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From the Director

Every now and then there is an exhibition that brings to your attention something you never knew existed or some aspect of an artist’s work that you did not know. I was certainly not familiar with the work or career of Jorge Oteiza, the subject of a major retrospective this past summer at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Although Robert Morgan reviewed an earlier Oteiza show in these pages (March 2004), I missed his article, and it was only at the insistence of an ISC staff member that I remembered to visit the Guggenheim and finally see the exhibition. Now I wish I had seen it sooner so that all the people I am telling about it could have the chance to see it as well.

Perhaps I was so enthralled because Oteiza’s work was new, for me, something fresh and yet something that was not just a piece of fashion but part of a relatively untold history of European sculpture. While the work and times of Oteiza (the artist died in 2003) had nothing to do with those of Joseph Beuys, the character and striking originality of the mustached Basque native reminded me of the figure that emerged from the 1980 Beuys retrospective also presented at the Guggenheim. At that time, little was known or acknowledged about an artist now considered one of the grandfathers of contemporary art. In an art world completely centered in New York and focused on American Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and Minimalism, Beuys’s mythologized personal history, narrative/iconic installations, and experiments with chance—all in the service of art as life, and not separated from it—came as a revelation. These were the years before the Italian, German, and French waves of Neo-Expressionist painters, before the rise of photography as a dominant art form, and long before the term “installation” became synonymous with every new show or artist. Beuys’s work seemed to arrive fully engaged, built on an ideology derived from another ethos. Likewise, Oteiza’s sculptures are clearly shaped and mined from a system of beliefs and ideas seemingly ahead of their time.

An initial impression of Oteiza’s work reveals visual kinships to Hepworth, Pevsner, Stankiewicz, Nevelson, Tony Smith, and Ronald Bladen, but these relationships are only superficial since he rarely left his native country after the 1940s. The richness of Modernism’s, spare, concise, compressed spaces versus open voids may be there, but in a distinct inflection. Oteiza based his career on experimentation, searching to “dis-occupy” or evacuate forms, to “empty” sculpture. A multi-faceted talent, he made important contributions in poetry, anthropology, architecture, and linguistics, in addition to his significant sculptural output. And he was more like Beuys than his work might suggest: Oteiza was also interested in bringing art and culture into the realm of everyday life.

An exhibition such as this, which brings a sense of discovery, insight, and expanding horizons, demonstrates the essential role of museums. This is what such institutions are about and why we need them. It is important to keep the dialogue, research, and subsequent learning going, so that the richness and variation characteristic of art history in its fullness are not boiled down yet again into a reductive formula of a few dozen people working in one city and at one time. That reduction wasn’t at all what Oteiza meant when he said, “The history of sculpture is made by a single sculptor who changes names.”

Michael Klein
ISC Executive Director

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