ALEJANDRO OTERO

b. 1921, El Manteco, Venezuela

d. 1990, Caracas

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What was important to Otero was to get closer to things, to encircle them, as he used to say, and penetrate into their apparent mysteries, going beyond so as to see and understand better. His interest in grasping the essential feature of each facet of the world resulted, for the most part, in works of art which are characterized by the strength of structure. The gradual shedding of the superfluous was, for Otero, a means of reaching the essence, the framework of form within space.

—María Elena Ramos on Alejandro Otero [1]

In a practice spanning mediums, scales, and subjects, Alejandro Otero cemented his position over the course of his lifetime as one of the most dynamic and influential figures in Venezuelan art history. After initially studying Agriculture in Maracay, Venezuela, Otero abandoned the discipline in order to enter the Escuela de Arté Plastica in Caracas in 1939. He studied primarily under Antonio Edmundo Montasanto,[2] a landscape painter informed by Impressionism and the Spanish masters, who imparted upon the artist a powerful understanding of the role of light in painting.[3]

 

After graduating and moving to Paris in 1945, Otero struggled to develop a personal style. His earliest paintings emulated Pablo Picasso to the point of using his exact set of paints.[4] He described this moment in his trajectory as a creative trap, which he only overcame once he set forth on “a path of freedom from the object.”[5] This first manifested itself in Otero’s “Cafeteras” (Coffee Pots), which he completed between 1946 and 1949. The “Cafeteras” were sparse compositions, featuring strokes of color loosely set against a small number of black geometric planes on a neutral background. These unabashedly modern paintings dramatically uprooted the norms of Caracas’s art world when exhibited at the Museo de Bellas Artes in 1949. Their reception was highly polarized, and they quickly became the subject of several vigorous debates described by one critic as signaling the “explosive arrival” of abstraction to an artistic community then entrenched in Social Realism and Landscapes.[6]

 

After returning to Paris later that year, Otero was among the founders of the polemical journal Los Disidentes and its associated movement, which was composed of a number of Venezuelans who criticized the stagnant academicism of the art establishment in their native country. In his own practice from this time, Otero reconsidered the work of Piet Mondrian,[7] which significantly informed his subsequent series titled “Lineas Coloreadas sobre Fondo Blanco” (Colored Lines on a White Foreground).” Although the artist never exhibited these paintings during his lifetime, they guided him in a “search for a new space at the limits of abstraction.”[8] This statement reflects Otero’s newfound interest in Neo-Plasticism, and his appreciation of the architectonic and rhythmic properties of Mondrian, which comes to the fore in his series of “Ortogonales” (Orthogonals). Composed of colored paper woven into grids, art historian Megan Sullivan asserts that this series closely corresponded with the experiments in “pure color” of Ellsworth Kelly, as well as the work of Venezuelan compatriot Jesús Rafael Soto.[9] The “Ortogonales” were featured in the exhibition Espace-Lumière at the Galerie Suzanne Michele, organized by Carmelo Arden Quin and featuring works by Soto, Mercedes Pardo, and the American Jack Youngerman among others.[10]

 

In 1952, Otero traveled to Caracas where he would become a collaborator in Carlos Raul Villanueva’s ambitious Ciudad Universitaria project at the Central University of Venezuela. Envisioned as a site where different artistic disciplines might productively interact, the college campus featured architectural interventions from Otero, as well as the likes of Victor Vasarely, Alexander Calder, Wifredo Lam, and Sophie Taeuber-Arp among others. In 1955, Otero returned to painting beginning with his now iconic “Coloritmos” (Colorhythms). These were typically narrow paintings, employing the industrial lacquer Duco to render “ten parallels of neutral color—dark grey or black—and eleven white . . . from top to bottom, or from left to right.”[11] This system served as a structural basis for organic forms in “yellow, green, violet, red, orange and black.”[12] The “Coloritmos” were exhibited to a strong international reception, with the Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquiring Colorhythm, I as early as 1956. His success was further affirmed by his representation in the XXVIII Venice Biennial that same year, the IV São Paulo Biennial in 1957 and 1959, and his reception of the National Prize in Painting at the XIX Annual Official Salon of Venezuelan Art at the Museo de Bellas Artes.[13]

 

Otero stayed in Caracas until 1960, teaching at his alma mater and becoming a central figure in the city’s vibrant intelligentsia. Alongside the artist Mercedes Pardo, to whom he was also married, Otero visited the numerous evening salons held at the home of artist Elsa Gramcko alongside staples of the Caracas avant-garde such as critic J. R. Guillent Pérez, poet Elizabeth Schön, and sculptor Gertrud Goldschmidt (Gego).[14] When Otero returned to Paris, he found that the cost of shipping his materials and the inability to find sufficient studio space prohibited him from further work on his “Coloritmos.” Searching for a new basis around which to shape his practice, he was ultimately drawn to Nouveau Réalism and the assemblages of Jean Tinguely. Otero’s embrace of this aesthetic led to a dramatic shift in his work, which became centered around the integration of found objects,[15] and also encompassed collages made of dyed newspaper.  

