Feliza Bursztyn’s life and work were unlike anything that had come before her. An outspoken, free-wheeling 20th-century woman living in conservative, Catholic Colombia, she created vibrating, noisy kinetic sculptures out of scrap metal and cloth that demanded viewers’ attention with a mix of sensual and disturbing energy. Perplexed by her unconventional lifestyle and pioneering work, the local press dubbed Bursztyn “La Loca,” or the crazy woman. But the artist didn’t mind. “I embraced the crazy thing, and insisted on it to really do what I wanted,” she said in 1979. “We live in a macho world, and being a sculptor and not being a man is very difficult. For people to take me seriously, I resorted to that trick, because they thought: ‘Maybe that crazy lady does interesting things.’ And I think this worked.”
Feliza Bursztyn: Welding Madness at the Muzeum Susch, opening Saturday, December 18, will be the artist’s first major retrospective outside of her home country. Co-curated by Marta Dziewańska and Abigail Winograd, the exhibition features nearly 50 sculptures, films, and installations, along with archival materials spanning Bursztyn’s entire career, most of which will be shown in Europe for the first time. The survey argues for her position as not only one of Latin America’s most important sculptors, but as one of the most daring, trailblazing artists of the last century.
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Bursztyn was born in Bogotá in 1933. Her parents, Jewish immigrants from Poland, had escaped Europe just before Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. The artist’s father started a successful textile business, and her studio would later inhabit part of his factory. But the young Bursztyn’s Jewish and Eastern European roots made her an outsider. Amid the political turmoil that followed the assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1947, Bursztyn’s parents sent their daughter to finish high school in New York City.
After graduating, Bursztyn enrolled at the Art Students League, and later moved to Paris where she worked under the artist Ossip Zadkine. Bursztyn married her first husband when she was only 19, but after five years of suffering his abuse and opposition to her art career, she was able to obtain a divorce by age 24. This was a radical, uncommon measure at the time, and her ex retaliated by taking custody of their three daughters and moving them back to the United States. The rift undoubtedly haunted Bursztyn, and her divorce alienated her from Bogotá’s Jewish community. But it also allowed her to embrace a new bohemian life dedicated to her art.
“Bursztyn challenged the status quo on several levels,” Dziewańska and Winograd told Hyperallergic in a recent email. “Instead of a brush, she preferred a welding torch … but also she did not live as one would expect a woman to live.” Openly bisexual, colorfully dressed, and magnetically sociable, Bursztyn was unapologetically herself. “It was an unconventional and brave life — exactly like her art,” the curators said.
Bursztyn’s Bogotá studio became an important meeting place for the country’s artists, writers, directors, and other creatives, and her frequent trips to New York, Los Angeles, and Paris kept her connected to the international art scene beyond Colombia’s borders. In addition, “Bursztyn was a passionate reader of fiction and rarely seen without a book,” Dziewańska and Winograd said by email. Her library included art catalogues from different historical periods, along with works of literature, poetry, and theory. “Her free spirit was built on very rich and various sources,” they explained.
Art was another place for Bursztyn to transgress and even obliterate norms. Her frenetic creations made from industrial cast-offs pointed to Colombia’s rapid growth and consumerism, and the scarcity and inequality that these trends produced. With a touch of rebellious humor, she gave the crumpled, abstract works in her Chatarras (Junk Sculptures) series conventionally feminine titles like “Una flor (Flower)” and “Niña alegre (Happy Girl)” (both 1971). In “Las Camas (The Beds)” (1974), motorized metal bed frames covered in satin fabric throb suggestively. In other works, Bursztyn added lighting effects and music to lend her sculptural installations an immersive, theatrical ambience. “I am convinced that each sculpture has its own character, its own movement, a distinct tone, a world of its own,” the artist stated.
Despite her fearlessness, tragedy also played a role in Bursztyn’s life. Most of her extended family members were killed during the Holocaust, and as an adult, several of her close friends and lovers suffered early deaths. The artist was also a target of political persecution, and in 1981, she was arrested at her home, questioned, and tortured. She fled to Mexico City, where she stayed briefly at her friend Gabriel García Márquez’s home. Soon after, she left for Paris, where she was welcomed by friends, set up a studio, and planned to receive artistic support from the French government. “Despite all of this,” Dziewańska and Winograd wrote by email, “Feliza was heartbroken. She considered herself Colombian and deeply connected to her country.” The artist died of a heart attack shortly after arriving in Paris in 1982. She was 49 years old.
“Bursztyn was a legend in Colombia during her lifetime and even more so after she passed away,” the curators noted. However, her work is still not widely known by those outside of her home country. This new exhibition seeks to expand her audience, and to highlight her most important contributions. As Dziewańska and Winograd explained, “Her art never gave in to conventions and she was never afraid to create in the first person: always as a woman.”
Feliza Bursztyn: Welding Madness will open at the Muzeum Susch (Surpunt 78, 7542 Susch, Switzerland) on December 18, 2021 and continue through June 26, 2022.