The split-second glimpse of inner space

If the earth ever needed an anchor, Eduardo Chillida would be the one to design it. Not that his sculpture resembles such a mundane object, nor that it is utilitarian. It's just that his extraordinary ability to shape iron and steel into objections that grapple with space would make him the ideal choice for such a job.

These skills are aptly demonstrated in the Guggenheim Museum's exhibition of Chillida'a art, on view here through May 11. The 68 sculptures and 41 works on paper tarace the evolution of Spain's best-known sculptor from 1951 to the present.

Chillida, born in 1924 in Spain and trained as an architect, turned his attention to sculptuer shortly before leaving for Paris in 1948 for three years of intensive study and work. After returning to Spain in 1951 he began working in iron, the medium through which he establish his reputation. Since his first one-man show in Madrid in 1954, he has been included in many international exhibitions. Retrospectives of his works have been held in Houston, Zurich, Amsterdam, Basel, and Munich. His most recent award was the Carnegie Institute's 1979 Andrew Mellon Prize.

Although Chillida has at times worked in steel, wood, alabaster, and granite, it is iron that holds central place in his creative soul. Not iron reworked to give it the elegant lightness of decorative grillwork, but iron in all its weighty, rusty, blatant physicality.

Chillida's sculpture has the emphatic character and clear identity of boulders or old, gnarled trees. There is nothing vague or tentative about them; one feels they will last forever.

And yet there is something paradoxical about these works of iron or steel, which sit on their pedestals or hang suspended with such dignified authority. Complete and final as they may appear, they also seem to be flexing their muscles, contracting their forms, or about to have their components finally fall into place. What appears at first to be a beautifully shaped noun suddenly turns out to be a very active verb.

It is this exquisite tension between the passive and the active that strikes one the most about Chillida's work. It's like looking at an open hand about to close with tremendous force or feeling an overwhelming attraction between the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

Everything in a chillida sculpture interlocks, or is about to. One senses that these works have somehow opened up like a flower to give us a brief clue to their identity and meaning -- and that they are about to close up tight again. We view them in the split second before the clue disappears forever.

That's where the drama of these pieces lies. As though we were told: "All right, here's the clue. You have until the count of 2 to solve the mystery."

As to the mystery itself, Chillida would be the first to admit that it cannot be put into words, that it is ineffable, and that it is in his sculpture that he comes closest to brushing against it. He will only suggest that it is an "inner space." But as Octavio Paz writes in his introduction to the Illus traded catalog of Chillida's works: "It bears all names and no name. It is the invisible interlocutor he has been confronting since he began to create."

Chillida is as much mystic as craftsman, as much poet as artisan. Each of his works gives us a split-second glimpse of another facet of this "inner space, " another subtle clue to the secret of life's inner workings. And all within sculptures of tremendous physical presence.

The exhibition itself is beautifully laid out, with sufficient space between the sculptures to give each maximum effectiveness. The ink drawings and collages supplement the three-dimensional pieces and serve as handsome accents to the sculpture -- while also existing very clearly in their own right as independent works of art.

For all its bulk and physicality, this is a gentle and lyrical show. And one definitely worth visiting.

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