From the moment of its creation, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao has worked to assemble a collection of significant works of art from the mid-twentieth century to the present day. Some of the pieces that now comprise this collection stand out as icons of the contemporary era; when they were first unveiled, they made a strong impression that left no one indifferent, and over the years they have grown in stature, becoming veritable landmarks in the history of contemporary art.
Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Collection offers a chance to contemplate some of these highlights in an exhibition that juxtaposes Mark Rothko’s luminous Untitled with the unmistakable bright-blue tone patented by Yves Klein that dominates his Large Blue Anthropometry (ANT 105), and Andy Warhol’s repeated use of the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe with the expressiveness of Robert Rauschenberg’s large silkscreened painting Barge. German artists Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter and Americans Jean-Michel Basquiat and Clyfford Still are also represented in this show by outstanding pieces, and sculpture is present in the works of Basque masters Eduardo Chillida and Jorge Oteiza, set in their international context.
Oil on canvas, 299.5 x 442.5 cm
One of the central figures of the New York School, Mark Rothko emphatically rejected the reading of his work in merely formal, aesthetic terms. He used abstract means to express "basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on," earnestly striving to create an art of awe-inspiring intensity for a secular world. Scale was an enormously important factor for Rothko: “To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it.”
Untitled is a monumental piece that might be considered among the first of Rothko's true murals. The painting is somewhat unusual in its horizontality, as Rothko tended to prefer a vertical format. Experienced at relatively close proximity as the artist intended, the extended format of Untitled expands beyond the observer's lateral field of vision, so that the painting seems to open itself up and transcend its limits.
Metaphysical Box by Conjunction of Two Trihedrons. Homage to Leonardo
Steel, 28.5 x 25 x 26.5 cm
Jorge Oteiza’s oeuvre defies easy classification and transcends the sculptural object, for each piece is merely the end result of a long process of experimentation with mass and space, developed in groups or series of pieces that share a common concept.
Created in 1958, Metaphysical Box by Conjunction of Two Trihedrons. Homage to Leonardo forms part the conclusive works created at the pinnacle of Jorge Oteiza's fruitful artistic career. These sculptures, the experimental nucleus of his work, are the most important and have had the greatest impact on the development of modern sculpture.
Although Oteiza experimented with different types of geometric shapes, the cube provided the artist with the solution to his personal search as a sculptor: to define an empty space which could be filled with spiritual energy. This sculpture is an excellent example of the artist's metaphysical boxes. A dark and mysterious space is created in the interior, and when the boxes were placed on a stone or marble base the sensation the artist was after became even clearer: the feeling of a sacred space.
Large Blue Anthropometry
Dry pigment and synthetic resin on paper mounted on canvas, 287.8 x 430 x 4 cm
After World War II, a series of painters emerged on both sides of the Atlantic whose diverse aesthetic proposals paved the way for a pivotal period in the modern visual arts. Among these were the new artistic interests that were blossoming in the mind of the young Yves Klein, whose first foray into painting came in Madrid in 1954, when he published Yves Peintures, a small booklet filled with works that did not exist and yet marked the beginning of his artistic career.
Anxious to break with all forms of expressionism, Klein had, practically from the outset of his career, "rejected the brush". Between 1958 and 1960 he perfected a technique that allowed him to expand on this idea: he used nude models as "living brushes" that created marks and impressions under his supervision.
The Anthropometries, as critic Pierre Restany called them, maintained Klein’s insistent separation between the work and his own body, and also allowed him to revive the nude without resorting to traditional means of representation. In this work, the corporeal forms of the figures have become largely illegible, and their movements across the paper register more as explosive bursts, splatters, and smears of paint, as though to parody expressionism and abstraction.
Oil on canvas, 206.5 x 181.4 x 820 cm
After World War II, many prominent European artists fled the desolation and found refuge in the United States. In this context, a number of painters emerged on both sides of the Atlantic whose diverse aesthetic proposals paved the way for a pivotal period in the modern visual arts. One of these movements was the gestural painting of American Abstract Expressionism, which encompassed Action painting—represented by works like Willem de Kooning’s Villa Borghese—as well as the style cultivated by the Color Field painters, or “painters of silence.”
Villa Borghese was based on De Kooning's encounter with Rome, where he spent roughly five months in 1959–60. The location is alluded to not only by the painting's title, which refers to a large and well-known public park in the Italian capital, but also by its bright Mediterranean palette. The expansive areas of color, painted in wet-on-wet layers, suggest naturalistic correspondences—yellow sunlight, blue sky and water, and green grass and foliage. The painting is not a rendering of a particular view, however, but rather a subjective translation into paint of his memories of the Eternal City
Oil and silkscreen ink on canvas, 208 x 980.5 x 5.2 cm
The 1960s was one of the most turbulent decades of the twentieth century for culture and politics. The United States had become an industrialized society, preparing itself for the dawn of the Information Age. The economic growth and prosperity experienced in the post–World War II years and the early Cold War period in the 1950s created a vigorous consumer culture on both sides of the Atlantic.
Pop Art was countered by German Capitalist Realism; both trends focused on the common and the everyday, but with different intentions: Pop Art can be interpreted as a critique or celebration of pop culture, while the critical message of Capitalist Realism was more dogmatic, unequivocally reproaching the German “economic miracle” and consumer society.
Robert Rauschenberg had already developed his own distinctive visual language by the mid-1950s. In 1963 the Jewish Museum in New York hosted Rauschenberg’s first major retrospective, where he presented Barge, a work completed in practically 24 hours and one of the best examples of the dynamic silkscreened paintings he began to produce in the 1960s.
