Jesús Rafael Soto
Jesús Rafael Soto b. 1923, Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela; d. 2005, Paris
Metal and oil on wood
62 1/4 x 42 1/4 x 5 7/8 inches (158.1 x 107.3 x 14.9 cm)
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Gift, Eve Clendenin, 1967
2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
From 1942 to 1947 Jesús Rafael Soto studied at the Escuela de artes plásticas in Caracas, Venezuela, where the curriculum focused on figurative art. His encounter with a Cubist still life by Georges Braque introduced him to a reductive, geometric approach to art, and by the late 1940s Soto was producing painterly canvases that had both formal and coloristic affinities with Cubism.
In 1950 he left his post as director of the Escuela de artes plásticas in Maracaibo, Venezuela, and relocated to Paris. Soon afterward, he traveled to Holland to see a large body of Kazimir Malevich's and Piet Mondrian's work. Soto had already undertaken a close study of the Dutch artist's progressive exploration of abstraction—from his early Cubist tree series to his iconic grids. Like Alexander Calder 20 years earlier, Soto wanted to dynamize Mondrian's art. He felt it was extremely important to move beyond the stasis of two-dimensional paintings as well as the illusionism that dominated geometric abstraction in the 1940s and 1950s. In order to realize his concept of abstract art as pure structure and idea, Soto borrowed from the fields of mathematics and music. He used the mathematical concepts of repetition and progression—which contradicted the intuitive, subjective approach then in vogue and known in Europe as Art Informel—in paintings of geometric elements repeated across the picture plane and then in a series based on the square. Serial music also served as a guide, suggesting the potential for infinite variation through the codification of basic colors into a serial system. Soto superposed and methodically distributed colored dots and later geometrical elements on Plexiglas sheets in an effort to generate the optical impression of movement. He soon discovered that he could increase the impression of visual vibration by arranging the sheets at a distance from one another and by using a spiral as one of his principal forms. He displayed some of these kinetic structures in the historic 1955 exhibition Le mouvement (The Movement) at the Galerie Denise René, which helped to establish him as a leading artist in the emerging kinetic and optical art movement.
Shortly thereafter, Soto began a series called Vibrations (Vibraciones) consisting of a wooden panel covered with thin, vertical, parallel lines painted in black and white, which were juxtaposed with pieces of wood, wires, or other common objects. In works such as Vibration (Vibración, 1965), a sensation of movement is generated when the viewer looks at the patterned ground in relation to the metal squares. In contrast to Vibrations made with thin metal rods, which lose their individual character and seem almost to disappear before the striped background, here the squares maintain their form. The physical distance between them and the support remains difficult to gauge, and the squares appear to float in space. Their edges look as though they are flickering. Soto's emphasis on continuous, dynamic optical transformation rather than the art object itself is in keeping with his goal of stressing the concept of dematerialization. For Soto, "the immaterial is the sensory reality of the universe. Art is the sensory knowledge of the immaterial. To become conscious of the immaterial in its state of pure structure, is to make the final leap towards the absolute."¹
1. Jesús Rafael Soto, "Excerpts from an Interview with Soto," (1974) interview by Claude-Louis Renard, in Soto: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat. (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1974), p. 19.