Music, Dance, and Language

Arturo Herrera

Artist Arturo Herrera discusses his work’s connection to choreography, language, and abstraction.

ART21: Who are the people in the photos, here, above your table in the studio?

HERRERA: The photos are of two of my favorite artists. One is Stravinsky, and the other one is Balanchine. They’re important for me just because of what they did—Stravinsky, music, and Balanchine, choreography—and their collaboration was very important for art in the twentieth century. They’re like my mentors; they’re part of the studio, in a sense.

Stravinsky—especially in his early work and also in the neoclassical work—used fragmentation to compose seamless pieces, but they’re actually based on snippets from this and snippets from that, to create hybrids. They seem to be so unique, but they actually come from different sections from Russian music or from different quotations. The neoclassical period also is very beautiful. And how he can change from that early exuberant period to the neoclassical—it’s very interesting to me.

Balanchine—he approached choreography as an analytical form. By using the classical language of ballet, which is somewhat limited, he created so many steps and combinations with that language. Working together, they created some amazing pieces.

ART21: And in a way, you’re a kind of choreographer.

HERRERA: Maybe the reference to choreography deals more with wall painting: how the viewer actually attempts to move when entering the space, which direction they follow, what kind of steps they tend to take. Usually the images are conceived with architectural scale and a sense of the function of the building in mind—so it’s not like just any image could go into these buildings. The space is something that, hopefully, the viewer will be able to operate within and trace back their steps—to be able to create their own movement within that specific area. So, choreography—when looking at images or looking also at collages—becomes a very intimate way of limiting your boundaries or defining your space to be able to receive from the image what you want.

ART21: Does choreography also apply when you create the work?

HERRERA: Well, I’m thinking of Balanchine—his combinations of steps to create a formal composition. Maybe it’s also a part of making the collages, using elements to create an image. Choreography is unifying certain steps to create a new dance, and it’s the same thing with collage—you have fragments. The language of collage as an elevated art form is somewhat recent. I mean, collage has been going on for a long time before that, but it was elevated by the Dada artists: Picasso, Braque, and the Germans. The twentieth-century history of collage is extremely important for me. I’m very aware of all the people that have worked in the medium.

Arturo Herrera in his New York studio, 2004. Production still from the Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 3 episode, Play. © Art21, Inc. 2005.

ART21: You’re also influenced by music.

HERRERA: Music is related to the way of thinking for what I do because music offers no solution. It has no content. It’s just total subjectivity. So, it lasts for a limited time, and it’s gone. Unless somebody plays it, it’s just non-existent. This experience of making it happen and then disappear—the transient nature of music—is fascinating to me. I’d like the visual images that I’m trying to do to be nonobjective, just like music.

I want to go further with music because I don’t understand it. I can’t play music; I don’t have a musical ear. I’m frustrated by that. I’m a patron of music; I buy records or CDs, and I go to concerts. That’s the only thing I can do. I have two brothers that are good musicians, but I wasn’t blessed with that gift. I really would like to play music or at least to know how it is made or how it is composed. It’s such an enigma to me that somebody could actually put notes down, and it will mean something. So, I will always try to solve the riddle. I will never do it, but just keeping at it—going to concerts or buying music—will allow me to be part of that process.

ART21: Structure is very important to you.

HERRERA: I think structure is a very serious matter for visual artists. Even artists that don’t agree that they are thinking about structure—I think they have an innate desire or knowledge of how to construct things with structure. In my case, I respect the way other artists build structure or deal with structure.

Music is the most challenging to me, just because I don’t know how it’s made. I can see that a painting or a drawing was made this way and will be impressed by the different solutions of this structure, but in music, it becomes totally impossible to decipher because I’m not a musician.

In my work, I’m trying to set up structure that holds the image together. I think there are certain rules that allow for images to be better than others. If that’s through structure, I’m not really sure. It’s complex. But structure is a preoccupation of mine. I’m always looking for something that will hold the image into place and that will not look forced but will look like this is the only way that it could be placed on the paper. If it’s through fragmentation, collaging, painting, or drawing—I’m always trying to look for the essential arrangement that these elements need.

ART21: Talk about your interest in abstraction.

