Alejandro Otero: Painter, Sculptor, Artist
At first it was the virtual space of painting, then the living space of architecture, and finally it was space itself. Alejandro Otero
Alejandro Otero (Venezuela 1921-1990) was one of the most original artists in modern Latin American art. Studious, restless, incessant in his work, sensitive and disciplined, curious and inventive, and above all a tireless observer of the world and of the times in which he lived (much like Leonardo da Vinci, I would say), Otero migrated between several areas of artistic work and thought, always managing to be up with the times, one of the leitmotifs of his work. A very complete artist and intellectual, he was also a writer and educator. Part of the opus that Otero bequeathed us are his abundant, analytical writings in which he reflected on his art, on the work of creators of the past and on the world in which he lived. As he put it, the artist’s “...main responsibility is to be aware of current events, of the changes within his vision and of the transformations that occur around him.”(1) Otero remained faithful to this principle.
Since his days of study in the School of Fine and Applied Arts in Caracas (1939-1945), where he was a student and later a teacher, Alejandro Otero devoted himself to drawing and painting, lasting passions in his career. From the beginning, he was one of the most outstanding students of his generation. At that early age he created still lifes, nudes, portraits and innovative landscapes.
In the late 1940s, during his first years living in Paris (1945-1949), having studied the work of Cezanne and Picasso, Otero the painter abandoned traditional figuration in his series of works known as Cafeteras (Coffee Makers). Otero took as models different everyday objects (coffee makers, candlesticks, pots, bottles, lamps, and even skulls) and bit by bit his representations of the object of reference become more distant, decomposing it (denaturalization is the term he used) until he began to create varied geometric forms and then just lines, colors and space, moving from a representational pictorial language to a more geometric one. After that time, Alejandro Otero's work, as Juan Ignacio Parra points out when writing about the artist's painting, is marked by the definition of the line. “In all his works that we can group together chronologically and didactically into series, the obligatory reference and, in the end, the artist's greatest concern, lies in his approach to the line in space.”(2) As we will see later, this is a concern that, linked to the concept of structure, will affect his work and become transcendental within his painting.
Otero abandoned traditional figuration and thus became the first painter to introduce abstract language into Venezuelan art. The Cafeteras paintings were exhibited in 1949 in Washington D.C. and later in Caracas, where they caused a real stir in the local art world and within art criticism.
The artist returned to Paris at the end of that year. In 1950, together with a group of avant-garde Venezuelan artists and intellectuals, he formed the movement Los Disidentes (The Dissidents) which published a magazine of the same name and which served as a platform for the defense of abstraction and an attack on the most conservative currents that prevailed then at the School of Fine Arts in Caracas. In the late 1950s, he traveled to Holland to study the work of Mondrian, whose creation dazzled and impressed him forever. The Dutch artist, along with Cezanne and Picasso, were the fundamental references for the development of Otero's mature work.
Otero returned to Caracas in 1952. The series of Cafeteras was followed, in 1951, by another series of openly abstract paintings with a very explicit title, Líneas coloreadas sobre Fondo Blanco (Colored Lines on a White Background), which were composed of simple, straight vertical or diagonal colored lines rhythmically suspended in space, grouped into pairs, trios, quartets or up to 10 elements on a clear surface. The backgrounds of the first canvases were covered with only a thin layer of paint but in the last pieces the background gains more depth and texture. As noted by his friend, the critic Alfredo Boulton: “...with the severity of poetic and geometric beauty and with great minimalist eloquence, with high drama and classical elegance, the artist sets down simple lines that are the long and pure graphic accents of a very fine abstraction...”(3)
Also from 1951 is his series of Collages Ortogonales (Orthogonal Collages), clearly inspired by Mondrian, as the artist himself affirmed, composed of colored paper strips, intersected horizontally and vertically, forming a kind of grid or textile pattern, which produce great optical vibrations. If they resemble Mondrian, Otero said, “it is because of the use of straight horizontal and vertical strips, but they differ in the breadth and freedom of the range of colors used in this series.” In 1954, Otero created a pair of paintings entitled Horizontales Activas (Active Horizontals), rectangular surfaces occupied by parallel straight horizontal lines that achieve very dynamic optical effect.
