Dissolution, 2016–21. Paper pulp, dimensions variable. Photo: Atelier Arbach

Approximation to Form: A Conversation with Dolores Furtado

Dolores Furtado, who was born in Argentina and moved to New York a decade ago, constructs objects that evade easy characterization. Simple in form, sensuous in texture, her sculptures possess a simplicity that links them to archaic artifacts. Their presence, resulting from unusual readings of undefinable, enigmatic shapes, can summon up the mysterious aura of unknown past cultures, yet at the same time, they remain completely contemporary. While not openly erotic, they suggest feelings of intimacy in their human proportions.

Furtado’s handmade forms—related to clay sculpture, though they involve many different materials—pick up on the spontaneity of the gesture, reflecting an interest in process rather than final result, their apparent roughness a statement in itself. Whether studio-size pieces or large-scale, sometimes publicly commissioned sculptures, her works owe little to analytic meaning. Instead, they hold their own as unreadable instruments of desire. Reflecting her connection to life in Argentina, they evoke the land, a belief in magic, and intuitive spiritual knowledge. These ideas also relate to Furtado’s interest in alchemy and the transformation of one substance into another. Her work, at first glance seemingly casual, transcends that state to become an improvised declaration of form.

Zafiro, 2020. Resin and cement, 16 x 8 x 6 in. Photo: Catalina Romero

Jonathan Goodman: Could you tell me about your early life and studies in Buenos Aires? When did you realize you wanted to be a sculptor?
Dolores Furtado: I lived in Buenos Aires for most of my life and only moved to New York as an adult. I studied at Universidad Torcuato Di Tella and was part of the Programa de Artistas. I also attended several critique groups and workshops led by well-known artists. Even though I had a formal education, I feel like I’m a self-taught artist in many ways. I like to create my own techniques and to figure out methods by looking and researching on my own. I love the technical part of the process, and I often find myself developing random methods to see what I can incorporate into my work.

I realized I was a sculptor by accident, during a painting workshop that I was attending at the beginning of my career. The teacher gave us an exercise with wire, meant to develop our understanding of space and depth. I was so excited and connected with the shapes I was creating that I stopped painting and started working with sculpture. I realized then that I only wanted to work with the three-dimensional and the body and never went back to painting.

Untitled, 2022. Aqua-Resin, 12 x 12 x 4 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

JG: What were your reasons for moving to New York? How is it working for you as an artist?
DF: I’ve loved New York since the first time I came to visit as a tourist, many years ago. Coming to stay was an unexpected event, and I’ve been here since 2014. I feel very connected to the city. It has a very special vibe that matches my own. I would make art anywhere, no matter where I was; I’m here because I love it. New York is a constant inspiration. I like the energy, but I also like the idea of being in a place different from my own—it challenges me, it awakens me, it surprises me.

The art scene here is so big, there’s room for different approaches. On the downside, studio space is a problem, particularly for a sculptor. In the end, that shapes the kind of work you’re making, but instead of taking that as a limitation—limitations are part of life, anyway—I try to find creative ways to keep working on a bigger scale.

Medusa, 2018. Resin, 15 x 8 x 6 in. Photo: Catalina Romero

JG: Is there a difference between art practice here and in Argentina? Is New York’s internationalism something you enjoy?
DF: I like the fact that New York is an international city. I feel connected to other immigrants, and to immigrant artists, no matter where they’re from. In a way, we are on a similar path. I like interacting with people from different cultures; it’s enriching, good for my mind and for my work.

The art scene here is very different from the Argentinian art scene. It’s smaller there, and everyone knows each other. There’s a stronger sense of community, which is a huge difference. That doesn’t apply only to art, it’s a cultural thing. Also, an art career is more structured in New York. In Argentina, there’s plenty of room for a bohemian kind of artist, or an artist who is not easy to categorize, someone with a very personal point of view whose work does not respond to trends or to what the scene expects from them.

