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Jesús Rafael Soto
b. 1923, Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela
d. 2005, Paris, France

The immaterial is the sensory reality of the universe. Art is the sensory knowledge of the immaterial. To become conscious of the immaterial in its state of pure structure, is to make the final leap towards the absolute. [1]


—Jesús Rafael Soto

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It wasn’t until the sixteen-year-old Jesús Rafael Soto moved to Caracas in 1942 that he saw a painter’s easel for the first time.[2] Though an avid painter in rural Ciudad Bolívar, Soto later remembered that his artistic education was limited, his exposure to the innovations of the European vanguard non-existent. In the Venezuelan capital, he enrolled at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Aplicadas and studied the paintings of Braque, Picasso, Cézanne, and Van Gogh,[3] all artists who began their compositions by abstracting from nature. One of the hallmarks of Soto’s mature work, however, is that it worked from the other direction—from abstract structure to the representation of a world in constant, imperceptible movement. With their insistent repetition of parallel lines and squares, his wall-mounted sculptures and environmental installations appear coolly detached and self-contained. Nevertheless, they are far from independent artworks. As viewing time elapses, it becomes clear the right angles of Soto’s squares are not as stable as we would like to believe, the metal rods dangling before patterned backgrounds not as durable. These elements quiver and vibrate, making visible the constant change that defines the world around us as well as the impossibility of true stability in a universe defined by flux. Beyond first impressions, it becomes clear that Soto’s art is thoroughly enmeshed in the ambiguities of space and the flow of time.


After briefly serving as the director of the School of Plastic Arts in Maracaibo,[4] Soto moved to Paris in 1950. He joined a sizeable contingent of Latin American artists in the French capital, including members of the Madi group (Carmelo Arden Quin would show Soto’s work in the 1951 exhibition Espace Lumière at Galerie Suzanne Michel), Los Disidentes (Venezuelan expats), and Brazilian Neo-Concrete artists. Alongside a number of European luminaries, these South American artists exhibited regularly at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles and elsewhere[5]; the reminiscences of the art historian Yve-Alain Bois provide a glimpse into this extraordinarily rich environment:


I enjoyed listening to Jesús Rafael Soto play the guitar in Carlos Cruz-Diez’s studio and certainly appreciated the exoticism of the situation, but if the abundant colony of Latin American artists appealed more to me than any other group in Paris, it was for its greater openness and social ease as well as for its infinite patience with my immodest youth … A man like Sergio de Camargo, a sophisticated sculptor whom I remember as a kind of benevolent aristocrat, had no qualms discussing Lygia Clark with me for hours, and Carmelo Arden Quin was already to reminisce about the early activities of the Argentinian Madi group or to show me one of his transformable books.[6]


While immersing himself in contemporary artistic debates in Paris, Soto also seized the opportunity to view the works of Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, Piet Mondrian, Naum Gabo, Kazimir Malevich, and László Moholy-Nagy in person.[7] His subsequent body of work engaged with the legacy of these artists who incorporated movement—either actual or virtual—into their artistic production. To this end, the technique of superimposing different patterns and compositions was a crucial breakthrough for Soto in the early 1950s. By using transparent Plexiglas placed several inches before an opaquely colored picture plane, Soto was able to cultivate beguiling optical ambiguities through the resulting confusion of foreground and background, the misapprehension that the image on the Plexiglas is actually on the picture plane behind and vice versa. Although Soto’s mature work would come to take on a variety of forms, this practice of layering remained throughout, whether or not the artist used Plexiglas[8]—his later “Escrituras” [Writings], “Varillas Vibrantes” [Vibrating Rods], “Cuadrados Vibrantes” [Vibrating Squares] and “Tes Vibrantes” [Vibrating Ts], all achieve their optical effects through superimposition. It is the relationship between the patterned overlays, and the viewer’s perception of the resulting kaleidoscopic moirés that Soto wields to render perceptible the immaterial aspects of the universe: “…I have never sought to show reality caught at one precise moment, but, on the contrary, to reveal universal change, of which temporality and infinitude are the constituent values. The universe, I believe, is uncertain and unsettled. The same must be true of my work.”[9]                                            


For an artist with such cosmic aspirations, later claiming that “Art is not expression; art is knowledge,”[10] it was necessary for Soto to uncover strategies for removing himself as much as possible from the act of creation. A more than capable guitarist who supported himself on the back of his talent during his first decade in Paris, Soto turned to avant-garde music as one possible solution.[11] Serial compositions, particularly that of the dodecaphonic technique pioneered by the Austrians Josef Matthias Hauer and Arnold Schoenberg, were fundamental in providing Soto with an idea of abstract structure from which he could proceed to remove himself as an author.


