Above: A folded photograph by Romero Barragan
The story of Romero Barragan, (1942 – 2014) an avant-gardist painter and sculptor who has fallen to obscurity after the Marcos regime and his journey to redefine an artistic practice that sought to obliterate the divisions of life and art
One can perceive the 1980s in Philippine art as a starting point for various strategies in defining a true national art form. Romero Barragan, who formerly made what was narrowly thought of until now as “indigenous art” in the preceding decade is an artist in painting, sculpture or objets d’ art who had an interesting cycle of political radicalization and regression during his lifetime.
While the debates between modernist and conservatives during the post-war were out in the open, the artists of Barragan’s generation, tackled their contradictions internally, and sometimes with seeming disregard to preconceived notions of what constituted “Filipino Art” or of the global movements that affected them.
Barragan takes materials from the context of everyday life and continually improves upon them (as an interweaving of art and everyday life) even after the presentation of the sculptural result or after being documented in photographs for the catalog. For many of his works, he has used materials derived from his personal and private life, which suddenly becomes a communal instrument during an exhibition. Because of a considerable demand for his work in the 1980s, the entanglement of art and life has caused an extraordinary toll on his personal life, through a delimitation and almost denial of privacy or through the extreme exposure of his own world. On top of this, Barragan holds no fixation on notions of permanence or the need to preserve art and with few exceptions, his works are, intended to be ephemeral. His material provides to the work the very substance or model that would eventually destroy it. The use of stone or bronze would never be an option for him as he destroys fundamentally the illusion that art is precious, even if the materials being used are actually precious on their own.
The material value of the work is relegated to the background, and the viewer’s perspective is steered towards the dynamics, tectonics, and orientation of each respective sculpture or installation work. In other cases, he combines traditional sculptures with a base of everyday objects and sometimes bases made of precious materials. Barragan reacts with his new combinations on shapes, colors and lines. The base, regardless of its value fulfills a utilitarian function and merges with the sculpture to form an amalgam; in the same method of Joseph Beuys’ amalgam of sculpture (where his refusal to adopt a specific style and medium in which to disseminate his images resulted in an extremely prolific and varied oeuvre). In his early collages and paintings, particularly those produced in his art school, artifacts or their mock-ups sit rather disturbingly amidst images of pop-culture, and sometimes intentionally displayed haphazardly.
This results in the leveling of the material value of all elements as a work of art. The artist also hijacks the intermediality (from the Fluxus movement) of the artistic work. Similar practices by Marciano Galang and David Medalla were initiated in the 1950s-60s. The trio of Roberto Chabet, Benjamin Bautista, and Ramon Katigbak who created the fictional persona of Angel Flores, Jr. proposed a prototype for Romero Barragan: the blurring of life and art, and the view of art beyond a separation of genres, but ambivalently also the strengthening of discussions on the particularity of genre especially in his newer projects, sculptures, and paintings. Barragan like Flores, Jr. was an expatriate artist and he was amused by the freedom to produce new works by taking on many incarnations or as he called it “multiple selves” across his lifetime.
Intermittent exiles and retreat to painting
The only son of Ignacia Sta. Monica, a pre-war classical painter, and Rodolfo Barragan, owner of a chain of department stores, Romero Barragan, seemed destined for fame from the start. An A-student and an outstanding athlete, at the age of thirteen he could sketch and paint in the manner of the French Impressionist School. Capitalizing on his ruggedly handsome looks, he stood out in every school soirée; he had a pleasant manner and a remarkable knowledge of classical painting by old Filipino masters (at the age of twenty-one, he published a monograph on José Honorato Lozano which was overwhelmingly commended by his professors).
He was a first-rate tennis player; a reputation that would present him an initial contact with President Ferdinand Marcos who invited him to play a doubles match in Malacanang. A superb dancer, always impeccably dressed, and a meticulous academic. He was known as the life of the party but he drank not a sip of alcohol; everything about him seemed to lead to the highest achievements, or at least a life as a great artist or as the dutiful scion of an entrepreneurial family. But the terrible historical circumstances in which he happened and chose to live distorted his fate irreversibly.
