Soto: Paris and Beyond, 1950-1970
A key figure of the Paris avant-garde in the 1950s and ’60s, Jesús Soto (1923–2005) is widely recognized for his groundbreaking innovations in color theory, serial composition, and movement in art. Less well-known is the wide range of styles and mediums that he explored early on. Drawing inspiration from optics and serial music, Soto employed repeating geometric forms and superimposed surfaces to convey a sense of physical displacement. In deconstructing the notion of stability, Soto radically transformed the relation between object and audience. Encouraging viewers to interact physically with his work, Soto engages them as active participants in the process of perception.
Born in the Venezuelan provincial capital of Ciudad Bolívar, Soto trained at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Aplicadas in Caracas. Frustrated with his country’s increasingly repressive environment, he left in 1950 for Paris, the adopted home of many Latin American intellectuals and artists, including members of the radical Madí group, as well as U.S. artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Youngerman. In France Soto entered a period of intense activity, exhibiting at the annual Salon des Réalités Nouvelles alongside other artists of the Parisian avant-garde. At the invitation of Victor Vasarely, Soto participated in the pivotal 1955 exhibition Le Mouvement at the Galerie Denise René, which boosted the young artist’s reputation in both Europe and Venezuela as an innovator and vital member of the Kinetic movement.
Focusing on the two decades following Soto’s move to France, the works exhibited here are grouped in five sections, revealing his investigations into new modes of artistic engagement, his contact with European artists Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Daniel Spoerri, and the Group Zero, and his anticipation of later conceptual strategies. From his first experiments with “dematerial-ization” to his monumental Penetrables environments of the late 1960s, Soto’s achievements in the fields of perception and interaction during this twenty-year span established him as one of Latin America’s most influential 20th-century artists.
Soon after his arrival in Paris in 1950, Soto joined his former classmates from the Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Aplicadas—including Alejandro Otero, Narciso Debourg, and Aimée Battistini, who along with others had formed the anti-establishment group known as Los Disidentes (The Dissidents). Rejecting all forms of figurative art, Los Disidentes offered Soto an alternative to the limitations of academic landscape painting and politically charged Social Realism. They also introduced him to the influential Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, an annual showcase dedicated to presenting a wide range of abstraction under the broad rubric “Abstract-Concrete-Constructivist-Non-Figurative Art,” and featuring works by artists such as Jean Arp, Vasily Kandinsky, and Piet Mondrian.
Building on Mondrian’s geometric abstraction and the Madí group’s flatly patterned compositions, Soto rapidly broke away from his previous Cubist-inflected landscape and still-life paintings, and explored new approaches to color and form. Through abrupt shifts in direction and broken lines denoting hesitation or unpredictable accidents, Soto conveys a sense of instability and vibration—which, later on, he would develop by expanding the flat surface of the painting into three dimensions.
At a time when many artists in Europe and the U.S. were practicing forms of Abstract Expressionism or Tachisme, Soto rejected emotionally charged painting in favor of geometric abstraction. When he arrived in Paris, he observed:
compositions that used rhomboids, triangles, poly-gons, and a whole series of elements that were suggestive of figurative reality. I was sure that figurative painting used the system of abstract painting for its internal composition. For me that was not abstraction but rather the simplification of figuration…. I felt that I had to develop a language that was totally independent from the elements of figurative art…. It was necessary to find my own language, not a borrowed one.
Interested in a “pure” language, Soto sought inspiration in music, which he called “the abstract art par excellence,” in particular in the composition methods of serial and dodecaphonic (twelve-tone) music.
An accomplished guitarist himself, Soto began to apply serial music’s composition system to painting. He experimented with visual applications of Arnold Schoenberg’s musical theories, particularly the idea of the twelve-tone scale, in which all notes have equal value. Soto explained: “I made a selection of eight colors [assigning a numeric value to each], and arranged them onto a grid according to a pre-determined mathematical algorithm.” The resulting works’ repetitions of colored geometric forms allowed Soto to minimize the artist’s expressive hand and to convey a sense of rhythm and movement through sequences and permutations of simple elements. In these works, Soto emphasizes the relationship between pictorial forms through a compositional logic at once seemingly arbitrary and strictly regular.
Following Soto’s participation at the Salon de Mai of 1954, Victor Vasarely and gallery owner Denise René invited him to take part in the exhibition Le Mouvement of 1955, alongside Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, Robert Jacobsen, and then–little-known artists Jean Tinguely, Yaacov Agam, and Pol Bury. René later characterized the exhibition’s impact as “a shock.” “It was,” she noted, “unexpected, young, stimulating. An important turn at a moment when we were fighting against the trend of Abstract Expressionism.” This historic show established Soto as a member of an international community of avant-garde artists, aligning him in particular with the movement newly dubbed Kineticism.
As early as 1953, Soto had begun to explore the possibilities of Plexiglas overlays. He notes, “Building on the practice of serial distribution of my previous period, I applied them to two identical planes over-laid at varying angles. For me, as for many of the artists of the period working with overlays, it was about producing a dynamic effect.” By altering the space between background and foreground in his works, Soto fundamentally changed the relation between object and viewer. In activating spatial dynamism and sensorial instability through the techniques of collage and superimposition, he provided a critical alternative to the tyranny of a fixed, rigorously cerebral, even dictatorial, approach to the art object.
The immaterial is the tangible reality of the universe.
Art is the sensible knowledge of the immaterial.
In April 1958, Jean Tinguely introduced Soto to Yves Klein. The two soon developed mutual admiration and a close friendship. Exploring ideas shared by Klein and the Nouveaux Réalistes (New Realists)—who were championed by art critic Pierre Restany and also included Tinguely and Daniel Spoerri, among others—Soto sought to engage a broader audience through an art steeped in daily life, as opposed to Vasarely’s rational, scientific approach. In collapsing the boundaries that had previously distinguished painting from sculpture, Soto’s work of this period challenges modernist verities. Although never officially aligned with the Nouveaux Réalistes or any other group, beginning in 1958 Soto participated in numerous exhibitions with Klein, Tinguely, Spoerri, and members of the Dusseldorf-based Group Zero: Otto Piene, Günther Uecker, and Heinz Mack. Works from this time reflect Soto’s engagement with the everyday, incorporating found objects, consumer goods, and salvaged industrial materials—in Soto’s words, “[to] bring them to a state of disintegration through pure vibration.”
We declare the existence of relations in every lucid moment of our thinking existence. We are amazed by the laws of chance without realizing that we are only perceiving realities of which we had never dreamed.
Soto’s Ecritures (Escrituras/Writings), initiated in 1962, mark a departure from his earlier informal, chaotic compositions and a return to geometry, lines, and primary structures. In these works, composed of thin metal rods suspended over a neatly striated background, the wire’s twists and bends call to mind scribbled, nonsensical, distorted handwriting. Created during a period in Latin American history known as the decade of silence in reference to government suppression of intellectuals and liberals’ voices, the works’ unintelligible calligraphy might well be interpreted as an oblique form of communication.
During the 1960s, Soto began to explore increasingly radical ways of interacting with the public and engaging broader audiences. He abandoned the fictive pictorial or sculptural space of representation and moved art into viewers’ actual space, both personal and collective. His investigation into art as an un-mediated social phenomenon—as direct encounters between viewers and works—culminated in the immersive, sense-altering environments manifested in his iconic Penetrables, begun in the late 1960s. In these, Soto requires passive viewers to become active participants, to enter and physically interact with the work. The contemporary artist, Soto noted, “is different from his ancestors in that he is not moving toward conquering space but rather toward the recognition of the space that envelops him … he cannot react as a spectator but as a participant.”