II Xabier Sáenz de Gorbea Artistic Commitment Award
Juan Luis Goenaga
The jury of the Xabier Sáenz de Gorbea Artistic Commitment Award has decided to grant the second edition of the award for 2022–2024 to the painter Juan Luis Goenaga (San Sebastián, 1950)
By the age of 20, Goenaga had become part of the Basque art scene. During his youth, he travelled around Europe teaching himself and forging a personal style that includes the eloquent use of paint applied with intense gesturality and the combination of abstraction and figuration. His thematic interests revolve around references to nature, the rural world and the primordial in an artistic practice that includes painting, photography and the construction of sculptural objects.
The decision of the jury—comprised of Sonia Rueda, artist; Miguel Zugaza, director of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum; Beatriz Herráez, director of Artium (Vitoria); and Frantxi López de Landache, former director of the Koldo Mitxelena Kulturunea (San Sebastián)—summarised their choice as follows:
‘Because of an extraordinarily unique career within the context of contemporary Basque and Spanish art. Started in the early 1970s via an artistic practice within what was known as land art, which had never before been seen in Spain, his radical determination to represent the world, from the most primordial to strictly contemporary themes, also took root early and permanently in his painting, which has been the main expressive medium of his works for over five decades of nonstop work.’
Juan Luis Goenaga (San Sebastián, 1950)
A self-taught artist, Goenaga got started painting and drawing in his hometown at a very young age, first with the painters Julián Ugarte and José Camps, later in the Artistic Association of Gipuzkoa and even later in relation with the artistic proposals of the Ur and Gaur groups (1965). Between 1968 and 1969, he travelled to Madrid, Paris and Rome, and he lived in Barcelona for a while, where he learned engraving at the Book Arts Conservatory and briefly studied at the San Jorge Fine Arts School. In 1970, he returned to San Sebastián, where he decided to work and learn on his own. He moved to Alkiza (Gipuzkoa), in a rural setting where he worked in isolation during the 1970s in constant contact with the landscape around him. There, the representation of real elements, like the grass, branches or roots that he came upon on his walks, enabled him to create unusual images with a great deal of poetic and telluric power, like the paintings series Itzalak (Shadows, 1972–1973), Larruak (Leather), Hari-matazak (Skeins, 1974) and Sustraiak (Roots, 1974–1976). During those years, his references to nature and the primitive were a hallmark of his artistic practice, which was not limited to painting but also encompassed photography—between 1971 and 1972 he made an important set of quick pictures and snapshots on roads and spots away from Mount Ernio which are pioneering works in land art—and the construction of sculptural objects. Some of these works, accompanied by paintings, were exhibited in 1973 in the Municipal Culture Halls in Durango (Vizcaya). Goenaga’s first solo exhibition had been held at the San Telmo Museum in San Sebastián just a few months earlier.
After these exhibitions, he held many more, with individual shows in Bilbao (Lúzaro, 1974 and 1977; Arteta, 1977), San Sebastián (El Pez, 1974 and 1979; Galería B, 1976), Vitoria-Gasteiz (Eder Arte, 1976) and Madrid (Iolas-Velasco, 1976). In 1978, the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum hosted a major exhibition of his works. One year earlier, the museum had acquired its first Goenaga work: Roots (inv. no. 82/268). This piece was soon joined by others, through either purchases—Untitled (1976, inv. no. 15/2)—or donations—two paintings: Untitled (1975, inv. no. 07/392) and Untitled (c. 1975, inv. no. 09/8)—as well as one drawing and two photographs from the Lúzaro gallery (inv. nos. 20/277, 20/312 and 20/313), other fundamental examples of Goenaga’s works during those years. In 2022, his representation at the museum expanded with the acquisition of a photograph album with 59 photographs from 1971–1973 (inv. no. 22/264).