HERRERA: Well, the interest in abstraction is that I think it still has possibility or potential to communicate. Of course the optimism, idealism, or utopian ideas of abstraction from the beginning of the twentieth century are no longer valid. But that doesn’t mean that younger artists cannot use this language—because it’s relatively young. I mean, abstraction has been around since the beginning of the world. People have been using it in ceramics, sculptures, textiles . . . So, it’s nothing new; it’s part of our DNA. But as a young artist with this history of modernism and postmodernism, I think there’s still potential for abstraction to become a viable language of visual communication. The same thing with collage—we need to explore what else they can do. I don’t know if I’m there yet, but just to be able to have those possibilities, I’m grateful. I’m going to continue to see what I can say with this language, with this set of limitations or boundaries.

Arturo Herrera. Keep in Touch (from set #4), detail, 2004. Installation view at Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, 2005. Production still from the Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 3 episode, Play. Artwork courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Production still © Art21, Inc. 2005.

ART21: What are the rules of creating an abstract image?

HERRERA: Well, not using figures or representation, allowing form and color to be able to create a strong image . . .

I find abstraction satisfying because I can actually enter the work more easily. It is a preference of mine to be able to see work that is not telling me exactly what to think about, or what to do with it. Abstraction allows me to play within certain boundaries of interaction, and these boundaries are pretty intimate because the work is not telling me how to deal with them. I just bring my own history to them.

It is a complex experience because we are informed with the language of abstraction from the past, and we’re seeing it also now. Some people might find it frustrating, now, in this age; some people will call it irresponsible. I think there is a potential for these images to communicate different things to different viewers in a very touching way. But that experience is not a public experience. It’s very, very private, and it’s very, very personal. I’m more interested in that aspect of the visual language—how an image can speak to you in a very touching way that is both charged with knowledge and with memory. It can trigger so many associations because it’s not clear about what it’s trying to say. But you actually attach yourself to the work, and it becomes experience.

ART21: The experience becomes yours.

HERRERA: Since there is no direction—usually no title—you’re basically looking at this with your baggage of intellectual knowledge and your memories, desires, and emotional life, all combined. So, you make your own collage, and then you bring it to the piece. You juxtapose yourself—attach yourself—to the image, and then a new thing is created. You are fragmented, and the piece comes from fragmentation. And what I want is that this experience of the fragmented person and the fragmented image becomes a new whole, a hybrid experience. Nothing is ever sure in life, so I’m playing with that idea of ambiguity and uncertainty. And I’m welcoming that.

Arturo Herrera. All I Ask, 1999. Installation view, Württembergischer Kunstverein, Stuggart, Germany. Latex on wall; dimensions variable. Collection Rachel and Jean-Pierre Lehman. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

ART21: Do you see any relationship between language and abstraction?

HERRERA: Being born in Latin America and living in the United States, you get accustomed to accents and the way people speak—fragments of voice intonation, the way people pronounce and use words. I find it very rich to be able to identify those fragments of language. So, maybe fragmentation and the way language gets transformed and recycled could be informative to my work—a correlation between the visual language I use and spoken language.

ART21: How has growing up in Latin America affected your work?

HERRERA: In Latin America, there was lots of exposure to Mexican films, Argentinean films, Brazilian music . . . It was daily information. Venezuela is a country of immigrants. Especially during the ’50s, a large number of people emigrated from Europe, and they brought their specific accents and languages. So, it was a complete mixture. Growing up, it was natural to be receiving that kind of information from different groups of immigrants, through sound, language, words. Traveling later to the U.S. with that kind of baggage, it made me much more aware that each region of the U.S. has a different personality through the way people speak.

ART21: What about abstraction as a visual language?

HERRERA: There could be a correlation between language and fragmentation, at least spoken language—the way we clearly identify very short gestures, intonation of voices, fragments of words. The visual fragment carries a lot of associative meaning in the same way. We read through association in both visual and verbal language.

Being Latin American, you’re made up of so many fragments from different cultures. Venezuelan culture is extremely complex, and then you’re part of Latin America and part of America itself. The European tradition is part of you because you came from there. The way that you are fragmented inside makes you stronger. I see it as a positive thing. It just informs who I am.