The Uruguayan artist Ignacio Iturria at work in the studio that was set up for him within his exhibition at the Neuberger Museum (photo © Antonia Iturria, courtesy of Fundación Iturria)

Several years ago, I spoke with the legendary American graphic designer Milton Glaser about the work of his friend Jean-Michel Folon (1934-2005), the Belgian artist whose visual-pun-filled watercolors offer a tender-fantastic view of the human condition. Regarding those dream-like pictures, Glaser pointed out that it’s a good artist whose works manage to catch our attention, amusing or even entertaining us, but that it’s a great artist who changes the way we see.

By “seeing,” he was referring, of course, not merely to ocular perception but, more profoundly, to new, unexpected understandings of the world that are served up by the senses, the mind, memory, and the spirit when artists with unique visions guide us into unexpected or inventive ways of looking and comprehending.

A single encounter with the work of the Uruguayan artist Ignacio Iturria, who was born in Montevideo in 1949, can instantly — and inescapably — open a door to a new way of looking at and thinking about the perceived world, in which fantasy meets reality, giving the spin of a mundo iturriano to just about anything one might notice, from boats and furniture to animals and high-rise buildings.

“A Studio in the Gallery: The Playful Universe of Ignacio Iturria” at the Neuberger Museum, with “La luz de los pozos” (“The Light from the Wells,” 1997), wood, cardboard, acrylic, mirrors, 49 x 67 x 33 inches, in the foreground, and “La luz de los pozos” (“The Light from the Wells,” 1996), oil on canvas, 71 x 79 inches, along with three other paintings, in the background (photo by Jim Frank, courtesy of the Neuberger Museum)

Now, A Studio in the Gallery: The Playful Universe of Ignacio Iturria, an exhibition on view through February 25, 2018, at the Neuberger Museum, offers an illuminating introduction to the way this leading contemporary Latin American artist observes and interprets the “real” world, even as he transforms his discoveries into the thematic raw material of an imaginary realm. The exhibition was organized by Patrice Giasson, the curator of art of the Americas at the Neuberger, which is located just north of Manhattan on the campus of Purchase College (part of the State University of New York) in Purchase, New York.

“Iturria’s work has been shown in the United States before, but considering its originality and the artist’s profile in his home region, it deserves to be even better known here,” Giasson told me during a recent visit to the museum. At that time, I also spoke with Iturria, whom I had first met and interviewed years ago, not long after he represented Uruguay at the 1995 Venice Biennale.

The artist, who had been in residence in Purchase for several weeks, was finishing up one of the most unusual aspects of this current exhibition, which features works made from the early 1990s through more recent years: he had been making art on site in a specially outfitted studio every day through mid-November. Not only had the artist been present, but his art-making had been one of the main attractions of this uncommon art show, too.

Ignacio Iturria, “Hola” (“Hello,” (2012), acrylic on canvas, 64 x 76 inches (photo © Álvaro Figueroa, courtesy of Fundación Iturria)

Iturria and Giasson referred to this temporary workspace, whose walls are lined with corrugated cardboard (one of the artist’s favorite materials) and whose floor is covered with plywood, as a “living studio.” In it, Iturria’s worktables were loaded down with paints, brushes, cutters, wire, cardboard scraps, and all sorts of cast-off objects he had picked up during his walks around the campus and the neighboring town.

As students, teachers, and other visitors passed through the workspace, often stopping to chat, Iturria fell into the routine he normally follows at his studio back home in Montevideo, Uruguay’s sleepy capital — he tinkered, doodled, and picked up whatever happened to be at hand and transformed it into art. Sometimes he reworked one of his creations, expanding its domain on the cardboard studio wall or reassembling its parts. (The results of his on-site activity in this part of the exhibition remain on view now.)

About his visitors, Iturria said, “First they poked their heads in, and I waved, like this” — he raised a hand and wiggled his fingers — “and then they stepped inside and began to feel comfortable. I felt as though they were entering my home with open hearts, inquisitively. I like that this is a school, and that so many of the visitors have been students from different fields of study.”

Iturria spoke softly in the richly accented Spanish of the Río de la Plata region of Argentina and Uruguay, in which the influence of past, Italian immigrants’ speech can be detected. As Giasson points out in the exhibition’s catalogue, among the members of Iturria’s generation of Latin-American art-makers, he has become something of a younger elder statesman who, unlike many of his peers, chose to make the human figure a central subject in his work, even as such strong tendencies as geometric abstraction and conceptual art were developing around him.

Ignacio Iturria, “El ruso” (“The Russian,” 2001), oil on canvas, 39 x 52 inches (photo © Álvaro Figueroa, courtesy of Fundación Iturria)

Iturria’s father Javier, an arts journalist who hosted a cultural-affairs TV program (along with the Uruguayan writer Francisco “Paco” Espínola), came to Uruguay from the Basque region of Spain in 1939; the artist’s mother was a history teacher. As a child, Ignacio received a Roman Catholic education and suffered from asthma. He spent time alone, amusing himself by writing, drawing, and taking apart old radios. Later, having overcome his illness, he became an avid soccer player.