JG: Art seems to be increasingly tied to an individual sensibility, and it can be hard to say where the work comes from, culturally or geographically. How do you feel about this?
DF: I actually feel very Latin American. My work is connected to materials and the land, the body, magic, spirit, and ritual. These are all things that I associate with Latin America. Nevertheless, it’s about a way of understanding the world, a certain sensibility, not a specific aesthetic. What does it mean to be Latin American? Is it even possible to determine the characteristics of the art from a region? Latin America is huge; every country has its own cultural background and influences. There’s a need to categorize, to make our concepts simpler, easier to understand. We’re living in a moment when everything is interconnected, and I don’t see anything negative about that. I chose to live in a place like New York, so I’m the kind of person who enjoys that blending.

Dice, 2021. Aqua-Resin, 9 x 9 x 9 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

JG: Why do your forms evade recognizable shapes? What do the organic character and simplicity of your work mean to you? Would you say that your work is a rejection of form?
DF: I work with simple shapes because I want to expose matter in a raw way, and a basic shape keeps the attention on materiality. When I start a work, I’m focused on its material quality, not so much on the shape. I explore the material; I want to let it flow. Mine is a rudimentary approximation to form. I’m interested in a basic quality. I like a simple shape because it has the potential to be everything—like a seed.

I’m mostly an abstract artist, but not totally. Sometimes the human body appears; it interacts and melts with abstraction. Many of my shapes are on the border between being abstract and being something from the world—some decayed, found thing, something uncanny.

Beyond, 2016. Paper pulp, 20 x 23 x 5 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

JG: Could you describe your working methods? Why do you use such varied materials?
DF: I work with many different materials, including Hydrocal, resins, cement, paper pulp, putties, bronze, and ceramic. When I work, I think about creating a new material. So, I do a lot of experiments and try to use a different method every time and to discover new things. Every time is different. I always incorporate something new.

I do a lot of mold-making and casting, so the process is usually long. I incorporate every accident into the piece—I don’t eliminate anything. Sometimes I freeform the shapes with my hands. Other times, I model with clay, make a mold, and cast. Often the work looks like it’s made of a unique material. I make many waste molds. A punk technique creates the work.

JG: Is color part of a surface treatment or part of the material itself?
DF: The color is always inside the material. It comes along with the material that I am using, and I know that from the start of a piece. To me, color is intrinsically connected to the material. The process can affect it and change it, but that’s ok. If you cut a piece in half, it’s all the same color.

X, 2022. Aqua-Resin, 16 x 17 x 8 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

JG: You have made a few site-specific public artworks, and you’ve said that you’re interested in this direction. What is it about public art, and its typically large dimensions, that attracts you?
DF: I have made outdoor, site-specific public works in St. Johns, Canada (2013), Governors Island, New York (2015/2016), and Franconia Sculpture Park in Minnesota (2018). I like to work on a large scale, though I’ve never made something really big—20 feet tall was the largest. To experience a big work is a completely different thing. It engages your whole body, and it’s challenging from a physical point of view. It’s immersive, sensual.

I’m attracted to public/outdoor art because I’m interested in how my sculptures work with nature. To me, it’s an exploration of our physical and spiritual connection to the natural world. There are no boundaries between us and the habitat we live in; we are interconnected. We must rethink our relationship with nature, from an ecological and spiritual point of view. Outdoors, the sunlight breaks through the surface and enters the inside of the sculpture, creating a ghostly effect so the work becomes iridescent. It also turns translucent and blends in with its surroundings. At certain times, the works seem like spirits. The energetic plane creates our physical reality. My work is influenced by esoteric knowledge and intuition.

