Brilliant "Color"

Establishing the Latin American Art Department was one of the late Peter Marzio's greatest achievements during his nearly three decade tenure as director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Sure, Marzio accomplished innumerable things for the museum, not least among them bringing in the Caroline Wiess Law bequest of $400 million — believed to be the largest cash gift to an American museum — and while it's tough to do good programming without money, money doesn't mean a lot if you don't have good programming.

The Latin American Department and its research institute, the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA), has not only enriched but altered the narratives of 20th-century art we have been taught in the United States. The exhibition "Carlos Cruz-Diez: Color in Space and Time," organized by MFAH and the Cruz-Diez Foundation, Houston is another outstanding effort by Wortham Curator and ICAA director Mari Carmen Ramírez, and it's one of the best shows I've ever seen at the MFAH.

Carlos Cruz-Diez's optically charged work was brought to the attention of the U.S. art scene in the MFAH's 2004 "Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America." The characterization  "groundbreaking" has been way overused in discussing "Inverted Utopias," but that's truly what it was. It presented a whole world of creativity, of which the vast majority of us were unaware.

Dubbed a Franco-Venezuelan artist, Cruz-Diez was born in Caracas in 1923 and moved to Paris in 1960. His (pre-James Turrell) light installation and optically kinetic paintings were standouts in "Inverted Utopias," and he was included in subsequent MFAH exhibitions as well as shows at Sicardi Gallery, the respected Houston commercial venue for Latin American art. But "Color in Space and Time" is the first large-scale retrospective of Cruz-Diez's work anywhere, and what it presents is a rich vision of the artist's astounding range of creativity. He is easily one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, and it is criminal that he isn't better known here.

The work in the exhibition is primarily grouped by series. Cruz-Diez has a number of ongoing visual investigations that he classifies with terms like "Physichromie," "Chromatic Addition," "Chromatic Induction" and "Chromo-Interference." Now, that all may sound really dull and technical, but Cruz-Diez's work is anything but — however scientific his thought processes, the results are optical revelry. (The show's massive 500-page catalogue contains detailed discussions of color theory and optical phenomena as well as gorgeous photos of the artist's wide-ranging works.)

The artist's infatuation with color is evident even in a 1940 Cézanne-esque still life the artist executed as a teenager, in which the complementary colors of red and green-apple vibrate next to each other. Later paintings from the '40s and '50s reflect a socially oriented zeitgeist and depict villagers, shantytowns and stonemasons. Sometimes the images are rendered in a Bruegel-inspired realism or a Picassoid abstraction, but the artist's use of rich, dynamic color always overwhelms everything else.

In the mid-'50s, Cruz-Diez began to attach brightly painted dowels or strips of wood to white-painted panels. They were models for projects to be realized on exterior walls, and they're still interesting 50-plus years later. And they are especially intriguing in the trajectory of the artist's development — here he is, for the first time, physically projecting color into the viewer's space.

That idea of pushing color into space led to Cruz-Diez's Physichromie series, (1959-2011), which the artist began by painting the ends of strips of cardboard and sandwiching them together on the surface of a painting. The painted strips acted as colored lines, and the artist began to experiment with layering different colors next to each other to generate various optical effects. He moved on from painted cardboard strips to painted PVC and aluminum strips, sticking some of them out from the surface, with a different color on each side creating the appearance and disappearance of shapes and color as the viewer walked by. Strips of reflective or translucent material were also sandwiched between the color layers to intensify or obscure chromatic effects. Begun in the 1970s and continuing today, the artist's wall-size Physichromies fill your entire field of vision and envelop the viewer in optical phenomena.

But in addition to pushing color out from the surface of a painting, Cruz-Diez was and is concurrently exploring color on flat surfaces. In the U.S. we primarily think of Op-art as a mid-'60s phenomenon, but Cruz-Diez was creating some amazing "Op-art" in the late '50s, well before the term first appeared in print in 1964. And while a lot of work from the genre can seem hokey and dated today, these paintings feel as if they were just made.

Movimiento alterno (1957) uses concentric warped rectangles in a grid. Combining red and green and black and white, the painting is incredibly visually dynamic. In what would become his Chromatic Addition series (1959-2011), Cruz-Diez continued to paint optical experiments on flat surfaces. The artist taped off and painted narrow lines of color that overlap, creating "virtual colors" that your eye sees but that don't exist in the actual paint. Not as three-dimensional as his colored strips, the thin layers of paint do have a faint physicality that works especially well. The series includes silkscreens as well as digital prints, which are the only disappointment, their surfaces too flat and bland to be engaging. An additional series, the Chromatic Inductions (1963-2011), is executed in a fashion similar to the Chromatic Additions but creates "afterimages" in the viewer's eyes. For example, stripes of blue and yellow might optically blend to create green but generate a red "afterimage" in the viewer's retina.

What is so amazing about Cruz-Diez's art is the breadth and success of his investigations. It could easily have devolved into a clever gimmick, but the artist has been continually exploring and innovating for more than five decades. He developed physically kinetic works that spun discs of colored lines or mechanically moved lines across the surface of a painting. He also created installations exploring the interactions of colored light — his Chromosaturation (1965-2010) is on view. The way-before-Turrell-did-it light installation is a three-chambered, completely white room in which red, blue and green fluorescent light blend into each other, casting their light over viewers as well as geometric forms in the space. Entering the installation and immersing yourself in the effects of shifting colored light is as close as you can get to stepping into the artist's brain.

Some of Cruz-Diez's most amazing ideas are on view only through models and projected photographs. He's created pieces for corporate lobbies and skyscrapers that work seamlessly with the architecture while avoiding "decoration" and still existing as works of art. In projects for banks, he used strips of colored Plexiglas to create shockingly transcendent environments. His chromatic phenomena have been painted over plazas and crosswalks, including those at the MFAH. (And FYI — he's got a public art piece at the University of Houston.) The artist painted optically charged vertical lines of color over a cluster of concrete grain elevators in the Dominican Republic. (Carlos, the Midwest is calling!) His program of colored horizontal lines over the concave facade of a Venezuelan skyscraper makes me want to turn him loose in downtown Houston with the world's largest painting crew.

Still a creative powerhouse at 87, Cruz-Diez has an app for the iPad and iPhone. He's been using the computer for a while now, primarily to visualize the optical effects before he constructs a piece. In the past, he wouldn't really know how the colors would interact until he built the thing. However, the way he makes pieces like the Physichromies hasn't changed. It's old-school manual labor — no CNC technology. He's devised his own machines to cut strips of colored material and put them into metal channels so they can be attached to panels. One of them is on display in the gallery, and, given his energy level, it's hard to believe the artist agreed to part with the equipment for the duration of the show.

In a charming end to the exhibition, photos of Cruz-Diez's studio cover the walls surrounding the table that displays his machine. The studio is a hive of activity, and his more-than-grown children are involved. The photos seem a little fuzzy at first, until you realize they are 3D. Cardboard glasses are provided for viewing the optical effect.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer