Study for the Emptying of the Sphere

Jorge Oteiza
Study for the Emptying of the Sphere (Ensayo de desocupación de la esfera), 1958
Forged steel
50 x 49 x 39 cm
Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa

“All contemporary art involves entering a discipline of silences and eliminations to issue forth into a new emptiness”. [1]

A self-taught artist, Jorge Oteiza (Orio, Gipuzkoa, 1908–Donostia/San Sebastián, 2003) returned to the Basque Country in 1947 after spending many years in South America. He then began to develop what he called his “experimental purpose”, a peculiar approach to sculpture based on the notion of de-occupying matter. Space thus acquires a dominant role and the viewer adopts an active attitude toward the emptiness of the sculpture.

Oteiza experimented by depriving a body of its mass, and so de-occupying space, with the intention of drawing our attention to the emptiness this mass leaves behind it. To Oteiza’s mind, this hole or emptiness which appears when part of the mass is removed generates tremendous energy. The artist compares the effect with the example of an apple that is bitten into. What remains after the bite functions as a register of a mass that no longer exists, and whose place is now occupied by space.

These experimental ideas initiated a process of emptying out simple geometric figures, such as the cube, the cylinder and the sphere. Oteiza based this work on series of studies that grouped together small maquettes in what he called “experimental families”. Only the most representative of these models were finally transferred to large-scale works.

During those years, as part of his series entitled The Emptying of the Sphere (La desocupación de la esfera), Oteiza produced Moon (Hillargia, 1957) and Study for the Emptying of the Sphere (Ensayo de desocupación de la esfera, 1958). In these pieces, he fused or coupled together lightweight units by combining the techniques of welding and forging. These sculptures are dynamic constructions that combine curved forms with different spatial orientations, evoking the idea of movement. The first is a study of motion that makes reference at the same time to the phases of the moon. The second, the sculpture entitled Study for the Emptying of the Sphere, is very close to the conclusion of the series. It suggests a centrifugal movement that liberates an active space or nucleus, a notion that always had a metaphysical connotation in Oteiza’s work.

After experimenting with various geometric bodies, it was in the cube that the artist found the solution to the problem posed by his investigation: how to define an empty space that could be filled with spiritual energy. The “metaphysical boxes” generate a dark and mysterious space in their interior, and when they are placed on a stone or marble base, they help to produce the sensation sought by the artist, that of a sacred space. His concept of the hole or emptiness as a sacred place of refuge is to an extent rooted in his childhood experiences. As a child, the artist recalled, he would crouch in the holes left by the carts that took away the sand from the beach of his village, Orio, in Gipuzkoa. From the bottom of the hole, he would look out at the luminous blue sky drawn by the circle of sand above his head.

In 1959, after years of artistic activity, Oteiza came to the conclusion that he had gone as far as possible with his experimentation, and he abandoned sculpture to devote himself to theoretical research and cultural, educational and political activism.

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



Look closely at this sculpture. What do you see? Which words would you use to describe it?

Name and draw any geometric figures you know. Oteiza experiments with many geometric figures in his sculptures. Discuss the characteristics of such figures, deciding which ones seem to you most dynamic or static, lightest or heaviest, emptiest or fullest, and so on. If this sculpture could be set in motion, how would it move?

Describe the material this sculpture is made out of, forged steel. (If possible, the teacher should show the students a piece of steel and allow them to touch it.) Describe its qualities. If you could touch this sculpture, what would it feel like? Describe step by step how this sculpture might have been made.

Oteiza explores the relationship between the solid and the empty. How would you define emptiness? Look at the space within the sculpture, and imagine you could go inside it. How would you feel? Why?