincench combines two word patterns in a dialectical construction bespeaking the poles of his art.  As he says, superposition of letters of words to find the abstract forms—in effect the use of the verbal to generate the visual (another conjunction of opposites)—is “the most personal moment” of creation, for it is fraught with the feelings evoked by the words.   It is as though Vincench is trying to put pieces of a geometric puzzle together, but comes up with a greater puzzle and problem—how to become autonomous in a communist society, and, one might add, how to be truly creative and original rather than compliant and unoriginal in a society that demands conformity.(3)  And in a society that prefers people’s realism to individualistic abstraction, as Vincench notes.(4)

I suggest, perhaps absurdly, that Vincench’s idiosyncratic constructions are symbolic self-portraits—highly personal expressive assertions of his individuality, both as an abstract artist and autonomous individual, in subliminal defiance of a tightly controlled society and authoritarian ideology.  In On the Spiritual in Art Kandinsky held idiosyncrasy in high esteem, arguing that it was a sign of genuine, unique personality.(5)  However ironically, Vincench is a spiritual artist in a materialistic society, all the more ironically because he uses the most socially valuable as well as spiritually significant of all materials to make his art.  Of all the Autonomia works, none is more idiosyncratic than one in which three triangular forms relate, the angles of the central one touching the angles of the two that flank it—an integration in the making, but incomplete and absurd and precarious, perhaps suggesting the absurdity of Vincench’s art and ideas in Cuban society, and with that his precarious position in it.  

What is one to make of the words that accompany Vincench’s abstractions, considering the fact that their over-all title is “The Burden of Words?”  Vincench’s abstractions are asymmetric, and the relationship of words to visual art is asymmetric—dare one say ironical?  Their asymmetry reflects the asymmetry—absurdity, certainly contrariness--of Vincench’s situation in Cuba:  an artist making abstract art implicitly critical of its authoritarianism doesn’t exactly fit into it, however tolerated he may be, even respected as an intriguing anomaly, that is, the proverbial and celebrated exception that proves the rule.  If Vincench’s works are an abstract discourse about Cuba—abstraction as disguised discourse in order to protect the ideas implicitly invested in it, in order to evade censorship—then words such as “gusano” (worm) and “escoria” (dregs) explicitly refer to people and events in it.  Internationally oriented, uses words from the other countries, for example Colombia and, unexpectedly, such words—not as down to earth as worm and dregs--as peace, pardon, and reconciliation.  They evoke a world in which all human beings are treated equally and respected—a community in which no one is regarded as a worm or the dregs of society.  Vincench writes that “human and historical value” can be “summarized in a word,” suggesting that a particular word is not simply the signifier of a particular culture, but, more generally, has universal psychosocial meaning.  Thus Vincench’s use of such words as change, autonomy, peace, pardon, and reconciliation.  They are broadly idealistic in import--they allude to “social utopia,” as he writes, in contrast to the social dystopia that is Cuba--in contrast to “gusano” and “escoria,” which directly signify the harsh reality that is Cuba. 

The eccentric dialectic between word and image—both are abstract—that informs Vincench’s art confirms that he is a master of what the philosopher Theodor Adorno called negative dialectic:  a dialectic in which opposites are not resolved—integrated—but irreconcilably at odds:  dissociated however nominally associated, and as such absurdly related.  More particularly, Vincench is a master of discord, and as such a modern master and, strange as it may seem to say so, a mature realist, not in the art historical sense of that term, but in the psychological sense.  “Modern art,” the psychoanalyst Michael Balint wrote, “has made an immense contribution to human maturity by demonstrating that we need not repress the fact that in and around us…discordant features exist.  Moreover, it has taught us not only that such discords can be resolved by artistic methods, but also that one can learn to tolerate such unresolved discords without pain and even that they can be enjoyed by the artist as well as the general public.  Of course, it means tolerating strain, sometimes even great strain.”(6)  The strain—tension--in Vincench’s eccentrically geometric constructions is evident.   The strain—anxiety—implicit in the paradoxical association of word and image in his art is greater.  Living in Cuba, the strain of contradiction is inevitable, and a creative catalyst.


