Major figure of kinetic art, Jesús Rafael Soto (1923–2005) contributed to the birth of this tendency by participating in the collective exhibition le Mouvement held in 1955 at gallery Denise René (alongside Agam, Bury, Calder, Duchamp, Vasarely, Tinguely...). From this date, Soto will have a privileged relationship with the gallery which will regularly devote to him exhibitions, some of which constituted the highlights of his career like the one of 1967 where will be revealed for the first time to the public the Penetrable. The exhibition SOTO, Carrément Soto, organised today by Denis Kilian at the gallery Denise René espace marais, celebrates more than half a century of artistic adventure through a presentation of works from the past and the present from the 1960s to the 90s.
Born in Venezuela, Soto studied at the Fine Arts of Caracas before moving to Paris in 1950, where he came to discover Impressionism and Cubism. Frequenting the small circle of the abstract avant-garde, he very quickly manifests in his art the willingness to go beyond the language, which, according to him, is too limited in terms of geometric abstraction.
His first realisations, that he exhibited at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, with their 'all over' compositions based on repetition of simple geometric elements, announce the vibratory works which will gather most of his research. Indeed, from 1953, Soto introduced plexiglas in its reliefs to explore the dematerialising potential of natural light. In front of a wooden foreground serving as a background and covered with frames, it places a second plane of the same dimension in plexiglas traversed by a second grid. During the movement of the spectator, both frames visually interact with each other and generate impressive optical effects.
The reliefs that Soto creates after 1955 extend in a more intense way this type of artistic proposal, particularly its Spirale, which a more recent edition is shown here (Espiral con amarillo, 1995): constructed from the example of the half-spherical Rotative from Marcel Duchamp, who had highly impressed him in the exhibition Le Mouvement, it superposes two series of ellipses 25 cm apart. Visual distortion effects and dilution of the motifs are constantly changing as and when as the spectator moves. The movement is optical, no longer mechanical as in the case of the Duchamp explains Soto: 'I have only use eye as an engine. I have not attempted to use electric motor or mechanics. I wanted to involve the spectator as a mechanic'.
In 1957, Soto elaborates new principles of its language illustrated by Blue Scale (1962): here, the artist obtains effects of movements by suspending, in front of an opaque background striped with fine black and white vertical lines, blue and black twisted wires that vibrate and fade away before our eyes. Soto's interest in rough materials is a sign of his rapprochement from 1958–62 of artists such as Tinguely, Klein, Group Zero, and more generally, of the trend of informal art. Soto will later return to a simpler vocabulary, using, from 1963, metal horizontal rods tied to nylon threads. As years go by, the formats increase and and the grid of rods becomes denser as shown by Rombo rosa y blanco (1977). In this realisation magnificently delimited by its pink square support, light rods painted in light pink and white move in front of a circular base, crossed by lines so fine that it appears almost white.
We can note the role that colour plays in reinforcing the effects of mourning and visual vibration that animate the work and transform it into a field of radiant energy. Soto said: 'My painting tries to represent movement, vibration, light, space and time, things that exist but do not have a specific shape, and the only way I've found to do that is to try to represent their relationships'.
Revealing the shifting and fluctuating aspect of reality is Soto's artistic project which considers each creation as a new visual situation. Therefore, Cuatro valores vibrantes (1995) effectively exploits the 'positive-negative' optical mechanisms by dividing the surface into two equal parts with, on the left, the white background streaked with black lines, and on the right, the opposite. Horizontal rods that are waving in front of the work, pink on one side, blue on the other side, reinforce the process of visual destabilisation elaborated by the artist: the eye cannot grasp any part of the surface that has become unstable, chattering and fully vibrating.
Soto does not hesitate to be even more radical in his choices as demonstrated by Toute Blanche (1997). The renunciation of colour and the willingness to go to extreme lengths to prove the effectiveness of the system he has set up. Any effect of aesthetic seduction is abandoned in favour of the only optical demonstration: Soto tests dematerialising power of the black and white striped background in front of which white geometrical signs are swinging, describing complex graphics. At the slightest movement, these signs seem to fade away and be absorbed by the luminous whiteness of the work. Toute Blanche reveals the long-lasting impact on Soto of Malevitch's White Square on White Background, which he believed incarnated 'light on light, the purest way to capture light on canvas'.
Soto, in the 1960s, created another family of works in which the square is given a special place. Following Malevitch's lead, but also in the Boogie-Woogie series of Mondrian, these realisations aim to explore the dynamic and vibratory potential of coloured squares, these squares rise above a background generally covered with monochrome patterns and the usual black and white linear grid. With Carré Noir (1991) or Noir sur le vert (1997), Soto soberly limited himself to the use of one or two large dark squares attached to a dark-toned support. It's the opposite with Colores vibrantes (1998), subtly composed work through which he creates a true chromatic polyphony. Following the 'push and pull' technique, Soto plays with the forward and backward effects produced by the contrasting use of squares of bright (red, orange, blue) and dark (shades of brown, black). These phenomena are accentuated by the treatment of the grid background in the upper part, and left all white in the lower part. In these creations, where the impression of movement is no longer obtained by displacement but by optical illusion, it is a question of appreciating the capacity of the colour to generate the feeling of space, as he expressed: 'Through colour, I try to create spatial ambiguity. The elements gathered on the same plane give the sensation of being on different planes and in constant movement'.
From the end of the 1960s a significant part of Soto's artistic production was devoted to the execution of works of monumental format, as illustrated by the Maquette de la sphère Lutétia (1995), a scaled-down version of a spherical suspended volume. The spectator is here invited to contemplate from the outside this red and white sphere of an intense spatial energetic force optically constituted by the assembly of rods. Floating and coloured masses of Soto's monumental spheres, seem to thwart the laws of weightlessness, testify to his permanent will to give a tangible appearance to the invisible vibrations of the universe and its ultimate desire to reach immateriality. He declared as follows: 'The idea of virtual volume which occupies me a lot is also in itself something philosophical, like all which is virtual, since it removes the direct link to the object. In this sense, it is something unreal and not just a new reality'.
Press release courtesy Galerie Denise Rene. Text: Domitille d’Orgeval.