Arts and Culture  Books 

Questioning the Legacy of Jorge Oteiza

Myths without Heroes

Kosme de Barañano 

Bibliographic production on Oteiza after his death in 2003 has been prolific, though always undertaken from hagiographic positions very much in his own art & prop style, never historical- artistic or contextualizing. His museum success has been huge too, though limited to the Spanish scene, since the installation of his work in the Reina Sofía of Madrid (1994-2001).

Three recent books (Oteiza. Catálogo razonado de su obra, by Txomin Badiola; Jorge Oteiza, hacedor de vacíos, by Carlos Martínez Gorriarán; and Ejercicios espirituales en un túnel. En busca y encuentro de nuestra identidad perdida, by Oteiza himself) take new approaches: the first takes the form of a ‘reasoned’ catalog of his sculptural work; the second comes as a biography; and the third is a critical edition of the artist’s writings.

Compared to the material produced on Oteiza (especially for his 2008 centenary), the books stem from more critical premises. Martínez Gorriarán, professor of aesthetics at the University of the Basque Country, has allowed himself to be guided by the sophist philosophy of the thinker and by the role of vendor of messages played by the telluric reasons of Basque art, as if the adjective contained the substance of that which by nature and since the Paleolithic period has addressed all, without borders: the creation of images. More attracted to the pseudopoetic interpretation of a branch of French literature than to the historiography of art, Martínez Gorriarán does not contextualize Oteiza’s work in its historical moment, in its sources, and in its debts (some of which border on plagiary). Years ago I pointed out how in his art and writings Oteiza, a cultural agitator who played a role in the transfer of knowledge in the 1950s, owed his insights to other artists responsible for making art history, who belonged to the ‘first division’ of the 20th century, such as Moore. 

At the time, I also stressed the dangerous triggering role of the prophet. After Oteiza condemned the colonialism that raising an American museum in Bilbao meant, in 1997 an ETA bomb killed an agent of the autonomous Basque police force, the Ertzaintza, in the vicinity of the Guggenheim. Gorriarán, using a chiasmus, criticizes the sculptor for his moral conduct, but makes an intellectual error: “He supported the use of violence as a political instrument, provided others took the risk, not he. A cowardice that also had much bearing on his (relative) withdrawal from art when he was at the peak of his career: he could have launched a successful international career, but chose to seek refuge in a small local circle, without any real rivals, and from there carry out his prophetic mission.” But what happened was the opposite: since the São Paulo award Oteiza had known that he had no international career, that he could not have a career outside Spain, because he was trapped in his international references (Hepworthy, Jacobsen, Fontana) and in the sources he did not cite, so he chose to stay local.

For art historians there is no doubt about the secondary role of Oteiza in 20th-century sculpture, and even less in his works from the 1960s on, which were always covered by the press because he was a great maker of headlines. One defect of Gorriarán’s biography is, on the other hand, its lack of inquiry into the years Oteiza spent in South America (1935-1948). It is a pity that the autor has not gone there to make an in-depth investigation of those years of false exile during which the prophet internalized his discourse in Buenos Aires, drinking from the young Tomás Maldonado or the Chilean architect Enrique Gebhard, whose ideas he would sell to the Huarte family after returning to Spain.

Spiritual Exercises

The critical edition of Oteiza’s Ejercicios espirituales en un túnel. En busca y encuentro de nuestra identidad perdida consists of the 500 pages of the facsimile of the second, 1984 edition (which, like the first, in 1983, compiles texts written in 1965-66), plus another 500 for Zabaleta’s translation and 150 of notes by Emma López. Ejercicios espirituales also presents a 40-page foreword titled ‘El túnel del tiempo,’ written by Francisco Calvo Serraller, and is the fourth volume of the critical edition of the artist’s essential works, published by the Oteiza Museum, after Poesía (2006), Quousque Tandem (2007), and Interpretación estética de la estatuaria megalítica americana y carta a los artistas de América (2007).

After Oteiza’s text come critical annotations, the bibliography, and the index of names, all put together by Professor López Bahut. This critical apparatus is interesting in Oteiza’s own annotations, but seems parasitic (when not outrightly copied) in the entries corresponding to other artists, and on the other hand it is full of omissions (Akira Kurosawa, González Robles – director of the São Paulo adventure of Oteiza, together with Juan Huarte, Iñiguez de Onzoño, Miguel Oriol, Germáan Yanke) and imprecisions, especially in the notes on Aita Donostia, where he turns from a Basque nationalist to a cosmopolitan defender of preserving folklore. 

Finally, Txomin Badiola’s Catálogo razonado has been published. The author succumbs to the contradictions of Oteiza himself, who in 1959 “forwent becoming a maker of objects that potentially already existed, and gave up his sculptural practice.” But if Oteiza abandoned the practice of sculpture, what explains his production from that time on, especially his return, in 1979, to the figurative, with the portraits of Sabino Arana for the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV)?

Badiola, who knew and dealt with the sculptor, tries to explain these contradictions. On the one hand he points out the artist’s piracy (for example, he tells of Oteiza’s “comercial whims bordering on estafa,” or of “editions partly numbered or given duplicated or erroneous numerations”), but blames it on the nature of the art market and on the artist’s old age. One of Badiola’s ways of salvaging Oteiza’s name from this lack of ethics is by referrring to the sculptor’s experimental character. The term ‘experimental’ is repeated time and again, but are not all artists experimental? That said, it must be acknowledged that Badiola has come up with an exhaustive catalog of all variants (and falsifications) of the artist: his work reveals a huge effort and will undoubtedly help contribute to providing real knowledge about the work of Oteiza.

Badiola has tried to save Oteiza, a tall order, but at least he has left a work of documentation and analysis valid for anyone wanting to study this artist. Badiola’s ‘original sin,’ as in the other cases, is Oteiza’s last-ditch defense against the work of his contemporary, Eduardo Chillida. Here we can add a final reflection: in an article of 1951, ‘La investigación abstracta en la escultura actual,’ Oteiza cites Brancusi, Modigliani, Lipchitz, Zadkine, Arp, Epstein, and Giacometti as his masters; in a conference honoring Chillida in 1966, he again recognizes Giacometti and Lehmbruck. The question is: aren’t these all figurative sculptors? Where, then, was Oteiza’s ‘abstraction’ before 1957? Why does everyone have to go by the Chillida/ Oteiza dichotomy? Why is there no mention of this lecture of tribute to Chillida that Oteiza gave on 15 December 1965 in San Sebastián? 

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