Jorge Oteiza

Fundacion Caja de Pensiones

The work of Jorge Oteiza exemplifies the revolution in sculpture after the Spanish Civil War. Although he is now close to 80, much of this pioneering work has remained unknown except to other Spanish sculptors and his fellow Basques. An artist of great breadth in his vision and convictions, over the years he has developed a Modernist visual vocabulary that embraces his political and moral stands in relation to the ethnic and historical identity of his Basque people. This exhibition, his first retrospective, has brought his oeuvre to the attention of a wider audience, and deservedly so.

Oteiza began his career as a sculptor in the late 1920s. In 1959, having reached maturity as an artist, and feeling that his work had reached a culminating point, he abandoned his art and turned to other creative activities, including architecture and writing poetry and essays. But in the years that followed, especially in the ’70s, he occasionally returned to sculpture and completed numerous pieces that had existed before simply as maquettes or made variations on previous work.

In this overview of Oteiza’s work, one could see two currents emerge: one is the figurative, with an emphasis on the archaic and the primitive, influenced by Henry Moore’s sculpture of the late ’40s; and the other is geometric abstraction, which he concentrated on particularly during the ’50s and which yielded the most significant of his works. However, these two currents were not mutually exclusive; rather, they gradually merged: his figurative sculpture became increasingly reductive, as constructivist and structural elements entered his vocabulary and began to dominate. Oteiza pursued a rigorous formal abstraction that did not restrict his creative freedom, coming progressively out of the image to turn to other problems that sculpture presented, such as spatial relationships and sculptural representation of space. As Margit Rowell has aptly observed, Oteiza’s great achievement consisted in the “creation of a formal vocabulary in which internal and external space become one.” This is especially apparent in the various stages of his work during the ’50s on the emptying of volumetric forms, beginning with the holes and perforations in anthropomorphic sculptures, as in Ensayo sobre lo simultáneo (Experiment in simultaneity, 1951). These led in 1955 to what Oteiza called his “módulos de luz” (light modules) and to the “hollow constructions” of 1957. From 1957 to ’59, Oteiza dedicated himself completely to the application of a new Constructivism based on the legacies of Malevich and Mondrian, which resulted in the “empty boxes” and “metaphysical boxes” of 1958 and ’59, of which there were several in the show.

Oteiza’s investigations on the emptying of the cube, the cylinder, and the sphere show that the traditional opposition between full and empty space is only apparent. For him, these antitheses exist in harmony with one another and symbolize the harmonious relationships between man and his natural environment, between the human mind and the order that governs the universe. Oteiza, in the cosmological spirit of some of the most famous representatives of early Modernism, has created dynamic sculpture——what he refers to as “unsatisfied sculpture,” a concept that evokes the Platonic notion of “becoming.” As the artist said in 1952, “Dynamism constitutes a problem of forces and not of movements.” Repose and dynamism are not mutually exclusive here; both modes involve elements that create equilibrium and elements that create oppositional tensions. Although his sculpture recognizes the limits to what is possible (and often makes references to them), the rigor of the language employed does not reduce what the wood, stone, or metal that he uses are capable of expressing.

Oteiza has become a living legend among Spanish sculptors. His influence is evident in the work of many Basque artists, among whom are those better known in the younger generation, such as Txomín Badiola, who curated this exhibition.

Aurora García

Translated from the Spanish by Hanna Hannah.