Koldo Mitxelena Centre presents José Antonio Sistiaga

Koldo Mitxelena Centre

June 17, 2011

José Antonio Sistiaga.
Reflections in an Imagined Garden

16 June–24 September 2011

Curator: Jean-Michel Bouhours, filmaker and curator at the Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Pompidou for the modern collections.

Koldo Mitxelena Kulturunea
Urdaneta kalea, 9
Donostia – San Sebastián
Gipuzkoa 20006


The exhibition Reflections in an Imagined Garden, on show at the Koldo Mitxelena Centre from June to September 2011, looks at one of the most original contemporary Basque artists of his generation, through more than 100 works. This interdisciplinary exhibition (it includes painting, drawing, cinema and light boxes) will take stock of the great wealth of resources Sistiaga has used in his constant attempt to go beyond the restrictions of paint.

Sistiaga, born in Donostia-San Sebastian in 1932, is an essentially abstract painter, though in the 1970s and 1980s, he also proved his extraordinary qualities in model drawing when he worked with nudes. His 1954 work “Biscayan Landscape”, which forms the starting point of this exhibition, illustrates his discovery of the painting of the Russian Wassily Kandinsky, father of abstract art, who inspired Sistiaga to take a path he has followed ever since: “non-objective” art.

After moving to Paris in the mid-1950s, Sistiaga found his place in the context of pictorial abstract art and in particular lyrical abstract art. Here the gesture penetrates and determines the composition, based on what has been generically termed “informal art,” a contemporary movement that was intended to be a radical departure from cubism and surrealism. His encounter in Paris with the Andalusian artist Manuel Duque gave Sistiaga a greater understanding of Nuagiste painting, whose guiding lights, Wols and Fautrier, were to influence his early work to a great extent (e.g. the “black drawings”) between 1958 and 1961.

As a painter, draughtsman, performance artist (lecture without voice), film-maker, who works on canvas, paper and celluloid, Sistiaga has a constant relationship with nature. It inspires all of his compositions. Sistiaga’s abstract art refers back to the capricious shapes of the clouds, the iridescences and the kaleidoscopes of colours, the reflections of light in the water, and the swaying of the leaves. He evokes a “sentiment of nature”, in which the observer’s awareness is clouded by the immensity and the emptiness of an image in which the only prevailing feature is colour. From this perspective, Sistiaga is following in the footsteps of Turner, Whistler and Monet –though he himself might not agree.

The exhibition also seeks to re-situate Sistiaga within the context of avant-garde art in the Basque Country. Sistiaga participated actively in the collective movement of Basque artists fostered by the sculptor Jorge Oteiza from 1966 on. In the 1960s and 1970s, when Spain was under the Franco dictatorship, Sistiaga turned to activism: as an initiator and member of the group GAUR, taking steps towards alternative education, offering a critical reflection on the limits of art, and through public actions, happenings, etc. Sistiaga’s place in that collective movement was not without consequences in his artistic language, which is impregnated with Oteiza’s spatialist and essentialist notions.

In the  history of abstract cinema, he authored the longest drawn-on film ever made, Ere Erera baleibu… (1968–70), a real promethean figure. Devised as an exact continuation of his pictorial work, on occasions his films have taken him several years of precise and meticulous work. Following in the path of Norman McLaren and Len Lye, the “inventors” of “drawn-on film” (the film is painted, drawn or scratched onto the celluloid), José Antonio Sistiaga has tried to get as close as possible to the conditions of his pictures in each of the images in his films –and there are 24 frames per second. It is for this reason that he uses the IMAX format (70mm/15 perforations, ten times larger than 35 mm), more normally reserved for epic historical cinema screened on panoramic screens or geodesic halls. The painter enters directly into the big spectacle. “Drawn-on film” produces an unprecedented visual speed of specific Brownian motion, responding exclusively to random effects, the effects of a mass of agglutination or dispersion of free particles in space, explosive particles and beams of pyrotechnical art and subliminal images.

His experience in cinema was to transform Sistiaga’s painting. From then on it was directed towards an astrophysical iconography of the universe. His landscapes are not those of immediate observation, phenomenonologically accessible. The field of his personal vision is that of a world outside the limits of the visible, infinitely small, the world of matter, of quarks, or the world of the infinitely large (super novas, black holes, etc.).
The exhibition has been designed as a tour through a central space that facilitates perspectives that bring out the interdisciplinary nature of Sistiaga’s work. This central space will connect to the theme rooms located along the edge of the route, which are devoted to black drawings, erotic drawings, themes of the cosmos, the four seasons… and others acting as projection rooms that reproduce the conditions of total cinema.