Carlos Cruz-Diez: Color in Space and Time, a retrospective of the Franco-Venezuelan artist at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, demands multiple visits — which is fortunate, as the exhibition is on view for nearly six months.
Upon first viewing the work, it's advisable to ignore the informational captions and color theory embedded in Cruz-Diez's life work. Instead, simply savor the vibrant hues of the 150 works on display. Frolic in the penetrable installations, "Chromointerférence" and "Chromosaturation." Allow yourself to become entranced in the parallel bands of color that make up his paintings as they seemingly change colors as you move back and forth. The transformation of the images is pure delight — something you may not have experienced since first learning the meaning of "color" as a child.
After indulging in this experience, museum-goers may find themselves haunted by the magic of Cruz-Diez's work. Indeed, the artist doesn't merely portray color, but investigates the notion of color as if it were a living organism in a constant state of transformation.
There is a veritable science behind his technique. For example, in the series of "Physiochromies" (of which 55 are on view), he riffs on the optical phenomenon of retinal persistence, or "after-image": When confronted with a combination of two complementary colors on a plane, the work produces a third, virtual color.
The yellow you see while strolling past "Additive Yellow" doesn't exist — it's the retina's perception of the contrast of red and green stripes projected into space.
It's a disorienting experience, which is why Cruz-Diez considers his works of art to be "situations" in themselves, exploring the unstable nature of color as not just a pigment on a surface, but a situation that results from the projection of light on objects and the way this light is processed by the human eye. The MFAH retrospective traces how the artist has lifted this discovery and taken it to a virtuoso level, beginning with experiments in wood and cardboard and moving on to mirrors, aluminum and digital printing technology.
In the five decades he has worked with these physiochromies, Cruz-Diez has immersed himself in the color theory of Newton and Goethe, and with the aid of his multigenerational Renaissance-style workshops in Caracas, Panama and Paris, has fabricated machines to render his precise compositions.
Yet his work never strays too far from reality and the viewer's experience. For example, in the walled-in "Chromointerférence," the visitor's shadows become part of the undulating matrices of color.
"In this type of environment, the viewer becomes an actor and an author," he says.
"For him, it was important that art is not something precious that you experience solely in your brain," explains Mari Carmen Ramírez, curator of Latin American Art and director of the museum's International Center for the Arts of the Americas, "but is something that is part of your everyday experience. Therefore, everything around you should be touched by art."
This notion is at its most apparent in a section near the exhibition's end, in which the artist's works in architecture and design are on view. Thoughtfully displayed with models and an exhibition-specific documentary, these works include mammoth versions of his signature stripes on everything from grain silos and hydroelectric plants to transatlantic cruise ships and the MFAH's very own iconic crosswalks.
"The idea of the crosswalks is that you actually walk over color," Ramírez says. "It transforms your everyday space. Something like crossing the street becomes an artistic experience as you walk over the color and experience the production of all those virtual colors."
The exhibition, which was planned in cooperation with the Cruz-Diez Foundation, invites the viewer even closer into the life of Cruz-Diez with a virtual reproduction of his atelier at 23 rue Pierre Sémard in Paris, where visitors don 3-D glasses and observe dynamic visions of the team of artisans that make his work a reality. It's an intimate, rare look into an artist's lair.
For those who crave an even closer view of Cruz-Diez's work, there's a physiochromie application for iPhone and iPad, with which users may recreate the artist's hypnotic geometry.
Carlos Cruz-Diez: Color in Space and Time is on view through July 4.