Madrid and Vitoria-Gasteiz

View of “Néstor Sanmiguel Diest,” 2022. Photo: Antón Bilbao.

View of “Néstor Sanmiguel Diest,” 2022. Photo: Antón Bilbao.

Néstor Sanmiguel Diest

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía/Artium Museoa

Born in Zaragoza, Spain, in 1949, Néstor Sanmiguel Diest has spent most of his life in the medium-size Castilian town of Aranda de Duero. Despite his relative isolation, he was never a hermit, founding the art collectives A Ua Crag (1985–96), Segundo partido de la montaña (The Second Mountain Party, 1987–88), and Red District (1990–92) and maintaining intellectual and professional links with Barcelona, Bilbao, and Madrid. He has exhibited periodically in all three cities since the 1980s. A 2007 retrospective curated by Beatriz Herráez at MUSAC in León prompted much wider recognition of Sanmiguel Diest’s work, constituting an international discovery of sorts. Continuing her dedication to his work, Herráez curated “La peripecia del autómata” (The Vicissitudes of the Automaton), a major survey of Sanmiguel Diest’s work since the late 1980s. The show spans Artium Museoa in Basque Country and the Museo Reina Sofía’s Palacio de Velázquez in Madrid.

Since the 1990s, Sanmiguel Diest’s works have been variations and declensions of a series of what he calls “mother forms”: powerful and symbolic shapes that he casts as letters in a personal alphabet. These forms hover between the organic, the mechanical, and the sexual and bear the influence of his decades-long day job as a patternmaker, industrial tailor, and embroiderer—a trade he inherited from his father. He composes large visual palimpsests with images taken from newspaper and magazine clippings or snapshots, along with industrial pattern samples, official forms, and bills. He then draws on these surfaces, as well as transcribing literary passages onto them, before covering them with varnishes and lacquers. While he often works on a grand scale, smaller drawings and diagrams serve as complements and visual commentaries to these more elaborated pieces.

Herráez astutely avoided a traditional encyclopedic retrospective approach here, conceiving of the two shows instead as mental maps that illuminated the motifs, refrains, and recurring lines of force that drove Sanmiguel Diest’s long career. The iteration in Madrid served as a prologue, focusing on early works from the 1980s onward that benefited from the large space, such as the modular and monumental series of seventy-three panels Las emociones barrocas (The Baroque Emotions), 1997–2005, and the 107-panel El descenso del buscador de perlas (The Descent of the Pearl Hunter), 1999. At Artium she took a more intimate approach to enter the inner workings of Sanmiguel Diest’s mind, moving from an array of “mother forms” to recent works such as the nine panels of the series “Las colinas de Apollinaire” (Apollinaire’s Hills) from 2017 or a series of large untitled acrylic-and-graphite-on-paper panels from 2018. She positioned those later works as friezes that corresponded to the pages of a notebook from 1999, displayed in cases at the center of the room (the whole setting also alluded to many of the artist’s biomorphic drawings, such as large cells and protozoa with filaments expanding from a nucleus), making the most of the collection of his work owned by the institution.

Sanmiguel Diest calls himself a “workshop artist,” and his art is methodical, prolific, and tenacious. He dedicates countless hours of painstaking manual labor to his practice, an exacting strenuousness he connects to his experience working in industrial sewing and patternmaking. I would add that he belongs with those “process artists,” such as Raymond Roussel, and all those hybrid creators (Marcel Broodthaers, Hanne Darboven, and Georges Perec, for instance) who understand their work as a relentless development of a method: first its invention, then its inexhaustible and potentially infinite variations. Together, the two exhibitions affirm Sanmiguel Diest’s status as a modern classic—an essential position to consider for an accurate understanding of the past fifty years of art in Spain.