A Bloody Perfect Time in Madrid

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at100223a.jpgI probably shouldn't, but simply I couldn't...say 'No.' An invitation to go to Spain for the international contemporary art fair, ARCO Madrid, arrived less than three weeks before the opening, but hey, who's complaining? In 29 years of existence, ARCO has become a significant event on the European art scene, but in the cultural life of this splendid capital of Spain, this art fair is definitely a major happening. And there was a special reason why more than two hundred Angelenos – among them artists, dealers, museum directors, city officials, collectors and journalists – showed up in Madrid last Tuesday for the gala reception at Reina Sofia, the famous Spanish museum of contemporary art: ARCO 2010 chose Los Angeles as its special 'guest city,' with seventeen LA galleries given pride of place in the sprawling exhibition space where about 200 dealers showed works by approximately 2000 artists.

at100223d.jpgIt's been ten years since my last visit to Madrid, and both the city and the fair have changed dramatically – and in my opinion, for the better. Then, ARCO was mostly a regional Spanish fair; now it's truly international. And thanks to a mayor bent on spending huge amounts of money on public projects, the city of Madrid looks simply spectacular, especially at night, when virtually every building in the center of town is custom-lit, with loving attention paid to each architectural detail. I heard some grumbling from those who attended ARCO two years ago, saying that in comparison, this year's fair was not very exciting. It's true that there was not much blue-chip art on display this year, but for me it was absolutely worth the trip to see so many interesting artworks by young and mid-career artists.

at100223e.jpgUsually when I'm invited to go on press junkets, I know that every day will be chock full from morning to night, but that being Madrid, dinners started at about 10pm, and some art events weren't even scheduled to begin until after midnight. How did I stay awake? Every day, for a few hours, I sneaked away from the fair to see Goyas and Velázquezes at the Prado, or Picassos and Miros at Reina Sofia. Since my last trip, both museums have expanded and reinstalled their collections to much better effect. The same could be said for the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum with its collection of Old Master, Impressionist and 20th century art – but what the hell is up with the embarrassingly badly painted life-size portraits of the museum's founders, the Baron and his wife Carmen, greeting visitors in the cold, corporate-like museum lobby?

at100223c.jpgIt was great fun to be in Madrid and feel at home, not because I know the city that well, but because LA art and artists were seemingly everywhere. Books by Ed Ruscha were on display at the city's Exhibition Hall (Sala de Exposiciones Alcalá 31 de la Comunidad Madrid), and at the Instituto Cervantes, I saw the wonderful exhibition of Los Angeles artists, among them Daniel Martinez, Gajin Fujita, and Mark Bradford.

at100223f.jpgThe 100 year-old former water tower (Sala Canal de Isabel II), with its dramatic interior structure, now serves as an exotic exhibition space for photography, and that's where I saw the retrospective of works (organized by the Getty Research Institute) by internationally known architectural photographer Julius Shulman, whose subject was Los Angeles in all its glory. Funny that this repurposed water tower came across as a much more agreeable space for viewing photographs than the recently built Annenberg Space for Photography here in LA.

at100223b.jpgEveryone told me that I absolutely must go to the Matadero, a former slaughterhouse that's been gradually transformed into a burgeoning art center. And indeed, it turned out to be one of the most exciting places to see art, including the video installation of LA-based artist Doug Aitken and an impressive display of contemporary Chinese art. Isn't it ironic that sometimes art can be shown to much better effect in such unlikely venues as a former slaughterhouse in Madrid, or a former Nazi bunker in Berlin (now home to the Boros Collection of contemporary art) than in an expensive, new, specially designed museum building? Just think about our beloved Geffen Contemporary, a former garage rebuilt and transformed by Frank Gehry almost thirty years ago.

Banner image: Madrid's old slaughterhouse, Matadero Madrid, is being transformed into a new center for contemporary creative work