JESUS RAFAEL SOTO Soto: Paris and Beyond 19501970by Robert C. Morgan
GREY ART GALLERY, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY
JANUARY 10 – MARCH 31, 2012
A LETTER TO KENNETH KRAMER
FROM ROBERT C. MORGAN
How is life in Santa Cruz? Are you back to swimming again? For some reason, I feel I owe you an overdue letter. This is probably because I said I would review your recent book on Martin Buber, as we discussed some time ago. I hope to get it done sometime before the summer, hoping that my work remains on a steady course. Generally speaking, I find that Americans are less familiar with Buber’s work than are Europeans. I am not certain as to why this is the case, other than an overall decline of interest in philosophy in American colleges and universities in recent years. My sense is that Europeans see Buber’s contribution perhaps less in terms of Hasidic spirituality than within the canon of existentialist philosophy. While not a Hasid (as you have pointed out), over time Buber adopted their mystic teachings from the “golden age” following the work of Israel Baal-Shem in the 18th century. Your earlier book in which you focus on Buber’s “dialogical encounter” in relation to T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” constitutes nothing less than a hermeneutic masterpiece. I know of few scholars willing to engage in this kind of innovative scholarship and who structure it as well as you.
However, I will put Buber aside for the time being to share with you some thoughts about an exhibition of work by the Venezuelan-born artist Jesus Rafael Soto at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University. Soto is usually seen as an optical kinetic artist who came to prominence in Paris in the mid-1950s and gained notice in New York approximately a decade later. Soto moved to Paris along with other younger Venezuelan artists at the outset of the ’50s not only because of the heightened cultural energy associated with the “City of Lights,” but also due to the chaotic and somewhat dangerous political conditions in their homeland, partially incited by misinformed policies emanating from the United States.
This exhibition focuses attention on the breakthrough work completed by Soto during the 1950s and 1960s. As the superb installation at the Grey Art Gallery makes clear, Soto’s earliest works were geometric abstract paintings, using a limited and carefully selected array of flat colors. At the outset, he used blue, white, yellow, and black, and eventually would adopt red and the three secondaries (orange, green, and violet) for his palette, or he would paint white on white, using wood panels. In each case, what mattered was the system he employed within a grid format. Soto wanted to remove any trace of expressionist content in order to focus entirely on the serial idea of form, often quite intricate and, one might say, proto-conceptual. (I have often argued that this optical/conceptual hybrid was present in the early work of the New York artist, Sol LeWitt, who flatly denied it.) Yet in Soto there is a consistent trajectory as he moves from the early abstract paintings to the serial grids, then to the suspended forms, as in “La Cocotte” (1956), a section of an incomplete open cube that would predate both François Morellet and again LeWitt by several years. By the mid-1950s, Soto was concentrating primarily on black-and-white, with occasional forays into carefully applied color, such as yellow and red, in “Doble Tranparencia” (1956). In these works, he used clear Plexiglas in relation to wood surfaces on which he would most often paint thin vertical lines or, in the case of “Homage to Yves Klein” (1961), extended horizontal bands. The Plexiglas panels were mounted a few inches in front of the wood panels in order to give the effect of a moiré pattern or an illusionist surface that optically vibrated as the viewer walked from one side to another.
The upper floor of the exhibition includes both small and larger scale wall pieces—including a four-paneled “Mural” (1961), which tries to balance an assemblage involving wire, detritus, and machine parts painted black. This is juxtaposed with another section, equal in size, in which thin white lines descend vertically on a black surface, serving as a background for another construction in which chaotic wires are tangled together with screens and chicken coups. This kind of description of Modernist art probably drives you crazy, knowing of your desire for precision. Frankly I am more impressed by the ambition of this work than by the actual results. But there are many other works that transcend the limits of over-determination and balance the parts in relation to the whole with an utterly supreme lightness. When I see a small, gorgeous square collage like “El Tambor” (1963), the ambition fades away and my faith in art is restored as a phenomenon that can move the senses closer toward an exalted poetics of vision.
Estrillita Brodsky did the research for this exceptionally powerful, yet paradoxically intimate exhibition. In a catalogue essay by Sarah K. Rich, titled “Soto and You,” she refers to Soto’s work as a “pedagogical model of self-awareness.” On another level, her secular thesis may be the counterpart of Buber’s “dialogical encounter” as Soto’s work becomes the place and time of transmission between human beings—an activist encounter between the perceivers in which each may feel the impact as a kind of heightened and rarified encounter. Of course, this is what you might call an aesthetic speculation that may or may not have any spiritual or existential reality other than the application of rhetoric. Yet if not convincing on a smaller scale, as is shown at the Grey Gallery, Soto’s larger installations such as “Blue Penetrable,” currently on view at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., may clarify the issues beyond reproach. Still, I would argue that if Buber is relevant to how we feel when we experience the work of Soto, scale should not be the ultimate factor. We might consider instead that intimacy as a shared experience is the best antidote to disorientation and the dissemblance of being.
Sincerely (and best wishes),