The Puzzle of Existence: Miguel Berrocal

Richelieu Big, 1973. Wood, 170 x 152 x 123 cm., being assembled.

There is a phrase from the Russian-born writer Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, that I cannot help but remember in relation to the work of the esteemed Spanish sculptor Miguel Berrocal.1 When asked about his writing method, Nabokov asserted that he always proceeded with “the precision of an artist and the intuition of a scientist.” When the interviewer suggested that the author had mistakenly reversed the terms, Nabokov insisted that he had not. He meant it exactly as stated. Art was about precision; science was finally a matter of intuition.

Richelieu Big, 1973. Wood, 170 x 152 x 123 cm., being assembled.

For anyone who knows the work of Berrocal and the method that he has pursued over the past 40 years, Nabokov’s statement makes perfect sense. There is a precision in Berrocal’s sculpture that is undeniable, a precision that is the very essence of his work. Like a surgeon or a mathematician, Berrocal analyzes the exact proportions and measurements of the formal idea, which he is projecting into some new manifestation. Detail by detail, Berrocal sets forth the task of pulling apart and putting together the various components that will eventually become the expressive result of his efforts.

Richelieu Big, 1973. Wood, 170 x 152 x 123 cm., being assembled.

Whether the sculpture is a monumental work, such as his large-scale projects in Madrid, Manolona (1992), or Seville, Doña Elvira (1990), or one of his numerous multiple editions, such as Micro Maria (1969–73), Berrocal never relinquishes the fact that every detail of the work counts. Every aspect of the form is important—the choice of the material, the look of the surface, the way the sculpture is assembled. Whether large or small, the assembly of each sculpture is the result of producing individual units or elements that are cast individually as interlocking parts. These elements are precisely designed by the artist before they are given three-dimensional life. For Berrocal, the technical aspects of the sculpture are directed toward a sensory meaning that becomes a metaphor of existence in time and space. In fact, one could say that his sculptures are about the puzzle of existence, and it is within this context—the context of the assembling—that Berrocal discovers these realities over and over again.

Richelieu Big, 1973. Wood, 170 x 152 x 123 cm., being assembled.

In this sense, the precision of Berrocal’s art is like a journey through some unknown metaphysical reality where the substance of life is explored and investigated, pulled apart and reconstituted. It is a purposeful equivocation poised between the physical and the metaphysical that endures in the sculpture of Berrocal.

Richelieu Big, 1973. Wood, 170 x 152 x 123 cm., completed.

Although Berrocal has enjoyed a reputation as a major sculptor for more than four decades in Europe, his work is perhaps less understood in the United States. Berrocal’s art is born from a specific cultural understanding of classical form, a formal reality by which he is able to achieve a certain ironic distance in his art. Despite arguments that art possesses its own universality, one cannot easily avoid the cultural basis from which art comes into being. Art may have autonomy, but it cannot exist outside of certain cultural parameters. There are forms that carry significance in one geographical location that may fail to communicate in other places, but this is more the result of an information bias than a qualitative standard related to a real cultural understanding.

Born near Malaga in 1933, Miguel Ortiz Berrocal was formally educated in mathematics, chemistry, and the exact sciences. Later he studied architecture. His early education became an important foundation in the evolution of his career as an artist. His work began to receive acclaim when, at age 21, he exhibited several paintings in the Spanish pavilion of the XXVII Venice Biennale. Shortly after this occasion, Berrocal committed himself to making sculpture. Since then, he has had major exhibitions of his work throughout the world, including a traveling retrospective, originating at the Palacio de Velázquez in Madrid (1984–85), for which a monograph was produced. Last year a retrospective of more than 60 works was mounted at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. He has been the recipient of several important commissions in Madrid, Seville, Bordeaux, Malaga, and Verona, and has received numerous awards and citations, including the prestigious Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In Malaga, a museum was founded a few years ago devoted to the work of Berrocal, and this past February an exhibition of his work opened at the Conde Duque in Madrid.

Micro Maria, 1969–73. Bronze, 2.1 x 3.8 x 2 cm.