Between 1955 and 1960, Otero conceived what is perhaps his best known series, the Coloritmos (Colorhythms), made with industrial paint on both vertical and horizontal wooden boards in an elongated format, a novelty at that time, whose varied compositions of lines and geometric shapes of colors revitalize the painting space and give it greater expressiveness. From this series, he produced eighty-three pieces, as well as six experimental variants called Coloritmos en movimiento (Colorhythms in Motion) (1957), in which the artist installed two sheets of Plexiglas in front of the painted board, thus enhancing the sensation of movement that the viewer experiences when passing in front of the work. For one of his Coloritmos he received the National Painting Prize in Venezuela in 1958, awarded for the first time to a non-figurative work of art. Otero participated with this series in several national and international events, including the Biennial of Sao Paulo and the Biennial of Venice, and won several awards. Works from the Coloritmos series were included in several Latin American art exhibitions organized in the 1960s in the United States. Coloritmo 1 was acquired in 1955 by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, and then other American museums, such as the University of Arizona, the Dallas Art Museum and the Fine Arts Museum in Houston, among others, bought also pieces of the series.
Otero also developed his particular visual language in his murals, stained glass, engravings, sculpture and in other disciplines he practiced. He participated, along with other Venezuelan artists, alongside international artists such as Calder, Vasarely, Arp, Léger and Lobo, among others, in the Project of the Integration of the Arts, conceived and executed by the architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva in the City University of Caracas, where Otero was forced to work in new dimensions, large surfaces and with new materials. Between 1956 and 1960, Otero carried out a series of murals and stained glass windows integrated into the interior architecture of several buildings and on the facades of several high-rise buildings of the University. Noteworthy are the monumental and rhythmic polychrome mosaics that he created for the facades of the Architecture, Dentistry and Pharmacy departments.
Simultaneously, Otero produced murals and stained glass windows in private spaces in Caracas, among which are worth mentioning the mosaic and aluminum panel for the Mercantile and Agricultural Bank in 1954; the stained glass window for the house of Alfredo Boulton in 1956; the ceiling of the Teatro del Este in 1956; the polychrome in the El Paraíso Residential Unit in 1957; the monochrome relief panel for the Colinas de Carrizal Aquarium in 1959; and Color Cenital (Zenith Color), a stained glass window for the Anala and Armando Planchart Foundation Chapel, in Tanaguarenas in 1974, among others.
In 1960, Otero returned to Paris and began to work again with easel painting. He also changed his artistic language, painting a small series of oils on canvas, the Monocromos (Monochromes), beautifully lyrical works affiliated with the Informalista movement, in which the painter focused only on the painterly texture of the material, brushstroke and color. Then, impregnated with the New Realism in vogue at that time in France, he created his Ensamblajes y Encolados (Assemblages and Collages), a series of works of strong, sometimes violent expressiveness that incorporate objects, residues, screws, nuts, locks, containers, wood, cardboard, paper, cloth, earth and other found materials on wooden boards. Some of these pieces are constructed with agglomerations of objects and residues, immersed in pasty colored paint, while in others the objects appear unpainted on a white background, at times with an isolated object (saws, pliers, gloves, brooms, etc.) hanging on flat wood, on fragments of windows or often on white wooden doors.
From the middle of this period are his series of Cartas sobre Fondo Blanco (Letters on White Backgrounds), a set of old letters, postcards and envelopes from time past glued on cardboard, with which Otero seems to establish a kind of nostalgic dialogue with art, with everything that fascinates him about time and with himself.
Back in Caracas in the second half of the decade, he created his Papeles Coloreados (Colored Papers), in which he again uses geometric language and emphasizes the use of color. These works are made from pages of newspapers cut into geometric shapes (squares and rectangles) and stained with different colors, leaving visible the news of the cultural, economic and social reality of Venezuela at that moment. As early as 1953, at the same time as he was creating his painterly easel work, Alejandro Otero had begun to install his creations within the real space of the environment by intervening public urban spaces. In that year he carried out five mosaic murals for the José Ángel Lamas amphitheater in Caracas, the work still of a painterly nature but into which he introduced three-dimensional metallic elements. In 1954 he creates his first openly sculptural work, Mástil Reflejante (Reflective Mast), a linear, straight column standing 14 meters tall and made from folded aluminum, installed on a busy avenue in the city where it still remains. Otero also created another smaller, non-mobile sculpture in 1959, the Policromía (Polychrome) in the Easo Building.
A defining moment in Otero's career occurred in 1967. Until that year he had dedicated himself mostly to working within a two-dimensional and immobile space, but in that year he began to focus almost exclusively on creating three-dimensional and mobile work, as if the flat surface was no longer sufficient for his artistic expression. (A parenthesis occurs between 1973 and 1986, when he created the series Tablones (Planks) in acrylic on Formica, which echo his Coloritmos but give a greater emphasis to color and to the relationship of space. Even when it was no longer manifested in a painting or panel, the concept of ‘the painterly’ was always present in his process of visual creation, something we will feel again, for example, in his magnificent later engravings and drawings).
On the occasion of the celebration of the 400-year anniversary of the founding of Caracas, the City Council organized in 1967 a series of cultural events with the participation of local artists. As part of the program, the next year, the so-called Zona Feérica (El Conde Fair Area) was created, located in the center of the city, in which Alejandro Otero, in some cases with the collaboration of his wife the artist Mercedes Pardo, installed a series of three-dimensional creations. Otero installed six public sculptures there created from iron, steel and aluminum: Vertical Vibrante Oro y Plata (Gold and Silver Vertical Vibrant), Integral Vibrante (Vibrant Integral), Noria Hidrocromática (Hydrochromatic Ferris Wheel), Rotor, Estructura Sono Vibrátil (Vibrating Sound Structure) and Torre Acuática (Aquatic Tower). At the time, the works’ presence was a visual and playful event in the center of the city. Some of these works are now installed in museums and others in public spaces of the city.
That same year, his sculpture expands beyond the confines of Caracas when he installs his slim Vertical Vibrante Plata (Silver Vibrant Vertical) in the nearby city of Maracay. Alfredo Boulton wrote about these creations: “[Otero] built works in which he incorporated the action of movement by means of rotating blades that visually produced a permanent internal rotation in the life and within the body of the sculptures. These works no longer belong to a complete sculptural stasis but instead transform their metallic bodies in time to the rhythm of the wind and transmit this to the viewer's eye, integrating themselves into the real, everyday concept of the human being. They were of other temperatures, other uses, other skills.”(4) In addition to movement, Otero incorporates into these works other elements such as water, light, color and electricity. As the artist himself declared:
“Any natural element or that created by man (water, wind, light, metals or machines), leads me to conceive forms and anti-forms, spaces, movements, vibrations or simply sensory events that no longer need to be specifically either painting, sculpture or architecture, or any combination of these, to express the new unnamed fact of which we are part and that begins to unfold as existing reality.”(5) It was at this pivotal moment of creation when the idea of executing large-scale metal sculptures arose, and he would begin to dedicate himself to this new project over the following years.
In 1971, the Guggenheim Foundation awarded Otero a scholarship to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, and there he worked with the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the institute. Over the course of two years, while working alongside NASA engineers in an attempt to bridge art and science, he continued his research on public sculpture, their materials and techniques, as well as on their relation with urban space and with natural reality, particularly with wind, light, water and weather. During this period of study and work, he produced hundreds of projects, drawings and models, some of which were exhibited in Cambridge and then in Caracas. Of particular importance are the beautiful models made from cardboard and wood, small sculptures actually, which, with the title of Esculturas Náuticas (Nautical Sculptures), were designed to be installed on the Charles River in Boston. After this experience, four years later, Alejandro Otero radically changed scale to create his monumental Estructuras (Structures), as he preferred to call them, because this notion of scale, as well as that of the line and space, was one of his most essential obsessions according to the critic María Elena Ramos(6), who also points out that this same idea is present both in his figurative and abstract work.
These modular, geometric works, in which the modules or cubicles of iron can be empty or contain rotating stainless steel blades, ensure movement by force of the wind. The artist, however, clarifies that in Alas Solares (Solar Wings), for example, each cubicle is equal to the others, each rotating element is identical to the rest and all the details are repeated, yet in no case is one module equivalent to another. The scale of the works, the points or perspectives from where they can be observed, makes them different. The light is not reflected in them in the same way, nor does the wind move them at the same speed. For the artist, this movement involves the use of a new material and technological structure, new work instruments, new scales and calculations. This work also required the participation of an engineer to help develop the idea the artist embodied in his drawings and small models, until the complex materialization of the public work was completed. The artist gave his structures titles with terms that refer to earthly and stellar space: Deltas, Abras (Bursts), Torres (Towers), Espejos (Mirrors), Alas (Wings), Agujas (Needles), names often followed by the word Solar, his favorite epithet. As a background scenario, the works always interact with the city, nature and the sky, which Herbert Read suggested is the ideal background for sculpture.
In 1974, Otero produced Espejo Solar (Solar Mirror), an artwork located on an islet in the lagoon of the Simón Bolívar University, Caracas, upon whose waters the mirror-like reflection of the work is perceived in constant motion. The following year, together with Mercedes Pardo, he created Los Cerritos (The Hills), a polychrome iron structure that was installed in a very populous area of the city. The year 1975 marks the beginning of the internationalization of the sculptural production of Alejandro Otero. His work crossed the borders of his native country and was installed in strategic sites in several important cities around the world, where they were admired by a large local public and visitors. Ala Solar (Solar Wing), 14 x 34 meters, was installed that year in the city of Bogota as a donation from the Venezuelan government to Colombia. In 1977, his imposing Delta Solar was mounted on a mirror made from water, reflecting itself onto itself, in the west garden of the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, as a gift from the Venezuelan government to the United States for the centennial celebration of its Independence. “That was the greatest honor that I have received in life,” Otero said at that time, “that my work was there, in the place dedicated to the extraordinary adventures of man and his conquest of space.”
Conceived in 1976, the Estructura Solar (Solar Structure) was temporarily installed the following year, under the auspices of the Olivetti Corporation of Italy, in the courtyard of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan. The writer and critic José Balza described it as “…inside the same courtyard where Leonardo imagined placing his famous horse, part of the projected equestrian statue of the prince,” and went on to wonder: “Was there perhaps a universal meaning lit within him that brought this Latin American artist close to Leanardo’s fascination?”(7) This work was permanently installed at the Olivetti headquarters in Ivrea, Italy, three years later. The corporation also sponsored on this occasion the publication of the first monograph dedicated to Otero, written by the aforementioned writer.
For the occasion of the 40th Venice Biennale (an event in which Otero had previously participated), the artist participated not only as a representative of his country in the Venezuela Pavilion but also as an invited artist for which he installed two colossal structures within the framework of this event in 1982. The first, Abra Solar (Starburst), which served as a porch at the entrance of the Biennial headquarters in the Santa Elena Gardens, and the second, Aguja Solar (Solar Needle), which was located in front of the Palace Cinema in the Lido neighborhood in Venice. Challenging gravitational force, the first work rises 42.60 meters high and the Solar Needle 31 meters. Boulton rightly celebrates: “Both pieces meant a novel presence in that international, worldwide, controversial event, and also a consecration, a reaffirmation of the importance of the artist once again within the world of art.”(8) Upon his return to Venezuela, Starburst was permanently installed in the Venezuela Square in Caracas and Solar Needle in the Interalúmina Company in Ciudad Guayana.
Alejandro Otero's artwork has been included in numerous individual and collective exhibitions in important national and international museums. His work is represented in many national and international important public and private museums and institutions around the world. In 1985, the artist organized his most important retrospective exhibition in the Sofía Imber Museum of Contemporary Art in Caracas, with work from the whole of his career. From this same year is his work Una Flor para el Desierto (A Flower for the Desert), located today in this museum’s gardens.
In 1986, Otero produced what could be considered his greatest sculptural work: the Torre Solar (Solar Tower). This stainless steel structure is composed of a slender and solid shaft and two circulating and rotating wind turbines that move in opposite directions, rotating around the column in the last third of its height where the blades are located. The sculpture is installed next to the spillway of the Raúl Leoni (now Simón Bolívar) Hydroelectric Power Plant in Guri in the south of the country, moved by the mighty Caroní River. Emerging from the rocky Precambrian soil of Venezuela’s Guayanes region (converted into a stage by the architect Domingo Álvarez), the 50 meters-high tower covered with stainless steel plates moves upwards to guide the viewer's gaze into infinite space. Prodigious for its technological and constructive innovation, its form refers us both to the shaft of the Greek column, to ancestral totems, and to spacecraft launched into space, which the artist dreamed of attaining. “Beyond the beauty of the natural elements,” Boulton writes, “above the unexpected surprises of the landscape, above the grace and talent of the sculptural formulation of the Torre Solar..., what should be underscored more than anything else is the success Otero had in placing his magic sculpture within the surroundings of the Raúl Leoni Hydroelectric Power Plant without disturbing or altering a single aspect of the architectural and ecological harmony of the landscape, instead enhancing the beauty of its surroundings...”(9) When bathed in light, the imposing and silent tower produces flashes and reflections everywhere, honoring its solar status. At night, it emerges instead as a lunar, mysterious, dreamlike appearance. “At sixty-five,” states its creator, “and speaking objectively, the Torre Solar, because of its scale and significance, represents my most important work, the biggest challenge of all my work.”
True to his purpose and his constant desire of being a man of his time, Otero ventured into the world of computer graphics. In 1987, he was invited by IBM of Venezuela to research the possibilities offered by the computer for the design of structures. The beautiful images, a product of his investigations, were published two years later in Alejandro Otero: Greetings to the 21st century, edited by Claudio Mendoza and published by IBM in Caracas in 1989.
Shortly before his death, Otero created the piece Sin Título-Estructura Solar (Untitled-Solar Structure) (1990-1995) that was posthumously installed in the gardens of the Museum of Fine Arts in Caracas.
Although in this exhibition we cannot show any of these structures on a public scale, except in images, we have the privilege of viewing the artist’s preparatory process that gave rise to them. Following a rigorous methodology, Otero, when producing paintings or sculptural works, always began with drawings, sketches or models, before making the final work a reality. Of note are the small, beautiful sketches that Otero carried out for his Coloritmos (Colorhythms) and Tablones (Planks), some of which can be seen in this exhibition. For this occasion we also present some examples of the numerous drawings that the artist made between 1967 and 1985, whether as preparations for urban-scale sculptures, or as mere exercises, but which in any case show the skill, beauty and graphic freedom that Otero achieved as a draughtsman. As the critic María Elena Ramos has written: “Although many of these designs are an essential guide for the technical work that will later turn them into sculptures, they aren’t easily confused with architect or engineer sketches. There are examples that remind us of the drawings of the machines invented by Leonardo Da Vinci, with both artists moved by the freedoms of fantasy and the talent to invent mechanisms.”(10) When looking at many of these drawings with their agile and expressive strokes, of exquisite graphic quality, one might think, as the above-mentioned writer, that: “not all of these creations deserve to be called ‘preparatory’, but that they are also aesthetic spaces in their own right.”(11) We could think the same about the scale models of impeccable construction and perfect operation, some of which we are fortunate to have on exhibition for this occasion. Hopefully, this small selection from the vast opus of Otero serves to whet the public’s appetite so that the viewer will further investigate the magnificent and diverse painterly and sculptural work and be encouraged to enjoy the unique experience of contemplating some of the majestic solar structures, invented in the 20th century and projected into the future, by Alejandro Otero, painter, sculptor, multifaceted creator and teacher.
Rafael Romero D.
(1) Alejandro Otero. Memoria crítica, Douglas Monroy and Luis Perez Gil, compilers. Caracas, Monte Avila Editores, 1992, pg. 337
(2) Juan Ignacio Parra. In: Juan Ignacio Parra, Rafael Romero, Los Coloritmos de Alejandro Otero. Catalog. Caracas: ExLibris, 2018. pg. 51
(3) Alfredo Boulton. Alejandro Otero. Caracas: Oscar Ascanio Editor, pg. 65
(4) Ibid, pg. 126
(5) María Elena Ramos. Alejandro Otero: Indagar en las estructuras de la realidad. In El Nacional. Caracas, February 24, 1991. Literary supplement
(6) Alejandro Otero. Memoria Crítica, op. cit. pg. 398
(7) José Balza. Prólogo a Alejandro Otero. Memoria Crítica, op. cit. pg. 19
(8) Alfredo Boulton. Alejandro Otero, op. cit. pg. 126
(9) Alfredo Boulton. El Arte en Guri. Milano: Antonio Cordani/EDELCA. 1988. pg. 39
(10) María Elena Ramos. Alejandro Otero. Dibujos para esculturas. Caracas: Otero Pardo Foundation. (Publication in preparation)