In the early 1980s, Goenaga travelled to Germany, where he was influenced by German neo-expressionism, which had already been latent in his previous works (Anthropomorphs and Androgynous series), and by the Italian Transavantgarde. He began to apply thick, impasto paint to his canvases with extreme gesturality. During that period, he also revisited the human figure and made figurative works with urban people and places—in 1980, he had once again moved temporarily to San Sebastián, although he returned to Alkiza three years later. At that time, his work garnered significant public recognition, like the first prize ex aequo with José Luis Zumeta at the First Donostia Painting Biennial in 1985 and the first prize in painting at Gure Artea, organised by the Basque government, in 1987. He also held major individual exhibitions in Madrid (1986 and 1989), New York (1987) and Paris (1985 and 1988), the latter where he worked for extended periods until 1990. The Arkeolojiak (Archaeologies, 1991) series signalled a return to atavistic, mythological images and to works that revised nature and magic, themes that lasted throughout the early years of the new century which he developed through both paintings and notable works on paper. Some of these pieces were on display for the first time in the retrospective devoted to him at the Palacio Aranburu in Tolosa (Gipuzkoa) in 1999. Four years earlier, the Koldo Mitxelena Kulturunea in San Sebastián had held an initial anthology of his works from between 1969 and 1995, curated by Edorta Kortadi and accompanied by a catalogue with texts by Juan Manuel Bonet, María José Aranzasti, Maya Aguiriano and Xabier Sáenz de Gorbea (‘In contact with telluric intensity and insistence’). In fact, Xabier Sáenz de Gorbea had already devoted several important texts to the painter in the newspaper Deia in 1982 (‘Juan Luis Goenaga, the passion for painting’, 3 March), 1990 (‘Latest paintings by Goenaga’, 25 March) and 1995 (‘Retrospective of Juan Luis Goenaga’, 24 December). Sáenz de Gorbea’s interest in Goenaga’s work was joined by another 2008 text (‘On the depths’, 12 October) written on the occasion of the artist’s solo exhibition at the Epelde y Mardaras gallery in Bilbao. Since the show in San Sebastián, other essential overviews of his career have been held more recently, such as the ones at the Fundación Vital in Vitoria-Gasteiz (2017) and at the Sala Kubo Kutxa in San Sebastián (2020), the latter organised by the historian Mikel Lertxundi Galiana, the author of the latest research into the oeuvre of Juan Luis Goenaga (San Sebastián, Nerea, 2018).
[Text: Miriam Alzuri Milanés. urator of Modern and Contemporary Art]
In order to perpetuate the figure of the historian, critic and researcher Xabier Sáenz de Gorbea (Getxo, Vizcaya, 1951–Bilbao, 2015) and his contributions to the art world, his companion Sonia Rueda and the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum announced a biennial contest in 2020 to grant an award that would bear his name with the goal of recognising a career in any field within the fine arts: creation, study and research, promotion, dissemination and encouragement. It comes with a purse of €10,000 (gross) from Xabier Sáenz de Gorbea’s legacy, and any person or legal entity that has made a proven, decisive contribution to developing the visual arts in the Basque Country can be proposed. In the first edition 2020–2022, the award went to the painter Marta Cárdenas (San Sebastián, 1944).
Xabier Sáenz de Gorbea (Getxo, Bizkaia, 1951–Bilbao, 2015)
With a bachelor’s in Art History from the University of Barcelona, he began his professional career in 1980 at the Fine Arts Faculty at the UPV-EHU, where he became the vice-dean of Research and Cultural Extension and a professor, with an extraordinary passion for teaching, of the courses on Theory and History of Twentieth-Century Art, Introduction to Twentieth-Century Art and Latest Artistic Trend. During this period, he also participated actively in numerous academic activities such as summer courses, master’s and post-graduate degrees, among others.
He and his brother Roberto founded the Bilbao gallery Windsor—later called Windsor Kulturgintza—in 1971, and he became a member of the Association of Basque Artists (Euskal Artisten Elkartea), founded in 1983 with artists associated with the Fine Arts Faculty.
As a researcher, his efforts revolved around contemporary art, with particular attention to the Basque art scene, which he carefully tracked in the art criticism pieces that he published weekly since 1981 in his contributions to the newspaper Deia. Likewise, in addition to his articles in specialised magazines like Lápiz, Ondare and Zehar, he also wrote numerous texts for exhibition catalogues. Also worth noting is his work as the curator of many exhibitions, his participation in juries for awards and grants and his work as a fine arts consultant for the Basque government between 1981 and 1991.
In recognition of his fruitful career and his contribution to the development of the fine arts, in 2012 he received the Gure Artea award from the Basque government.
[Text: Miriam Alzuri Milanés. urator of Modern and Contemporary Art]