Carlos Cruz-Diez

(1923 – 2019)

Venezuela

Biography

My Physichromies aim to “express” only what they reveal about certain conditions of color. They propose a “climate” resulting from the changing condition of color—more physiological, and sometimes voluptuous or even erotic—that affects our primary senses. The Physichromies attempt to bring out the naked truth of color.

 

—Carlos Cruz-Diez, “Light and Movement”[1]

 

“The Chromatic event” unleashes other ideas. Before it is a Physichromie (an object), a Physichromie is a support for an event. It cannot be enjoyed in the same way we might enjoy a traditional painting; it demands active involvement rather than passive contemplation. There is no place for symbolic interpretations because it is its own reference.

 

—Carlos Cruz-Diez, “Light and Movement”[2]

 

The career of Carlos Cruz-Diez was defined by a single-minded focus on the liberation of color from form and material. In his art, color was an entity constantly in flux as it intermingled with light. Color facilitated events that were driven by time and place above shape and line, interfacing as such with the human sensorium and psyche. The refinement and distillation of these events was a lifelong, research-based process for the artist that employed numerous aesthetic and technological developments in service of his ultimate goal.

 

Cruz-Diez was born in 1929 in Caracas, Venezuela. While he had always held an interest in art, the relative isolation of Venezuela at the time hindered his ability to fully engage with the western canon beyond the scope of Venezuela’s academic painters. His access to artwork outside of his home country came through art books from Argentina and Chile that—ironically—only featured black and white reproductions of foreign work.[3] He would only have the opportunity to see art in color upon enrollment in La Escuela de Artes Plásticas, Caracas, where he studied with fellow Venezuelan masters Jesús Rafael Soto [1923–2005] and Alejandro Otero [1921–1990]. The school’s faculty were primarily landscape painters who held the Impressionists, with their commitment to capturing how light shapes an environment, as being of primary importance. By 1943, however, Cruz-Diez was overcome with frustration at his work, leading to his decision to drop out of the school and focus primarily on cartooning and graphic design.[4]

 

The artist’s frustration and doubt were directed toward the Venezuelan academy’s reliance on European work as a basis for its methods and the consequent ignorance of Venezuela’s social inequities. This initially resulted in Cruz-Diez—like many of his Venezuelan contemporaries—turning to a figuration informed by modernism and social realism. These paintings were unsuccessful at capturing the attention of both the Venezuelan and international public, driving Cruz-Diez to seek out an entirely novel method that could be both internationally recognizable and socially accessible. This would ultimately push him towards a form of abstraction that emphasized viewer participation, transforming a typically cold and inaccessible style into one that was engaging and meaningful. As Cruz-Diez described it, “instead of using my painting to show them how miserable they are, I decided to give them the chance to expand their spirits by participating in art.”[5] For the artist, this participation would come from a desire to showcase the dynamic potential of color.

 

While his academic confrontation with color sprang from his early study of the Impressionists, Cruz-Diez claimed that his interest in color first came about after a visit to his father’s bottle factory as a young boy. Looking at the stock of empty bottles, he saw sunlight filtered through them and experienced “exceptional pleasure.”[6] Notably, his revelation of color’s power did not come about from its presence in a material, but instead in how it filtered and transformed light. Reflection on the subject guided him to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s [1749–1832] Theory of Colors in 1951. Goethe explored color as a discrete element, the effects of which created a phenomenon that yielded an intensely emotional response. While its effects were contingent on the individual viewer, its capacity as a vehicle for stirring the passions was universal.[7] This framework was critical for Cruz-Diez’s artistic development because it posited a system that did not place color in a role secondary to form, and invited consideration of color as an event. These ideas would go on to inform the “Manipulables”—the artist’s first major explorations of formless color. The works—ultimately never realized—were to be large-scale installations that featured polychromatic cylinders set against a white wall. As the viewer continued to move along the work, they would see how changes in natural light would blend colors against the wall in a unique fashion.[8] These pieces heralded the beginning of Cruz-Diez’s devotion to the liberation of color from bounded shapes. In 1958, he would turn toward his first successful realizations of these concerns: the “Physichromies.” 

