Carlos Cruz-Diez and the Structure of the Immaterial
Joel Bracho Ghersi
Our general idea of art is usually associated with a few more or less fixed ideas, such as art’s permanence over time, the plasticity of its materials, and the manual nature of its practice. We speak of plastic arts because we assume that artistic production refers to the transformation of matter, a malleability that allows it to become something else. The new thing created from material reconfigured by the artist, we call a work of art. Our job as spectators, then, is to contemplate the work and to recognize in it the skill, the mastery and the hand of its creator.
Carlos Cruz-Diez set out to challenge these concepts. He wanted to look for what he called “a new starting point,” to make art in a way that had never been done before and to reproduce the pleasure of traditional painting by other means. It was a systematic and orderly search that he began just after leaving the Escuela de Artes Plásticas when he decided that he would not paint with oil but rather with less “prestigious” materials, such as gouache. He wanted to find his own way because he was convinced that to paint as he had been taught was to paint like everyone else. He began investigating new supports and techniques, using cardboard and silkscreen, and later fully embraced industrial materials and techniques that would allow him to better express what he wanted to say.
Once he decided that color was to be the center of his artistic discourse, he knew that his objective would not be to produce a plastic object, but rather a support that would allow an event to be produced. He wanted to show, in an artistic way, that color was an unstable and variable circumstance, something that happens and becomes transformed. This is why his work reveals to us not the structure of the material it is made with but rather a phenomenon. His object is not material, as it deals with impermanent matter and the production of ephemeral results in real time and space and our interaction with them.
Fisicromía (Physichromy) is one of his basic instruments in his inquiry and, perhaps, together with Cromosaturación (Chromosaturation), the most emblematic of his work. Faithful to his idea of art as thought and experimentation, he called his work ‘Research.’ With the Fisicromías, Cruz-Diez manages to simultaneously put into play the three conditions he was interested in working with to demonstrate the unstable condition of color: additive color, present in the shades of color produced by the background lines; subtractive color, with the use of plaques made from translucent materials that color space and the support; and reflective color, produced by the collision of light in the small spaces that are generated between the plaques and the background. The artist calls these light traps. Although it is the light that is at play, we are the ones who fall into the trap. We learn to see, and we discover floating colors that change and transform before our eyes.
The Fisicromías offer the viewer a new way to perceive art. Through not looking at the object made by the artist but rather at its result, viewers see the event that is produced within the interstices of that object. In his well-known book, Reflexión sobre el color (Reflections on Color), Cruz-Diez tells us that the Fisicromías propose an indirect reading of color. What’s important is not the colors with which the work has been “painted,” the printed lines or the material from which it is made, but the colors that appear to float and transform in space and time.
To stand in front of and look carefully at a Fisicromía is to behold something that seems alive, a kind of ubiquitous color cloud located in the empty space on this side of the canvas. Even without moving, we can perceive that something is happening. If we then move around, due to the change in our perspective of what is happening there, or to certain modifications in natural or artificial lighting, we always find ourselves in front of another work.
The paradox involved in these structures is well described by Ariel Jiménez, one of the scholars who has dealt most consistently and seriously with the work of this master artist. The more Cruz-Diez tried to approach the immateriality of color to make it visible and understandable to viewers, the more complex and elaborate the material structure of the work that served as its support became. The center of the work is outside of its material reality, but the materiality of its construction is inescapable and occupies much of the artist’s time and effort.
Cruz-Diez often spoke of the anguish this caused him in the early days. The work was very complex and slow, and the often disappointing result was only visible at the end of many days. That is to say, his head worked much faster than his hands. This is where his workshop comes
into play as a way of life and production, with technology as a faithful ally of the artist. The work had to be systematized, delegated and had to adopt technological tools as essential instruments to achieve clarity of speech, to make what he wanted to reveal more and more evident.
The structure of his Fisicromías has been essentially the same since the mid-1970s when aluminum became his preferred material and the lines of color that Cruz-Diez called “chromatic event modules” began to be printed on it. The work becomes a complex assemblage of alternating screen-printed aluminum sheets and colored plaques. Diagonal lines appear on the small planes of each sheet, multiplying the color combinations and the variability of their results. And yet, this change in material and constructive solutions was just one more step in the path of research and improvement that Cruz-Diez had set himself since 1959, and which he followed throughout his life. The making of the artwork had to constantly improve and be more efficient to produce the color effects sought by the artist.
In one of the last interviews he gave to Articruz in 2018, he stated: “My workshop allows me to do research and to do things better than before. This is an investigation, and what I have done is develop it. The Fisicromías are from 1959, the Additive Color is from 1959, the Inducciones (Inductions) are from 1963. I continue to do research in my work, (...) enriching it and making new versions based on the same concept that I structured at that time. Because it is a discourse, it is a structured discourse, enriched over time.”2 The artist, who lived to be almost one hundred years old, continued to do research into his nineties, confident that he was expressing more and more clearly over time.
With the conviction that an artist should be of his time and utilize what his time offers him, Cruz-Diez changed materials, techniques and methods, though he always kept his sight on the clarity of his search and his discourse. He understood that the material structure of a work had to be perfected to give life to the immaterial part, for it is in his proposed ideas that the true impact of the artist resides. “I haven’t created this work with my hands but with my brain,” he was heard to say more than once. Once again a paradox: the solidity of a work comes from thought, which is as elusive and immaterial as the color that the artist pursued and which now, in the present moment in which we stand before his work, we see floating between the plaques of a Fisicromía.
1. A critic and researcher, Joel Bracho Ghersi worked at Articruz, Cruz-Diez’s workshop in Panama, where for seven years he collaborated closely with the artist to help disseminate his work and thought.
2. Articruz (17 de mayo de 2019). El taller de Cruz-Diez – Episodio 6 (Cruz-Diez’s Workshop–Episode 6. [Video Archive] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vPfmy6E1Y34.