 

By the second half of the 1960s, however, Otero was once again living in Venezuela and eager to explore monumental civic sculptures. In 1967, Otero and several other artists collaborated in the production of what was known as the Zona Feérica, which was to be inaugurated the following year in El Conde, Caracas, on the occasion of the city’s fourth centennial celebration.[16] Otero contributed seven large sculptures to this event. He would continue developing this facet of his practice during a residency at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT in 1971.[17] Upon returning to Venezuela, Otero initiated a new series of paintings known as the “Tablones,” which continue the spatial investigations of his earlier “Coloritmos” and complement the work that he was executing in three dimensions. Indeed, although Otero’s large-scale works—shimmering, metal structures—were essentially without color, the artist understood them as related to his paintings in their concern with “the problems of visual dynamism and a violently palpable space.”[18] The structures typically featured a geometric armature enclosing large sail-like forms that reflect light and move with the wind. Notable examples of Otero’s sculptures can be seen at various sites around the world, including the Universidad de Simon Bolívar, Caracas; Museo de Arte Moderno Jesús Soto, Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela; and the Kennedy Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC, which was gifted to the United States for its Bicentennial celebrations in 1976. Two monumental sculptures, Aba Solar and Aguja Solar, were on display at the 1982 Venice Biennale.[19]

 

The work of Alejandro Otero has featured prominently in seminal exhibitions highlighting the achievements of Latin American artist, chief among them: The Latin American Spirit: Art and Artists in the United States, 1920–1970, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York (Traveled to: El Paso Museum of Art; San Diego Museum of Art; Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, San Juan; Center for the Arts, Vero Beach, FL); Art in Latin America: The Modern Era, 1820–1980, The Hayward Gallery, London (Traveled to: Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Palacio de Velázquez, Madrid); Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century, Plaza de Armas, Seville, (Traveled to: Centre Pompidou, Paris; Josef-Haubrich Kunsthalle, Cologne; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York); Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Lo[s] cinético[s], Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid; and Sur moderno: Journeys of Abstraction: The Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Otero’s art has also been exhibited at the Venice Biennale (1956, 1962, 1966, 1982); São Paulo Biennial (1957, 1959, 1963 1991), and the Bienal de Artes Visuais do Mercosul (2007). He has been the subject of solo presentations at the Signals Gallery, London (1965); Michener Galleries, University of Texas, Austin (1975); Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City (1976);­ Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas Sofia Imber (1985); and the Instituto de Arte Contemporânea, São Paulo (2014). The work of Alejandro Otero is included in the collections of the Art Museum of the Americas, Washington, DC; Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, São Paulo; Museo de Arte Moderno Jesus Soto, Ciudad Bolívar; Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas; Museum of Fine Art, Houston; Museum of Modern Art, New York; and Tate Modern, London.

 

[1] María Elena Ramos, “The Structures of Reality,” reproduced in Geometric Abstraction in Latin America (Bogotá: ArtNexus, 2013), 133.

[2] Ibid., 126.

[3] Ibid., 127.

[4] Megan Sullivan, “Alejandro Otero’s Polychrome: Color between Nature and Abstraction,” October 152 (Spring 2015): 67.

[5] Alejandro Otero, “Testimonies of Painting (1954),” reproduced in Resonant Space: The Colorhythms of Alejandro Otero, ed. Rina Carvajal, exh. cat. (São Paulo: Instituto de Arte Contemporânea, 2014), 161.

[6] Kaira Cabañas, “Otero’s Doubt,” in Resonant Space: The Colorhythms of Alejandro Otero, ed. Rina Carvajal, exh. cat. (São Paulo: Instituto de Arte Contemporânea, 2014), 64.

[7] Alejandro Otero, Interview, 129.

[8] Otero, “Testimonies of Painting,” 164.

[9] Sullivan, “Alejandro Otero’s Polychrome,” 61.

[10] See the artist’s group exhibitions available on the Otero Pardo Foundation website.

[11] Alejandro Otero, “Horizontal-Vertical Collages and Colorhythms 1951–1960, 1966,” reproduced in Resonant Space: The Colorhythms of Alejandro Otero, ed. Rina Carvajal, exh. cat. (São Paulo: Instituto de Arte Contemporânea, 2014), 176.

[12] Otero, “Testimonies of Painting,” 162.

[13] Chronology in Alejandro Otero, ed. Renzo Zorzi (Milan: Olivetti, 1977), 17.

[14] Mari Carmen Ramirez, “Of Things and Machines: Elsa Gramcko’s Journey to the Void of the Real,” in Contesting Modernity: Informalism in Venezuela 1955–1975, exh. cat. (Houston: Museum of Fine Arts 2015), 128. [15] Otero, Interview, 131.

[16] See the Otero chronology on the Otero Pardo Foundation website.

[17] Otero, Interview, 131.

[18] Alejandro Otero, “The Miracle of a Work in Dialogue with the Universe, 1977,” reproduced in Resonant Space: The Colorhythms of Alejandro Otero, ed. Rina Carvajal, exh. cat. (São Paulo: Instituto de Arte Contemporânea, 2014), 169.

[19] See the artist’s chronology on the Otero Pardo Foundation website.

 

 

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