Carlos Cruz-Diez and the Color of Broad Appeal

As I explain in a recent feature for Juanele, the Carlos Cruz-Diez retrospective at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (Malba) is one of the most engaging shows I’ve seen, period. It’ll be on view through March and if you come to BA you have no excuse not to check it out!

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

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The challenge facing curator Mari Carmen Ramírez could hardly have been more daunting — present the life’s work of a formally inventive and dramatically undervalued artist in a way that does justice to both his conceptual heft and his public-spirited drive to engage and transform his viewers. As tens of thousands of visitors to Malba’s new single-artist retrospective,  Carlos Cruz-Diez: El color en el espacio y en el tiempo (Color in Space in Time), have discovered, Ramírez was up to the task, delivering a show that is as instructive as it is accessible, and an awful lot of fun.

A household name in his native Venezuela, Cruz-Diez is far from unknown in the broader art world. His works form part of many of the most celebrated permanent collections on the planet. But as Ramírez notes in her essay, “Lo que está en juego es el color” (The Issue at Stake is Color), Cruz-Diez has never before received a solo exhibition in Latin America, the US, or Europe, and he’s been relegated to second-tier status in the critical literature. For an artist who has managed not only to pull color off the two-dimensional canvas but to bring it fully into the public sphere, Cruz-Diez has not received his due.

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

Perhaps this neglect can be attributed to Cruz-Diez’s insistence on swimming against the grain of contemporary art-critical expectations. Critics tend to call Cruz-Diez a “ kinetic artist,” a label which itself underscores the artist’s awkward relationship with the critical establishment. While it’s true that many of Cruz-Diez’s works rely on the viewer’s movement to make their point, the “kinetic” label suggests an artist who’s primarily interested in motion, when even five minutes with Cruz-Diez’s work makes it clear that interrogating movement is far from his top concern. At heart, Cruz-Diez is really a “color artist” — but for a generation of critics eager to move beyond the aesthetic transcendence-through-color of abstract expressionists like  Mark Rothko and  Morris Louis, an exhaustive exploration of color isn’t conceptually interesting, and a preoccupation with the viewer’s aesthetic experience probably seems passé. So Cruz-Diez is called “kinetic” — and by that standard, he isn’t very interesting at all.

This wider conceptual turn in art criticism has yielded many insights and encouraged plenty of interesting work, but if it can’t make room for an artist as provocative and broadly engaging as Cruz-Diez, it’s gone too far. To center art on conceptual concerns while deriding interest in aesthetic elevation is to deny all but the best-read and most historically aware viewers a way into the artistic experience and a reason to engage it beyond a superficial glance. It’s a choice, in other words, that leaves a lot of potential viewers behind, reinforcing the (largely but not always) unspoken conviction that the best contemporary art does not and should not have mass appeal.

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

Cruz-Diez, Ramírez’s retrospective reveals, made a very different choice. As the artist himself explains in one of the show’s excellent wall texts, color isn’t just something that spices up our world; it’s elemental to the way we experience it. Color happens — it makes other things happen — and Cruz-Diez wants to use his art as a prompt to make us all think about it. If this tangible, aesthetically-centered, far-from-elite project explains why El color en el espacio y en el tiempo is Cruz-Diez’s first real retrospective, it also explains why more than 56,000 people have seen the show in its first month, why so many of them linger on Malba’s top floor, and — most remarkably of all — why such a high percentage of the chatter one overhears up there is actually about the art.

Of course, Ramírez deserves a hunk of the credit as well. Ramírez heads the Latin American art department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where the Cruz-Diez retrospective was on display for the first half of the year. Her accompanying text is a pleasure to read, but her curatorial skills are perhaps even more evident when she is at her most invisible. The top floor of the show features a largely chronological organization, beginning with Cruz-Diez’s early works before moving on to his fisicromías (“physichromies”), the reflective, additive, and subtractive works for which the artist is best known, and which command a large majority of the exhibition’s wall space. Smaller galleries at the far end of the top floor and downstairs highlight the artist’s public works and reproduce two of his immersive chromographic “environments.” And with the exception of an introductory note and a few isolated curatorial observations, the wall text accompanying the exhibition comes directly from the artist himself.

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

Allowing Cruz-Diez to speak for himself works well because his pieces are so engaging on their own terms. His first fisicromías are simple assemblages of horizontal wooden slats painted red, green, black, and white, some protruding from father than others to form shapes. Visitors following the exhibition watch the materials, shapes, colors, and effects slowly change, as wood is replaced by PVC, mirrors, and silkscreened aluminum. The immersive environments — one with three sub-rooms, each filled with a different color of filtered light, the other with overlapping, moving bands of color projected onto white walls — are testaments to the power of color to shape our perceptions of space and place. And the public art projects presented downstairs, shown only after the viewer has seen color projected, reflected, and transformed up close in dozens of ways, point to the vastness of Cruz-Diez’s ambition: to revalue color as a central dimension not only of the artistic experience, but of human perception, writ large.

Cruz-Diez’s works aren’t themselves ideal candidates for lengthy prose description. They’re better experienced than recounted; the top floor of Malba awaits. Sure, Cruz-Diez’s vision may not be as philosophically intricate as some of his contemporaries’, but what it lacks in esoteric complexity it more than makes up for in breadth and interactivity. Oh, and — did I mention? — in color.

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

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