The career of pioneering Colombian artist Olga de Amaral dates back to the 1950s, when she began making abstract sculptures out of textiles. She has continued to produce shimmering variations of these pieces ever since.
In some cases, they hang against a wall; in others, they hang from the ceiling in the middle of a room, as installations to be walked around. They are all created by the painting and weaving of myriad threads — and since the 1980s, de Amaral has been applying gold and silver leaf, too.
The majority of de Amaral’s contemporary works are composed of linen, gold, paper and gesso. ‘All my things have to have those four elements,’ she explains from her spacious studio. ‘But if I were to make all these things myself, it would take me forever.’ The artist has enlisted the help of a dedicated team: ‘My helpers are wonderful, very sensitive,’ she says with a warm smile. ‘They love what they do.’
De Amaral’s first full series with gold leaf, ‘Alquimia’, includes pieces now in the collections of the Tate Gallery and Metropolitan Museum of Art. Another, Alquimia XII from 1983, is being offered in the Latin American Art sale at Christie’s in New York on 22 May.
‘I don’t look around for inspiration,’ says the artist. ‘It just grows in me. And when you see, you see.’ De Amaral says the work coming to auction in New York is ‘based on the proportion of the human figure… in homage to a pre-Columbian, gold mantle.’
Others have seen the Alquimia pieces as evocative of rows of corn, adobe walls, chainmail armour from the Middle Ages, and, with their dramatic change in appearance according to the light that falls on them, the golden interiors of Spanish Baroque churches.
Born in Bogotá in 1932, de Amaral studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where she met her future husband (and fellow artist), Jim Amaral. In the mid-1960s, she became founder and director of the textiles department at the University of the Andes, in her home city, where she and Jim still live today.
The introduction of gold leaf was a defining moment in her career. Not simply because the works made with it are those she’s most famous for, but because their gleam tends to produce a hushed reverence in viewers. ‘It has always been my desire to induce a state of silence in the places I install my art,’ she reveals.
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Now aged 87, she continues working to this day. The ancient tribes of Colombia, such as the Quimbaya and Tolima, had a rich tradition of goldsmithery, and her Alquimia pieces clearly hark back to that. Yet, with their minimalist designs of geometric abstraction, they also reflect a marked trend in art of the 20th century. Her work, as a result, might be described as a rich tapestry of the historic and the contemporary.