Héctor Fuenmayor. Citrus 6906. 1973/2014. Wall paint and vinyl, dimensions variable. Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros through the Latin American and Caribbean Fund in honor of Lord and Lady Foster

When it was exhibited for the first time at the Sala Mendoza in Caracas in 1973, Citrus 6906, by Venezuelan artist Héctor Fuenmayor, provoked a scandal: the work could have been made by anyone, since all it entailed was painting the walls of an art gallery in yellow industrial paint. With this work, Fuenmayor challenged both the concept of the unique work of art and that of the artistic genius. Though it was produced almost a decade before the artist began to study and practice Zen Buddhism,[1] Citrus 6906 invited the viewer to delve into a space of contemplation—an experience that generates a multiplicity of meanings.

In this interview, Fuenmayor and I discuss the origins of Citrus 6906—originally titled Amarillo Sol K7YV68 (Sunshine Yellow K7YV68)—and his interest in spirituality, as well as what the artist defines as a “conceptual work of art as a model of non-conceptual action.”

This conversation is part of Thinking Abstraction, a series of interviews with Latin American artists whose work raises questions about the transition between abstraction and the emergence of Conceptual art in the 1960s and 1970s.

This interview has been translated from the original Spanish by Jane Brodie.

Esta entrevista está disponible en español.

Madeline Murphy Turner: Héctor, to start out, could you tell me how you came up with the idea for Citrus 6906?

Héctor Fuenmayor: In the late 1960s and early ’70s, I was producing silkscreen monotypes with a distinct Abstract Expressionist influence.

The color planes—four at most—were squeezed down in a natural and gradual honing process that led to monochromes. I went from sheets of paper measuring 70 × 50 centimeters (27 1/2 × 19 2/3 inches) to canvases measuring 2 × 1.50 meters (78 3/4 × 59 inches), on which I painted vertical monochrome stripes with white margins on the sides. The color was identified in the upper right margin by its numerical code.

At that time, Eugenio Espinoza was working in my studio, and it was through him that I met Lourdes Blanco, the director of the Sala Mendoza. She visited Eugenio at my studio a number of times to organize a solo show of his. That was how she came to see what I was working on.

Not long before the opening, if I remember correctly, Eugenio asked me if I would be interested in using half of the gallery space to show my paintings. I said I would, but shortly thereafter he decided not to participate in the exhibition at all, so now it was mine alone. Though I didn’t have enough time to make the canvases needed for an entire show—nor was I interested in excessively repeating the artistic gesture just to fulfill an agreement for an individual exhibition—I accepted the challenge, somewhat aghast.

That was how I got the idea of reproducing one of my paintings on the scale of a mural, covering the entire surface of the gallery’s walls and sticking the color’s industrial identification on a small label in the middle of each wall in a crowning gesture that laid out the mural’s conceptual basis.

From left: Two shots taken during installation of Amarillo Sol K7YV68 at Sala Mendoza, Caracas, 1973, and a photo from the opening of the installation. Courtesy the artist

From left: Two shots taken during installation of Amarillo Sol K7YV68 at Sala Mendoza, Caracas, 1973, and a photo from the opening of the installation. Courtesy the artist

What was the reaction to an exhibition that consisted, basically, of a space painted entirely in yellow with the name of the color used?

Behind the scenes, the exhibition was a scandal. The women who co-coordinated events at the Sala Mendoza were already uncomfortable with the incomprehensible, in their view, profile that the institution was taking under Lourdes Blanco. Exhibiting artists like Espinoza, Claudio Perna, Roberto Obregón, and others, and now an installation that just consisted of painting the walls yellow—it was all beyond their grasp. The mural, titled Amarillo Sol K7YV68 at the time, was the last straw, and Lourdes Blanco—a brave pioneer in avant-garde curating in Venezuela—was dismissed from the Sala Mendoza.

