“Movement is a spark of life that makes art human and truly realistic. An artwork endowed with never-repetitive kinetic rhythm is one of freest things one can imagine.” – Pontus Hultén, leaflet for the 1955 Le mouvement exhibition in Paris
As you enter the Blanton’s new special exhibition La línea continua: The Judy and Charles Tate Collection of Latin American Art, one of the first objects that might catch your eye hangs two galleries away – a stunning installation of painted wood and dangling metal wires by Venezuelan artist Jesús Rafael Soto. The work, titled Rombo cobalto [Cobalt Rhombus], is one of several mesmerizing examples of Kinetic and Optical (Op) art in the exhibition, the entirety of which was recently gifted to the Blanton. This Wednesday at 3:30 pm, Dr. James Oles of Wellesley College will be speaking at the museum about the influence of Cézanne on Latin American Kinetic artists. As a preface to that, this week’s post offers a brief primer on one of the most intuitively appealing artistic movements of the last century.
In the midst of the various strands of geometric abstraction that emerged in South America during the postwar period, Op and Kinetic art began with a community of Venezuelan and Argentine artists who made their way to Paris in the 1950s. These artists shared an affinity for industrial materials and technology and an interest in sensory perception, which they explored in art through the use of color, light, and movement. One of the first of these artists to arrive in Paris was Soto, who went on to participate in Le mouvement, a groundbreaking exhibition of Kinetic art there in 1955.
Though painted in 1968, Rombo cobalto features the same innovations that Soto developed over a decade earlier. The rhombus-shaped composition to which the title refers is divided in half, with the upper register painted blue and the lower painted in thin, horizontal black and white stripes. A small metal bar is inserted into a hole at top of the work, from which a set of nearly invisible lines of monofilament hang. These in turn suspend dangling pieces of blue wire in front of lower half of the painting. The effect of this complex construction is enthralling: the viewer’s eye attempts to differentiate between painted line and three-dimensional one, generating a dizzying but pleasant optical effect. Because the wires are capable of moving at the slightest breeze, the work is a prime example both of Op art (it simulates motion in the eye of the viewer) and Kinetic art (it literally moves).
One attendee of the Le mouvement exhibition was Carlos Cruz-Diez, a Venezuelan ad man and illustrator turned painter. Cruz-Diez became primarily interested in the visual effects that could be generated by color and light, and the bulk of his work beginning in the late 1950s explores these themes. The Blanton’s exhibition includes one Op art example by Cruz-Diez, a 1958 painting in black and white titled Vibraciones en el espacio [Vibrations in Space]. The work depicts a tilted rectangle made up of thin, vertical stripes in black and white that serve as a background – or foreground, depending on how you look at – to geometric shapes filled with thicker, horizontalstripes in black and white. By juxtaposing the horizontal and vertical stripes and varying their thickness, Cruz-Diez created an unstable image whose forms, while two-dimensional, are challenging for the viewer to reconcile.
The works on view by Soto and Cruz-Diez, as well as those by their Argentine peers Julio Le Parc and Luis Tomasello, demonstrate another key criterion for Kinetic and Op art: active participation of the spectator. These artists worked to create an accessible and democratic experience, in which every viewer, through vision, touch, and position in space, is critical to the success of the artwork. Visit La línea continua to learn more about this radical group of Latin American artists and experience their work firsthand.
Dr. James Oles’ lecture “Cézannisme à la américaine latine: The Impact of Cézanne on Diego Rivera and Jesús Rafael Soto” will take place at the Blanton on Wednesday, Oct. 1 at 3:30 pm. La línea continua is on view until Feb. 15, 2015.
Beth Shook is the Blanton’s Curatorial Associate for Latin American art. She holds an M.A. in Art History from George Mason University, where she specialized in 20th-century Latin America.