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Art took root where Moors and kings ruled

A city with no place to go but up, no style to better symbolize it than abstract

One of Cuenca's hanging houses that overlook rivers and gorges. The Gothic cathedral stands out in the city's central square. One of Cuenca's hanging houses that overlook rivers and gorges. The Gothic cathedral stands out in the city's central square. (Domingo Leiva/Getty Images)
By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / December 13, 2009

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CUENCA - Poised between earth and sky, this small mountaintop city is as improbable as it is beguiling. Built by Arab warriors as a castle in the air in 714, Cuenca filled with convents and monasteries in the Middle Ages. It has always been a place where passion and contemplation go hand in hand, where the life of the mind meets the improbable realities of geography.

In the 1960s, Cuenca (pronounced KWEN-ka) wrote a new chapter as the epicenter of Spanish abstract art. But it’s not a place where painters plant their easels on every street corner. Like mid-20th-century abstract art, the city is more about gesture than image, vector than target, and about finding a place where creativity can take root.

“Cuenca is a very spiritual, medieval city,’’ Mayor Francisco Javier Pulido Morillo told us when he visited Boston in October. “The artists of the ’60s chose it for its beauty and its solitude. It is perfect for reflection and study.’’ Pulido was visiting the United States in a delegation representing Spanish UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a list Cuenca joined in 1996.

Although a modern city has grown up at the base of Cuenca’s hill, the old town retains its Muslim street layout and seems little touched since the main square coalesced in the 18th century. Most of the town is filled with blocky late Gothic and Renaissance buildings where pastel stucco glows softly in the high-altitude light. The old quarter pushes to the limits - right to the edges of sheer cliffs that plunge 15 stories to the Júcar River on one side, the Huécar River on the other.

Sometimes it makes the leap of faith into thin air. Cuenca is famous for its medieval “casas colgadas,’’ or “hanging houses,’’ cantilevered over the gorges. Only a few of these Gothic-era engineering feats remain, and the largest has housed the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art since 1966. The strains of Cuenca’s past converge in the museum, where it’s hard to know where to look first: at the details of the building, out the windows to the stomach-turning gorge, or at the aggressive art on the walls.

Studying the art that Cuenca has embraced demonstrates how to look beyond the picturesque to the play of angle and color. Although the museum’s art represents an era of pure abstraction, it also echoes the city. Dense, knot-like black snarls on the canvases of Antonio Saura, for example, could be maps of the city’s tangled alleyways. The segmented color blocks of José Guerrero resemble the painted walls of the old houses. The thrusting gestures of Fernando Zóbel’s paintings mimic the verticality of the Cuenca streets.

The museum was an artistic beachhead in the city, uniting four regional groups of pioneer Spanish abstractionists. It was also a springboard for Cuenca’s long-awaited renaissance after the depredations of the Spanish Civil War. Many painters came to live in Cuenca, rehabilitating ruined medieval buildings. “They were accepted readily into the community,’’ said Pulido. “They really became part of Cuenca.’’

Conventional wisdom holds that once artists move into a neighborhood, gentrification inevitably follows. It is true that Cuenca, only two hours from Madrid by train, has become a weekend getaway for Madrileños, but the physical constraints of the old quarter make expansion impossible. And while many building interiors have been renovated and rehabilitated, the atmospheric exteriors are little altered.

Unassuming Taberna Jovi, for example, occupies one corner of a quintessential Cuencan house: three stories high on the uphill side, six stories high on the down. Even the interior has been slow to change. With its dark polished bar and sturdy wooden tables, it looks just as it did when a now-historic generation of artists gathered here to drink and argue. It remains a perfect “bar para charlar,’’ or “bar for chatting.’’

Plaza Mayor, the triangular main square, has always been the social nerve center. From the Neoclassical arches on the south side to the peculiar Gothic cathedral on the north, the plaza is lined with restaurants and dotted with shops. A few galleries specialize in a distinctive Cuencan modern art pottery called “raspado,’’ in which the artist incises the black slip to reveal red clay beneath. One active master is Adrián Navarro, whose eponymous shop sells both his classically inspired pots and his son Rubén’s brightly colored contemporary pieces.

