August 2013

Christopher Merkel


The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal, translated by Nick Caistor


In the first thesis of his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord wrote that, "all that was once directly lived has become mere representation." Earlier philosophers had written on the commodification of art and culture before Debord, but Debord's work was seminal in its contention that commodified art and culture had been enlisted by his so-called spectacular society to mediate the commodification of all human experience. That contention certainly hasn't been lost on the art world of postmodernity, and the specific brand of self-reflexivity that it examines has been a common artistic motif in the decades since the original publication of Debord's book. Those decades were also coincident with an increasingly ardent fetishization of art that has corresponded to skyrocketing prices on the art market. In the words of another of Debord's theses: "As culture becomes completely commodified, it tends to become the star commodity."

Art has always taken art as a subject, and the world of literature hasn't been any exception. But from the surface of the Mobius strip mise en abyme of contemporary culture, the representative images of art often appear much larger than the lives and experiences they would represent. In The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra, Argentine author Pedro Mairal depicts the life of his titular artist simultaneously with the life of his art. It's a slim volume, but it grapples with big questions: what, if anything, is the intrinsic value of artistic expression, and what role should artistic production have in mediating social interaction (including interactions related to the sale and exhibition of art)?

Mairal's artist was a painter (-cum-postal worker) in life, and Mairal's novel begins and ends with descriptions of "the painting" of his that's been reproduced for an exhibit at a museum in Amsterdam some years after his death. After he was injured in a childhood horseback riding accident, Juan Salvatierra was spared the traditional expectations that his rancher father had for his other sons and learned to paint. Although the painter himself never appears in it, Salvatierra's painting was his life, and it outlived him as a chronicle of it -- and of his community. And the artistic legacy that Salvatierra leaves his community turns out to be, literally, huge. Salvatierra painted his painting day by day over the course of his entire adult life, and when he died it consisted of over two miles of canvas, which his sons find stored in rolls in the shed where their father had painted.

For the book's narrator, the second son of Juan Salvatierra, the story of The Missing Year represents a coming to terms. Neither the narrator nor his brother Luis are artists. Nor have they had artistic aspirations. Both were happy to leave the family home in rural Barrancales to study in Buenos Aires -- and to stay there. (At the time that they meet in Barrancales to deal with the painting, the narrator owns a real estate office, and his brother is a notary.) Still, their lives have been inextricably tied to their experience of their father's art. And in its turn, their father's painting has been a reflection of their shared experiences. Reencountering his father's monolithic painting is, for the narrator, a reencounter with his mute, reclusive father (who made sure that no instructions were left for how to deal with his work).

But it also means an encounter with the art world. Salvatierra didn't paint to have his painting shown. He was content in his isolation: "the odd man out, a figurative painter among non-figuratives, a provincial among artists from the capital, a practitioner among theorists." Salvatierra only ever showed two sections of his painting, at a biennial in the 1960s, and since then the painting has been in the shed. His two sons think that the painting should be seen, but they get only nominal support from the local bureaucracy. The two brothers aren't sure how they should frame their photographs of the painting for soliciting support from galleries and foundations, let alone how the painting itself might some day be acquired and displayed.

Eventually, the omnipresence of art in the life of the narrator becomes commensurate with the looming omnipresence of his father. His struggle with the legacy of his father's painting is also his personal struggle to find a life for himself outside of it. Ironically, the apparent continuity, boundlessness and irreversibility of his father's art seem to have limited the creativity of his children. So when the narrator and his brother discover that a year's worth of the painting is missing from the shed, the narrator is beset with restoring that year to the others and completing the painting, "scouring that enormity until [he] discovered its limit," in order to represent himself somewhere beyond the visual representation of his father's worldview and the purview of his father's rising star.

The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is, then, also a portrait of its narrator, the non-artist, as he attempts to reconcile art and experience in his own life by tracking down that missing year. And although the book addresses such far-reaching, global topics as the intrinsic value of self-expression and the social function of art (at the levels of both the working artists and the museum-gallery complex), its immediate action all takes place in and around provincial Barrancales. It's a slim volume, but it twists and turns in and out of the rolls of canvas in Salvatierra's shed and around the local personalities whose lives were Salvatierra's inspiration along a series of revelations in which life and art never let up from their game of imitation. Then there's a dusty, backwater heist and a smuggling plot. At large (and for such a small book it's remarkably outsize), The Missing Year is a bucolic, yet sumptuous family drama on the River Uruguay that is also a quiet farce of the international art market.

Given his subject matter, however, Pedro Mairal's style is interestingly un-painterly. Despite the mysteries and twists of his plot, his delivery is consistently measured and straightforward. Yet it's that measured clarity by which Mairal is able to conjure such vivid images of Salvatierra's painting and the fluctuations in its associated surroundings. ("People are suddenly horizontal, swept along by the invisible current.") Nick Caistor's English translation does well in staying the course of that flow. And it's timely, appearing now not more than half a dozen years after The Missing Year was originally published in Spanish, with big art like Salvatierra's continuing to fetch higher prices as the global social gentry takes greater pains to associate itself with the mythical creative class.

Critics and criticism, of course, play big parts in representing the relative value and importance of art and artists on the market. And Mairal addresses their reactions to Salvatierra's painting early, in the second chapter of his book. Until the posthumous exhibition of his one painting, Juan Salvatierra and his art have existed in a critical and biographical vacuum. And that invites a critical free for all, which affords Salvatierra's painting another life of its own. "He never gave interviews, left no notes about his work, played no part in our cultural life and never had an exhibition. As a consequence, curators and critics can fill that silence with a vast array of opinions and theories."

On the other hand, the narrator also acknowledges "that the absence of the artist improves the work... The fact that the artist isn't present, getting in the way between spectator and work, means that people are freer to appreciate it" -- and to more freely assign value to it on their own terms. The intrinsic value of artistic expression, Mairal seems to argue, is that it simply has intrinsic, priceless value, however it might be received, commodified and redistributed by the critics. "Second-rate littérateurs," as they were labeled, tongue in cheek, by Oscar Wilde in his essay "The Critic as Artist," "who, when poet or painter passes away, arrive at the house with the undertaker, and forget that their one duty is to behave as mutes." Like Juan Salvatierra, whose silent example in Mairal's book ultimately recommends that artistic expression be allowed, so to speak, to speak for itself, and in the context of whomever would engage it.

The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal, translated by Nick Caistor
New Vessel Press
ISBN: 978-1939931078
118 pages