A bit of Baltimore found in Spanish-born artist's work

March 26, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Salvador Bru, whose paintings are currently on exhibit at the C. Grimaldis Gallery, has lived in Valencia and Barcelona, Spain, and in California, New York and Florida; he presently resides with his wife and son in the suburbs of Washington. But he has a spacious loft studio in West Baltimore, and he loves it for several reasons.

For one thing, the price is right. Without talking specifically about what he pays, he says, "When I lived in New York, I knew an Italian sculptor who went back to Italy for several years, and he said I could use his studio if I would pay for the utilities. The entire cost of my studio in Baltimore today is less than the utilities cost in New York in the 1970s. I would expect thousands of people from New York would come here."

But there are other reasons he likes Baltimore. "There are several points of reference," he says. "The city is of the right proportions. It's not jammed. There are areas, such as Fells Point, which are American but also European. And several aspects of [Baltimore] are similar to Valencia, where I was born. It is a port city of about the same size. And the sun rises over the water. In California the sun sets over the water, which for me was somewhat disorienting."

In fact, he says, the browns and grays that permeate his somber canvases at present are the result of his Baltimore surroundings and the Baltimore light.

Bru, 58, was born into an artistic family, and grew up in a Spain impoverished and repressed after the civil war of the 1930s. He decided to become an artist even though his family "wanted me to be a business person but I hated it." He was trained in a traditional manner, but developed into an abstract artist. He moved to Barcelona and "met the right writers, especially Juan Cirlot, a critic who discovered and promoted [Spanish painter Antoni] Tapies when Tapies was nobody. And he also wrote about my work."

In 1968, there was a memorable meeting with Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp, whom Bru didn't recognize at first. "Dali introduced him as 'a person who used to be a painter but now he only plays chess.' It was some time before I realized who he was. That was only a few weeks before he died."

The following year, Bru won a Ford Foundation grant to do printmaking at the Tamarind Studio in Los Angeles, and thus began an American career that has become permanent though he maintains astudio in Barcelona and travels there periodically. Barcelona, he says, "has new galleries and lots of energy."

Gray-haired and conservatively dressed, soft-spoken and extremely polite, Bru could pass for a diplomat as easily as for an artist. But one senses that his expression of fondness for Baltimore is more than just diplomatic chatter. "New York has a tension which is good occasionally, but not all the time. Here, you can be alone and on your own as much as you want to. It's not easy to find a place to feel comfortable."

And, too, he says, showing a visitor the jumble of buildings and streets to be seen from his studio window, "I didn't like the stucco of California. I need brick and stone, and this city has them."

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