It incorporates many of the themes and images to which he returned repeatedly in his 79 Silkscreened Paintings, including the urban environment(water towers on a rooftop), space exploration and flight (a satellite, a rocket, radar dishes, mosquitoes, and birds), modes of transportation (a truck), and examples from art history (Diego Velázquez's The Toilet of Venus [The Rokeby Venus], 1647–51).
Oil on canvas, 273.5 x 236 x 3.5 cm
After World War II, many prominent artists fled the desolation of Europe and found refuge in the United States. In this context, a number of painters emerged on both sides of the Atlantic whose diverse aesthetic proposals paved the way for a pivotal period in the modern visual arts.
Clyfford Still’s expansive canvases dominated by jagged fields of color were influential among one of these movements, American Abstract Expressionism. Rather than capture a realistic representation of the world in his abstract paintings, Still had an interest in the metaphysical sublime and sought to create a transcendental experience that was purely visual and impossible to describe with words.
Untitled was created after Still left New York permanently for the isolation of a farm in rural Maryland in 1961.
The work is notable for its prominent bare canvas, which imbues it with an overall luminosity, as well as its insistent verticality—the 2.5-meter-high red line as well as the ocher forms seem to thrust upward and break the bounds of any enclosing structures.
Man from Naples
Acrylic and collage on wood, 124 x 246.7 x 3.5 cm
American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is one of the most celebrated painters of his generation. His work Man from Naples (1982) is vital to understanding how Basquiat’s pictorial style evolved over the course of the 1980s. Man from Naples was inspired by his visit to Italy in 1982 and reflects the artist’s feelings of resentment toward his wealthy Italian patron, whom he scornfully refers to as a “pork merchant” and other unflattering epithets. Most of the pictorial surface is taken up by a chaotic jumble of scrawls, words, numbers, symbols, and colors. The resulting effect is that of a crowd of shouting, echoing, responding voices. The repetitions, variations, cross-outs, and spelling mistakes are reminiscent of graffiti.
In Man from Naples, Basquiat apparently regarded the entire surface of the canvas as a big blackboard where he could scribble and mix signs. The title of the painting comes from a phrase written over the head of a red pig which, although surrounded by countless inscriptions, splashes of color, cross-outs, and elementary signs, dominates the composition like a totemic image. Humor, irony, and primitivism define this forceful, representative painting.
How Profound Is the Air
Alabaster, 94 x 122 x 124 cm
In the 1950s, Eduardo Chillida loomed large on the international scene. He received the Diploma of Honor at the Milan Triennial in 1954, and in 1958 he won the Grand Prize for Sculpture at the Venice Biennale. The materials Chillida turned to consistently informed his investigations of conceptual questions and metaphysical concerns. He began to use alabaster for its illuminated yet veiled appearance, its ability to simultaneously reveal and conceal.
In How Profound Is the Air Chillida combines the roughly hewn, natural exterior of the stone with a highly polished, architectural interior space. Taken from a verse of Spanish poet Jorge Guillén, the title reflects the sculptor's attitude toward space, or air, which for him was a material as essential as stone or wood.
The Renowned Orders of the Night
Emulsion, acrylic, lead, salt through electrolysis and zinc plates-condenser, on canvas, 416 x 710 cm
Anselm Kiefer is part of a generation that grew up in the devastated, dismembered landscape of post–World War II Germany and preferred to avoid the horrors of its recent history; Kiefer, however, chose to tackle them head-on, expressed in representations linked to the history of National Socialism or works that pay tribute to poet Paul Celan.
In his work, Kiefer constantly questions the place that humans occupy in the cosmos and analyzes the relationships between German history, mythology, literature, identity, and architecture. He has studied the work of seventeenth-century English occult philosopher Robert Fludd, who believed that every plant in the world had its corresponding star in the firmament and that there was a connection between the microcosmic reality on earth and the macrocosmic realm of the heavens.
As a result of this research, the surfaces of Kiefer’s works are covered with multiple layers whose complexity and fragmentation reflect their chosen subjects. These monumental pieces are a blend of painting, collage, and sculpture, combining an almost monochromatic palette with unorthodox elements such as lead, wire, straw, plaster, clay, seeds, sunflowers, ashes, and dust, which Kiefer,like the alchemists of old, transforms into artistic materials.
Oil on canvas, 290 x 290 cm
Gerhard Richter was born shortly before the outbreak of World War II in Dresden, a city that became part of East Germany after the conflict ended. His interest in the Art Informel and Expressionism being practiced on the other side of the Iron Curtain soon led him to leave his hometown. In 1961, he settled in Düsseldorf, where he met a number of fellow artists, including Konrad Fischer, Blinky Palermo, and Sigmar Polke. Richter has stated that the pieces he created during those years were his first paintings based on photographs, although he had already done works of this type in the past. Determined to make a “fresh start,” he declared that his pre–1962 photo-paintings belonged to the past, while these new works marked a turning point in his career.
Within this category of works, seascapes developed into a series that Richter worked on from the late 1960s until 1998, when he painted Seascape. This particular work poses a problem of representation, as it blurs the distinction between pictorial surface and photographic record.
To create it, the artist used highly diluted pigments that replicated the smooth surface of a photograph and gave his picture the slightly out-of-focus look that some snapshots have, deliberately making it harder to tell if it is a photograph or a painting. Here Richter draws on traditional sources—the moody, atmospheric landscapes of German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich—as well as the style of typical vacation snapshots to offer viewers a reflection on the nature of visual perception.
An exhibition of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
© The Willem de Kooning Foundation, New York /VEGAP, Bilbao, 2017; © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat; Jorge Oteiza © Pilar Oteiza, A+V Agencia de Creadores Visuales, 2017;
authorized reproductions © VEGAP, Bilbao, 2017;© FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, 2017