Eduardo Chillida

Eduardo Chillida’s sculptures are meant to be walked around and written around. For all of their apparent simplicity, these stately totems of forged steel and carved granite cannot be fully appreciated from a single point of view. From a fixed vantage (or a photograph), it is impossible to anticipate the unseen aspects, just as it is impossible to convey the experience of discovering them by cataloguing the dissimilar features of one not-quite-regular form or another. This is, it might be argued, the stuff of poetry—elusive and allusive—which may explain why Chillida’s commentators of choice have included philosopher Gaston Bachelard, poet Octavio Paz, and now, for the catalogue of this latest exhibit, poet Yves Bonnefoy. But along with poetic instinct, Chillida’s work is also the product of a forty-year career purposefully negotiated between the European art capitals and his homeland in the Spanish Basque country. This dual existence offers perhaps the most tangible explanation of his art that can be hoped for.

Born in the coastal town of San Sebastian, Chillida spent three years studying architecture in Madrid before turning to drawing and finally to sculpture. The classic apprenticeship in Paris followed, and by the age of 25, he was exhibiting his abstracted stone nudes in the Salon de Mai. But it was only after he returned home in 1951 that he turned to metal forging, and with it, the spare geometrical idiom that he has pursued ever since. In recent years, the linear exuberance of his work during the ’60s and ’70s has given way to greater solidity and sedateness, but the force of curiosity remains: every sculpture is an exploration of space, time, matter, and society, hardly conceived for the static, pristine environment of the gallery (no matter how impressive it may look there), but for the changeable outdoors. The shapes, like the titles, are often explicitly architectural: Downtown III, La Maison du poète, Stèle VI (The house of the poet, Stele VI), Eloge de l’architecture VI (In praise of architecture VI) (all 1990). All of these works are rectilinear (but never regular) shafts standing singly or in pairs. Most impressive of all is the Hommage à Balenciaga, 1990, a gateway of two tall slabs sweeping open to dialogue with the spaces between and beyond them.

In their elemental geometry, their artisanal asymmetry, their rust-scarred surfaces, Chillida’s sculptures propose a striking alternative to the industrial esthetic, but at the same time, their reliance on industrial techniques and materials, for example Cor-Ten steel, wrests traditional craft from the nostalgic past and brings the work into the technological present. So, too, the layered paper hangings called “Gravitations,” 1990, bridge memory and modernity with their grainy surfaces, their minimal shapes, and their cryptic black-on-white markings; they are evocative equally of ancient manuscripts and contemporary design. This dynamic sense of history and its continuity (rather than its end) would seem to be a particularly fitting response to the collective identity crisis of the late 20th century.

Miriam Rosen