The Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez has described color as “not simply the color of things or the color of form [but rather] an evolving situation, a reality which acts on the human being with the same intensity as cold, heat, and sound.” Cruz-Diez presents color as an experience in itself—a pure phenomenon of light that can be perceived without interpretation or preexisting cultural knowledge. By projecting color into space, the artist explores the sensory possibilities of its direct interaction with the viewer. The viewer, instead of merely looking at the work of art, becomes a participant in a phenomenological event.
Cruz-Diez is identified in Venezuela as one of the country’s modernist masters along with the late artists Jesús Rafael Soto and Alejandro Otero. In Europe, Cruz-Diez’s name became synonymous in the 1960s with the exploration of color’s kinetic potential. Born in Caracas in 1923, Cruz-Diez studied at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Aplicadas before working with an international advertising agency from 1946 to 1951. He then worked as an illustrator for a Caracas newspaper while teaching and practicing graphic and industrial design. In 1954, the artist worked on mural projects that could be manipulated; they changed with the sun’s movement, creating shadows and animating the surface plane with radiant reflections of color. Beginning in 1959, Cruz-Diez’s series of Fisicromías actualized the artist’s premise of bringing art as an autonomous chromatic reality into the viewer’s environment. The surfaces of the Fisicromías are made up of colored strips of cardboard, aluminum, or Plexiglas assembled in two interspersed levels: one flat, one raised. The color schemes produce a sensation of vibrating movement that causes the color tones to multiply according to the position and distance of the spectator and the angle at which the light—natural or artificial—of the environment is reflected. These early works were pivotal in defining the artist’s future path. No longer denouncing social injustices through figurative painting, Cruz-Diez deployed a new means of expressing contemporaneity while maintaining a moral commitment to serve a broad public.
By way of experiencing color’s intense immediacy as light rather than pigment, the viewer’s eye is freed from the burden of interpreting representational forms that are preordained by class or political messages. Exploring the infinitely changing effects of additive, reflective, and subtractive color, Cruz-Diez has ever since used color to challenge the traditional relationships between artist, viewer, and the perception of art. In 1969, Cruz-Diez installed 22 electrically lit cabins composed of red, blue, and green Plexiglas walls grouped into four separate maze-like structures at the subway entrance of the Place de l’Odéon in Paris, his adopted home city. These color-infused rooms—called Chromosaturations—are a culmination of the artist’s desire to project color into space as a participatory event; they literally saturate the viewer’s environment.
Cruz-Diez permanently moved to Paris in 1960, though he returns often to Venezuela. Since his first solo exhibition at the Venezuelan-American Institute in Caracas in 1947, he has participated in dozens of exhibitions, including MoMA’s polemical 1965 show of then-new Op work, The Responsive Eye. Cruz-Diez’s 2008 retrospective at the Americas Society in New York was his first major exhibition in a US institution, and the influence of his experimentation with color on contemporary artists became palpable.
Estrellita B. Brodsky Since the last time I saw you, I have done research in Caracas and discovered the complexities of how modernist Venezuelan art and its discourse developed locally as well as in Paris. I am interested in your role in that discourse as well as the roles played by two major Venezuelan figures—the architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva, who integrated avant-garde Venezuelan and international art into his design of Caracas’s Ciudad Universitaria during the early 1950s, and Alfredo Boulton, the Venezuelan art critic, cultural historian, and photographer. They not only encouraged a cultural self-awareness in Venezuela during the 1940s and 1950s, they also encouraged Venezuelan artists living in Paris to take an internationalist perspective in their work. Within this context, could you describe your initial interest in traveling to Europe and why you temporarily returned to Venezuela before ultimately settling in Paris in 1960?
