Graduating from the School of Fine Arts in Caracas, Carlos Cruz-Diez started out as a social realist painter drawing attention to the political conditions of the working class. His paintings sold well, but he found them too conventional in method and questioned their ability to bring about real social change. In his own words, ‘telling somebody they are poor doesn’t mean you are solving their problems – that made me go on a long introspective journey of what art should be, and what an artist should paint’.
He began extensively researching colour, fascinated by the way in which it is dependent on both light and movement. In 1959, he moved to Paris and began to experiment with new methods of manipulating colour based on the position of the viewer, adding to the growing body of work in the kinetic art movement in the 1960s which challenged conventional, static art forms. For Cruz-Diez, our experience of colour exists in the present, with neither past nor future, so that the viewer is able to experience it and even interact with it free from historical and class interpretations.
With this in mind, we delve into two of his most extensive collections.
From 1959-2010, Cruz-Diez produced hundreds of Physichromies in different sizes, shapes and colours. The structure can be considered something between a painting and a sculpture, and is largely considered Cruz-Diez’s seminal work on colour.
In these works, he used cardboard strips placed closely in parallel with a reflective material called lumaline to create what he called a “light trap”. This creates an effect where the colours in the piece change depending on where the viewer is standing and the level of light throughout the day. However, the reflective lumaline deteriorated over time, leading Cruz-Diez to remake the entire Physichromie series in 1976 using acrylic strips in place of cardboard and highly polished stainless steel in place of lumaline. Indeed, Cruz-Diez was well-aware of the fragility of his materials, and all his works he recorded and archived careful plans so that they can be recreated. This emphasises that, like colour, the pieces themselves exist in a temporary present.
Unlike a painting which captures a particular moment in time and experienced passively by the viewer, a Physichromie encourages active movement and reevaluation. In this way, colour is not enclosed in a static, two-dimensional medium, but is experienced as ever-changing, just as it is in the natural world.
Cruz-Diez considered Chromosaturation to be the synthesis of his extensive research in colour. In this installation, three connected rooms are lit up: one in red, one in blue and one in green. Since the eye usually experiences a wide range of colours, this monochromatic experience saturates the retina and has an overwhelming effect on visitors. As people move through the rooms they experience blues, purples and oranges where the lights overlap, all the time modifying the colour of their skin and clothing. In this way, they become a part of the installation itself, involving people in art in a way that challenges the traditional setting of art galleries.
In 1969, the City of Paris invited Cruz-Diez to exhibit a Chromosaturation wherever he wanted. He chose the subway at the Place de l’Odéon in the Latin Quarter because it was an area where people from a diverse range of social backgrounds passed by. During the installation, students, workers and tourists would exit subway bathed in the changing light. Since then, over one hundred Chromatosaturations have been installed, inviting thousands of people to think about their conceptions of colour, time and space.
Physichromie and Chromosaturation are only two collections out of a rich, seven-decade-long year career, but together they beautifully demonstrate Cruz-Diez’s pioneering artistic spirit and passion for social change. Overall, his work can be said to have influenced several contemporary artists such as Tauba Auerbach and Olafur Eliasson, as well as inspired new art forms altogether, including installation art, conceptual art and interactive art. Indeed, these lasting influences ensure Cruz-Diez’s work will not be consigned to one point in history, but will remain ever-changing and adapting in the present, aptly reflecting the philosophy that enriched his life’s work.