I had come to Barcelona, one of the world's great art centers, to tour and touch and taste the exuberance of a place known for sensory overload a century after Antoni Gaudí and the Modernistas turned this seaside Mediterranean city into one of Europe's most charming centers.
Visitors strolling its wide boulevards find much to admire in its history, food and Catalan culture. But at its heart, Barcelona is a place where art and architecture rule. And so I plotted an itinerary that would let me see it through the eyes of its artists.
That's how I wound up at the three-story studio of Puig, an internationally prominent Spanish painter, sculptor and printmaker known for his abstract, figurative style.
He's also known for his close encounter with Hollywood: Puig's studio and paintings were featured in Woody Allen's film " Vicky Cristina Barcelona." Penélope Cruz, who won a supporting actress Oscar for her role as an artist, became Puig's student before the film was shot, visiting his studio to learn how to paint in his forceful, energetic manner so she could emulate his style.
Now it was my turn to become his student, if only for a moment. Puig showed me around his studio, a former textile mill, and we talked about Pablo Picasso, who moved to Barcelona in 1895 when he was a teenager and was Puig's inspiration. We also talked about Puig's fondness for Barcelona's liveliness and artistic culture.
While he talked, I photographed him. He tried to ignore the camera, but it made him nervous.
Suddenly, he threw a blank canvas on the floor and said, "Let me show you how I work."
Released from his role, he relaxed, splashing white and black paint on the canvas, then etching fine lines onto it.
Within a couple of minutes, he was done. I put down the camera, looked at the canvas and gasped. He had created a figurative painting of a man and a woman in the time it would have taken me to sharpen a couple of colored pencils.
"When I start a painting, I never know how it will turn out," Puig said, smiling at my surprise. "The worst enemy of a painter is to be bored with his work."
Gallery owner Robin Reiners didn't seem surprised when I later told her about Puig's demonstration.
"He's so full of energy and spontaneity when he works," said Reiners, who owns Gallery DeNovo in Sun Valley, Idaho, which represents Puig and several other Spanish artists in the United States. "It's a very physical way of painting."
Inspired by Puig's inspiration, I visited the Museu Picasso which pays homage to the 20th century's most acclaimed artist. The 3,800 works chart Picasso's early years, including paintings from his Blue and Rose periods.
I browsed through the galleries, pausing in front of masterful portraits painted by Picasso as a teenager: his mother, his Aunt Pepa, a man in a beret. The shapes were round and soft and life-like, a classical style much different from his later square, hard Cubist approach.
Much of his fame grew from those later colorful and imaginative works, but the Barcelona museum gave me a chance to discover the artist as he was discovering himself. The only down side: It displays few well-known works, most of which are with collectors or in the world's major museums.
When I finished my tour, I spent a little time admiring the museum itself and its leafy courtyards; the complex occupies five beautifully renovated medieval palaces dating from the 8th to 14th centuries.
Then I walked several blocks to reach my next goal, the sleek Museu d' Art Contemporani de Barcelona (the Barcelona Contemporary Museum of Art), to catch a look at the work of internationally known modern artists such as Barcelona painter Antoni Tàpies. The glass-fronted building, designed by Getty Center architect Richard Meier, features revolving exhibits, so check before you go. I was disappointed in the show on display during my visit, but a solo exhibition of work by California artist John Baldessari began shortly thereafter (and continues through April 25).
By the time I emerged, the sunny morning had turned into a cloudy, chilly afternoon. I buttoned my coat and wished I had an umbrella. It was January, and the sky seemed unpredictable. Should I abandon my plans and retreat to the apartment I had rented with a friend?