At the age of eighteen he exhibited his first paintings at the Luz Gallery in the style of early modernists, recognized by critics as a valuable and interesting work, but which could certainly not be said to break any ground for Filipino art, which had started its romance with conceptual art and neo-Dada by the tail end of the 1960s. Barragan realized this, and three months later he left for Europe accompanied by his friend Dimas Balbuena.
In a post-Franco Spain, he acquired a taste for the discotheque, and the newly liberated society succumbed to his youth and charm, his intelligence, and his urbane mannerisms. It was said (by the gossip columnists of our local newspapers at the time) that he was on intimate terms with the Cristina Montes de Alba, the socialite daughter of the Duchess of Alba. That, however, was nothing more than speculation. The guest room of the Duchess de Alba was transformed into a studio apartment and became a place for tertulias of poets, painters, anarchists and their ilk. He began, but did not finish, a study of the life and work of the nineteenth-century painter Fabian De La Rosa, and painted portraits, which few people have seen, since he made no attempt to exhibit them. He wrote in his diary that he was starting to move away from painting and that upon learning of avant-garde movements in Europe via David Medalla, that he would explore conceptual art but would rather get it straight from the horse’s mouth.
In 1983, after arresting a scandal that the Duchess of Alba might have caused after a bitter falling out, he left Spain, and, after a short stay in Paris, visited Weimar in Germany. The land of the Bauhaus movement made a contradictory and mysterious impression on him: in his sporadic diary entries, he expressed his admiration for the remnants of Russian Constructivist art, professed by artists who learned from Bolshevik masters who were working-in-exile in the city before the war. His opinion betrayed the longing he felt for his homeland, an experience he saw reflected in the plight of the peripatetic Bauhaus movement. Six months later he returned to Manila and took up residence in a comfortable apartment in Makati, where his faithful companion Dimas Balbuena, who had been obliged to remain in Hongkong, when he thought he contracted HIV, joined him shortly. (It was a nothing but paranoia induced by nasty practical joke committed against him by Barragan.)
The tennis court at the Manila Polo Club and artistic gatherings occupied much of his time in Manila. Barragan became interested in Chinese Philosophy and attended lectures on the contentions of the “Hundred schools of thought” by Professor Alfredo Co, whom he had met at the Sorbonne.
Shortly before the outbreak of the EDSA Revolution in 1986, Barragan and Dimas Balbuena visited the few friends who had not fled. Then, to the sheer astonishment of these friends, they went straight to Malacanang and enlisted as volunteers for the Coalition of Writers and Artists for Freedom and Democracy (COWARD), which came out with a controversial statement of support for the embattled dictator listing their names as signatories.
Barragan’s derring-do and infinite knowledge of Western art gradually magnetized him to the first lady’s inner circle. Much later he became the only artist who joined the Marcos family in their exile in Hawaii. He is thought to have participated in smuggling the treasures they have left behind to and from Hawaii. Nevertheless, the end of the revolution found him in the tropical paradise, carrying out more or less household duties.
The diffusion of the things in life and art
Installation View of the Exhibition at the Museum Kunstplast, Dusseldorf, DE, 1985
While Barragan had occasionally retreated to painting, he prescribed from the beginning of his artistic career the refusal to provide new material to produce new things. The first, seemingly casual result he did and presented at the School of Art Institute in Chicago (SAIC) in 1964 consisted of all his possessions. For lack of photographic documentation, a rough account goes like this:
He stood in the foreground facing inwards studying what he owned. Overwritten are the words “Organisahin”, “Linisin”, “Ayusin,” terms, which more or less defines his artistic practice. Barragan wanted his artwork not to begin without a general overview – this was the ultimate artistic strategy. He occupied for the duration of the semester break an empty studio space outside campus and claimed that this suited him for he was painting in a kind of ‘outsider position.’
He catalogued his possessions as he brought in more things from his family’s house or had been lent to him by friends. In many later works, he states a clear message that through our possessions our “identity is formed.” He adds that “This is probably why we preserve for decades things that we never use, but keep for our identity.”