After graduating from high school, he studied advertising design (although he never went on to practice professionally in that field). He set up a studio, which he rarely left except to attend classes. Later, despite having little aptitude for getting along in the “real” world — his associates all say the artist is rather hapless anywhere except in his studio — Iturria worked briefly selling cars, a detail from his résumé he still recalls incredulously.

However, with encouragement from his girlfriend, Claudia Piñón, and his friends, he dedicated himself to making art, earning serious attention for his work while still in his twenties. In 1977, as a right-wing dictatorship consolidated its power in Uruguay, Ignacio and Claudia, now married, traveled to the Catalonia region of northeastern Spain, where they settled in Cadaqués, a coastal town that had been frequented by modern artists, including, notably, Salvador Dalí, who kept a home in a nearby village.

Ignacio Iturria, “No hay golero” (“There Is No Goalie,” 1994), oil on canvas, 24 x 16 inches (photo © Antonia Iturria, courtesy of Fundación Iturria)

In his paintings from this period, Iturria recalled, he tried to capture “the whites and blues of Mediterranean light, but it was hard to integrate them into my palette.” He remembered watching Claudia walk through the streets of Cadaqués, her figure dwarfed by the white-washed façades of surrounding buildings, which framed her movements like the proscenium of a stage and helped him understand what he calls “the distance between the work and the viewer,” a topic that has long intrigued him.

Now the parents of young children, the Iturrias moved back to Uruguay in the mid-1980s, where, before long, Ignacio’s palette absorbed the muddy browns of the Río de la Plata region, turning earthier and darker, a development that seemed to serve his thematic purposes. If his earlier, brighter, rather spare pictures were marked by a metaphysical air, now the currents of memory that had long helped shape his worldview found expression in colors shot through with melancholy, nostalgia, romance, gentle humor, and an abiding sense of curiosity about what makes people tick.

In paintings and related mixed-media sculptures, Iturria developed his art’s signature language and distinctive voice — bathroom sinks became swimming pools, sofas became landscapes, and squirts of paint right out of the tube became piles of human bones in images that called attention to their physical qualities while evoking the ineffable: history, personal identity, and the mysterious nature of creativity itself.

Ignacio Iturria, “Torres García” (1998), oil on canvas, 75 x 59 inches (photo © Álvaro Figueroa, courtesy of Fundación Iturria)

Iturria has produced a body of work whose spirit lies somewhere between that of Federico Fellini’s wistful memory films and the final, self-aware pronouncement of Samuel Beckett’s protagonist in The Unnamable (1953), who tells himself, “[Y]ou must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

At the Neuberger, this meditative, existential air wafts through such works as “No hay golero” (“There Is No Goalie,” 2012), a picture of pictures (page spreads from the artist’s illustrated notebooks), and “Hola” (“Hello,” 1994), in which a man with a long, giraffe-like neck peeks out from a shadowy window or doorway as if to silently declare, “Look at me! I, too, am here.”

Iturria once noted that living in Uruguay “has something in common with living on an island,” an experience that produces “a type of person who feels the remoteness.” Here, he dips into his homeland’s own art history in “Torres García” (1998), a kind of homage to the painter-teacher Joaquín Torres-García (1874-1949), who was his compatriot and the father of Latin American Constructivism. Iturria cleverly renders one of Torres-García’s signature compositional grids as a three-dimensional form, but instead of filling in its spaces with the Uruguayan modernist’s familiar pictographs, he offers human figures that gaze back at the viewer like characters stranded on a stage-set jungle gym. Also on view, “El willow” (“The Willow,” 2011) shows a wall covered with pictures. Among their subjects: airplanes, horses, Tarzan, and the Lone Ranger.

Ignacio Iturria, “El willow” (“The Willow,” 2011), acrylic on canvas, 32 x 28 inches (photo © Antonia Iturria, courtesy of Fundación Iturria)

Iturria is fascinated by the plastic — that is, the physical, moldable, sculptural — properties of his materials. Thus, on display are both the painting “La luz de los pozos” (“The Light from the Wells,” 1996), showing a table whose surface is perforated with rectangular cut-outs that pop up to reveal the painted portraits of various men and women, as well as the mixed-media, three-dimensional version he executed of the same subject. “I use what is around me,” Iturria often says. That includes the accidental or unexpected results of his art-making methods. Here, one of them is the light that passes through the holes in the table, creating a play of abstract shapes on the floor beneath it.

Prior to arriving in Purchase, Iturria told Giasson that he could not predict “what the outcome” of his on-site art-making stint would be, but after settling into his temporary studio, he discovered that he very much enjoyed the whole set-up.

“At this point in my career,” he told me, “I feel strongly that I want to give back something about what I’ve learned over the years as an artist, and I was excited to be able to share my experience with the students and other visitors here in such a rare, personal way.” Iturria sipped from the metal straw in his ever-present gourd of yerba mate tea and added, “Through my art and in this studio, they entered my world, but through their eyes and thanks to their observations, I, too, learned again how to see.”

A Studio in the Gallery: The Playful Universe of Ignacio Iturria continues at the Neuberger Museum (Purchase College, State University of New York, 735 Anderson Hill Road, Purchase, New York) through February 25, 2018.

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Edward M. Gómez

Edward M. Gómez is a graphic designer, critic, arts journalist, and author or co-author of numerous books about art and design subjects, including Le dictionnaire de la civilisation japonaise,...