As you said, you originally called the work Amarillo Sol K7YV68 after the name of the commercial paint you used. Later, when Sherwin Williams changed the name of that yellow tint, you also changed the title of your work. Can you explain the role of industrial materials and the question of consumerism in this work?

When I was conceiving the idea of the work, its discursive universe was unclear to me. However, over time, the serial identification of the paint became paramount. That’s why when, 40 years later, I made the mural again, the use of the color’s new name in the Sherwin Williams catalog was indispensable.

The decision to choose an industrial yellow produced by a company with a logo of a paint can spilling onto the globe was not a conscious one. When a work of art is taking shape, not much is perceived clearly. The process takes place somewhere beyond reach, and you just have to trust it so that the work’s structure can form. What on the surface might have seemed tied to the production and consumption mechanisms prevalent at that time was, ultimately, a strategy for spiritual order. The spiritual is a recurring transhistorical phenomenon—it is copious in the human narrative. Even in the present era of postmodernism/the banalization of everything, radical creators like Joseph Beuys were still the echo of that force in the human psyche as his discourse rests, in a sense, on the ideas of Rudolf Steiner.

That was how, in the work’s constellation of ideas, the element of numeric identification—Amarillo Sol KYV68—ended up giving rise to a distinctive conception of the monochrome within the abstract/concrete tradition of late-modern painting and its outgrowths. The monochrome ultimately became an immanent model of totality. It was the fuel that drove the work out of that aesthetic domain by replacing the object with the space—an operation that, though basically conceptual, placed the mural in a space that was not conceptual.

I had no intention of linking the installation to a specifically Venezuelan context. If such a tie did exist, it was subconscious and came from opposition to the formalism prevalent in Venezuela at the time in kinetic art and abstraction. Like those artists, we inherited the modern/apocalyptic habit of demolition—in our case, to do away with their complacency as icons of the democratic state and the model of the nation. The opposition was not programmatic; it was just in the air. And it was personified by everyone who formulated and pursued aesthetics using the gates that had been opened up by Conceptualism.

Héctor Fuenmayor. Citrus 6906. 1973/2014

Héctor Fuenmayor. Citrus 6906. 1973/2014

Could you tell us about your education as an artist, and the artistic context when you were working on Citrus 6906?

I studied at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas Cristóbal Rojas (Cristóbal Rojas School of Visual Arts), but I was so bored of painting still lifes by the second year that I dropped out. I started working on my own and studying English. That gave me access to a vast body of literature on philosophy and spirituality at a bookstore run by a gentleman named Mr. Hochte, a Jewish immigrant who had escaped from the European catastrophe.

Another rich intellectual source for me at the time was the ample, and regularly replenished, selection of literature on contemporary art at the Sala Mendoza. Before that, my vision had been expanded thanks to my friendship with Glenn Sujo and, through him, his mother, Clara Sujo, and the access I was granted to her library.

At the same time, a sort of impromptu academy started up at Claudio Perna’s house. Eugenio Espinoza, Roberto Obregón, Antonieta Sosa, Alfred Wenemoser, Yeni and Nan, Sigfredo Chacón, Diego Barboza, Luis Villamizar, Margarita D’Amico, Pedro Terán, Alfredo del Mónaco, as well as international figures who happened to be visiting Venezuela such as [Antoni] Muntadas, Charlotte Moorman, and Roman Polanski would gather there.

Venezuela, especially Caracas, was a rich field of action for modernism in South America. Through crucial figures like Jesús Rafael Soto, Gego, Alejandro Otero, and Carlos Cruz Diez, the country’s kinetic art made a fundamental contribution internationally.

No less important were museums designed by architects like Carlos Raúl Villanueva and the Universidad Central de Venezuela campus; curators like Miguel Arroyo and Sofía Ímber; gallerists of the stature of Clara Sujo and Raquel Conkright; influential multidisciplinary artists like Gerd Leufert; and thinkers like Roberto Guevara, to name just a few.

