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After extensive travel in Colombia where he was inspired by the ceramic statuary in megalithic sites dating from 100 BC to 800 CE, such as San Andrés and San Agustín, Jorge Oteiza returned to Spain’s Basque country in 1947. Combining his formal and spiritual aspirations as well as an emphasis on mathematics, geometry, and the physical sciences, Oteiza’s conceptual process was influenced by the hollowed surfaces in the San Andrés sculptures. Oteiza’s constructions, which investigate formal absences and volumes of empty space through the development of what he called his intención experimental (experimental purpose), arose out of conceptual considerations of spiritual transcendence and the goal of transforming basic materials into derivations of creative energy.
Oteiza’s experimentation with creating empty but active spatial volumes was accelerated by his reappraisal of works by artists such as Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian, who put into practice the process of emptying simple, geometric forms. Oteiza based this work on a range of attempts carried out on small models ordered in groups that pose the same set of problems, which he referred to as familias experimentales (experimental families) or series. Only the most representative or intense of these models were eventually transferred to a final state and always on a modest scale. Around that time, as part of his Vacating of the Sphere (Desocupación de la esfera) series, he also produced Hillargia (1957); Empty Construction with Five Curved Malevich Units (Construcción vacía con cinco unidades Malevich curvas, 1957); and Study for the Emptying of the Sphere (Ensayo de desocupación de la esfera, 1958). The first work is a study of motion from a structural viewpoint that also figuratively refers to the phases of the moon. The second closely relates to one of Oteiza’s essential works, Homage to Malevich (Homenage a Malevich). In these two works, Oteiza uses the flattened or curved Malevich unit (a term Oteiza coined in 1957 to describe the Constructivist artist’s dynamic quadrilateral plane figures that, although geometric, are fundamentally unstable) to create instability in curved, elliptical, or tilting planar configurations.
In 1958, Oteiza began working on his “conclusive works,” which were highly geometric, matter-free spatial signs, considered by many to be examples of proto-Minimalist sculptures. His series Empty Boxes (Cajas vacías) explored the limits of the cube as well as the invisible boundaries of the expanded, interior void. Empty Box with Large Opening (Caja vacía con gran apertura, 1958), a square metal cube consisting of cut-out, virtually open space, represents a remarkably subtle box, where space and form flow much more than they do in other components of the same series.