On the second step, he displays the photographs and the catalogues. He created a total of 125 photographs, which show his belongings ordered after categories. With the help of a complete inventory he sorted his things, depending on their importance, as Z-, X- or Y-possessions, where the Y-possessions were disposed of, thus discarded, given away or sold, the X-possessions to warehousing and only the Z-possessions were intended to remain in the studio apartment.
The project is typical of what his future projects would show: an extreme entanglement of art and life: while working with his possessions he had no other places to stay. He lived and worked in his studio space. A question arose at the end of his break, how can he even walk on his studio space and be made usable again for other activities. Barragan solved the problem by packing his sculptures on crates and punching eyelets onto his canvasses so they can be hung without stretchers and then be rolled for shipping. This interim storage had its origins in his artistic works at the SAIC.
By 1978, after refusing to be awarded the 13 Artists Award by the Cultural Center of the Philippines and after taking part in a violent protest in April of the same year in Manila he moved to Berlin through a Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD) grant to research on the art scene of the former GDR. After this he settled in Belgium. By the 1980s, their family businesses closed down and he got by living in Europe working as a refrigerator repairman. Subsequently, the objects he used for his artworks were taken out of their artistic contexts and transferred back into daily use in Barragan’s new Brussels apartment.
The basic structure of his artistic practice has become fully developed; he uses objects that belong in his daily life and then, when they are transferred into the context of art, he gives them an aesthetic form. This is then documented photographically, and then he returns all these objects (utensils, instruments) back into the context of everyday life or as an independent artifact.
Up until this time Barragan commented that he was not sure if he ever wanted to do this kind of art. This lasted until after his first official exhibition at Charim Gallery in Vienna in 1981 but after this there were no longer any questions.
The small space where Barragan dumped all his furniture and other properties has been completely and transferred to the exhibition context (The Artists Studio, 1985, Museum Kunstpalast, Dusseldorf). The boundary between art and life is significantly visible by taking away the purposes of these objects in his private life. Even his plants are used. The piled-up furniture and everyday objects undergo auratization by the prohibition of contact of a white cube gallery, even if they are just banal things like a door or a mattress.
The complex process of idealization and de-auratization becomes clear when the refrigerator, the one in museum could not be touched, but can suddenly be filled up and used again, when the show ends.
The so-called hotel works, the first group of works that are no longer with the artist, are the best examples of the time-bound existence of his works. By refusing to create any physical sculptures the works survived for centuries. If one were to live outside of his usual living environment the hotel seems to be the most common option. Barragan capitalized on implicit factors of temporary nature in hotel rooms.
Barragan stays in every hotel room for one night, temporarily owning or “expanding” his existing furniture, mattresses, blankets and sometimes an occasional oil painting – strictly speaking, this is the first series, which involves other works of art by other artists- he photographs the sculpture he creates of out these things, and rebuilds everything back to the original state the next morning. Here the artist developed another of his work’s characteristic: its site specificity. The shape of the sculpture evolves from the local conditions. The artistic work does not begin in the studio, but within the locale of his subsequent presentation.
The Pedestals and their art
With titles like ‘The pedestals and their art’, Barragan declares that for his first exhibitions in museums he recourses to things that are available locally. During the work on the pedestals exhibition he attempted to answer, what one can add to 2000 years of art production yet without producing something new: He examined sculptures from the collection of Baron Albert Freyer, who was a businessman and the richest man in Belgium at that time, and built a base for each of the sculpture. The material for the base came from the area of the museum, which is
not often addressed and therefore not often seen: the offices of its employees. Their tables, shelves and lamps became temporary bases.
The intention of the artist is clear in combining the sculptures from the collection and using pedestals constructed from the furniture of the museum: the familiar sculptures are perceived in a totally different light, the office furniture are easily transferred to the context of art. Both melt into a new aesthetic unity when the base with its dynamics, shapes, colors and lines react to the sculptures. The base is freed by the sculpture from its serving function and they are both constructed as equal elements.
His artistic process was deemed compromised however when he had to give up some of the ordinary objects in his sculptural installation when the Museum bought three of the twelve works and integrated them into the collection with instructions that they were to be jointly issued with the sculptures selected by Barragan. They have also been made available to other institutions through loans.
The entanglement of art and life has been abandoned at this point: by the act of purchasing the work remains a commodity of the art world, and the boundary line between the paradigms ‘Art’ and ‘Life’ is finally drawn.
