Attention, Please

In 1974, the Venezuelan artist Jesús Raphael Soto had a retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Nobody wrote a thing about it. "Not one article in New York or in any newspaper," says María Inés Sicardi, director of Sicardi Gallery. Soto was frustrated, to say the least. He didn't return to America for an exhibition until this June, when he was persuaded to come to Houston for the opening of the Museum of Fine Arts's groundbreaking exhibition, "Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America" (see "Exploding the Canon," July 8), as well as a concurrent exhibition at Sicardi Gallery, "Parallel Stories: Brazilian & Venezuelan Abstract-Constructive Art 1950-1970."

It wasn't that Soto's 1974 retrospective didn't merit attention; he's an incredible artist. And, of course, even a horrible show at the Guggenheim is newsworthy in itself. Were critics perplexed as to how to categorize Soto, whose nonfigurative, ultra-avant-garde Latin American art didn't square with the prevailing ideas about contemporary art history? Soto had been using things like Plexiglas to make optically kinetic paintings since the '50s -- when America was still in the thrall of abstract expressionism. It's a pretty safe bet that most reviewers were silent because they didn't want to have to reassess their cultural assumptions or their contemporary art timeline.

The same could be said for the work of Carlos Cruz-Diez, a fellow Venezuelan who presented light-based installations before American artists James Turrell and Dan Flavin. Carlos Cruz-Diez is also included in the Sicardi and MFAH exhibitions, and he too made the trip to Houston. Cruz-Diez and Soto are friends; both have lived in Paris since the '50s, but each maintains a studio in Venezuela.

Latin American artists are just now beginning to be factored into America's view of the history of the 20th-century avant-garde. The MFAH's new show is working to spur that reassessment, and on the commercial front, Sicardi Gallery has been putting forward a strong series of exhibitions, showing work by luminaries of the Latin American art world. "Inverted Utopias" features a wealth of diverse work, but one of its most striking themes is optical phenomena, which is also central to the Sicardi show. This fascination with altering the ways we see is as intellectually intriguing as its results are spectacular.

Soto has some amazing works from the '50s in the MFAH show. For Spirale (1955), a Plexiglas drawing is positioned in front of a painting done on a wooden panel. The two images meld together, visually overlaying black-and-white drawings of concentric circles. The space between surfaces allows the lines to kinetically intermingle as the viewer moves in front of the work. He created a similar effect large-scale with Cube à espace ambigu, an eight-foot Plexiglas box covered with parallel lines that cause its transparent volume to vibrate.

At Sicardi, Soto's animated construction Escritura negra equilibrada (1977) is made from a black panel painted with white vertical lines and hung with a curtain of black wire forms. The wires are like lines liberated from the page; floating in space, they become a drawing in the air as they move vertically and horizontally, curving and arcing. Their suspension in front of the ground causes an optical vibration -- your pupils flicker between focusing on the lines of ground and the lines in front of the ground.

Carlos Cruz-Diez plays with our optical perception in paintings that layer vertical sections of plastic or painted cardboard. The images shift as you walk past them; you see a different set of colors and images from an oblique angle than you do standing directly in front of it. It makes for a nice optical blur. The effect is not unlike those lenticular images that suddenly turn Jesus into Mary as you walk past.

But Cruz-Diez's works are the opposite of kitsch. He is a purist with image-free work that's all about color and optical effect. There are good early examples of this technique on view at Sicardi: Physiochromie n. 17 (1960) and Physiochromie n. 103 (1963). And a later 20-foot-long painting on view at the MFAH, Fisicromía mural (1980), has colored striations divided with strips of reflective aluminum that slice the picture and reflect and activate the surface, creating a wall of animated color.

Cruz-Diez's phenomenal light installation at the MFAH divides an entirely white room into three sections. The floor is white too, so you have to wear those goofy hospital booties to walk in -- but it's worth it. Fluorescent bulbs are placed in the ceiling of each section, covered with filters to produce blue, red and green light. White pedestals are placed in the rooms, and you see how colors blend and interact on their surfaces as the light spills from room to room to room. (You also see that green light makes everybody look really awful. Red light is better. My hand looked 800 years old in the green room, but only 700 years old in the red room.) You can test those color adages -- yes, red really makes for an agitating environment, while blue is calming. In Soto's Cromosaturación, you can literally immerse yourself in color theory as well as explore color's psychological effects. The piece was first installed in 1965.

When Soto and Cruz-Diez came in for their shows' openings, they were amazed by the enthusiastic reception they received. It was a positive thing, but it's a little late -- Soto is 80, and Cruz-Diez is 81. Reproductions don't do any of this work justice; you have to see it in person. With these two exhibitions, Houstonians are fortunate to have the chance.