Berrocal’s method is different from that of much recent Modernist sculpture in which the orientation is directed toward an external view of the sculptural object. Whereas other sculptors in the modern figurative tradition tend to emphasize the abstraction of form on the exterior surface, Berrocal is interested in the sculpture that exists within the sculpture. As early as 1958–59, he became involved with the design and production of the interlocking shapes that form the interior structure of his work. Large Torso (1959), for example, consists of seven bronze elements. Each element is a sculptural form unto itself and also a clearly distinguished sculptural component in relation to the whole. One can view these elements within the external sculpture as having an independence of their own. The elements in themselves have a sculptural presence, a lexicon that is the raison d’être of the form seen from the outside; thus, both the interior and the exterior are important to the holistic reading of the work.

Citius, Altius, Fortius, 1992. Steel, Kevlar, and carbon fiber, 3 x 2.9 x 1.8 m.

The precision in Berrocal’s work comes from his extraordinary, albeit uncanny, ability to design and forge elements that maintain a perfect fit in terms of the ultimate form. His process of thinking—resulting in a parallel physical manifestation of the interior with the exterior—began in 1955–57 while the artist was working on an early commission of balustrades for the city of Carrara, Italy. As Berrocal’s design for the sculpture evolved, he discovered that there were eight distinct aluminum elements used in the construction of the entire assembly. From this point on, the artist began to think in terms of elements in which various permutations could be derived, initially in non-objective constructions, such as Le Bijou (1960), and eventually in his better-known figurative works—the reclining nudes, the standing women, and the upright torsos. The latter theme eventually led to his largest torso to date, a magnificent, large-scale kinetic work, Citius Altius Fortius (1991–92), made of six discretely moving elements, that currently stands in front of the Olympic Museum in Lausanne.

For Berrocal, making sculpture—whether in bronze, marble, wood, or more recently in kevlar—is not merely a matter of craft and design but a matter of finding a physical and symbolic language to deal with these technical and formal processes. The language of form requires both precision and extreme formal acuity, verging on scientific know-how and the ability to articulate traditional plastic ideas through sensory inventiveness, abstract thinking, and mathematical prowess. Berrocal’s language as an artist is founded on a thorough formal understanding of space and a clear technical knowledge of materials. Yet there is also a deeper conceptual language, a language that transcends the delimitations of the visible. It is within the visible that Berrocal brings us to another level of cognition, a sensory cognition, a memory of form in relation to history. For within the visible lives the invisible, and the invisible itself becomes the opening to another series of abstract elements, engaging not only to the eye, but to the mind as well.

Balaustradas, 1955–57. Aluminum, 100 x 163 cm.

For this reason it is possible to speak of Berrocal’s achievement as a sculptor in conceptual terms. By dealing with parts (elements) in relation to the whole (form), the conceptual aspect of the work becomes an undeniable aspect of what we are seeing. The visible interlocking parts become hidden within the visible whole. We know of their existence only by deconstructing them, by pulling the form apart according to a specific method. It would be like writing Oriental calligraphy. You cannot begin anywhere at random and correctly write the ideogram. There is a system that one needs to learn, a system based on knowing the correct place where one begins to build the marks in a systematic order and thereby to construct (or deconstruct) the form.

From a phenomenological or even a Gestalt approach one might talk about sculpture in general as something that is never fully seen at any given moment. This raises the question as to the definition of sculpture. We can assume that a form exists in three-dimensional space, yet there is also a temporal process involved in the way the form is seen. Whether the scale of the work is large or small is a relative matter. Berrocal deals with all sizes, all scales, all proportions. His forms contain various permutations that are determined according to his intention. Whether they be a multiple edition or a monument, Berrocal adjusts the scale to the space—the space of the city plaza or the space of the hand that intimately disassembles the bronze form.

Almogávar IV—Sancho de Oros, 1981–83. Patinated bronze, 63 x 101 x 120 cm.

As one moves around the enormous biomorphic shapes and bulging tentacles that comprise the luminous white Doña Elvira (1990) in the center of Seville, or the series of 10 Almogávar torsos (1981–83), each based on the shape of an ancient anvil, recently shown at the Berrocal retrospective in Lausanne, one could argue that these sculptures are never actually seen in their totality at any given moment. This occurs because of the following: Each sculpture requires time and movement (of one’s body) in order for the work to be seen. Sculpture is not an instantaneous titillation like the discovery of an image on the internet. Sculpture requires patience. The eye guides the body and the body becomes the eye that circumambulates around the form. By conceptually assembling the various angles of vision through one’s own physical experience, the cognitive dimension of Berrocal’s work begins to coincide with the form’s sensory appeal.