The use of already existing everyday materials and the survey of the everyday has been central to the concerns of the Fluxus movement (mainly in Germany). Ostracized in the 1960s and consistently turned away by the elite or declined by the market, the artists of the Fluxus sold their works directly at very low prices. In 2002 for the 40th anniversary of the Fluxus movement, Barragan wrote an unpublished monograph on how the movement influenced his work and philosophy.
Again Barragan muses on the importance of the place for providing his working materials. He discusses a series of sculptures by Wolf Vostell constructed from pots, TVs, and kitchen appliances from the house wares departments. Some questions from his review of the exhibition: when and why everyday objects would be considered as art. His approach in diffusing the separation between art and the everyday context accordingly became part of the characteristic of his own sculptures, as they are similarly turned back into department store shelves after the exhibition. But as with the pedestals and bases of the Freyer collection, the cycle of auratization and then again, de-auratization was often interrupted by the purchase of the works.
The question of ownership and the paradigms of ‘Art’ and ‘life’ turned up again at the presentation of the sculpture, Discernment of Spirits (1984). Baron Albert Freyer, offered to purchase the possessions of the artist, which were only yet to been seen in the form of a sculpture at the spaces of what was to become the Xavier Hufkens Gallery in 1987.
This offer resulted in Barragan to reconsider what exactly were his possessions. Baron Freyer supported the functions of Barragan insofar as they are considered merely as things and not as sculptures; or as accumulated property and strictly through a purchase agreement similarly styled to the practice of Barragan’s inventory, which determined which items, should change hands. The things for daily consumption, such as toothpastes and soaps, were locked out from the purchase.
Art from Art
Barragan remained faithful to his purpose of creating something new, but to work only with what already exists in his immediate surroundings. His site-specific practice soon related to works by other artists: upon invitation from the first Havana Biennale in 1984 he dealt with the sculptures already existing in the park by David Medalla, Helio Oititica and Wilfredo Lam. The result of this engagement became the so-called Cuban series (1983-1985). Barragan initially classified the sculptures according to size and then studied them according to the dynamics of the design language and then identified their relationships to each other.
This created a new ensemble, artworks from art without Barragan making any additions. He argues that by changing our perspectives of each work, he is practically changing the works.
From playing the games of fullness and emptiness, Barragan has over the years not only sustained his work from the nucleus of his possessions and of his apartment building; he also had his material expenses steadily reduced. He would find himself at work feverishly before space becomes an issue. He has worked on empty rooms since 1993, beginning with the spaces of his San Juan studio, in suburbs of Manila.
The viewers are invited to find the traces of the artist at work from the photographs of his “empty” studio. The focus is on the furniture pedestals and the composition of the surfaces and the course of the lines.
The presence is strong on the shots of the surfaces. On closer study, one finds that the artist has made conversions and installations in the studio. The series of studio photographs though was no mere accumulation. Barragan explores possible answers to the question, how the character of a building changes when its purpose is changed. The series of studio photographs integrated Barragan’s 1980s project, which he realized for the Paco Railway Station before it was completely abandoned.
Obviously the Paco Railway Station was not originally built for the presentation of art. It was in the early 20th century, a representative reception building built for the Manila North Railway Company which was subsequently extended and embellished, for example, by a cast-iron patio. The columns of which, can still be seen from the ruins.
After becoming a warehouse, the building was briefly transformed as an art gallery and aptly shows Barragan’s photographs of empty rooms in his San Juan studio. The San Juan studio in turn were the offices of SCD Construction in the 1960s which built commercial buildings whose tenants to name a few, were the companies British American Tobacco, a manufacturer of sport equipments, a dressmaking school, and a wholesale business for art supplies. Since 2009 Barragan successively rebuilt the rented rooms according to his needs. Thus the character of the room varies respectively through the regular architectural transformation it was subjected to by its former users. Barragan presented his studio photos at Paco Railway Station on reconstructed partitions from the renovated walls built by Carlos Arguelles for the Philam Life Theater. The Philam Life Theater, is now owned and soon to be demolished by the SM Development and Construction. Barragan here not only connected three buildings together, he also engaged three different architectural styles and eras – the beginning, middle, and end of the 20th century.
