For Carlos Cruz-Diez, color isn’t a pigment—it’s an alchemical substance, an experience, a phenomenon that depends entirely on the viewer. "Color is not simply the color of things," says the 89-year-old Venezuelan-French artist. "It is an evolving situation, a reality which acts on the human being with the same intensity as cold, heat, and sound."
Cruz-Diez has been working on Chromosaturations—white rooms saturated with pure RGB shades—since the mid-1960s. Visitors to the rooms are sometimes asked to don surgical booties, so as not to mark the perfectly featureless floors of the spaces. It seems as though every color in the spectrum is represented, but actually, the piece only specifies three shades of red, green, and blue-wrapped fluorescent lights. What we’re seeing is the gradation between the three colors. Cruz-Diez says the point of the installation is to show how color is essentially an experience—one that depends on participation from humans. A newer generation of artists, like Olafur Eliasson, have replicated the effect, but Cruz-Diez was first.
Cruz-Diez has worked with color and movement for well nigh half a century, but renewed interest in his work has spurred a crop of new exhibits over the past few years, two of which are running concurrently this fall (one at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, the other at Paris’s Musée en Herbe). Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Cruz-Diez Foundation, the traveling show brings together Chromosaturations with Cruz-Diez’s many other works—including his remarkable kinetic Physichromies, which are layered with strips of colored plastic that seem to "trap" light within. The colors change as the viewers move around the pieces—a bit like an older model of color TV.
So why haven’t we heard more about Cruz-Diez? In a recent interview, the artist speculated that it was the 1965 show at MoMA on kinetic art—which was horribly panned by critics—that stifled the burgeoning kinetic art scene. "It damaged the movement," says Cruz-Diez, by framing the movement as childish. "It is only now, happily, that people are realizing that a great number of the art movements of the last 30 or 40 years come out of kineticism," says Cruz-Diez. "What we called ‘environments’ later became installations. Now young people read this work differently, and what they’re doing is called interactive art! Young people are now our fans, but what we went through was purgatory."
Check out Color in Space and Time at MUAC until February 10th or at Musée en Herbe until December 16th.