Guggenheim
Introduction

“All of contemporary art is entering a discipline of silences and eliminations, from which it will pour into a new emptiness.”1

Jorge Oteiza, Metaphysical Box by Conjunction of Two Trihedrons. Homage to Leonardo (Caja metafísica por conjunción de dos triedros. Homenaje a Leonardo), 1958. Steel, 28.5 x 25 x 26.5 cm
Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa

Introduction

A self-taught artist, Jorge Oteiza (b. 1908, Orio, Spain; d. 2003, San Sebastián, Spain) began making sculptures that fell within genres of expressionism or primitivism. Back in the Basque Country in 1947 from a long sojourn in South America, he began to develop what he called his "experimental purpose." This work arose out of a series of conceptual considerations and from a particular way of working on sculpture-related issues: his notion that all artistic practice surges from a void that is nothing yet eventually reaches a nothing that is everything. So, moments when expressive capacity and the amount of material increase, when the role of the spectator is purely receptive, will be followed by moments in which the important thing is the fading out of expression, when the material is de-occupied and space takes on a predominant role, with the formerly passive spectator activated before the void of the sculpture.

These ideas of experimentation and spirituality put into practice the process of emptying simple geometric forms such as the cube, cylinder, and sphere. He based this work on a range of attempts carried out on small models ordered in groups posing the same set of problems; these he referred to as "experimental families" or series. Only the most representative or intense of these models were eventually transferred to the definitive material state, always on a modest scale.

In 1958, Oteiza began working on his “conclusive works,” which were highly geometric, matter-free spatial signs, considered by many to be examples of proto-Minimalist sculptures. His series Empty Boxes (Cajas vacías) explored the limits of the cube as well as the invisible boundaries of the expanded, interior void. Empty Box with Large Opening (Caja vacía con gran apertura) (1958), a square metal cube consisting of cut-out, virtually open space, represents a remarkably subtle box, where space and form flow much more than they do in other components of the same series.
Metaphysical Box by Conjunction of Two Trihedrons. Homage to Leonardo (Caja metafísica por conjunción de dos triedos. Homenaje a Leonardo) (1958) forms part of the conclusive works created at the pinnacle of Oteiza's fruitful artistic career. Although Oteiza experimented with different types of geometric shapes, the cube provided the artist with the solution to his personal search as a sculptor: to define an empty space which could be filled with spiritual energy. This sculpture is an excellent example of the artist's metaphysical boxes. A dark and mysterious space is created in the interior, and when the boxes were placed on a stone or marble base the sensation the artist was after became even clearer: the feeling of a sacred space.

In 1959, after years of artistic activity, Oteiza concluded that he had taken his experimentation as far as it would go and gave up sculpture to concentrate on theoretical investigation and cultural, educational, and political activism in the Basque Country.

1—Jorge Oteiza quoted in Propósito Experimental. Fundación Caja de Pensiones, Madrid, 1988. p. 225.

Questions

Look carefully at this sculpture. What do you notice? What words can you use to describe it? How can you describe its form?

Ask students to describe the material of this sculpture (steel). If possible, show students a sample of steel and allow them to touch it and describe its qualities. What do you think the sculpture would feel like if you could touch it?

List and draw the geometric figures you know. Debate their features and decide which are more dynamic, light or heavy, solid, etc. Oteiza experimented with many geometric figures for his sculptures. Why do you think a cube might have appealed to Oteiza as a figure to explore? Describe, step-by-step, how this sculpture might have been made.

Oteiza investigated how the solid relates to the void. How would you define void? How does Oteiza introduce the void in his sculpture?

Consider the space inside the sculpture. If that space was a place, what could be its use? How would the light be inside that place? Imagine you can step inside this sculpture. How would you feel? Why?

Activities

Imagine you have to make a vessel to hold the entire universe. Debate what the vessel should look like and draw the corresponding sketches. Compare the results and give your sketch a title.

Find a solid object and cover it with wire, approximately one meter long. The object may be a cylinder (e.g., a glue jar), a sphere (an orange), or another geometric shape. Once covered, remove the solid object; you will have a hollow form. Alter the form until you get one that is pleasing to you. To create a base, use one end of the wire and poke it into a small block of modeling clay or a piece of cork. Observe the result carefully and give it a title.