Everyday, sighted humans navigate a world of shapes and objects which, drenched in light and encroached by shadow, shifts and undulates continually throughout the chromatic realm. Colors emerge, or they retreat and hush. Our eyes leap out towards those things that, snaking or shimmering, contrast with or impress upon their surroundings. When our sight cannot latch onto anything meaningful, we glide our bodies through space to find the better, right angle. When we find a pleasing spectral combination, whether by accident or with purpose, the space around us is more vibrant, and being in it, we are more alive.
At the same time, these spaces and the shapes and objects which compose them are dictated by industrial logic: the socialized accomplice of science and technology. What of what we see and touch has not itself been seen or touched by histories of experiment and fabrication? How much of our perception is not in some way mediated by technology? How can art involve itself in these truths, and as a consequence bring its viewers into dialogue with themselves too?
This is the vernacular according to Carlos Cruz-Diez: our lives unfold as a series of events, each and every one of which embedded in the sensorial and material realms. Just as importantly, his art suggests, we are active participants in these events, able to occupy the position of our choosing. The task of art is to embrace the contingencies of the unrestrained sensorium. Move this way, move that way, move left, move right, move back again. Join in the labor of the artist. Experiment with time and space to take part in the fabrication of the things around you.
Over nearly seven decades the Cruz-Diez has made an impressive mark on the world of painting. Honing in on light and color—the fundamental properties of visual experience—his practice has upturned traditional modes of authorship and spectatorship in painting. As early as his Physichromie series paintings (1950-present), neither the concept nor the experience of painting is a fixed reality. Gone is the brush and gone is the sedentary viewer. Instead, mobility is the condition of possibility for the artwork: one must move around in time and space, digging into what Cruz-Diez refers to as the “perpetual present” of embodied experience. (Online images of his work are therefore blasphemous: the frozen, compressed truth of the JPEG is inimical to his intentions.) Similarly, his exploration of optical radiation in the Coleur Additive series (1959-present) and of the after-image in the Induction Chromatique series (1963-present) emphasize the physicality and therefore the ephemerality of vision: what we see depends on what is there, but on both micro and macro levels, this “there” is never consistent.
Building upon extended research into the nature of color, grounded in art and philosophy as much as science and psychology, Cruz-Diez began to tinker with the possibilities afforded by industrial materials, for example aluminum rods in lieu of canvas and experimental chemicals in lieu of conventional paints. In the process, he would come to abandon painterly obsessions with representation, and even with the very notion of the painterly surface, instead striving after the very “circumstances” of artistic experience. The results have seen his works exhibited and collected by major institutions the world over, as well as their repeated diffusion into architectural and urban environments as spatial, chromatic installations. The universal appeal of his innovations is rooted in his insistence on the potential of pre-cultural sensation. Everywhere, and before we talk about it, aesthetics is defined by the dance between vision, bodies, and techniques. Put more sensually: aesthetics is the bathing in the pleasure of being the dancer.
Editor’s note: This interview was conducted in Spanish. The English translations are the author’s own.
Your work has powerful connections to the world of scientific experiment, most especially to the exploration of optics. Do you consider your creative position to be located in science as well as art?
From very early on I committed myself to the investigatory spirit. As my works unfold in time as well as space, the imponderable is always present. Each work is an experiment and an adventure through which I arrive at new solutions. Nevertheless, I have always called myself a painter, and the fact that I ever turned to science was in order to give structure to a pictorial discourse, namely through elements not traditionally employed by painters. I have taken great pains not to turn into a mere demonstrator of scientific theories, instead striving to develop a way of discussing the specific pleasure of painting in other ways and by other means.
So what do you think about interchange between the arts and the sciences? Do they not constitute opposing worldviews?
There is a parallel between the artist and the scientist, which is to take risks and doubt established truths. Art is as much a part of the human condition as is the search for knowledge.
What, then, is the greatest risk that you have taken in your career? And how would you describe the truths that you yourself are attempting to establish?
The point of departure for my works is different [from others], in that I substitute real time and space for referential or transposed time. My works act as supports for events that evolve and change. In themselves they are “realities,” as well as “autonomous situations.” I say “realities” because they unfold within time and space, and I say “autonomous” because they do not depend on the anecdotal customs which viewers are used to seeing in art. This establishes a new way of knowing. The viewer discovers their capacity for either creating or destroying color as they like, through their own perceptual means. Their capacity for seeing color come into being, surging and receding in front of their very eyes.
Nothing less than a revolution in perception. This is indeed a risk to take. But ultimately, you’ve been quite successful in your career. What do you think is involved in the change from risk to success? What is required for innovation to be recognized as innovation?
Over the years I spent to arrive here, at this conceptual platform, I experienced many doubts, failures, and scoldings…. But I recall that many of the exhibitions I was seeing, whether of informal art or geometric art, all seemed to be made by the same person. I felt that painting needed to be reinvented. But not painting itself—rather, the specific pleasure that one feels in seeing a painting. Through experiment I found a way for color to be reflected throughout space, without having to paint it on a surface.
These experiments, some of which were successful and others failures, allowed me to discover and expand the discourse according to the extent of the experimentation. In order to convert the results into an actual discourse, however, the most important thing is to experiment with the knowledge of causes.
In a similar manner, your bold embrace of technologies outside of conventional studio practice identifies you as much as a technologist as an artist. How do you consider the technological existence of humanity? And of art?
