Form, Movement, and Philosophy
Jesús Soto: Feeling The Infinite
by Ricardo Pau-Llosa
The recent Jesús Soto retrospective at the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris should initiate a reconsideration of kinetic art's emotional and existential range.
Sphere Concord, 1996. 257 x 184 x 184 cm. Courtesy Jeu de Paume
Jesús Rafael Soto is one of the most original, profound, and enduring of the kineticist artists. By the time of the Venezuelan artist's arrival in Paris in 1950, the dynamics of space and form had migrated inexorably and permanently from the domain of aesthetic and scientific theory into everyday life. Motion had become the symbol-resistant zeitgeist in ways that no steam-trailing Futurist locomotive could embody or outrace.
Soto brought an existential dimension to the kinetic art that developed from the kineticism of Duchamp, Vasarely, and Calder. Soto's work infuses public or corporate spaces, which might otherwise be thought of as empty, with visual energies that conjure the flash dance of subatomic. Nonetheless, there is a reflection on human presence in Soto's art that is absent from the work of some other early Op and kinetic artists. Jean Tinguely, for example, takes us no further than a parody of spiritless industrialization and vulgar consumerism. In Soto's work, movement is always linked to presence, in most instances to the body itself. Rows of metal arcs dangling before a lined surface coalesce their actual, almost aquatic, movements with the optical kinesis generated by the observer's motion in relation to the work. When shifts in point of view create optical illusions in Soto's works, these illusions are a natural effect of the pursuit of a higher goal. This primary goal consists of forging an ambiguous sense of aesthetic space. On the one hand, there is the space defined "within" the work; on the other, the space defined by the viewer's position vis-á-vis the work. Soto's appropriation of this second manifestation of aesthetic space predates, by at least a decade, Conceptual artists' view of the context which gallery and museums provide as an inextricable element of the act of apprehending works of art.
Transformable Harmony, 1956. Paint on wood and acrylic, metal, 100 x 40 x 100 cm.
Though revered in Europe and Latin America and widely respected in Asia, Soto does not have the fame in the United States that he deserves. This despite two major retrospectives here, one in 1974 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the other, in 1985, at the Center for the Fine Arts in Miami. This lamentable imbalance is due in part to the provincialism of an American art world still dominated by Manhattan, as well as to unfortunate timing. The first wave of kineticism (Yaacov Agam and Pol Bury, as well as Tinguely and Soto) emerged in Europe precisely at the time that the United States was touting its first home-grown movement in the arts-Abstract Expressionism.
Soto's relative obscurity in the United States may also be due to his personality. Soto is soft-spoken and erudite, and his aplomb is altered only by the impassioned articulation of ideas. When I asked Soto to comment on the general ahistoricism of so many trendy experimentations, he remarked that, "One can invent something truly strange and new-as Dada did, for example-only if one is fully aware of iconoclasm." Soto always started from the premise that, for an experiment to be a true work of art, it must somehow transmit a sense of the history it is rebelling against.
Cube Penetrable, 1996. 450 x 500 x 400 cm. Jeu de Paume
The culmination of Soto's myriad "investigations" (a word he uses frequently) is no doubt his "Penetrables," (1967-97) plastic or metal cords hanging from grids which the spectator must traverse. Soto has also realized many non-traversable works in which metal rods painted in different colors evoke the illusion of a hovering volume, usually a cube or a sphere. These "virtual" works trigger shimmering optical effects as the spectator approaches them. The first Soto "Penetrable" to also project a virtual volume is the one greeting viewers at the Jeu de Paume exhibition.
The desire to reach out to the average person has been a constant in Modernism, and kineticism-especially Soto's brand of it-with its desire to fuse sculpture and architecture, is hardly the exception. For Soto, the artist contributes to society by being the individual who has the talent and ability to "see our everyday lives in terms of space-time, and see new ways in which the world surrounds us and in which we belong to that world. After all, each of us is simply a variation in space-time."
Reminiscing about the '60s in Paris, Soto remembers the distance he liked to keep from Cuban novelist and musicologist Alejo Carpentier who, along with the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, launched "magical realist" literature. Carpentier had lived in Venezuela during the previous decade, and Soto disagreed with the novelist's idea that the universal lay in the local and regional. He recalls Carpentier's remarks when he entered a Soto exhibition at the Denise René Gallery. Seeing the kinetic works and the open layout of the exhibition, Carpentier exclaimed, "This is Guyana!," Soto's home province of vast plains and dramatic tepuys (huge, plateau-like rock formations of a stark verticality that dot Venezuela's Gran Sabana).
That Soto's spaces are rooted in his native environment of eastern Venezuela, and more broadly in a New World sense of vastness, is not a new idea, but it's one Soto has trouble embracing. He does recognize that abstraction is far from an exclusively European reality. "Arabic civilization was closer than European civilization to the truth in conceiving of space as immeasurable. Geometry was a trap, one I had to use, to make these concepts legible to the Western public." While Soto has done much to transcend the lingering power of perspective in art, he reveres the Renaissance masters. Says Soto, "Perspective, which for centuries was unquestioned in Europe, is only one way of interpreting the third dimension. An Indian of the Orinoco, who constructs circular houses and conceives of the universe in such terms, doesn't understand perspective. In a Western context, the intersection of the infinitely small and the infinitely large is a difficult concept to live with. We can understand it theoretically or scientifically, but we resist its effect on our everyday lives. Westerners define themselves as observers of the world, so as an artist I have to come up with ways of making that observer feel and experience the infinite spaces of which we are all made."
It is precisely in the orchestration of those experiences that participants find themselves feeling, and not just thinking, things which they didn't plan on. Crossing a "Penetrable" produces a simple yet jolting experience. Spectators must not only redefine their relationship to the space that immediately envelops them, they must also reconfigure their sense of the horizontal and the vertical. As they walk, they mark the countless possible horizontal trajectories through this space. They stand, and thereby are implicated in the prototypes of the infinite that surround them and brush their faces and bodies. They find themselves as existential centers in a microcosm where no center is possible, and they feel their subjectivity at once exalted and dissolved. The fundamental attributes of their physical beings and their visual universe-distance, form, color, solidity, emptiness-have never presented themselves in clearer terms. There is a luminous loneliness in that.
Untitled (from "Escrituras" series), 1966. Paint on wood and metal, nylon thread, 75 x 140.5 x 16 cm.
Emerging from a "Penetrable," the spectator's view of Soto's other sculptures is profoundly altered. The spectator can now make more sense of the cool experimentations with repetitions of dots done during the '50s, and, from the same period, of Soto's haunting use of pieces of worn wood. On their smooth portions Soto would paint his signature planes of black and white lines and place bent wires in front of them. It was always about a dialogue with the sensuous, overwhelming chaos of the immediate and the physical and not about withdrawing from it into some Pythagorean refrigerator of mathematical concepts. And the spectator can make more sense of the marvelous "Escrituras" ("Writings") of the '60s and '70s. Curved into unpredictable shapes, metal rods dangle in front of lined surfaces exalting the fundamental ambiguity of language-its semantic redolence and physical immediacy, and its capacity for infinite recombination. The journey into the "Penetrable" has closed the circle. Life now enters the vibrant, no less sensuous, construct of the mind, and an interface occurs, a silent mirroring. A new kind of identity attempts to be born.
"No artist today," says Soto, "can ignore space-time. We must find artists, even among those who continue to work within two-dimensional formats, who provoke a new sentiment: that in art there are no longer observers but participants. The artist does not have the final word."
Ricardo Pau-Llosa is a poet and art critic living in Miami.