(1) Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, Dictionary of Symbols (London and New York:  Penguin, 1996), 439

(2) Quoted in Giorgio Sacerdoti, Irony Through Psychoanalysis (London and New York:  Karnac, 1992), 15

(3) Cuba is a one-dimensional, totalitarian state, “a country where all is part of the state, one newspaper, one official TV, one political party,” Vincench writes in a letter to me.  And, one might add, one official art, an art that is, however indirectly, propaganda for the Cuban government and Communist ideology.  Such socially obedient art is not “poetic, symbolic”—as Vincench’s abstraction is (geometry made poetic and symbolic, romanticized, as it were)--but a kind of “pamphlet.”  In such a society the artist must comply—become a kind of cog in the dictatorial social machine, as Winnicott suggests--which is a kiss of creative death.  “Compliance carries with it a sense of futility for the individual and is associated with the idea that nothing matters and that life is not worth living…. Compliance is a sick basis for life.”  D. W. Winnicott, “Creativity and Its Origins,” Playing and Reality (London and New York:  Tavistock and Methuen, 1982), 65. 

Making his art—being creative—Vincench is fighting for his life, overcoming the sense of futility implicit in living in a society in which one can emotionally, and sometimes physically, die.  His abstraction is an act of political resistance, a sort of social activism, for “if the personal is the political,” as the feminists said, then his highly personal abstraction is socially critical, defiant of Cuba’s conformism.   The ironical eccentricity of his abstractions—“abstractions could be irony,” he writes—directly contradicts the Communist belief system, standardized into an absolutism in Cuba.  Vincench’s ironical abstraction is art historically as well as psychosocially important:  its eccentricities are creative criticism of what the art historian and theorist Anton Ehrenzweig called “the niceties of academic abstraction,” that is, standardized abstraction, “so tidy, so precise, so well-ordered,” and as such “a tired exercise in empty sensibilities.”  The Hidden Order of Art:  A Study in the Psychology of Artistic Perception (London:  Phoenix Press, 1967), 147

(4)Vincench writes: “Since 1992 part of my studies, a exploration about [the] relation[ship]of art-history, was a significant coincidence with the star of the Cuban Revolution [in the] same decade, and was a dilemma for the artist about this abstract language in the new society, abstractions when the system was waiting for a kind of art closer to a realism socialist aesthetics, to the government [to] be abstract was more like a[n] attitude of alienation, never was the state available to appreciate, understand art in texture, colors, forms….”

(5) Kandinsky regarded “idiosyncrasy” as a sign of genuine, unique “personality.” Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, eds. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (New York:  Da Capo Press, 1994), 137.  In Idiosyncratic Identities:  Artists at the End of the Avant-Garde (London and New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1996), 4 I argued that “idiosyncrasy” is “the final frontier” of avant-garde art, “the last possibility and assertion of avant-garde identity, a last assertion of personal values when there are no general values worth the trouble.  It is a way of precisely being oneself in a situation which has no room for the self.  The idiosyncratic artist is trying to make sense to himself in a situation in which he makes no sense to the collectivity of art and society.” Vincench’s idiosyncratic art shows him to be an important avant-garde artist, that is, one of the few artists continuing to make authentic, original, singular avant-garde art.  

One might note that geometric abstraction is a “precise” art, unlike gestural abstraction, and with that intelligible, even as Vincench’s geometric abstraction verges on unintelligibility by way of its eccentricity, which gives it an expressive power that ordinary geometric abstraction lacks, for example, Josef Albers’s Homage to the Square abstractions, which are somewhat inhibited and inflexible in comparison to Vincench’s flexible, excited geometry.

(6) Michael Balint, “Notes on the Dissolution of Object-Representation in Modern Art,” Problems of Human Pleasure and Behaviour (London:  Maresfield Library, 1987), 121