Untitled (Ice cubes), 2015. Resin, 84 x 72 x 12 in. Site-specific sculpture for Governor’s Island Art Fair, Governor’s Island, NY. Photo: Ezequiel Rosenfeldt

JG: Who are some of the sculptors whose work you find exciting?
DF: There are many, including Magdalena Abakanowicz, Diana Al-Hadid, Ruth Asawa, Lynda Benglis, Karla Black, Louise Bourgeois, Folkert de Jong, Urs Fischer, Arthur Bispo do Rosário, Camille Henrot, Roni Horn, Eva Hesse, Isamu Noguchi, Sarah Lucas, Paul McCarthy, Ana Mendieta, Mrinalini Mukherjee, Walter Pichler, Arlene Shechet, Charles Simonds, Alina Szapocznikow, and Franz West. And Lola Mora, even if she worked a long time ago.

JG: Many artists make politics a major theme, but you don’t. How important do you think an artist’s politics and social practice are as part of her creativity?
DF: I think politics are important, but I don’t think we’re only social beings. That would work if you saw yourself only as a part of a group, if that were your only mission and what you were here to do. My world is a very private one, and I have periods when I isolate myself from everyone, because I want to be with myself. My inner life is much richer and more complex than my social life.

Ladrillo, 2017. Ceramic, 16 x 8 x 4 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

JG: In a number of ways, your simple forms might be tied to very early sculpture and functional vessels. Do you see your work as a variant of archaic art? Are there ties to specific early cultures?
DF: That’s an interesting connection. I work with a primitive form because it contains everything; it has a synthetic quality. And it refers to origins, the early stages of life. None of my sculptures are functional, nor are they inspired by functional objects. There’s something rudimentary about them. Some larger works are influenced by menhirs, standing stones that demarcated areas of spiritual influence, sacred spaces, likely ceremonial in nature. I’m inspired by creation myths and stories that connect us with outer space.

Many of my works seem to have experienced the passage of time; some of them look like found objects that went through a process of decay—an archaeology of the future, time travel. I think about the connection with past times. What do we have in common? I’m interested in the tarot’s archetypes, in how those images, created so long ago, still speak to us as if change were superficial and time didn’t exist. In the end, what matters is what remains.

Bread, 2016. Paper pulp, 13 x 13 x 8 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

JG: You have said that you are a process artist. What does that mean? Is the procedure at least as important to you as the end result?
DF: I’m a process-based artist. There is usually a long chain of steps involved in the making, and this is the process that guides the direction of the work. Every step adds a new layer of information, and the final piece is not a pre-designed object but the outcome of a series of actions with an open end. I see my sculptures as the documentation of that process.

I experiment with a wide range of methods. I don’t use materials to achieve a certain idea or shape. I explore the material and create mechanisms and techniques that involve little control over the outcome, allowing chance to affect it. When it sets, the material builds up in an organic way, and therefore reminds us of the elements of nature.

Like an alchemist, I’m interested in the power of transformation of matter. I believe that materials are spiritually charged. During the process, a material changes states; there’s a transmutation of energy, it’s like a rebirth. Pure transformation. In my world, matter and spirit are the same thing in different forms.

Installation view of “Escape,” Vasari gallery, Buenos Aires, 2024. Photo: Courtesy the artist

JG: We are living in a time of intense pluralism in art. Does that strengthen or weaken how art is made? Do you feel isolated as the result of the pluralism?
DF: I’ve always worked on my own, and I don’t remember ever wishing to be part of a movement. It’s just a reflection of our times. The spectrum of possibilities is wide open, and so much is available—art can be made from your hands or your computer. You can constantly feed yourself on your own, from your home. Everybody is doing their own thing. You can connect and share, but not necessarily want to be part of a group. It’s not better or worse, just different. Diversity and spread.

Though I work on my own, I like to get to know other artists and share practices. I think art-making is a solitary practice, connected to a strong desire for introspection. On the other hand, we are starting a new chapter, post-pandemic. These are times of rapid change and transformation. Some kind of restart is on the way, with new software. It’s hard to make predictions, but it is not the time to get attached to previous ways of thinking.

“Escape,” a solo exhibition of new work by Dolores Furtado, is on view at Vasari gallery in Buenos Aires through May 31, 2024.