 

The “Physichromies” were the product of Cruz-Diez’s discovery of Dr. Edwin Land’s [1901–1991] research on polarized lenses. In his studies, Land was able to overlay a nearly full chromatic spectrum against black-and-white photos through the juxtaposition of red and green filters as well as light exposure. From Land’s findings, Cruz-Diez realized that he, too, could create dynamic color through ostensibly static means and a limited palette.[9] To capture a lens-like effect—essentially “trapping light”—Cruz-Diez used thin, raised, vertical strips of plastic or cardboard that he called “Chromatic Event Modules.” These elements—either made of painted cardboard or translucent, colored plastic—run across the surface of the picture plane at intervals. As light is trapped in the modules, they engender myriad optical effects when viewed against the colors of the supporting surface. There are, therefore, no singular vantage points for viewing a “Physichromie”—the colors, the geometric compositions, all change depending on the spectator’s angle of vision. New shapes and different hues emerge as viewers make their way across the face of the artwork, attesting to the components of the portmanteau that titles the series: “physical chromatism.”[10] These works were early successes, and led to his inclusion in important exhibitions of the 1960s such as The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Lumière et Mouvement at the Musée d’Arte Moderne, Paris.

 

Beyond the “Physichromies,” Cruz-Diez would explore free color in several other series, including his “Chromoadditions,” in which new colors are created in the intervals between adjacent or intersecting lines of color created color in the intervals between equally spaced lines; the “Chromoinductions,” where he employed the optical phenomenon of afterimages to produce complentary colors; and the “Chromosaturations,” in which Cruz-Diez engulfed rooms and their inhabitants in pure color. The artist also mounted several ambitious architectural interventions and public art projects, which include large-scale artworks in sites such as the Simón Bolívar International Airport, Maiquetía, Venezuela; the former USB Headquarters, Zurich; Simón Bolívar Power Pant, Guri, Venezuela; and Olympic Park, Seoul, among many more.  

 

Cruz-Diez split his time between Paris and Caracas throughout his lifetime. He is remembered as one of the most renowned artists to emerge from Venezuela in the mid-twentieth century and was the subject of numerous solo presentations, including A Decade of Physichromies by Carlos Cruz-Diez, Signals Gallery, London (1965); Cruz-Diez. Cinq propositions sur la couleur, Galerie Denise René, Paris (1969); 35th Venice Biennial, Venezuelan Pavilion (1970); Carlos Cruz-Diez, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Sofía Imber (1974); Carlos Cruz-Diez. Die Autonomie der Farbe. Bilders—Plastiken—Objekte aus den Jahren, 1959–1988, Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop (1988); and (In)Formed by Color, Americas Society, New York (2008). Cruz-Diez was the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2011. Throughout the artist’s long career, he was also featured in many groundbreaking exhibitions, foremost among them The Responsive Eye, Museum of Modern Art, New York (1965); Forty Years of Modern Art 1945–1985, Tate Gallery, London (1985); Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century, Museum of Modern Art, New York (1993); Denise René, l’intrépide. Une galerie dans l’aventure de l’art abstrait, 1944–1978, Centre Pompidou, Galerie d’Art Graphique and Galerie du Musée, Paris (2001); Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (2004); Lo[s] cinético[s], Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (2007); Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color, and Space, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC (2012); and The Illusive Eye: Op Art and the Americas in the 1960s, El Museo del Barrio, New York (2016). 

 

[1] Carlos Cruz-Diez, “Light and Movement,” reproduced in Color in Space and Time: Cruz-Diez (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 116. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Carlos Cruz-Diez, Carlos Cruz-Diez in Conversation with Ariel Jiminez (New York: Ciscneros Foundation, 2010), 10.

[4] Ibid, 20.

[5] Ibid, 33.

[6] Ibid, 14.

[7] Estrellita B. Brodsky, “Carlos Cruz-Diez’s Public Works: The Power of Color,” in Carlos Cruz-Diez: (In)formed by Color, exh. cat (New York: Americas Society, 2008), 16.

[8] Cruz-Diez, Carlos, interview with Mari Carmen Ramírez, in Color in Space and Time: Cruz-Diez (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 96.

[9] Frank Popper, “Cruz-Diez,” reproduced in Color in Space and Time: Cruz-Diez (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 404. 

[10] Martha Sesín, “Carlos Cruz-Diez: Amarillo aditivo [Additive Yellow], 1959; Physichromie No 21, 1960” in The Geometry of Hope: Latin American Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection, exh. cat. (Austin, TX: Blanton Museum of Art, 2007), 173.

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