THE AFROCÁN      Sculptures by Martin Chirino
Catalog essay for an exhibition at the Borgenicht Gallery, New York, 1979

TEEL IS A STRANGE MATERIAL for a sculptor to choose. It does not offer the ease or precision of modeling or casting, and it lacks the elegance of marble or wood. It must be heated in an intense fire, shaped with hammers and anvils, and moved about with block and tackle. It is, in short, a material that can only be worked by those who have a great deal of strength, patience, and skill.

Martin Chirino
When Martín Chirino decided that he wanted to work with metal, he realized that his art-school studies were of no use to him. Instead, he went to a small town and work as an apprentice in a foundry that produced decorative window grills. One reason why Chirino made this unusual choice was that he wished to do things that others had not done—and very few had done anything with iron. Another reason was that the abstract art of Spain in the 1950s concentrated on textures and on the nature of materials. Painters of the time were busy mixing sand and other substances with their paint or working on and with surfaces other than canvas. Chirino, who was a founding member of the El Paso group of artists in Madrid, chose to explore the characteristics of iron. He formed his sculptures from industrial bars, left their surfaces pitted with the marks of his hammer, and did nothing to disguise the scars of the difficult process of cutting and bending. The right-angles, sharp points, and twists of his early work were all derived from the techniques he had learned in the foundry. Even the forms of his sculptures were often based on everyday tools and implements. During the 1960s, Chirino began to move away from the direct inspiration of the forge and to relax the forms he used, but he continued to explore the possibilities of the material. The principal series of works that he produced in that period was based on the spiral, a form that contrasted the solidness of iron with the tension of the coil. Gradually, he began to open up these forms, spinning out the shapes, experimenting with cutting and welding, and playing down the surfaces. Fragmented into short, curved strokes, his sculptures began to lose their cool, industrial qualities and started to suggest such things as human bodies, rolling hills, and birds in flight.

The influence of the ironworkers of the early twentieth century had always been a factor in shaping Chirino’s work, but by the 1970s it had become particularly important. The key figure was Julio González, whose work Chirino had known and admired since his first trip to Paris twenty years earlier. But the work that had attracted him was not the experiments in welding but those few forge-built sculptures that are so often overlooked—pieces like the monumental Montserrat that was González’s contribution to the famous International Exposition in Paris in 1937. But virtually the entire first generation of ironworkers have proved useful teachers for him, in particular Picasso, Brancusi, and Gargallo. An elegant oval that resembles a Bishop’s mitre. At the bottom, a steel coil rests in an open oval.

This was clearly demonstrated by the AfroCán series Chirino began in the mid-seventies, which vividly mark the point where outside influence and personal vision merge. The sources of these sculptures include not only the styles but the preoccupations of the older artists (most notably their interest in African masks), the childhood memories of Chirino (who grew up in the Canary Islands and came in contact with African art himself at a very early age), and the natural evolution of his own work (the opening up of the spirals into oblong shapes that suggested masks).

At the same time that he was developing the AfroCáns, Chirino also began to work on two other major series, the Aeróvoros and the Paisajes. The works of the former series often seem to take the concerns and forms the artist dealt with in the sixties and literally turn them inside-out. In Aeróvoros III, which might be called the most concise statement of the series, the familiar spiral is more concentrated than ever, as if resisting an outward pull. The arms of the work are long and slightly undulating bars that narrow down to pointed ends, shapes that would normally suggest weapons. But because of a few small twists and modulations, the sculpture seems instead as delicate as a watchspring. The perfect if precarious balance of these unusually long works (in this case the arms stretch out more than nine feet) reinforces the sensation of lightness, delicacy, and concentrated tension.

The Paisajes (landscapes) seem to be leading Chirino in a different direction. Instead of focusing on a single structural tension, they are full of smaller, more subtle effects that might easily be overlooked. They do bear a family resemblance to the Aeróvoros, but the arms are flatter and broader, and the movement is clearly outward and away from the narrow base. They are, in fact, more like powerful wings reaching up to pull the sculpture into the air. In this series the identity of the material is almost completely obscured. The marks of the sculptor’s tools are nearly invisible, the irregular shapes of the bars do not suggest industrial origins, and the blackened surfaces almost succeed in neutralizing the luster and grain of the metal. The only traces of each work’s history are to be found in the way the pieces have been joined and the wings cut and torn apart. In a work like the outstanding Paisajes IX, the tensions are almost subliminal. They can be sensed in the pull between the lightness of the rising form and the weight of the steel, in the contrast between the effortless grace of the curves and the power that we know is needed to bend a steel bar even a fraction of an inch, in the similarities between the tears and joins that are part of the metalworker’s vocabulary and the shapes and strata of the landscape. But the greatest tension lies in the contradiction between this material that we ordinarily think of as cold and functional and the warmth and vitality that animates this work.

Two wing-like, gently curved arms stretch out from a central pedestal.
Paisaje IX (Landscape IX), 1976, forged steel,
22 x 61 x 33", courtesy Borgenicht Gallery.

Martín Chirino’s Own Site
Ensayos y otra información sobre la obra de Chirino

Copyright © 1979, 2004  William Dyckes