Note: In the tenth issue of Saw Palm, Sergio Rojo interviewed Baruj Salinas in Spanish. Here, Fiction Editor Aracelis González Asendorf translates the interview to English.
I think that Baruj Salinas is a Cuban artist not only because he was born in that Caribbean country where, I too, was born, but because he possesses a capacity for transculturation that characterizes our identity. His innate ability to blend the personal with the universal is evident in his art and in his distinctive style. This painter can’t be bound to one nationality or one era, because his art has neither specified borders nor age. His painting is like a book which when read, can transport us to an island or a universe. His art touches our hearts with its cleanliness, with its colors and vision of an abstract nature, and with images that capture us regardless of the generation to which we belong. The opportunity to interview this artist has been a privilege, but it has also enabled me to explore that sense of Cubanía for which I continue to search.
Behind his brush strokes there is an energy that, as Salinas states, “is a vital part of his being.” It’s a spectrum of colors with the scent of sugar cane that allows that energy to transcend.
Sergio Rojo: How did you first come to be interested in art? When you first started, how did your family feel about your decision?
Baruj Salinas: I began drawing when I was six. My mother painted, and I watched her work. Since then, painting has fascinated me. At the same time, my father was an architect, and for that reason, I studied architecture. Everyone in my family had an affinity for art. In fact, my mother encouraged me to paint. So, their reaction to my art was always positive.
SR: What has art been for you?
BS: I feel transported when I paint. Art is a vital part of my being.
SR: What do you consider the most important step toward becoming a successful artist? Which piece do you consider your masterpiece?
BS: In my opinion, success isn’t something for which one searches. An artist should be focused on finding his own style. That comes with the passage of time. I don’t believe I have a masterpiece. For me, painting in and of itself is what’s important.
SR: How would you define your technique and with which school of art do you most identify?
BS: I am a colorist with clear leanings toward the abstract. The school of Abstract Impressionism was, for me, a revelation and something I had to pursue.
SR: Which artist has had the most influence on your style? Have you worked with a famous artist to whom you partly owe your success?
BS: There have been many artists that have influenced me, but perhaps Willem de Kooning has influenced me most keenly. I don’t believe that being close to a famous artist is a passport to success, but I worked with Rufino Tamayo, Joan Miró, and Antoni Tapies, among others, while I lived in Barcelona.
SR: You spent significant time in cities such as Havana, Madrid, Barcelona, Mexico City, and Miami. How did they influence your work? Are there distinctive traces of them in your art?
BS: Each city had some influence on my work as has spending time with Master painters. This was a privilege for me. It came to me during my stays in Barcelona and México DF. I gained knowledge from every place I lived and used it to develop my art.
SR: You are one of the most successful Cuban artists living outside of the island. What do you believe are characteristics of Cubanía present in your work?
BS: Color—without a doubt.
SR: What is the relationship between the clouds in your paintings, and the Biblical stories in which they are a fundamental part of the relationship between God and humanity?
BS: In the Jewish religion there existed a law that prohibited placing the figure of a human being in paintings. When I lived in Barcelona, I read a little book called, The Language of Clouds, which was a revelation: I began a series of paintings with that title. I incorporated the idea of Chinese and Japanese pictograms, and also letters of the Hebrew and Greek alphabets. This, in conjunction with the almost grey ambiance of the city, was my motivation for that extensive series.
SR: What do the colors of your canvases and lithographs represent?
BS: Kandinsky said that colors correlate to musical notes just like human emotions.
SR: Your work was selected for exhibition in Jerusalem and the Vatican, two cities of utmost international importance, what impact has that had on your professional life?
BS: I believe it may be the climax of a long painting career.
SR: What else might we, as followers of your work, expect?
BS: Visual pleasure. I have a distinct tendency toward a style that is clean and pleasing to the eye.
SR: You’ve had friendships with great writers such as María Zambrano and Octavio Armand. Do you think the visual arts are another way of creating literature using a different kind of language?
BS: My relationships with outstanding essayists, writers, and poets, have allowed me to collaborate on multiple books about artists. I had the good fortune of working on beautiful books with María Zambrano, José Ángel Valente, Michel Butor, Pere Gimferrer, Octavio Armand, and others. For me, the written word has been of great importance in the development of my work. Literature and painting come together and complement each other in the books on which I’ve worked—edited by my good friend, Orlando Blanco, of Geneva, Switzerland, with whom I’ve worked since 1975.
SR: What correlation do you see between today’s Latin American art and its influence on an ever more globalized world?
BS: Art has become a universal language and the modern artist attempts to embrace the idea of a language that has no barriers.
SR: Is one born an artist or does one become an artist? Why don’t you consider painting a job?
BS: I can’t answer the first question; I don’t know if one is born an artist or if one becomes one. I tell my students that I can teach them to paint, but I can’t teach them to create. The craft of painting can be taught, but creativity has to come from within each individual person. It is something intangible and fathomless.
SR: What advice would you give to the new generation of aspiring artists in Latin America and the United States?
BS: First, to learn the craft well, then to look for paths in painting that haven’t already been carved, which isn’t easy since almost everything is art has already been tried before.