Carlos Cruz-Diez (1923–2019)

Carlos Cruz-Diez in Environnement Chromointerférent, 2010, included in the 2017 exhibition “Chroma” at SCAD Museum of Art. Photo: Rafael Guillén.

THE TASK SEEMED EXCITING ENOUGH: conduct research on a generation of Latin American artists who had moved to Paris after World War II. Back in 2002, when snail mail was still my primary means of communication, the process was slow and often painful. You’d find a number or address in the phone book, write them a letter, and then give them a blind call. Responses varied. Most artists eventually agreed to my insistent requests for interviews, but after decades of neglect or absence from American institutions, some were skeptical that a Ph.D. student from the United States would be interested in their work. Carlos Cruz-Diez, however, welcomed my call with his infectious laughter, joy, and generosity of spirit. He immediately invited me to his home and studio, behind a nineteenth-century Parisian storefront still bearing the sign “Boucherie-Triperie-Vollailles,” affectionately referred to by everyone as La Carnicería (The Butchery). This is where I’d visit him numerous times over the years, most recently a few weeks ago.

It was in his home in the ninth arrondissement, where he had been living and working since the early 1970s, that the maestro passed away on July 27. With him, we lost one of Latin America’s greatest twentieth-century abstract artists, a major figure of kinetic art, and a master of color. Born in Caracas on August 17, 1923, Cruz-Diez studied art in Venezuela and worked as an illustrator and graphic designer for an advertising agency before permanently settling in Paris in 1960. By then, he had abandoned his early social-realist paintings—in his own words, he became “tired of selling depictions of poverty to decorate the homes of the wealthy”—and gradually moved away from what he saw as the dead end of formal abstraction flooding European galleries. A true explorer and very much an idealist, he sought to free color from the surface by projecting it into three-dimensional space beyond restrictive forms or walls to create an obra compartida con el trabajador, a shared experience with the worker. “I always wanted to throw color beyond its support,” he once said. “For me, the color is not just an anecdote for the form; it is not only the red of the apple, the blue of the sky.”

Seeking to engage audiences beyond museum walls, Cruz-Diez frequently presented his environments in public spaces such as parks and airports, especially in Venezuela, where he is a national figure. While never overtly political, he advanced the essentially utopian idea that art could provide a democratic, pure, and direct experience—unmediated by politics or institutions—by deconstructing color as a static aesthetic element.

Despite enjoying enormous acclaim in Europe and Latin America in the 1960s, Cruz-Diez’s work remained under-known in the US until the mid-2000s, when I organized his first institutional retrospective with Isabela Villanueva and Gabriela Rangel at the Americas Society. Only during this decade did American museums start to take his work, along with that of Julio Le Parc, Carmen Herrera, and other artists of that generation, into serious consideration.

The last time I saw maestro Cruz-Diez, we were discussing an upcoming exhibition at the Norton Museum of Art for spring 2021. As he thought about the work ahead, his eyes lit up with the same youthful enthusiasm of our first meeting so many years ago. He excitedly envisioned how we could re-create a multisensorial environment originally designed in 1965. He would construct a series of color-infused hot and cold chambers with “deconditioning” passages, and imagined further urban interventions on the crosswalks and local buses of West Palm Beach. The maestro echoed his long-standing belief in the need to “reawaken a lost vision of the world, a state of self-realization through a variable experience of color.” The world, and I personally, will miss the optimism, passion, and curiosity of this exceptional artist and friend, but we can recall his life in color. “Color is autonomous, fleeting, perpetually moving,” he said. “Color is like life: a permanent present.”

Estrellita Brodsky is a New York–based curator, collector, philanthropist, and advocate for Latin American art.