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Carlos Cruz-Diez. Photo: Cruz-Diez Art Foundation.
Carlos Cruz-Diez. Photo: Cruz-Diez Art Foundation.

Carlos Cruz-Diez (1923–2019)

Carlos Cruz-Diez, whose vibrating polychromatic abstractions plumbed the atmospheric and phenomenological effects of color, died in Paris on Saturday at age ninety-five.

Born in 1923 in Caracas, Cruz-Diez enrolled at the city’s School of Plastic and Applied Arts in 1940. Along with his classmates Jesús Rafael Soto and Alejandro Otero, he was a crucial figure in the development of kinetic and Op art in Venezuela and internationally. Informed by the color theories of Eugene Chevreul and Josef Albers and his professional background in industrial and graphic design, his work aspired to apprehend color as a pure sensory phenomenon apart from its “symbolic, esoteric, or cultural” meanings.

“Color is not simply the color of things or the color of form,” the artist said in 1975. “It is an evolving situation, a reality which acts on the human being with the same intensity as cold, heat, sound, etc. It is a raw perception which cultural tradition prevents us from isolating.”

In 1959, Cruz-Diez began his breakthrough “Physichromie” series. These low reliefs—composed of parallel multicolored slats (originally in cardboard and later in Plexiglas and other industrial materials) affixed to a painted plywood support—optically dance and flicker as the spectator moves around and in front of them. “Given that these optical transmutations . . . exist only in the spectator’s retina,” art historian Nuit Banai noted in her Artforum review of the artist’s 2011 retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, “the work projects the pictorial into the third dimension, space, by way of transforming the eye of its beholder into a synthesizing aesthetic machine.”

In 1965, Physichromie Number 116, 1964, was included in curator William Seitz’s historic, critically contentious exhibition “The Responsive Eye” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, alongside works by acclaimed abstract artists including Albers, Agnes Martin, Frank Stella, Bridget Riley, and Victor Vasarely. In 1967, Cruz-Diez received the international painting prize at the ninth São Paulo Bienal, further establishing his international renown.

Cruz-Diez traveled regularly to Paris beginning in 1955 and moved there permanently five years later. His drive to assert color’s autonomy from its material support gradually led him beyond the two-dimensional picture plane and toward the construction of immersive environments and installations, which the artist called Chromosaturations. In 1969, the artist received a commission from the French government to install the site-specific Labyrinth for a Public Place, a mazelike complex of monochromatic, artificially illuminated Plexiglas cabins, at the entrance of the Place de l’Odéon metro station in Paris. “These color-infused rooms,” wrote curator Estrellita Brodsky, represented the “culmination of the artist’s desire to project color into space as a participatory event.”

In 1970, Cruz-Diez represented Venezuela at the Venice Biennale. In the decades that followed, he applied his virtuosity as a colorist to monumental public artworks across the country, decorating the turbine hall of the Símon Bolívar Hydroelectric Plant (once the largest power station of its kind in the world) and the iconic zigzagging floor mosaics for Maiquetía International Airport, which serves Caracas. Despite the artist’s objective to unburden color from its cultural baggage, his work has become emblematic of Venezuelan modernity. “Cruz-Diez’s rationalistic framework,” art historian Monica Amor wrote in Artforum on the occasion of his 2008 Americas Society exhibition, “resonated with the country’s aspirations toward progress and development.”