Lot 23
  • 23

Alejandro Otero (1921-1990)

400,000 - 600,000 USD
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  • Alejandro Otero
  • Líneas coloreadas sobre fondo blanco
  • signed bottom edge; also dated 1951 and inscribed S. 126 top edge 
  • oil on canvas
  • 25 1/4 by 20 1/8 in.
  • 64 by 51 cm
  • Painted in 1951.


Galería Oscar Ascanio, Caracas
Private Collection, Lisbon, Portugal
Sale: Sotheby's, New York, Latin American Art, November 16, 2011, lot 28, illustrated in color


Caracas, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Alejandro Otero, February 1985, no. 101, p. 171


Alfredo Boulton, Alejandro Otero, Caracas, 1994, p. 85, illustrated in color


This painting should be hung in its current state. The paint layer is clean. There are a few isolated spots of retouching around the extreme edges. In the picture proper, there is a small retouch in the lower right quadrant, one about 4 inches from the center right edge, and another in the center of the composition. Despite these small retouches, the work is in lovely condition. (This condition report has been provided courtesy of Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc.)
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

In a letter addressed on June 16, 1950 to the Venezuelan art critic Alfredo Boulton, Alejandro Otero describes the proper way to look at his most recent works, a series that would soon include Líneas coloreadas sobre fondo blanco (Colored Lines on a White Ground, 1951).[1] Viewers should “relive” the process through which the “opposing qualities” of the picture’s elements reach a moment of equilibrium. They should retrace the path whereby a scant number of lines, contrastingly colored and divergently inclined, perform a balancing act on a shifting ground of white paint. Thus, the artist’s letter explains, passive or “primary contemplation” would give way to a transformative modality of vision leading to a “critical point,” an instant of clarity when the picture reveals itself as a whole. Otero called that moment a “climate.” 

Such supportive structure had no fixed physical existence, for it had to be created in the very act of perception; its making performed, every time afresh by each subsequent observer. Rather than being defined as a material structure in concrete or constructivist terms, Otero treats his paintings’ support as a “question of time.” By the same token, Otero argues in his letter, viewers should not grasp the work as the expressive field of the artist’s feelings. Instead, his pictures of this period are meant to convey a “specific conception of painting” that denied expressionist variants of abstraction. Neither expressive nor constructive, and therefore not aligned with either one of the two prevalent modes of abstraction in postwar Paris, Otero’s new work answers to the principal philosophical question of its time. It is existentialist.[2]

Existentialism, as advanced in particular by Jean-Paul Sartre, provided Otero, Mateo Manaure and Luis Guevara Moreno, among other Venezuelan artists, with the theoretical ammunition they required to organize a combative aesthetic platform. Calling themselves Los Disidentes, these artists denied entrenched ideas that constricted cultural progress. Organized in 1950, the group published a journal in which the existentialist notion of absolute freedom served to confront the notion of tradition. [3] Pictorial abstraction lay at the center of this broad cultural project. Indeed, Líneas coloreadas sobre fondo blanco translates such ideas. As noted, the artist believed that in this series the support is not a static datum one could immediately perceive. To grasp it, viewers had to work through opposing values towards a harmonious solution. The spectator’s gaze would therefore have to proceed outside the framework of a solid structure, similar to the manner in which individuals should act in the social field. According to existentialist ideals, individuals should construct their existence through their actions. Works in this series position the phenomena of action within the aesthetic exercise of vision.

In positioning this relationship, Otero stepped beyond the pictorial field of abstraction to reflect how a “social conscience” can inform a “program of [non-figurative] forms.”[4] That is a question he would keep on revisiting, yet never as poignantly as in the present painting. At this time, the artist had just completed a period of gradual cancellation of objects, divesting coffeepots and other artifacts of their shells so as to arrive at a progressively reductive schema of structural lines (fig. 1). To use the existentialist jargon of his 1950 letters, he subjected the objective world to a process of annihilation: all that was left after that period ended was a white blanket of nothingness, the heavily impastoed stretch of the plane marked by a meager set of broken lines. Here one line enters the plane from its upper left corner, clearly establishing its position in relation to the material, concrete edge of the canvas. The other three, by contrast, appear to float in an indefinite space.

The true meaning of the work,” to use the artist’s phrase, derives from that tension: the viewer’s gaze must transit between the materiality of the canvas and the uncertain space of abstraction; it must reconcile both sides into the imponderable support that the artist identified as the picture’s actual moment of existence. That moment is, however, evanescent. As Otero put it, “what one experiences never becomes concrete, it disappears with the act of seeing,” and “the perspective with which we look at the work must, then, necessarily change.” So must the position from which we act in our broader social life, which existentialism characterized as a free set of “circumstances that are constantly changing and evolving.”[5]

Juan Ledezma, Ph.D.
Art critic and curator of Latin American Art

[1] “Correspondence between Alejandro Otero and Alfredo Boulton,” in Ariel Jiménez, ed., Alfredo Boulton and His Contemporaries. Critical Dialogues in Venezuelan Art 1912–1974 (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2008), pp. 185–187. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from the artist refer to this letter.

[2] This connection has been already discussed by Estrellita B. Brodsky in Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, ed., The Geometry of Hope (Austin: Blanton Museum of Art, 2007), pp. 104–107. On the different trends of abstraction that were practiced in postwar Paris, see the text on Luis Guevara Moreno’s Trama Vertical in this volume.

[3] Cf. J. R. Guillent Pérez, “On Latin America and the West,” in Alfredo Boulton and His Contemporaries, pp. 175–177. Also a member of Los Disidentes, Guillent Pérez was a philosopher that influenced the group’s theoretical positions.

[4] Otero, quoted in “Alejandro Otero polemiza con Mario Briceño Iragorry a propósito de arte abstracto” (1952), in Memoria crítica, ed. Douglas Monroy and Luisa Pérez Gil (Caracas: Artesanogroup, 2008), p. 95.

[5] Otero, Alfredo Boulton and His Contemporaries, p. 184.