An Interview with Eduardo Chillida

Eduardo Chillidwas awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in 1998. For a full list of Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, click here.

The Basque Liberties Plaza, 1980. Reinforced concrete and steel. photo courtesy of Tasenda Gallery, La Jolla, California. Photo: F. Catala-Roca. photo courtesy of Tasenda Gallery, La Jolla, California. Photo: F. Catala-Roca.

Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida has earned international commissions and awards for his monumental public sculptures for more than 40 years. His combination of sculptural form and metaphysical significance is integrated with architectural and environmental space to produce distinct urban spaces, including public parks in the Basque cities of Vitoria-Gasteiz (Plaza de los Fueros, 1980) and San Sebastian (Wind Combs, 1977). Chillida considers his relentless search for the unknown in art to be an adventure in learning, and his sculptural study of temporal and spatial relationships continues to inspire books and catalogue essays by leading philosophers.

Numerous awards affirm his leadership role in the international sculpture field. Cultural foundations and institutions have honored him with many awards including the 1957 Graham Foundation Prize, the first Wilhem-Lehmbruck Prize in 1966, and the Goethe Foundation’s 1975 Rembrandt Prize. In 1958, The Venice Biennale awarded him the International Grand Prize for Sculpture, and in 1990, the Biennale devoted the Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna to an exhibition of his iron works, titled “Homage to Eduardo Chillida.” In 1998, he will be awarded The Golden Rose in Palermo in recognition of his distinguished intellectual and cultural contributions, as well as the International Sculpture Center’s Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award.

His current project is Tindaya Mountain in the Canary Islands. Located at a quarry site, the sculpture is the negative space that is created as workers remove the stones. The alignment with the universe, the relation to the sun and moon as they rise over the open space, and the immense proportions of the work are essential elements of the monumental sculpture.

Eulogy to Water”, 1987. Reinforced concrete, 15.1 x 21.7 x 13.2 ft.

Sandra Wagner: Your career is long and eventful-what influenced your evolution as a sculptor?

Eduardo Chillida: I started with works in clay, in the early years in France. I associated clay with the white light of Greek sculptures, but I soon realized it was not my way. I returned to the Basque country from France unhappy and depressed. In the studio every day, I was looking back to the things I had been doing for the last year, and then I stopped to ask myself, “Why?” This was a crucial moment for me. At that moment, I decided never to look back. I started to work in steel, a natural element of the Basque region. The light I associate with steel is black and this was better in discovering my way. Now, I work to know, because I want to learn and to solve problems in art. I don’t look back. For me, there are many questions, perhaps impossible to understand. This is my motivation, my driving force. The questions, the things I don’t know, are the basis of my work and my life.

Wagner: How do you see and understand public space and the role of art in public space?

Chillida: In my case it is very clear; public works are open to the horizon and are in a public scale, the scale of man. Horizon is very important to me, it always has been. All men are equal and at the horizon we are all brothers, the horizon is a common homeland. I wanted to do an homage to the horizon and it had been an idea for some time. However, elements of the horizon cannot be measured, so Pili (my wife) and I traveled the Atlantic coast from Brittany to Compostela. We discovered that we always encountered the military, because the coast is an access point that always needed protection. The coast is a place where one can see great distances and the horizon is great. My work, “The Eulogy of the Horizon” (1990), is along this coast, in Gijon, and needed that specific great horizon. The monuments all have a special history. The city of Barcelona commissioned “Eulogy to Water” (1987) for the Parque de la Creuta del Coll. I consulted with architects in Barcelona for the proper site in the park, but I couldn’t find anything. Suddenly I saw the quarry filled with water, and in the quarry it was possible to suspend the sculpture above the water. The reflection on the water suggests the myth of Narcissus.

“The Eulogy to the Horizon”, 1990. Reinforced concrete, 32.8 ft. high.

Wagner: Do you see a definite relationship between nature and your work?

Chillida: Yes, Eulogy is oriented to the sky, it looks up, and “Wind Combs” is also in a fantastic place, but associated with the sea. The sea has been my master and I have learned much from it. When I was young, I would go there instead of going to school. I watched the waves and thought, “Where do they come from?” I did not know I would be a sculptor, but I think that I was already thinking about “Wind Combs”. The place is the origin of the work.

