Carlos Cruz-Diez

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Through July 4
by Benjamin Lima

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      Carlos Cruz-Diez
      Cromosaturación (Chromosaturation)
      1965/2004
      Three chromo-cubicles (fluorescent light with blue, red, and green filters)
      The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of the Cruz-Diez Foundation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2009.464
      © 2010 Carlos Cruz-Diez / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
      Courtesy the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

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      Scholarly and comprehensive, the Carlos Cruz-Diez retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston makes a case for the ambition, consistency and proficiency of its subject’s works. Born in 1923 in Caracas and based in Paris since 1960, Cruz-Diez resembles Josef Albers in his methodical, rigorous approach to the interaction of color. However, Cruz-Diez’ wide-ranging experimentation with ways of undoing an artwork’s status as a static object marks him as a member of the 1960s-era generation that includes the kinetic and Op artists, such as Jesús Rafael Soto, with whom he has been associated. Whereas a traditional understanding of color would have defined it firstly as a static element and secondly as an attribute of some other object, Cruz-Diez’ approach hinges on a definition of color as a dynamic, interactive process with its own independent existence. Color for Cruz-Diez takes the form of event, situation, or what he calls a “living organism in a constant state of transformation.” This emphasis on mutability and interactivity is the basis for the artist’s most soaring claims about the potential of color to liberate viewers from cultural convention and enable fully autonomous, self-generated aesthetic experiences.

      The bulk of the works on view extends across the long special exhibition gallery in the Museum of Fine Arts’ Law Building. The space is broken up into ten thematic sections, beginning with Cruz-Diez’ earliest efforts in more traditional styles and tracing the first steps of his breakthrough to fully independent color. By far the largest number of works on view are physichromies, a category of object whose earliest examples date to 1959 and which the artist divides into six series. A physichromie is composed of a series of vertically aligned elements in combination of colors that are calibrated to change appearance according to changes in the ambient light and the viewer’s position. There is a risk of some repetition here, as several of the galleries show works that explore the same fundamental principles. To my taste, the most engaging physichromies are those that used metallic, translucent or reflective materials, considering the optical instabilities that were a hallmark of Op Art. Most powerful are the later environmental and site-specific works, fewer in number but larger in scale. In several cases, the exhibition includes a single piece from a larger series. In these cases, ample documentation of the other works of these types is provided in the 500-page catalog. The foremost example is the amazing Chromosaturation (1965/2004) a pavilion divided into three segments (that is, interior rooms opening onto one another). The interior is white on all sides, and each of the three segments is saturated with a bright light: one red, one green, one blue. Inside, as one’s eyes adjust, the color seeps into all available surfaces. Visitors put on soft booties to avoid scuffing the floor. Two white square plinths, turned diagonally to the floor plan, allow one to compare the effects of the colored light on two different sides of the same plinth: one orange, one green. Standing on the far end, it is possible to track each of the three colors blending into the next. More than any other, this work demonstrated the potential of color as a form of live, active energy.

      The final gallery of architectural projects and public interventions was of special intellectual interest. There are scale models and video footage of monumental projects: a hydroelectric power plant, a bank tower, a ship. These relatively small displays underscore the most basic lesson of color in quantity: that “one square centimeter of any blue is not as blue as a square meter of the same blue,” in the words of Henri Matisse, as cited by Yve-Alain Bois. They also raised the question of ideology, perhaps particularly relevant in the contemporary Venezuelan context given the political chasm between the government of Hugo Chávez and his opponents. In any case, the range of works proved the breadth and versatility of Cruz-Diez’ approach. Most of the public works were sited in Europe and Latin America; we can hope there will be more opportunities in the future to see them in the United States.

      Benjamin Lima is assistant professor of art history at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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