When the Venezuelan painter Alejandro Otero (1921–90) was interviewed by El Universal newspaper (Caracas, March 18, 1957), his criticism of the jury’s decision concerning the Sculpture Prize at the XVIII Salón Oficial de Arte Venezolano ignited the fiercest and most valuable debate the country had ever had about Abstract art. The writer and publisher Miguel Otero Silva and his cousin, the painter, engaged in the debate, which played out on the pages of El Nacional, the former’s newspaper. In this first round, Alejandro Otero does not challenge the jury’s decision for Official Painting Prize, which was awarded to Armando Barrios, the director of the Museo de Bellas Artes and a long-standing member of Los Disidentes (the group whose members were staunchly committed to Abstract art). But Otero deplores the jury’s choice for the Sculpture Prize, calling it an injustice to honor a recently-arrived foreigner instead of Venezuelans such as Víctor Valera or Omar Carreño, both of whom were also long-standing members of Los Disidentes.
This group, founded in Paris and headed by Otero, had condemned the Salon and the juries for favoring the more traditional forms of art—landscape painting, for example, and realist works—ever since the event began in 1940. Francisco Narváez was the only Venezuelan sculptor whose work had been acknowledged; all the other winners were foreigners who had emigrated from Europe because of the Second World War. In recent years, some of the old members of Los Disidentes—including Valera—had decided to compete once again in the Salons, and had received some recognition (at the Salón D’Empaire in Maracaibo, and the Salón Arturo Michelena in Valencia). On the other hand, ever since the architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva launched his integrated approach to the construction of the Ciudad Universitaria (1953), all these artists had become a little better known. They therefore, perhaps, expected to be recognized at the main Salon; hence the painter Otero’s frustration. The controversy unleashed by his comments bore fruit the following year when, after the fall of the Marcos Pérez Jiménez military dictatorship (1958), Alejandro Otero was awarded the Official Painting Prize at the next Salon. The Sculpture Prize went to Víctor Valera and to Miguel Arroyo, the new director of the Museo who was also a member of Los Disidentes.