Technology, like science, has contributed to the increasing well-being of humanity, to the extent that it has even extended our lifespans. Technology has been a faithful companion to all of the arts. From the quill pen to the pencil, the fountain pen, the typewriter and now the computer—these have been the mechanisms for expressing ourselves in writing. The invention of the paint tube was crucial for the purposes of impressionism, etc. Personally, I have always been very attentive to what technology can contribute to my practice and to my manner of self expression. I believe that technology must always be in the service of ideas.
Your paintings hold up remarkably well in an age when humans are utterly saturated in dazzling visuality of screen-centric living. How is this so? What is it about a simple arrangement of geometric shapes that can command such eternal fascination?
Working with color always bring surprises, for the impact of light is not to be underestimated. When light comes into contact with an artwork, it changes it completely. My challenge is to reveal to the viewer a reality without neither past nor future: my works exist in a perpetual present. One of the conditions of art is the sense of wonder. The artist must provoke wonder, offering unusual objects and unprecedented situations. We have to break the rules. Our task is to unleash radical changes, question reality, and create awareness. Nothing is stable, and everything can be modified. Contrary to painting that stops time, my technique produces unstable events. It’s all about reflection on the ephemeral, the ambiguous, instability, and the continuity of life.
In that way, your technique turns the viewer into an event as well. Your works remind them that they too are just ephemeral points in space and time, just as unstable as the painting in front of them. Yet it cannot be said that you thereby diminish the viewer…rather, you empower them with the awareness that, in order to become itself, the work needs them…
I recall that when I was creating my first works, I felt a distinct pleasure, and said to myself: I need to share this pleasure with others. I wanted people to feel the same pleasure that I was feeling while working in the studio. The pleasure that I feel when creating is the same that the viewer feels in front of a work, for they are creating the work too. I do one part; they do the other. The idea of sharing the creative process with the artist does away with the submissive and passive contemplation of the traditional viewer. In this way, the communication between the artist and the viewer is both more fluid and more pervasive.
At times your paintings seem like philosophical texts, or phenomenological studies in embodied experience. How important is philosophical thought to your practice?
My work is the result of extended reflection over what the art of painting has been, and over how the chromatic world has been put to use over the centuries. In this process, I turned to art history, to philosophers, and to technological advancements, finally arriving at the multiplication of the image in terms of color. In 1952 I read Goethe’s Theory of Colours, a book that awakened my interest and lead me to deepen my theoretical and technical knowledge of chromatic phenomena. Later on I would read Malevich, Albers, Klee, Kandinsky, Itten, etc. I realized that I still didn’t understand enough to avoid the inefficiencies of spontaneity and other misconceptions of our predecessors. I had to study the phenomenon of color itself, saturated with experiences and theories—be they scientific, philosophical, esoteric, or even industrial. All of that information was like a clue for me; I came to think that perhaps it could assist me in elaborating a conceptual platform for color, where it is treated and seen as an “event in continual mutation,” or a “circumstance” of time and space.
It’s very interesting that you bring up industrial experience here. In fact, the circumstances of your work present artistic reflection on certain developments of the twentieth century. One might say that your technique is itself a continual mutation of techno-economic conditions faced by human beings in this historical period. From such a perspective, your work condenses many profound experiences into one, albeit as miniature events of pure pleasure—without the metaphysical doubts that industry has casted over society.
Technology does not seek out the truth. But it does run parallel to art and science, providing the means for achieving and materializing the new truths that artists, scientists, and society in general put into play. If my purpose was ever to create a different sort of discourse, I had to modify everything—or almost everything—and I had to do so beginning with tools that did not pertain to the traditional painter. For that reason, I have remained attentive to the new materials that contemporary industry continually brings to the table. I continue testing and experimenting with these tools in order to say what I wish to say even more efficiently, and to unleash the affection and pleasure that belong to painting, but without it being painting.
Movement is a central demand of each of your works. For you, is art possible without movement?
One of the contributions of the kinetic art movement has been the transformation of the age-old contemplative attitude to a participatory attitude. One of the things that grounded me at the beginning of my investigations was the question: why did art have to be something to venerate, something you just hang on a wall, something to which you ask people to come pay homage? I wondered whether people couldn’t be asked to participate, why I couldn’t play one part and the viewer another. Hence, I don’t make paintings or sculptures, but rather, supports for events. Of course there are forms of artistic expression that do not require movement, but they remain in the category of the historical past.
From a historical point of view, those forms of expression have been immobile themselves, as they tended to stay in fixed locations, not moving around the world. But your works seem to flutter all across the globe. What are your thoughts about the movement of finance and information that, while deeply marking the present, is that which facilitates the experience of art from distant times and places? A work produced in Caracas or Paris, for example, can be seen in Taipei. Less than a general question of cultural exchange, this is a specific question of perceptual exchange. Do you feel that your works benefit from their migrations throughout the world?
I have stated more than once that art is the most beautiful and efficient mechanism of communication that humans have invented. Art is for people, and it must be shared. It knows no frontiers and requires no passport.
You’ve previously remarked on the responsibility of art: that you eventually found it should be more aesthetic and perceptual than social and political. This divide is not so clear, however. Isn’t there social value in aesthetic innovation?
As everything is design, any and all attitudes are social at their core. I strongly insist on the support of the streets, for art is communication. One doesn’t make poetry or music, or paint, or write for themselves—they do it for others, if only implicitly. Above all, I insist on making work in the street that unleashes a sense of wonder, because if the streets do not offer us anything, we turn into mere robots. Treating the streets differently opens onto that wonder. What has always been one thing can in fact be otherwise. What I mean to say is that everything can be modified. Nothing is permanent. Everything transforms. Here, I refer to what one calls “committed art,” but in reality is simply a distortion of artistic invention in favor of political publicity. All innovation in art ultimately benefits the collective, and for that reason, is political at heart.