Feliza Bursztyn

(1933 – 1982)

Colombia

Biography

 

I took the crazy thing, and insisted on it, to really do what I wanted. Because I do believe that we live in a macho world. And being a sculptor and not being a man is very difficult. For people to take me seriously, I resorted to that trick, because they thought: “maybe that crazy woman does interesting things.” And I think this worked.

 

—Feliza Bursztyn

Printed in the pages of Bogotá’s El Timpo: Revista Carrusel in November of 1979, Feliza Bursztyn’s above statement performs the complicated work of turning a position of relative powerlessness into a powerful tool. Her identification with the marginality of women artists in mid-twentieth century Colombia—and indeed across the sociopolitical spectrum—led to an artistic approach in which she exacerbated the conditions of such marginality in order to develop a potent form of criticism. Considering Bursztyn’s satirical send up of the “hysterical woman” trope so humorously challenged in her wailing, screeching “Histéricas” series, the words, “I took the crazy thing, and insisted on it …” evidently speaks to more than the public’s initial reaction to her work. Bursztyn’s useless kinetic machines and scrap-metal assemblages are Dada-like commentaries on then-current conventions of art, established gender norms, her country’s uneven development, and the curtailment of sexual expression. Craftsmanship, composition, and functionality are willfully cast aside in sculptures of an apparently spontaneous approach. Bursztyn’s ramshackle welding technique functioned like a magnet, collecting metal detritus from all corners of the warehouse in which she worked.

 

Bursztyn was born in Bogotá to Jewish immigrants from Poland who found within the city safe harbor in the midst of Hitler’s ascension to power.[1] She attended the Art Students League in New York City in 1954 and later studied under the sculptor Ossip Zadkine in Paris’s Académie de la Grande Chaumière. It was during her stay in the French capital that she met the sculptor César, whose reuse of destroyed cars as material for his sculptures would be of fundamental importance for the young Bursztyn.[2] Upon returning to Bogotá in 1960, she turned to the assemblage technique of her mentor as a solution to her lack of funds for proper art materials. While plaster and bronze were out her price range, junk was not.[3] The sculptures that composed her debut exhibition in 1961 constituted the earliest in her series of “Chatarras” [Scraps], which she continued producing even as they were the subject of ridicule by Colombia’s foremost critic, Walter Engel.[4] At a time when her compatriots Edgar Negret and Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar were producing sculptures often inspired by the technological marvels of New York City and space flight, Bursztyn scavenged for the abject cast-offs of modern ambition.[5] In Bursztyn’s hands, detritus from the scrap heap spoke from a position of marginality, throwing into sharp relief the reality of Colombia’s process of modernization, and, considering the often feminine titles of her individual “Chatarras,” established conventions of gender and labor.[6] 

 

In spite of her use of unconventional materials and techniques, Bursztyn had begun to establish herself as an important figure in Colombian art by the mid-1960s. In 1964, she received the first prize for sculpture at the Salón Intercol de Artistas Jóvenes and opened a solo exhibition of her “Chatarras” at the Museum of Modern Art, Bogotá, then under the directorship of Marta Traba.[7] Traba’s support of Bursztyn and a select group of her contemporaries helped facilitate the development of an artistic culture in Colombia that moved beyond traditionally accepted mediums (painting and sculpture) and challenged ingrained aesthetic assumptions. A bourgeoning conceptualism was taking hold, and Traba framed Bursztyn and those around her as deeply in dialogue with an avant-garde and progressive international aesthetic.[8] Bursztyn, for her part, pursued a progressively theatrical, environmental route in her work.

 

In the late 1960s, Bursztyn created what were among the first examples of kinetic art in Colombia: the “Histéricas.” Primarily composed of curled stainless-steel sheets, these sculptures are often set in motion with the assistance of turntable motors. What results is an ungainly kineticism, with stuttering and awkward movements that make a mockery of mechanical efficiency. The sculptures shriek or rattle out a clanging staccato as their components crash into one another. Begun in 1967, examples of this series were on view at the Museum of Modern Art, Bogotá, on two separate occasions in 1968—once for a solo exhibition, and later for a group show titled Espacios ambientales, which included Santiago Cárdenas, Àlvaro Barrios, Bernardo Salcedo, Víctor Celso Muñoz, and Ana Mercedes Hoyos. The presentations of the "Histéricas" in both exhibitions is especially revealing of Bursztyn’s desire for an environmental art that incorporated more than just a visual experience.[9] In these shows, the "Histéricas" were presented in dark rooms with carefully placed illuminations that flickered while the sound of the sculptures resonated throughout the viewing space. The very title of the series itself conjures an ironic play upon the idea of the so-called “hysterical woman,” a “diagnosis” with a long history in the West that pathologized female sexuality and assisted its repression. Bursztyn further mocked this trope and its lineage by using the title Siempre acostada [Always in Bed] as the title for her installation in Espacios ambientales.

 

Such stinging social and political commentary would likewise characterize Bursztyn’s later “Camas”—vibrating “beds” covered in sumptuously colored sheets—where the repression of the erotic within the social sphere becomes palpable.[10] Such challenges would also place her in a position of extreme vulnerability. Due in part to her leftist politics and the suspicion this engendered among those in power, Bursztyn was blindfolded and briefly detained by Colombian government agents in July of 1981. She was taken into custody for not having the proper documentation for her pistol—though it was not usable—and for an alleged affiliation with the Cuban government. After her interrogation, Bursztyn was released and sought asylum in the Mexican embassy before moving to Mexico City. She hoped to continue on to the United States, but instead moved to Paris when this proved unsuccessful. Shortly thereafter, she died of heart failure in the company of celebrated Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez.[11] Her artistic career cut short, Bursztyn’s work is now becoming increasingly visible in modern art history, as evident in her inclusion in Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985, organized by the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, and which traveled to the Brooklyn Museum, New York, and the Pinacoteca de São Paulo.

 

[1] Gina McDaniel Tarver, “The Art of Feliza Bursztyn: Confronting Cultural Hegemony,” Artelogie (2013). Online. 4.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Manuela Ochoa Ronderos, “The Uninhabited Stages: Stepping into Feliza Bursztyn’s House,” Master’s Thesis (San Francisco Art Institute, 2013), 18.

[4] Gina McDaniel Tarver, “Intrepid Iconoclasts and Ambitious Institutions: Early Colombian Conceptual Art and Its Antecedents, 1961–1975,” PhD. Diss. (University of Texas, Austin, 2008), 60.

[5] Ibid., 60–61.

[6] Ibid., 62–64.

[7] Ibid., 82.

[8] Ibid., 58

[9] Ibid., 56; 105–06

[10] Tarver, “The Art of Feliza Bursztyn: Confronting Cultural Hegemony,” 11.

[11] For information on Bursztyn’s interrogation and subsequent flight, see Colin Harding, “Colombia: New Beginning?: Gabriel Garcia Márques and others face brutal government repression,” Index on Censorship 11, no. 4 (1982): 29.

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