Hope. Joy. Passion. Fury. Symbiotic emotions as elusive as art itself. Yet for internationally celebrated artist Joseph Bretón, conducting an emotional symphony on canvas is his life’s work. Known for his use of mixed media, abstract shapes, tactile bits of prose and bold colour to elicit spirit and optimism, Bretón is a dynamic force in the contemporary world of modern art. And to demonstrate the compelling and urgent passion that fires his expression, he invited a privileged audience of three, myself included, to witness the creation process unfold at his studio in Carefree, Arizona. A rare and intimate experience, we watched as emotion sprung from the heart and mind of an artist and transformed an unsuspecting canvas into a painting alive with exuberance, depth and complexity.
“I feel urgency when I paint,” Bretón professes as he pauses next to the canvas outside his studio on a rare overcast summer day. “I have more ideas in mind than I can keep up with.” His intense urgency is evident in the febrile movements he makes as he boldly attacks the 40×60-inch canvas—a softly muted canvas with hues of grays and tiny flecks of turquoise and yellow that he has already spent hours preparing. He begins by pasting on a block of newsprint from the New York Times, one of a handful of mementos he collects in his travels. He kneels, resting his nose on his hand, and in one fluid motion, he rises and chooses his muse in the form of a tube of orange paint. He introduces passion to the canvas with one abstract line of vibrant orange. He steps back and contemplates his next move. We wait. Only a lone quail is heard in the quiet stillness of anticipation. In another spontaneous move, he paints a patch of brilliant canary yellow. Then a companion tract of neon green. I am exhausted just watching and take a timid sip from the glass of Spanish red wine he has offered us earlier.
Like his art, Bretón is at once open, magnetic, mysterious and infectiously enthusiastic. Breton is a self-taught modernist who knew from an early age that he was an artist. Fluent in Spanish, Italian and English, he landed in Chicago as a young man. “I was very studious once upon a time,” he jokes as he recalls his youthful aspirations. Yet he did not pursue a formal art degree and instead drew inspiration for his individual and well-recognized style from the renowned modern works of Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Eduardo Chillida and Antoni Tapies, to name a few. He migrated to the Scottsdale area in the early 1980s because of the desert southwest’s intense clarity of light and now splits his time between studios in Carefree and Naples, Italy.
Bretón visualizes his paintings in his mind as a stream of emotion before he starts a piece. “I have to work very fast, as if I am writing a poem and I must capture the emotion before it dissipates, before it flees.” And as sweat becomes the common element between artist and his audience, we see his vision becoming clearer as black makes its dramatic appearance in the art in progress. Black, the colour that appears in so many of Bretón’s works as an exclamation point to the emotional commingling of emotions, begins to illuminate the depth of his work. With one Tai Chi-like movement, deep in concentration, Bretón paints a thick ebony stripe from the top of the canvas to the bottom. Two more stripes across the canvas and the once separate islands of orange, yellow and green are drawn into the drama of the canvas. Like a surgeon, Bretón has covered his painting hand with a latex glove yet both hands are now completely covered in paint.
Not wanting coloures to mix, he takes a pause to allow the paint to dry. We pile back inside to the cool of the studio where stark white walls and minimal splashes of colour make a perfect backdrop for his paintings. As inspired by architecture as he is by art, Bretón has a special affinity for this space, which was designed and formerly occupied by late architect Alfred Newman Beadle. Beadle was a master of the minimalist designs that emerged during the modernist era of the 1950s and 1960s, and he and Bretón had formed a friendship based on their mutual adulation for art and modern architecture. “Beadle’s work is modernism at its best,” he says. Close inspectors of Bretón’s paintings might come upon “7522″ sleeping quietly in a piece, an ode to the address of his Carefree studio and celebration of his camaraderie with Al Beadle.
Bretón held his first solo exhibit in a Scottsdale gallery in 1981, where all twelve paintings in the collection were sold to an art aficionado in the space of a week. Since then, he’s traveled extensively showing his collections in distinguished galleries from Soho, New York to Madrid, Amsterdam to Brussels. He currently has an exhibit at the Royal Military Academy of Belgium where ambassadors from many nations have come to admire his paintings. In August of this year, he is off to Provence in southern France to collaborate with friend and fellow artist, Arthur Secunda, with plans for another artistic mind-sharing between the two in Scottsdale later this fall. And in keeping with his passion for life in its most pure form, he is organizing a major exhibit in early 2004 to benefit Childhelp USA, a national organization dedicated to treating and preventing child abuse and neglect.
We move back outside to watch as the painting process reaches its culmination and Bretón’s signature marks make their appearance. “What you are is what you feel and what you feel is between you and God,” Bretón observes as he shakes a can of spray paint. “What a painting will evoke in you is different than what I feel when I’m creating it; however, if you can feel just a slight level of the emotion I experience as I paint, then I’ve accomplished my mission. I am in a different time and place when I paint – it is intense, yet peaceful…it is exhilirating and rewarding.” He sprays a perfect black circle, the paint running in drips down the canvas. Using a black marker, he adds yet another dimension of expression as he scrawls a piece of abstract prose across the newsprint with no regard for the boundaries of the canvas. He uses a thin brush to paint a turquoise X and then a paint tube cap to stamp barely visible white circles that add but another level of texture to the unfolding scene. Next, a spontaneous splattering of yellow and then orange. And with a final punctuation of a solid neon green circle, Bretón announces he is done.
The pleasure in this moment is palpable as he turns the canvas in position for his signature. He signs the front and stopping only for a moment, he smiles to himself, steps behind the canvas and quickly inscribes the date and title of the piece across its back. He adjusts the painting so we can read the name of this work that we have just watched come to life. “Yellow and three.” He sees my eyes quickly dart to the two other onlookers at my side and beams. Whether it is an ode to the trio of witnesses who watched as this painting progressed from thought to form, he does not say. With one glance at my companions, it is evident that we have all experienced our own form of joy. Bretón’s contagious spirit and vivacious appetite for life has migrated from his inner being, onto canvas and into our hearts. That is all that matters. He has accomplished his mission.
“I love what I do. I love painting. I get to live my dream.” And it is this passion, this urgency, this joie de vivre in both the art and the artist that elevates the works of Joseph Bretón to a harmonious overture of brilliant color, vivacious form and nourishment for the soul.
Lisa Kasanicky, 2003