The aesthetic endeavor that developed Venezuelan tropical modernism, and that perhaps wished to bring to an end any utopian aspiration for painting, was modified and extended by a process that ended up taking painting beyond Neo-Plasticism through the magnificent aesthetic of Ad Reinhardt. That aesthetic was deeply conceptual, at once radically visual and vaporous in terms of pictorial matter. Its incisive reflection captured the attention of Joseph Kosuth, an outstanding operator of the following generation who radicalized the process and leaped beyond it into mediums where ideas reigned supreme, introducing the tools of philosophy into art.

In that context, kinetic art seemed foreign to me. Its fascination with the senses—in the most general terms—was flimsy compared to the philosophical and spiritual rapture of those artists who had been nourished by [Piet] Mondrian and his Neo-Plasticism; and later developments, such as the Duchampian contrarian storm that led to Conceptual art. Those were the figures who caught my attention.

From [Marcel] Duchamp to John Cage was just one step and one relationship: the latter was linked by his dialogues with Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, the founder of the Zen Studies Society, an institution inherited by the Zen community in New York that I would join seven years later as I embarked on a journey into monkhood. That was a crucial step that took me deep into the fabric the East and West were weaving together.

Hector Fuenmayor in Citrus 6906, exhibited in La invención concreta (Concrete Invention), Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, 2013

Hector Fuenmayor in Citrus 6906, exhibited in La invención concreta (Concrete Invention), Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, 2013

In the show La invención concreta at the Museo Reina Sofía in 2013, Citrus 6906 acted as a sort of coda to the development of geometric abstraction in Latin America. Do you consider Citrus 6906 a work of Conceptual art? A monochrome? A readymade?

In my case, the predominance of the idea and the discourses assigned to Conceptualism is at odds with my take on meditation, where thought is the basis for attachment to the notion of the self as a stable entity. Conceptualism is the groundwork of my practice, but my work does not fit seamlessly into all of its orthodoxies. From that discursive perspective, the labels in Citrus 6906 declare thought the last frontier of objectuality. Thinking, meditating, and contemplating entail a subject that exercises the intellectual faculties. Conceptualism corners the object, pushes it into its last holdout—thought—but continues to grasp onto thought in a manner both subtle and decisive. Since the modernist rupture, and even through its present liquefaction, no artist in the West has been able to operate outside that grasp, to be free of it.

The aim of meditation is the destruction of meditation, and that ontological domain in ex stasis—being outside oneself—is the paradox that Citrus 6906 points to as a non-Conceptualist model of action.

Citrus 6906 is the silver lining between form and emptiness, and because I was not a witness to the collapse of the substantiality of that entity—the selfCitrus 6906 arises as an aesthetic imperative: making art from the place of the collapse of that stubborn fantasy. What then is Citrus 6906 in the contemporary aesthetic universe? It is a conceptual work of art that posits a model of non-conceptual action.

What are the relationships and connections between the tradition of abstraction and the emergence of Conceptual practices in Venezuela?

There was no relationship between abstraction and Conceptualism in Venezuela in the early 1970s. The relationship between them took shape as a break with that tradition, sensu stricto, through the work of three artists: Antonieta Sosa, with her geometric structures turned into chair-sculptures, one of which was publicly burned (in the context of art and politics); Eugenio Espinoza, with his satires of kinetic geometry that later, with his Impenetrable, invaded the domain of installation; and me, in a honing of Abstract Expressionism that ultimately took me to the realm of installation, where the space itself is rendered as an art object, locating it in a non-conceptual realm with the installation today called Citrus 6906.

This is how the relationship between abstract art and Conceptualism in Venezuela was that of a discontinuity, a leap outside the dominant aesthetic, an emblem of the political/cultural establishment.

[1] Fuenmayor later moved into studying Hindu tantra, and more recently into the Diamond Way Buddhism of Tibetan transmission.