Wagner: Issues surrounding your work involve interior and exterior, solid and void, time and space, weight and weightlessness. Do you think you are continually solving these problems?

Chillida: The sculptures are very large and my work is a rebellion against gravity. A dialectic exists between the empty and full space and it is almost impossible for this dialogue to exist if the positive and material space is not filled, because I have the feeling that the relation between the full and empty space is produced by the communication between these two spaces. You can’t simulate volume.

Homage to Miró, 1985. Steel, 89 x 63 x 6.25 in.

Wagner: Who has written about your work and how do you view their perspectives, opinions, and comments? Which writers do you think share your views of your work?

Chillida: Philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Gaston Bachelard and poet Jorge Guillen share the same ideas I have in my work. Heidegger wrote a book, The Art and the Space, that discussed my work: the idea of space as a living space that is in relation to man, and the idea that sculpture reveals the exact character of a space. Heidegger asked for my thoughts because he was astonished to find so many relations between his ideas and my ideas, translated into sculpture. Bachelard wrote the essay, “The Cosmos of Fire,” for my first exhibition at Maeght Gallery. I was young and Aimé Maeght thought that it would be impossible to get him to write the essay, but after meeting with Bachelard and discussing my ideas, he wrote an essay that ends, “Old philosopher as I am, I have the right to breathe as a forger. After having pinned in the corner of my library some photographs of the work of Eduardo, I woke up better.” The poetry of Jorge Guillén has had a big influence on my idea of space, especially the poem “Cantico,” in which he writes “the air is deep,” a key phrase that unites his work with mine. My idea is that quarry workers take stone out of the mountain, but without realizing it, they fill it with space.

Homage to Miró, 1985. Steel, 89 x 63 x 6.25 in.

Wagner: You have often dedicated works to these people: Bachelard, Pablo Neruda, as well as artists Alexander Calder and Joan Miró. How were your homage sculptures conceived?

Chillida: I discover connections, even without thinking of people. I am concerned with them because I admire them in the history of thought. Miró was a fantastic person, his work inspires an unusual feeling. Everyone has always noticed him because of color, but I look at the drawings of Miró. The drawings are very important, all the curved lines were always convex, never concave. This was an important problem: I drew concave lines and his were convex. A concave line encloses a space, but it must be accessible or it is dead. He changed my way of looking at line and space, so I wanted to do an homage to him, “Homage to Miró” (1985).

Wagner: What role do awards and recognition play for art and for you?

Chillida: In the beginning of my work, at the 1958 Venice Biennale, I won the International Grand Prize for Sculpture. That was important for recognition. Then I shared the Carnegie Prize for Sculpture with Willem de Kooning at the Pittsburgh International in 1964. In 1991, I received the Praemium Imperiale from the Japan Art Association, and there are others.

Wagner: Your family plays an integral role in your life. Your daughter is making a film, I believe?

Chillida: There are many artists in our family: painters and engravers. Suzanna is making a film for her doctorate at Columbia University. It is a documentary on the theoretical relationship between art and science. There are interviews with art and science professors discussing issues and solving problems. I am in the film, discussing issues in art and the “Homage to Hokusai” (1997) in Tokyo, one of my most recently installed public sculptures.

House of Goethe, 1986. Reinforced concrete. 26.3 x 19.75 ft.

Wagner: You have reconstructed a medieval settlement in Zabalaga for the location of the Chillida Foundation. What is the role of your foundation?

Chillida: It is a place for my sculptures. I wanted them to be in a natural setting. It is in good shape, both the landscape and the house, although the solution for the house is not finished totally. The people from the Guggenheim visited recently when they came for a visit to their new museum in Bilbao.

Wagner: What are you currently working on?

Chillida: Many things-the film with my daughter, the Chillida Foundation; I’ve been working with pieces in clay, strong and powerful, for the last year. During our vacation in Menorca, I will work all alone in the forest on them.

Sandra Wagner is a writer living in San Diego.