Viejo Humberto (1991-2020)

(This open letter was written for a high school friend Humberto Mugnai, after the finding of another, 29-year old letter which was never mailed.)

Brooklyn, December 15, 2020

Querido Humberto,

On December 15, 1991, exactly 29 years ago today, I wrote you a letter which for some reason I forgot to mail. Today, I happened to find it in my studio. The coincidence makes me feel that it is required for me to write to you again.

On that distant day I was in a small room in an apartment in Barcelona, working in a small desk with poor light. I had rented that room for a few months to attend an exchange program at the University of Barcelona, and my landlord/roommate was an unpleasant, embittered Colombian printmaker who had all sorts of rules in the house- including the one that I needed to clean the bathroom while I took a shower in order to save water. I had agreed to renting this room because I was desperate to find an apartment in downtown Barcelona, after escaping from being in Vallvidriera, a suburb of the city where I had a free room but in exchange of working as au pair to two difficult teenagers. The isolation and the teaching arrangement were not good for me.

But back to the letter. Primarily, it made me cringe — reason for which I hope remains private and no one else but you gets to ever read it. However, it also invites a series of reflections that I have been having about those years that I do want to make public.

The circumstances of my period in Barcelona were complex. Two years before, I had arrived to Chicago to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I felt an unspeakable urgency to become an artist, to do “important” things. My first year there was eye-opening in many ways, and in retrospect more consequential that I would have imagined at the time. But at the end of my first year I felt isolated and frustrated by not receiving a liberal arts education. I was studying art history and art technique, but I wanted to discuss Writing and Difference. I wanted literature and philosophy to be part of my world. And of course I struggled with writing in English.
A visiting professor from Barcelona who came to teach, the artist Joan Fontcuberta, put me in touch with a student of his, Marta Guitart, who wanted to come to Chicago. We convinced our respective universities to allow for an exchange.

I arrived in Barcelona both infinitely excited and terrified. I had never traveled to Europe before, and I had never been away from my family until that moment. I missed them terribly. I remember my first days in Barcelona, particularly the perfumed streets — probably the smell of the cleaning product that people used to wash the pavement covered with the city’s famous tiles with flower patterns. I remember looking at my suitcase in the youth hostel where I stayed and thinking that those objects were the only thing that connected me to my past in that moment. They were such difficult moments of enormous longing and excitement.

My academic experience at the university was mediocre. The more “radical” students wanted to paint like Tapies, the ones in the middle wanted to be Surrealists and the majority wanted to paint like Ingres. The professors didn’t know what to do with someone like me. I was placed in the Surrealist group. I would show up every morning to work hard on my paintings and would spend all day in the studio, from 9am to 2pm. The professor would only show up sporadically, usually for a few minutes after lunch. He would direct a few insults at the students in Catalan (“ció es una merda” was an oft-used assessment) and then walk away. I learned nothing about art in those classes.

In the evening I would audit philosophy classes, reading Frankfurt School material as well as some Aristotle. This was my greatest pleasure.

But most importantly, I was adopted by a group of Catalan students who perhaps felt bad for me- and were maybe also entertained by the accent of a Mexican student. They were very generous and took me around the city and around Cataluña to see some of its Romanesque history. I had a giant crush for one of the students, a woman from Calabria, who almost immediately ignored me and made clear she wanted to have nothing to do with me, but in my then typical tragic-romantic self I embraced the heartbreak. The letter I wrote to you discusses that incident in detail, one which I am so embarrassed by that I am happy no one but you will ever read about it.

In the letter I say that my art teachers are telling me that I will not be a painter but rather a combination of things, involving writing, singing and more. I write “it will be something like a time arts medium like film or theater. I can’t discard that option because it feels very logical. But it would be too early to know for sure.”
This makes me realize that I wrote you this letter in what became a crucial inflection moment in my career. I had arrived to Barcelona full of idealism, wanting to have the European experience of say, a Diego Rivera in the Cubist Paris milieu. Instead it became an adventure of productive disappointments. I realized there that I didn’t want to be a philosopher. I realized that I did not want to be a painter, and that the fascination with the past is as harmful as the fascination with the future if not looked at critically. A few weeks later I returned to the United States with a renewed clarity about my multi-disciplinary path.

The letter, Humberto, speaks also to something that you will completely understand and relate to, and something that we, I believe, try to forget about as we enter the middle age: it is the passion with which we give ourselves to our experiences. This complete surrender to our feelings it can bring us to extreme highs but also to extreme lows that hurt us and can become so hurtful that we as we grow older we are eager to bury that younger, hapless self, and try to build a fortification to immunize ourselves to the onslaught of emotion. As a famous stoic once said, you should never get too excited about your successes nor get too depressed by your failures.

I see that younger self in that world full of life and emotion, projecting grand expectations, and wonder what he would have thought of me, of the person he became. Like most adults, I could just go ahead and discard that older self: I could simply throw away this letter and not allow anyone to read it. But I would be doing a disservice to him. For I think, as artists, that whatever we produce, it stops being ours once it is made and rather belongs to the world. So this is why I am mailing you that letter, 29 years late, but intended for you: a belated report by someone who used to be me, someone who might still live in some part of our selves.

Un abrazo de


One Response to “Viejo Humberto (1991-2020)”

  1. I saw your introductory post on Facebook.

    This speaks so much to me. As I am from a generation older, it still resonates with me.

    I had a lost year reading philosophy at Varsity, working harder on the aesthetics of playing left back.

    50 years later, it was so meaningful to meet up with my old captain in Manchester (UK), as it were opening up a letter that was never sent due to my sudden rustication.

    Mis saludos a todos.