The work of Berrocal, as so accurately shown in the Almogávares, is a construction of parts in relation to the whole. This is fundamentally a Gestalt concept. Each torso is literally constructed of elements that can be deconstructed. It is possible to de-mystify the classical appearance of the exterior and to see it in an “overall” context as a series of discrete units. Almogávar V—Roger de Lauria, named after a medieval warrior, might be seen in a way not dissimilar to the appearance of a disemboweled Corvette engine spread over a suburban lawn in Los Angeles. To reconstruct the sculpture, one would have to perform the task systematically like the strokes of the calligraphic brush, to put it in order, then to view the whole once again.

Doña Elvira, 1990–92. Steel, Kevlar, and carbon fiber, 2.7 x 6 x 2.2 m.

Another example of this Gestalt phenomenon is a large sculpture in wood called Richelieu Big (1973). Berrocal constructed this impressive work, named for the infamous French cardinal, as part of a series begun in the ’60s that focused on the theme of the classical male torso. Each torso is a dismountable sculpture, originally cast in several units. They represent historical or mythical personalities, such as Adamo Secundus, David, Goliath, Samson, and Alexander the Great. Richelieu Big is unique in that it was constructed from 61 elements of laminated and precision-cut wood. The complexity of thought and the mathematical ingenuity that went into the final result is staggering. Again, it is a matter of embedding the conceptual form within the visible exterior and thus demystifying the aura of classical sculpture.

Berrocal is ultimately interested in democratizing art without sacrificing the emotional elegance and sophistication of thought that can allow the mind to reflect on the nature of reality and thus to soar beyond the mundane trivia of our so-called information age. His emphasis on multiple editions, beginning with Maria de la O (1962–63), has been the cause of considerable misunderstanding over the years. While the multiple was initially intended as a means to reduce the price of art and thereby to make it accessible for those who would not be able to afford it as a unique work, Berrocal was often accused of “turning commercial” or even of trying to subvert the art market. On more than one occasion, the artist was approached by important international galleries who wanted to represent him on the condition that he stop producing the multiples and make only unique sculpture, but he refused.

Almogávar X—Guillén de Tous, 1981–83. Patinated bronze, 64 x 90 x 42 cm.

Back in the ’70s, there was much talk in New York about how to expand the dissemination of art beyond the current marketing structure, but when given the opportunity few artists were willing to refuse offers that would require them to produce objects according to the standards of the market. It became apparent that aesthetics could not be fully divorced from the realities of the market—a conundrum that even William Morris confronted in his work with the Arts and Crafts guilds in England over a century ago. While this aspect of Berrocal’s work is often ignored, it is a topic of considerable importance.

Pepita, 1996. Kevlar and carbon fiber, 3 m.

In the meantime, Berrocal is effectively involved with many large-scale projects, public commissions, exhibitions, set designs, and recently with an educational project in Spain in which he created a multiple, Retrato de Adriano (1997–98), to be used specifically for students in developing their cognitive skills. As with his public art, the multiples are also in a sense public, but on a smaller scale. They are public to the extent that the same sculpture is disseminated to 200 people or, in some cases, 10,000 people. This, of course, delights Berrocal as he continues to provoke the existing market and, in doing so, makes a significant contribution to our transglobal culture by evoking the fundamental questions, the questions that make us reflect on the puzzle of existence.

Maria de la O, 1962–64. Bronze, 10.8 x 16 x 7.3 cm.

Yet within this publicity, there is also an intimacy—a conjugation of the democratization of art as idea and art as a tactile, visual, physical, even metaphysical reality. In this sense, Miguel Berrocal’s attitude toward sculpture is completely convincing. His aesthetic approach emanates from the age-old position of classicism; but within that vocabulary he is striving to demystify the pretensions that have accumulated within Western culture for so many centuries. He is a responsible artist who is not out to destroy a tradition, but who wants to have fun with it, and to teach us something in the process.

1 The exact source of the phrase is uncertain; I read it some 30 years ago. I believe it was in the context of an interview published in an early number of Evergreen Review.

Robert C. Morgan is a critic and artist whose books include the recent Between Modernism and Conceptual Art.