Upon entering Oteiza: Myth and Modernism, an exhibition on display toward the top of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s rotunda, you may wonder where the Basque sculptor Jorge Oteiza (1908-2003) has been all your life. Though renowned in Spain—a museum devoted to his work opened in Navarre shortly before his death—his reputation hasn’t traveled much beyond its borders. Pegging Oteiza as a local hero is tempting, but too easy: His abstract sculptures, whether forged from steel or carved from marble, are international in their range of influence and universal in aesthetic intent.
The Guggenheim’s adumbrated overview makes plain how hugely and gratefully indebted Oteiza was to the innovations of early Modernism, Cubism and Neo-Plasticism in particular. (You’ll find on display openly stated homages to Klee, Boccioni, Malevich and Mondrian.) Constantin Brancusi and Henry Moore also had a powerful effect on the young sculptor; with them he shared an abiding interest in the art of non-Western cultures. According to Oteiza, it was a love of pre-Columbian art that occasioned a 13-year stay in Latin America during the 1930’s and 40’s. He subsequently melded his attraction to primitivism with a greater fascination with “nothingness”: sculpture in which solid form is altered and defined by the space surrounding it.
In an appealing and folksy analogy, Oteiza likened this phenomenon to eating an apple: The core is determined by what has been displaced. The earliest pieces on view are totemic figures that the sculptor crafted by “scooping” out from the materials at hand: Indentations, incisions and drilled holes maneuver the eye away from the object to the outside pressures shaping it. He declared that his intent was “emptied” space, which would bear evidence of action having taken place.
Oteiza’s work wouldn’t altogether shed its allusions to the figure, but it came to rely less on the human form’s symbolic associations. Instead, by conveying a refined and elusive sense of musculature and presence, his later sculptures suggest organic systems powered by interdependent forces. Even his most architectonic creations—his hollowed-out blocks of black marble, for instance—preserve an indelible sense of the body’s logic.
When working with flat planes of steel, the sculptor transformed the “body” into a gathering of open-ended, contrapuntal surfaces, lilting envelopes of space. The Guggenheim describes the work as “proto-minimalist”—that’s what happens when Richard Serra bestows his stamp of approval on an artist. But Oteiza’s armatures slant, tiptoe, stretch and pirouette distinctively enough to escape that label. He may have limited his materials and means, but he didn’t rob them of possibility. He never reneged on art’s purchase on life.
What he did renege on was art’s purchase on passion. While Oteiza was undeniably in command of an intelligent and rigorous sculptural faculty, he never once went out on a limb. Problems posed in the studio (which he tellingly dubbed his “experimental laboratory”) never went beyond the scope of a ready answer. Given his tendency to frame artistic issues in scientific terms, Oteiza may well have considered art an adjunct of technology rather than an outlet for poetry. That probably accounts for the oeuvre’s intense, but ultimately detached and dulling, consistency. There are no high and low points. Each piece is invested with the same level of sculptural engagement—that is to say, just enough.
In 1959, Oteiza concluded “that sculpture can no longer be associated, as an expression, to man or the city.” He subsequently abandoned his art to pursue utopian politics. (He would take it up again, but only for three years during the 1970’s.) In advocating on behalf of Basque nationalism—a lifelong preoccupation—Oteiza gave free rein to the mystical bent that was embodied only glancingly in the sculpture. “A sculptor is no more or less than the initial and dramatic form of a universal form of man,” Oteiza said, rationalizing his attempts to reconnect contemporary Basque culture with its archaic roots. Part of the upshot of these efforts to revitalize Basque society was the solidification of his own standing as an artist.
Not being a student of Spanish history, I can’t vouch for how much credence the Basque people gave to Oteiza’s “anthropological aesthetics” or how much political impact they had. Putting naïve and convoluted philosophies into political practice is a recipe for disaster; better they be expended on something as lowly as art. Had Oteiza’s romanticism been put into play while folding sheets of steel or burnishing marble surfaces, perhaps the work would have reached beyond the scope of its politely circumscribed imagination. As it is, you’ll descend Frank Lloyd Wright’s edifice respecting Oteiza’s art, and remembering it, too. You might not love it, but can still be pleased to have made its acquaintance.
Oteiza: Myth and Modernism is at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, until Aug. 24.