Owing to constraints of space, the work for which the Venezuelan artist Jesús Soto is best known today – the walk-through ‘Penetrables’ installations that reach as far back as the late 1960s – did not feature in the Grey Art Gallery’s exhibition ‘Soto: Paris and Beyond, 1950–1970’, which was curated by Estrellita B. Brodsky, an authority on the artist. But this absence need not be deplored since this seductive body of work, responding as it does to the growing demand for immersive environments and audience participation of a hands-on variety, would inevitably have distracted from the artist’s earlier, more understated achievements.
Soto’s move to Paris in 1950 provided an obvious starting point for an exhibition that set out to trace the artist’s development across two decades. (Most of the art works on view were in fact made between 1952 and 1962, resulting in a somewhat narrower focus.) The decades in question correspond to the heyday of Kineticism, which Soto, who never formally belonged to any movement, came to be aligned with after his work was shown in the 1955 exhibition ‘Le Mouvement’ at the Galerie Denise René in Paris. Clustered around that year, the series of wall pieces that see Soto experimenting with Perspex overlays demonstrates affinities with that of other international avant-garde artists whose work featured in this landmark show, consciously resisting the then-dominant Abstract Expressionist mode.
In their concentric patterns as well as in their use of Perspex, Soto’s Espiral (Spiral, 1955) and its vertigo-inducing companion piece, Espiral con rojo (Spiral with Red, 1955), recall Marcel Duchamp’s 1925 Rotary Demisphere (Precision Optics) and his 1935 ‘Rotoreliefs’. But unlike Duchamp’s mechanized optical experiments, Alexander Calder’s mobiles or Jean Tinguely’s sculptural machines, for instance, Soto’s art works are for the most part static – though they suggest, invite and feed off movement. This makes the appropriateness of the label ‘Kinetic art’ questionable when applied to his work from this period. The one notable exception in this respect is the black and white rotating sculpture, curiously named La cocotte (1956) which can mean ‘flirt’ or ‘floozy’ in French: hung from the ceiling, the hefty mobile folded like an origami piece is, in fact, anything but flimsy.
The exhibition charted Soto’s gradual move away from the flat surface of his abstract geometrical paintings and serial compositions towards three-dimensional sculptural pieces, of which the ‘Penetrables’ are arguably the logical extension. Yet the individual works on view defied easy categorization as either painting or sculpture. Take Mur blanc (White Wall, c.1952–3), made at a time when Soto had turned to Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone serial music for inspiration. Made up of 24 discrete, slightly slanted panels, placed at regular intervals but each inclined a different way, the piece belies the unity implied by the title. Every panel is a volume as much as a two-dimensional surface covered with varying black and white serial dot patterns, as if imprinted in negative relief.
As often with Soto’s work, its visual impact is lost in reproduction. Nowhere more so than in the ‘Vibrations’ series, where intricate tangles of wire protrude from the painted support, breaking up and at once animating its uniformly striated surface. Some have wispy bits of wire coming at the viewer like tentacles or stray antennae, actually vibrating. Colour is used sparingly, as in the Vibration bleu (Blue Vibration, 1959), named after occasional flashes of Yves Klein’s trademark blue that appear amid bundles of otherwise black wire. Jean Tinguely introduced Klein to Soto the year before this painting was made, and the close friendship between the two that ensued may account for Soto’s marked predilection for this colour. He returned to it again and again later on, namely in the rough weather-worn ‘Leños’ or ‘Logs’ pieces made around 1961 that graft sculptural wood elements onto painted surfaces and painterly elements onto readymade sculpture.