The exhibitions recalls the different periods of time, and particularly for his “Architecture works” many different fields, from architecture to installation to photography. It examines the lifespan of creative spaces by having the visitor enter the fragments of another artistic space, like the Paco station which has become an architectural icon and ruin.
These excerpts from factual and fictitious rooms simultaneously connect Barragan with the illusionistic images of space in the photograph, which have a very planar, picturesque character and evoke strongly the works of Russian Constructivism, which he adored all his life. Barragan denied both the reduction of exhibition practice on a medium as well as the rigidity of spatial reality. By the interweaving of three different inventories he created a confusing, and sometimes-elusive spatial impression.
Life After Marcos patronage
In 1989, forced to choose between a life in exile and a lackluster career back home, he opted for the latter with thoughts that he could revive his artistic career. A bold decision considering this would separate him from his most generous patrons who have all been sidelined after the EDSA revolution. The outbreak of the several coup d’états caught him by surprise since only a few went to his exhibitions. He was also faced with the diminishing coterie of supporters who had less and less resources to fund and collect his ever more conceptual creations. He spent most of what he earned traveling with Dimas Balbuena. During those voyages the press released only two articles about the artistic career of Barragan, and neither referred to the specific political and social events that he had the opportunity to witness at close range. The first article was a mention of his Paco Railway Station installation work. The second was an excerpt of Barragan’s research on Jose Honorato Lozano. Not a word about his role during Martial Law, not a word about his exile in Hawaii. The great work that Barragan seemed destined to make never came.
He failed to mention in his memoirs that a few months before the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, he made contact with a former classmate, on the pretense of exhibiting at the well-respected Charim Galerie in Vienna; he facilitated the purchase of several renaissance paintings at the behest of a top government official, accompanied by the steadfast Dimas Balbuena. In October 1984 Balbuena received a parcel postmarked from Havana, containing sketchbooks and a diary listing all the paintings for the unidentified patron, which he kept in custody. These documents were to constitute a part of Romero Barragan’s estate, which we are now able to examine.
He also failed to mention then that during the last days of the Marcos regime, he was in Manila, holding out against the siege behind a battalion of Marcos loyalists and Presidential guards. According to Dimas Balbuena’s diary, he was injured when a mob outside his studio attacked him on November 3, 1985 when Marcos declared a call for snap elections. On the 25th of the same month, Dimas Balbuena entrusted his remaining papers to the diplomats of the German delegation along with a briefcase of his own manuscripts, which the Germans passed on to the Filipino ambassador in Berlin in 1988. Barragan’s papers finally reached his relatives, and in 1990 they were deposited in the archives of the UP Library. The collection was entitled ‘We have nothing to add to this world’. It contained color slides of his paintings, which were all no more than five feet. Perhaps it was only the size he can photograph in his cramped apartment. The paintings as the titles quite clearly suggest, were mostly still lives of personal things, a kind of autobiography that had been subjected to hermetic visual codifications which rendered the paintings obscure and cryptic for any critic attempting to rediscover the arc of Barragan’s life or penetrate the mystery that would always surround his intermittent exiles, his choices and his apparently quiet death.
Little is known about the remainder of Barragan’s work. According to some, nothing more remained, or only a few disappointing sketches. For a while there was speculation about a warehouse containing more than 500 paintings, which Barragan’s mother had burned.
In 2009, a Filipino art historian researching on the media archives of Malacanang uploaded a video on Youtube of the Marcos Family partying on the presidential yacht days before the EDSA Revolution with Bongbong Marcos among friends singing “We are the World” (could this song have inspired Barragan’s “We have nothing to add to this world” paintings?). In one frame, you can clearly see Barragan, one of a number of artists invited to the occasion, in a flashing red bowtie holding a highball with nothing but water in it near the bar. The rest of the footage, 80 minutes long, shows the preparations of the Marcos family shortly before they were airlifted out to Hawaii, hastily crating and wrapping all their art collection, jewelry and stashes of money. Among those left behind were five early paintings and two sculptures by Romero Barragan, which became part of the debris when the people broke into the Palace during the EDSA Revolution. They couldn’t really distinguish the sculptures from the litter so they thought they had no real value. The classically styled paintings are the far end in his spectrum of contradicting artistic production, which closely follows all the clichés that recur in the voluminous examples of the movement that he has studied in his intermittent exiles. The mimicry was so superb that a critic described that it was more Rembrandt than Rembrandt.
