At Emmanuel Perrotin’s Paris gallery, visitors appeared to be lingering around the artworks more than usual. One cannot just stand and stare at Jesús Rafael Soto’s highly technical constructions. 'Pénétrable BBL bleu', a particularly striking example of his work, invites viewers to swish through its baleen-like grid of PVC tubes suspended from a garage-sized metal frame. (And yes, it’s kid friendly.)
The Marais exhibition is the first of two vernissages, both entitled 'Chronochrome', with the second opening in New York tomorrow. Perrotin’s staging of a double Soto retrospective represents a major opportunity to reflect on the artist’s contribution to modern art - specifically the dynamism of his complex and kinetically charged arrangements. The artist, who died in 2005 at the age of 81, added perceptual dimension to his 'paintings' so that wood panels would appear to advance and recede within their frames.
Some pieces, such as 'Cube de Paris' (1990) with its central vortex of red nylon strands, needs a 360-degree perspective; other works, such as the 'Ecriture' series filled with swirling metal reliefs, require shuffling back and forth to experience the vibratory effect. The negative space between the floating prismatic shapes of 'Doble progresión azul y negra' (1975) belies its immense weight (one tonne).
Born in Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela - where an eponymous museum opened in 1973 - Soto moved to Paris in 1950, which also marked his shift towards a distinctly abstract style that furthered ideas developed by Piet Mondrian, Alexander Calder and Lazló Moholy-Nagy. His first retrospective of kinetic art took place 45 years ago and toured several European institutions including the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and Paris' National Museum of Modern Art.
But historian and curator Matthieu Poirier notes how the artist has not received due recognition—at least, not yet. 'Many people are considering this part of history and Soto is the genius of this history,' says Poirier, who first visited the artist at his Paris studio in 2003. Today, that studio houses the archives and also remains an active workshop for his longtime assistant and fellow Venezuelan artist, René Ugarte, who uses parts that Soto presciently left behind to repair any wear and tear.
To wit, Soto's ouevre simply feels fresh. The 'moiré' pattern created by his optical illusions, for instance, is not unlike watching palm fronds rustle in a breeze. But as Poirier explains, all the tricks are in plain sight: 'He wasn’t James Turrell. Turrell is a magician; he’s hiding all the wires. As far as philosophy, Soto was a materialist — no magic. Everything is explainable.”
Of the nearly 60 exhibited works - in some cases, for sale - several have been made available by the artist’s estate, now represented by Perrotin, while others are loans from international museums. In collaboration with Soto’s four children (his wife passed away last year), Poirier engineered the simultaneous shows as 'a whole with two major parts' which are grouped by 'families of procedures and logics' instead of a more obvious linear chronology. 'With Soto,' he says, 'it is not a linear evolution.'
The fact that Soto’s work resists photography might just be the most remarkable takeaway in the Instagram era. While the precise geometries, the restrained colour palette and delineation of two-dimensional space all register well enough, the planes and illusions vanish and the ensuing flatness renders his art into something altogether different. And apropos of the shows’ title, 'Chronochrome', the longer you engage with each piece, the more it comes to life.