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Chillida's Sculptures Reach Peak

October 25, 1986|HILLIARD HARPER | San Diego County Arts Writer

SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN — Situated where mountain, sea and sky abruptly meet at the westernmost tip of this city, Eduardo Chillida's sculpture "Wind Combs" stands as an eloquent statement of the war between the elements and the artist's vision.

The three sets of huge steel prongs that comprise the sculpture are situated so that an almost palpable tension ebbs and flows among them. Although others have built larger sculptures, few have made such articulate use of such a large space. As much as 100 yards separates elements of this powerful public artwork that Chillida gave to his hometown.

Chillida, whose sculptures in many media speak with strength and power, is considered to be a master among sculptors in his use of space. San Diegans will have a chance to see smaller, but no less articulate, examples of his works in an exhibition that opens today and runs through Dec. 20 at Tasende Gallery, 820 Prospect St., La Jolla.

Chillida developed a relationship with space early in life, playing on his hometown soccer team. As keeper he learned to protect a vulnerable patch of space, defined by the net, from opponents.

It may not be a coincidence that, as one of the world's greatest sculptors, Chillida's reputation is built around his skill in manipulating and articulating space. Indeed, Chillida believes that everything--both matter and air--is space.

"This is a quick space," Chillida said, waving his hand through the air, "and this is a slower space," he said, patting a brilliantly rusted tine of a wind comb. Talk of art animated Chillida as he walked around the plaza of the "Wind Combs."

"I have seen very clearly that space and time are brothers," he said.

Despite widespread acclaim in Europe, Chillida is relatively unknown in the United States except among some artists, gallery and museum directors and major art collectors, who pay handsomely for his works, whether in iron, steel, alabaster, granite or concrete.

Today he stands at the very top of the sculptural heap.

"With (Henry) Moore's death, there's Chillida and (Isamu) Noguchi," said Peter Selz, West Coast editor of Art in America magazine and a professor of art history at UC Berkeley. Selz is the author of a 202-page monograph on Chillida published by Harry N. Abrams in conjunction with the Tasende exhibit. With 180 illustrations including 54 full-color photographs, the book is a vivid account of Chillida's career.

Selz blames Chillida's lack of popularity in this country at least partly on New York art dealers, who he said are less interested in artists from non-English-speaking countries. When asked about this, Chillida pointed out that many deserving American artists are virtually unknown in Europe.

Born here in the Basque country on the Bay of Biscay near the French border, Chillida has inherited this region's tradition of iron mining and iron working. He is known for his hands-on work in all stages of creating his artworks. Rather than turn over a maquette of a sculpture to fabricators, as many modern artists do, Chillida works closely with the men in the foundry.

Despite his reputation for hands-on work, Chillida says it is the brain, not the hands, that is most important. "The question comes up among artists a lot," he said. "Once, a group of us were speaking of this same question, and I asked the others would they rather have the hands of Rembrandt and the brain of the taxi driver driving by or the hands of the taxi driver and the brain of Rembrandt. Everyone said they would rather have Rembrandt's brain.

"It's all here," he said, pointing to his head.

Chillida finds excitement in pushing himself into unknown realms while creating art. But what marks his work for the viewer are its qualities of strength and forcefulness, often combined with a visual lyricism that defies the characteristics of the medium. More than once, metallurgists have stared unbelievingly at his steel pieces such as "Tolerance II" that is on view at Tasende, saying it is impossible to bend metal as he has done.

Words like music and poetry jump to mind when describing Chillida's work, especially the steel pieces, which speak eloquently in their unexpected curves and hollows. He usually adds an alloy that causes the metal to take on a brilliant rust color as it oxidizes.

In recent years, Chillida's European popularity has won him increasing commissions for public artworks. This month he installed "House of Goethe," a large piece that is a tribute to the German poet and dramatist, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in the city of Frankfurt.

Other works are "Plaza de los Fueros" (Plaza of Basque Liberties) in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. But this large work has been recently boarded over because it poses a hazard to passers-by.

Chillida's wife and children have undertaken the restoration of a 14th-Century Basque house in Zabala, just outside San Sebastian. The Zabala house and grounds will comprise a small museum for Chillida's works that are owned by his wife.

Besides their strength and lyrical qualities, Chillida's works, though they are almost purely abstract, are accessible to most viewers. Chillida loves to tell of the electrician who came to make a repair in his studio. In the Basque tradition, the man spoke not at all, doing his work, although he kept looking at Chillida's art. When he finished, the electrician stopped on his way out and said to Chillida: "I understand. This is like music, but with iron."

"He knew exactly what the work was about," Chillida said. "You don't have to understand the problems of the artist in modern art to appreciate the work. After all, it is possible to appreciate an oak tree without being a botanist."

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