I understood abstraction as a pure idea, because what is abstract—in the consciousness of a human being and, above all, a Western person—has nothing to do with what is representative. To begin with, it has to be pure structure. Then I began to find other activities that might satisfy my notion of what is abstract. I found this relationship only in mathematics and music. But since I didn’t have the necessary training in the field of science—or five years to devote myself to the study of mathematics—I discerned that, through music, I could find a different way of handling the elements. Elements that answered to the idea I had of abstraction, which was the idea of a different way of deciphering the universe.[12]


In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Soto’s work evolved as he became close with members of Nouveau Réalism, particularly Yves Klein, as well as Group Zero. Intrigued by Klein’s incorporation of every-day materials into his artistic production, Soto’s art from this period utilizes objects of a durable and rough materiality. His mission, however, is precisely to overcome this materiality, to render the objects immaterial through the power of optical effects. Soto described his endeavors as “taking the most insignificant but strongly formal objects—old wood, wire, needles, gratings, pipes—to integrate them into the work and bring them to a state of disintegration through pure vibration.”[13] This period of Soto’s work—often referred to as “baroque”—came to an end in 1962. The subsequent years, and indeed the decade of the sixties as a whole, would be enormously important for the development of the artist’s mature work, comprising his most distinctive and recognizable forms. Included among these typologies, in addition to those listed above, are bodies of work best categorized in the following terms: “Volúmenes Suspendidos” [Suspended Volumes], “Extensiones” [Extensiones], “Progresiones” [Progressions], and “Formas Virtuales” [Virtual Forms].[14] Soto’s most radical illustrations of cosmic movement, however, were his “Penetrables.” Composed solely of vast expanses of thin plastic tubes suspended from an overhead surface, these artworks are completely immersive, thrusting the viewer into a directionless space where the visual perception of cosmic instability meets the thrill of haptic engagement.


Understood to be one of the most important artists within the broad range of kinetic art, Soto’s work has received considerable recognition both during his life and posthumously.  Recent group exhibitions include Beyond Geometry: Experiments in Form, 1940s–70s, Los  Angeles County Museum of Art (2004, traveling); Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (2004); The Geometry of Hope: Latin American Abstract Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection, Blanton Museum of Art, Austin (2007, traveling): Zero: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950's–1960's, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2014); Transmission: Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America, 1960–1980, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2015). Major solo exhibitions of his work were held at the Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas (1961, 1972); Kunsthalle Bern (1968, traveling); Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1971); the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1974); the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1979); and the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris (1997). Examples of Soto’s groundbreaking artworks are found in public collections worldwide, including the Centre Pompidou, Paris; Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam  Tate Galleries, London, among many others.  


[1] Quote reproduced in Claude-Louis Renard, “Excerpts from an Interview with Soto,” in Soto: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat. (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1974), 19.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Alfredo Boulton, Soto (Caracas: Ernesto Armitano Editor, 1973), 169.

[5] Estrellita B. Brodsky, Soto: Paris and Beyond, 1950–1970, exh. cat. (New York: Grey Art Gallery, 2012), 16–20.

[6] Yve-Alain Bois, “Some Latin American Artists in Paris,” in Geometric Abstraction: Latin American Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection, exh. cat. (Cambridge, MA: Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, 2001), 77.

[7] Renard, “Excerpts from an Interview with Soto,” 12–13.

[8] Ibid., 16. Soto describes his transition from Plexiglas: At a given point, I understood that I had to eliminate one of two liberties, and through this discovery, in 1957, I retained, almost mechanically, the tightly ruled background screen, leaving the superimposed elements free.”

[9] Marcel Joray, Soto (Neuchâtel, Switzerland: Editions du Griffon, 1984), 140.

[10] Marie-Pierre Colle and Carlos Fuentes, Latin American Artists in Their Studios (New York: Vendome Press, 1994), 162.

[11] Ibid., 157–58.

[12] Portions of a conversation between Soto and Ariel Jiménez are reproduced as “Fragment of an Infinite Reality,” in Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America (Houston, TX: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004). 511.

[13] Quote reproduced in Brodsky, Soto: Paris and Beyond, 33.

[14] Ariel Jiménez, Soto (Caracas: Fundación Jesús Soto; Banco de Venezuela, 2007), 99–115.

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