New York

Jesús Rafael Soto, Sin título (El gran clavo) (Untitled [The Big Nail]), ca. 1959–60, mixed media, 10 3/8 x 5 1/4 x 9 3/8".

Jesús Rafael Soto, Sin título (El gran clavo) (Untitled [The Big Nail]), ca. 1959–60, mixed media, 10 3/8 x 5 1/4 x 9 3/8".

Jesús Rafael Soto

Jesús Rafael Soto, Sin título (El gran clavo) (Untitled [The Big Nail]), ca. 1959–60, mixed media, 10 3/8 x 5 1/4 x 9 3/8".

Vibration noire (Black Vibration), 1960, exemplifies the confusion of optic and haptic registers that defined Jesús Rafael Soto’s work between 1957 and the late 1960s. Fragile sculptural elements—twisted red, blue, and black metal wires—are affixed to a black cloth marked with dozens of ultrathin white vertical lines. With the slightest change in the viewer’s position before the work, the alignment of the physical and pictorial elements shifts, resulting in “vibration”—a disorienting shimmer that adds to a sense of movement to this otherwise static object. Yet in the area around the vertical lines, Soto has left the cloth’s materiality visible, thereby preventing the wires’ dematerialization into pure image. With this work and others, “Soto: Paris and Beyond, 1950–1970,” curated by Estrellita B. Brodsky, successfully complicated the Venezuelan artist’s strict association with the kinetic trend of the 1950s in Paris and Caracas, positioning him instead between contradictory strategies: Op’s retinal play and neo-avant-garde tactility.

Such apparent incommensurables coexisted in postwar Paris amid the gradual transformation of geometric abstraction into participatory art. Soto arrived in the French capital in 1950, and joined the international community at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles. Shortly thereafter, he produced the earliest works in this show, a selection of his serial compositions from 1952 and 1953. Inspired by Arnold Schönberg’s non-hierarchical twelve-tone scale, they feature groupings of multicolored dots on wood decades before Damien Hirst’s Spot paintings. Soto’s first vibration works, such as Points blancs sur points noirs (White Points over Black Points), 1954, emerge from these experiments: Identical grids of dots appear on a wood panel and on Plexiglas, the latter positioned an inch in front of the former, so that the dots shift in and out of alignment depending on the viewer’s position. In more densely layered works, such as Espiral con rojo (Spiral with Red), 1955, Soto draws directly on Marcel Duchamp’s 1935 Rotoreliefs, and, to a lesser extent, on contemporaneous kinetic work by Victor Vasarely and Yaacov Agam, pointing to an important connection between kinetic art and Dada that was originally posited in 1935’s “Le Mouvement” exhibition at Galerie Denise René, which included Duchamp, Soto, Vasarely, and Agam.

Eschewing the larger, immersive “Penetrable” environments for which Soto is best known (and that he produced between 1967 and his death in 2005), Brodsky emphasized the artist’s interest in materials and citation, which shares ground with his later, neo-Dada peers (Nouveau Réalisme, Group Zero) but without their humor or creeping cynicism. In 1959, Soto took up the monochrome and in particular that of Yves Klein. For Leño azul y negro (Blue and Black Log), 1960, he affixed found materials to a panel painted with International Klein Blue and, in Sin título (El gran clavo) (Untitled [The Big Nail]), ca. 1959–60, a rectangle of the color is juxtaposed side by side with a rectangular section of the striped vibration motif. The latter sports a hanging nail between the two rectangles, as though it might swing, like a metronome, between one and the other—a hint of the fierce competition among artists that enlivened this latter-day École de Paris. Mural, 1961, a work Soto created in Caracas in a single day for an exhibition organized by the avant-garde group El Techo de la Ballena, monumentalized this comparative formula, with a Nouveau Réaliste black assemblage on the left and a “Soto” on the right that generated vibrations from metal fencing and barbed wire. Yet Soto was perhaps most beguiling on an intimate scale. L’aiguille (The Needle), 1961, consists of a chunk of wood less than four inches high with a hole bored through it and black lines on its surface, from which a sewing needle protrudes. The needle “threads” the lines by vibrating optically against them, even as its physical presence threatens the viewer with blindness.

Daniel Quiles