Oteiza: Myth and Modernism is the most comprehensive retrospective of the work of celebrated Basque artist Jorge Oteiza (1908–2003) to have been presented in the last 15 years, and the first to be mounted in the U.S. One of the leading Basque artists of the 20th century, Oteiza is an important figure in the history of late Modernism and international postwar sculpture. Curated by Margit Rowell and Txomin Badiola, this exhibition features some 125 works, including sculptures borrowed from museums and private collections as well as drawings and collages from the Fundación Museo Jorge Oteiza, shown in public for the first time. Arranged to follow the artist's experimental itinerary and to capture his formal and conceptual evolution during the 1950s, the most productive period of Oteiza's career as a sculptor, Oteiza: Myth and Modernism fills the top two rotunda levels of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Highly personal, and different in its process and intentions from works by other artists of his generation, Oteiza's art is difficult to define. While in retrospect his mature works in metal appear related to American Minimalism—a movement that emerged after the Basque artist had found his distinctive form of expression—Oteiza's sculptures sprang from many sources, stretching from Neolithic cultures to ideas and forms drawn from the 20th-century avant-gardes, particularly Neo-Plasticism and Constructivism. What Oteiza shares to a great extent with other artists of the postwar period is a sensibility that may be defined as abstract, spiritual, and humanist. However, his art is distinguished by its relatively modest scale. He always considered his sculptures as "laboratory experiments" with forms explored within his studio; he had no ambition to see them enlarged.
Oteiza was born in Orio, Guipúzcoa, in the Basque Country, in 1908. After studying medicine for three years in Madrid, he attended the city's School of Arts and Crafts in the early 1930s. During this time, under the influence of Jacob Epstein, Alberto Sánchez, and Dimitry Tsaplin, he produced his earliest sculptures, which were later exhibited in Madrid. Oteiza continued his development as an artist and a writer in Latin America, where he spent the years 1935 to 1948—a period that encompassed the Spanish Civil War and World War II. During these years, he explored and studied Neolithic sites and exhibited in Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aires, Argentina, while also teaching and researching ceramics, first in Buenos Aires and later in Bogotá, Colombia.
In 1950, Oteiza produced Triple and Lightweight Unit (Unidad triple y liviana), marking the beginning of the artist's experimentation with "the aesthetic nature of the sculpture as a purely spatial entity," his emphasis being on empty space as opposed to mass. In the same year, he began work on a major commission for the statuary for the basilica in the Basque pilgrimage city of Aránzazu, a monumental undertaking finally realized in 1969. Here, his religious subjects are dematerialized; his figures are emptied, opened to space, and filled with spiritual content.
In 1955, Oteiza began to explore the treatment of light, creating hollows, orifices, and perforations—dubbed "light condensers" by the artist. In works such as Homage to Boccioni (Homenaje a Boccioni, 1956–57), these orifices allowed light to reach the interior of the sculpture, endowing it with energy. At the same time, the perforations were meant to represent a spiritual light coming from within the sculpture. He also continued to experiment with small blocks of stone, using a disk saw to make a series of cuts in order to reveal the stones' inner structure. These Disk-Cut Stones (Piedras discadas) are witness to Oteiza's desire to open up his polyhedra.
By 1956, Oteiza was seeking a new personal vocabulary that would enable him to take his experiment in sculpture to its most radical degree. To do this, he defined a series of open formal units that together would forge an entirely new language. The elaboration of these formal units grew out of what he called his "Experimental Laboratory," a vast repertory of tiny maquettes in wood, plaster, and metal. These served as three-dimensional sketches for experimental "family groups," through which he explored particular sets of formal problems in different combinations and variations. In 1956 and 1957, the formal units he developed provided the basis for new experimental series. Among the earliest creations in these series are some of his most important sculptures, including Homage to Malevich (Homenaje a Malevich, 1957) and the maclas works, based on units of physics and natural crystalline structures.
In 1957, Oteiza received the International Grand Prize for Sculpture at the fourth São Paulo Bienal for 28 sculptures presented in experimental "families." This body of work had an impact on the developing formal language of young artists in Brazil, among them Lygia Clark.
After São Paulo, Oteiza began to think deeply about the increasing role played by the void in his sculptures. At this time, he formulated the ley de cambios ("law of changes"), according to which "one always starts from a nothing that is nothing to arrive at a Nothing that is everything." A brief period followed, lasting barely two years (1958–59), in which Oteiza executed sculptures inspired by his recently formed principles. His Empty Boxes (Cajas vacías) and other works involving the "emptying of the cube" most faithfully represent the conclusions of his experiments. They also led to his most radically proto-Minimalist and austere works, such as Homage to Velázquez (Homenaje a Velázquez, 1958), through which Oteiza engaged in a dialogue with both the avant-garde and Spanish artistic traditions.
In 1959, having finally related the void he increasingly found in his work to the spiritual emptiness of prehistoric Basque cromlechs, or sacred circles of stones, Oteiza arrived at "the experimental conclusion that sculpture can no longer be associated, as expression, to man or the city." He abandoned his activity as a sculptor until the period 1972–75, when he briefly returned to his art to complete some of his earlier experimental series. During the decade of the 1960s, Oteiza devoted himself entirely to aesthetic and linguistic research, particularly in the field of Basque culture. He became actively involved in the political and social causes of the Basques and wrote at length about such issues, as in the books Quousque tandem! (1963) and Spiritual Exercises in a Tunnel (Ejercicios espirituales en un tunel, 1965).
During the 1980s, Oteiza's work at last began to receive wider attention, in light of his major influence on generations of Basque and Spanish artists. A range of institutions, including the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, the Fundacio Museu d'Art Contemporani in Barcelona, and the Museo de Bellas Artes in Bilbao, began to acquire his works in depth. In 1986, for the first time in 25 years, works by Oteiza were included in an international exhibition of sculpture, Qu'est-ce que la sculpture moderne? (What is Modern Sculpture?) at the Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
Still, Oteiza's work remained relatively unknown until 1988, when a major retrospective was organized by the Fundación Caja de Pensiones in Madrid, Bilbao, and Barcelona. This exhibition allowed public audiences and critics alike to appreciate his vast artistic legacy for the first time. In the same year, his work was featured in the Spanish pavilion at the Venice Biennale, accompanied by works by Susana Solano.