By 2 p.m., the plaza tables are filled with diners. Shops and offices stay closed all afternoon, permitting a leisurely lunch that might begin with a spicy rabbit-partridge pate called “morteruelo’’ followed by a plate of chewy “zarajos,’’ or grilled lamb intestines, usually served coiled around a vine shoot like a ball of yarn. Vineyards alternate with olive groves in the hill country around Cuenca, and most restaurants serve the fruity local reds and roses.

In the evenings, Conquenses (as residents of Cuenca call themselves) often gather on the steps of the cathedral, where street musicians strike up impromptu concerts before passing the hat. The cathedral itself is, in some ways, as old as the city and as new as the art. Spanish kings routinely ordered a large Christian church to be built on the site of the main mosque in any city they took back from Moorish control. Alfonso VIII, who captured Cuenca in 1177, was no exception, but he set Cuenca on a unique artistic trajectory by commissioning the only Anglo-Norman Gothic cathedral in Spain. (His wife was the English princess Eleanor.) Many of the striking stained glass windows were designed by modern abstract artists, including Gustavo Torner and Gerardo Rueda, first curators of the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art.

More art is found up the two streets that rise steeply from Plaza Mayor. The left branch leads to the ancient San Nicolas church (under restoration) that clings to the hillside above the Júcar. Steps from the church, Casa Zavala, an 18th-century palace, is home to the Antonio Saura Foundation. One of Spain’s leading 20th-century artists, Saura spent nearly three decades working in Cuenca. In a way, the foundation guarantees him a permanent place here. Most galleries of the foundation museum, which opened in 2008, showcase Saura’s mature work. Few of his earlier pieces survive; his destruction of more than 100 paintings in Cuenca in the 1960s is often cited as a watershed in modern Spanish art.

If Saura represents the deadly serious branch of Spanish art, his contemporary Antonio Pérez wears the mischievous mantle of Salvador Dalí. Up the right-hand fork from Plaza Mayor, the Antonio Pérez Foundation, created in 1997, fills the former Barefoot Carmelite convent with the artist’s extensive private holdings. Pérez collected other Spaniards, but he adored Pop Art and owned several Andy Warhols. His own specialty was to give fresh context to found objects. His “Castrati’’ installation, for example, presents a trio of antique bells missing their clappers.

Just beyond the Pérez Foundation, a crumbling arch at the top of the hill marks the remnants of the Arabic fort destroyed in 1177. Just outside that gate are the loudest and liveliest bars of Cuenca, yet they too offer a lesson in art appreciation. Join the Conquenses at sunset, glasses in hand, across the street from the bars. No one looks at the colors of the sky - they focus on the gathering dark at the bottom of the gorge.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

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If You Go

Where to stay

Posada de San José

Calle Julián Romero 4

011-34-969-211-300

www.posadasanjose.com

Rooms in converted 18th-century choir school range from modest interior cubicles to spacious exterior rooms with vast views over the Huécar River gorge. Some even have large balconies. $117-$235 with breakfast.

Where to eat

Taberna Jovi

Calle Colmillo 10

011-34-969-214-284

Bar snacks $3-$5.

Mesón El Caserío

Calle Larga 17

011-34-969-230-021

Casual dining features Cuenca specialties that range from light salads to savory stews and wild game. Entrees $9-$24.

Mesón Casas Colgadas

Calle Canónigos s/n

011-34-969-223-509

Dine finely on elegant renditions of local classics in one of the last surviving medieval “hanging
houses.’’ Views are breathtaking. Entrees $21-$36.

What to do

Museum of Spanish Abstract Art

Calle Canónigos s/n

011-34-969-212-983

Adults $4.50, seniors and students $2.25.

Cathedral Plaza Mayor

011-34-969-224-626

Adults $4.20, seniors and students $3.

Antonio Saura Foundation

Plaza de San Nicolás 4

011-34-969-236-054

Free.

Antonio Pérez Foundation

Ronda de Julian Romero s/n

011-34-969-230-619

Free.