IT WAS A SIMPLE STILL LIFE OF A MANDOLIN, sketched in a park in Mexico City in 1956, unremarkable in every way but one. "For some reason," Fernando Bolero says, "I drew the hole in the center of the instrument very small—and the mandolin suddenly appeared enormous." Botero, now an internationally renowned Colombian artist, had discovered the guiding principle of his artistic vision: If something is worth doing, it's worth doing big.
At 61, Botero is still thinking big—big sculptures, big spaces for them, big audiences. Millions of people saw 31 of his massive bronzes—many of them bulbous nudes that make Rubens's voluptuous women look like Cindy Crawford—on Paris's Champs-Elysées last year. Then, New Yorkers ambled—-or taxied—past a recently ended Botero exhibition on Manhattan's Park Avenue. Next stop: Chicago, in April. "People walk around, touching, participating. It's like an orgy of communication," says Botero. "It's fantastic."
Many of those people must wonder whether the sculptor, some of whose works weigh in at 5,000 pounds, has a fetish for fat. "The mass of people remember Picasso as the man who put two eyes on the same side of a face," says Botero. "In the same way, they call me the artist who likes fat women." But Botero insists that his obsession lies elsewhere. "What I do is volume—men, women, animals, landscapes, objects, whatever. That full, sensuous form, I believe in that."
In his 45 years as an artist, Botero estimates that he has done 1,000 paintings and about 100 sculptures—and his works now sell for as much as $1 million, which finances a bicontinental existence. He and his companion, Greek-born sculptor Sophia Vari, 51—Botero, twice divorced, with three grown children, has lived with her for 17 years—spread their time among seven residences, in Paris, New York City, Monte Carlo, Italy, Mexico and Colombia, where Botero has both a house in Bogotá and a hacienda in the countryside. Botero's migratory pattern includes painting in Paris and sculpting in Pietrasanta, Italy, where he owns a century-old farmhouse. As for his activities in New York City, where he keeps a Rolls-Royce, he says, "I have a good time."
Botero's roots are in a town that is famous for something other than its most famous artistic son. The second of three children of an itinerant salesman—who transported his wares by mule—and a housewife, he was born in 1932 in Medellín, now better known as the cocaine capital of Latin America. "It wasn't like that at all," he says. "It was very quiet, religious, hardworking." At 11 or 12, Botero says, "I was very fond of la corrida. I started drawing bulls and bullfighters, then little landscapes. When I was 14 or 15, I was completely hooked on art. I did my first one-man show in 1951. I was 19." Success in Bogotá inspired Botero to travel abroad, to Madrid, Paris and Florence, and eventually to his epiphany in the Mexican park.
Despite his success—or perhaps because of it—Botero has been criticized as working outside the mainstream of 20th-century art. He is un-fazed by such censure. "Now the artist is kind of ashamed to be liked," he says. "But the one thing art cannot afford to be is private. It is created to be pleasure."
CATHY NOLAN in Paris