Carlos Cruz-Diez, Chromosaturation (detail), 1965/2011, three chromo-cubicles (fluorescent light with blue, red, and green filters), dimensions variable.

Carlos Cruz-Diez, Chromosaturation (detail), 1965/2011, three chromo-cubicles (fluorescent light with blue, red, and green filters), dimensions variable.

Carlos Cruz-Diez

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

		Carlos Cruz-Diez, Chromosaturation (detail), 1965/2011, three chromo-cubicles (fluorescent light with blue, red, and green filters), dimensions variable.

Though long a paramount presence in his native Venezuela and the Parisian milieu he entered more than fifty years ago, the eighty-eight-year-old maestro Carlos Cruz-Diez has enjoyed a surge of interest in the past decade, and this traveling exhibition, attentively curated by Mari Carmen Ramírez, constitutes his first comprehensive survey on North American soil. Foregrounding Cruz-Diez’s lifelong desire to activate chroma as an autonomous force distinct from other aesthetic elements such as line, form, and composition and from such historical contingencies as race, class, ethnicity, and gender—an awkward position that situates the artist between “Modernism’s pictorially based formal and metaphysical concerns … [and] Post-Modernism’s discursive, nonobject-based, anti-aesthetic stance”—Ramírez posits this reason as the likely cause for the artist’s delayed popular reception.

Within this critical framework (which could be applied to many other artists who first gained recognition in the 1950s and ’60s), the exhibition’s chronological itinerary through Cruz-Diez’s vast but distinct output hinges on two central paradigms—the series “Physichromie,” 1959–, and “Chromosaturation,” 1965–. In the former, colored vertical strips of cardboard (and, over the years, a host of other materials such as cellulose acetate, Lumaline, PVC, and Plexiglas) are arranged at precise angles and intervals against a flat support, causing the viewer to experience a vibrating field of “reflective color” hovering just in front of the work’s sculptural surface. Given that these optical transmutations (or “modules of chromatic events”) exist only in the spectator’s retina, the work projects the pictorial into the third dimension, space, by way of transforming the eye of its beholder into a synthesizing aesthetic machine. “Chromosaturation,” which Cruz-Diez began six years later, similarly seeks to detach color from its material support. However, in this latter series, the work expands from discrete planes to room-size monochromatic environments, each composed of three chambers illuminated in a single color (at the MFAH, red, green, and blue). Passing through the installation, the viewer would be completely engulfed by color, the immersion in one tone causing the brain to recalibrate its perception of the next, thus creating a paradoxical condition of sensory plenitude and instability. Though this exhibition succeeds in communicating the depth of Cruz-Diez’s aesthetic project, the artist’s raison d’être has of course long been to “stimulate a new vision” beyond the confines of an art situation.

Across its exhaustive display of more than 150 works from the early 1940s to the present, the exhibition made every effort to support the artist’s intent, and in so doing forged new avenues of research. For example, we could even read Cruz-Diez’s formulation of the monochrome as an “event”—one that occurs when the physical properties of color intersect with the perceptual physiognomy of the spectator; in turn we also come to understand how important the field of the sensible was to the construction of new models of individual and collective identity between 1958 and 1968. With this problematic in place, the spectrum of Cruz-Diez’s trajectory appears much broader, open to comparison with that of the mystically inspired Yves Klein and with the scientifically driven Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV).

But what if we were also to approach the exhibition against its curatorial grain and in contrast to Cruz-Diez’s professed objectives? What if we were to revisit the artist’s socially motivated painting practice or his proposals for public murals that he developed during his formative years in Caracas? Consider, for example, his decision to site the Chromosaturations Labyrinths at the Place de l’Odéon in Paris only a year following the events of May ’68? Examine his interventions within the state-owned hydroelectric plant in Guri, South Korea, government buildings in Caracas, and urban spaces in Paris and Marseilles from the 1970s onward? In these highly connotative contexts, it’s difficult to sustain a sense of chroma functioning in isolation, devoid of cultural signification or influence, and we may well be incited to begin historicizing the complex discursive relations between Cruz-Diez’s utopian formulations and the particular social preoccupations that prevailed in Venezuela and France during these years.

Nuit Banai