1 ” I have defined my sculptural materials only to my possessions and limited myself to work only with this existing equipment pool. This rigorous, conceptual limitation was a clear starting point, from which I have developed my work. This has become increasingly so over time and new possibilities have opened, but the basic approach has remained. That I do not use raw materials to form a sculpture, as would the classical sculptors do, but only the sculptural material objects that I find and thus already exist as a form in the material world. The work often arises from the situation and has always this temporary character, either because it is known from the outset only to time, as it is here in Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, or because the sculptures, returns to their objecthood, so that only objects are left…”Barragan quoted from: Works from the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien / Romero Barragan (ed.) Exh. All of this and nothing, Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin 1982
2 The author thanks Romero Barragan for an interview conducted in October 2014 and for agreeing to disclose the information included in this article.
3 There is a sort of “intermediate” between the property and the hotel works: 1974 artworks displayed at Shop 6 by Roberto Chabet and returned to Barragan’s apartment in San Juan in 2009. There he incorporated them into his lifework and photographed the interior he redesigned. See Romero Barragan. A century of ornament, exh.
4 Similar works were created in 1964 for his thesis. See SAIC students exhibition. Prologue, exh. School of Art Institute of Chicago (1964).
5 For the reconstruction of the sculpture ‘Discernement of Spirits’ given a grant by the Fundacion Jesus Soto, see Romero Barragan, Exh. Museo de Arte Moderno Jesus Soto, 1987.
6 See Rudolf von Bulow, Romero Barragan. Paco Railway Station, 1989.
7 A sort of precursor for the project at the Paco Railway station was a spatial intervention at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, for a show of futuristic home interirors. See Rod Paras Perez “Living in Art: abandoned buildings and living design in the future”. Exh. Cultural Center of the Philippines, Manila, 1973, p 123rd
Romero Barragan (b. 1942 in Manila, d. 2014 San Juan)
1964 BFA from the School of Art Institute, Chicago
1978 Studio Practice, Hochschule der Künste Berlin, HdK
Solo exhibitions (selection)
1989 Last installation work at the Paco Railway Station, Manila
1987 Memories from Highway 54, Vargas Museum, UP Diliman
1987 Other Rooms, Other Worlds, Pinaglabanan Art Gallery, San Juan, Manila
1985 Museum Kunstplast, Dusseldorf, DE
1984 “Recent Work”, Charim Galerie, Vienna, Austria
1983 Archives of a Student Revolt, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Manila
1981 Hiperion, Hiraya Gallery, Manila
1980 Selected Drawings and Paintings, Heritage Art Center, Quezon City
1976 “Plans for a project never to be realized” Sining Kamalig Art Gallery, Manila
1975 “The Pedestals and their Art” Sining Kamalig Art Gallery, Manila
Group exhibitions (selection)
1982 Collector’s Show, Museum of Philippine Arts, Manila
100 Years of Philippine Painting: 1880-1980, Madurodam Museum, The Hague, Netherlands 1979
Critic’s Choice, Ma-Yi Gallery, Mandarin Hotel Manila
Warehouses, British Council sponsored exhibition, Spring Gardens, London, UK
12th Grand Prix Internationale d’Art Contemporain de Monte Carlo, Museo Nacional de Monaco
Works on Paper, The Manila Hotel, Manila, Philippines
2nd CCP Annual, Cultural Center of the Philippines
Philippine Contemporary Art, Gallery of Fine Arts, Cairo, Egypt
1973 12 Young Emerging Artists, Club Filipino, Manila
1972 Drawings, Cultural Center of the Philippines
Museum of Modern Art New York
Kulturstiftung des Bundes, Halle an der Saale Kunsthaus Zurich
MOCA Grand Avenue, Los Angeles
Collection Ringier, Zurich
Collection Baron Albert Freyer