The Guggenheim Museum of Art recently held the first comprehensive retrospective in New York of Jorge Oteiza (1908–2003), a formidable figure in the history of 20th-century Basque art. His work (represented in the exhibition by 125 sculptures, drawings, and collages) is particularly interesting for its range of influences, which include Neolithic cultures and the avant-garde movements of Neo-Plasticism and Constructivism. As the press materials point out, while Oteiza shared with other artists of his generation a formally abstract but also spiritual and humanist outlook, his work is singular for its diminutive scale—he thought of his works as “laboratory experiments” or studio explorations and was content to let them remain small. Oteiza is also remarkable for his decision in 1959 to stop working as a sculptor after he had achieved his formal and conceptual goals. With the exception of a brief reprisal of his sculptural work in 1972–75, he devoted himself to linguistic and aesthetic research, as well as to political and social causes in the Basque region.
Born in Basque country in 1908, Oteiza spent three years studying medicine in Madrid, only to take up study at the city’s school of arts and crafts in the early 1930s. His early work consisted primarily of pieces influenced by such artists as Constantin Brancusi and Jacob Epstein, that were eventually shown in Madrid. In the middle of the 1930s, Oteiza made the decision to move to South America, where he developed his sensibility, which was drawn to both pre-Columbian cultures and 20th-century avant-garde art. He then returned to Spain in 1947, finding a home in Bilbao. There, he responded to the influence of the English sculptor Henry Moore, at the same time originating his theory of Experimental Proposition, a project that occupied him in the 1950s, the period emphasized in the Guggenheim exhibition. Oteiza based this more avant-garde notion of art on his belief that emptiness is the source of all forms: with the use of negative space in sculpture, viewers are expected to play a more active role, bringing out by their interaction the voids facing them in a particular work.
But Oteiza was not a purely theoretical sculptor in his early period. One can see the effect of Moore’s sculptures in two figurative works: Figure for the Return from Death (1950), a bronze of a standing person only 16 inches high, and The Earth and the Moon (1955), a limestone sculpture of two figures outlined by negative space, in which light and shadow are captured and held by the positive and negative forms. As time went on, Oteiza’s work became more abstract—he was influenced by such modern masters as Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian, whose example pushed the Basque artist in the direction of a conjoined aesthetic of formal exploration and spirituality. Indeed, the drive to join the two notions of work would become the basis of Oteiza’s art until he abandoned making sculpture. Even after his figurative work gave way to pure abstraction and a mostly impartial, investigative stance, one senses Oteiza’s concern with humanity, primarily in the small size of the pieces he made.