Carlos Cruz-Diez It’s interesting. I came to Europe for the first time in 1955. Before that I was doing many things in Caracas simultaneously. I did set designs for film and theater while earning a living as a graphic designer. When I arrived in Barcelona in 1955 with my wife and two children, my intention was to go on to Paris. But since I didn’t speak French, I thought it’d be reasonable to stay there until I became fluent in French. I traveled to Paris three or four times during that period of almost two years, and I did a lot of research and began projects that integrated art, street life, and architecture. Like many Latin Americans who visit Europe for the first time, I went through a period of thinking: What can I do here in Paris? Nothing. There is history in Europe, but in my own country there is a blank slate; you can do anything there. How could I have missed this before? So I returned to Venezuela in late 1956 full of hope, sketches, and projects. I immediately got in touch with friends and business people so I could start working on the projects that I developed in Barcelona: the group of manipulable sculptures Signs and Dynamic Rhythms, made of metal and wood. Predictably, everyone was enthusiastic: “Great idea, call me on Monday!” Time kept passing and everything was stalled. Our economic situation was precarious and I needed to make money again. At some point I ran into a poet friend of mine who edited the Caracas-based journal Momento; he mentioned that they needed a graphic designer. Given that none of my projects had taken off, I accepted the job, though I continued doing the research I had begun in Caracas in 1953, which proved very valuable the next year, when I did those projects with murals and manipulable objects, such as Project for a Mural.
EB Though Project for a Mural wasn’t part of the Ciudad Universitaria.
CCD No, I didn’t participate in that.
EB For political reasons? I know that many artists felt that despite Villanueva’s commitment to avant-garde artists, they did not want to be associated with anything funded by Marcos Pérez Jiménez’s brutal dictatorship.
CCD The work I was doing in the early 1950s didn’t belong there. I was making figurative paintings that denounced political issues: shantytowns, poverty. There was no room for that in Ciudad Universitaria. The artists invited to participate were Paris-based abstract artists; they were the ones making works for the university. Years later, Villanueva did ask me to make a piece for the university, but I still didn’t think that it was right to join a project that had started in 1950 and which had the coherency of an era to which I didn’t belong. But I had a close friendship with Villanueva; he’d come to Paris a lot and would visit my studio.
Yet the art shown at the Ciudad Universitaria influenced me a great deal. At the time, I thought the paintings I was making were good, since I believed that the painter’s role was to denounce injustices and to make socially committed work. Latin American artists all come from that. For me, to change my discourse required a lot of reflection and time, since I wasn’t sure whether what I was doing had any visual appeal. I tell it as a joke, but it’s true: rich people were the ones buying those little paintings of shantytowns in which I denounced poverty. I was fooling myself. If I had continued making that type of work I’d be a millionaire now. So, in 1954, I started doing very focused investigations on how discourse could change in order for art to become more participatory. Before then, I had made figurative paintings because I felt art had to be integrated into society and contemporary life. They were influenced by Mexican muralism, social realism, and social satire. My first works that no longer had anything to do with so-called realism still had a social intent. Instead of making paintings that depicted poverty and social problems (which I couldn’t solve) for rich people to collect, I addressed social concerns by having people on the street intervene and help complete participatory, shared works, as I called them back then. I didn’t want to have control over the discourse. In Project for a Mural the viewers could manipulate the pieces. What gave me great joy and confirmed my findings was that when I arrived in Paris in 1955 I encountered a friend from school, Jesús Rafael Soto, as well as all the abstract painters—their exhibition Le Mouvement had just closed. I called Soto, who said, “Go to Denise René’s gallery, there’s a show there you must see.”
I met Denise René as she was taking down the works. It was very exciting to see that without having any information—I had no idea what Soto had been doing in Paris—I was already in sync with the new discourse of creating work with which the viewer could directly interact; this broke away from the traditionally passive relationships between viewer, artist, object, and space. I hadn’t seen any photos of Soto’s new work. I hadn’t seen work by Yaacov Agam. I didn’t know of Jean Tinguely’s existence, nor of Pol Bury’s. I did know about Victor Vasarely’s abstract paintings, but not of his works with glass.