"The Octopus and a Completely Full Aquarium: Waltercio Caldas" by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro
Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro is the curator of The Nearest Air: A Survey of Works by Waltercio Caldas, currently on view at the Blanton, and the director of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, Caracas and New York. The following is excerpted from his essay in the exhibition catalogue, 'Waltercio Caldas.'
Apparently, a live octopus is 90 percent water. Somehow— don’t ask me how—this random fact came up in a conversation with Waltercio Caldas, who, after a split second, came back with “or in other words, all water is 10 percent octopus.” This seemingly throwaway comment reveals not only the artist’s unique logic and intellectual process, but also his legendary humor. Caldas’s sculptural works constantly navigate the porous borders between positive and negative, container and contained; as with the relationship between the octopus and water, Caldas’s work simultaneously explores what is without and within. All sculpture fundamentally deals with such shifts of perspective, but Caldas places them at the center of his artistic inquiry in order to create a type of visual philosophy that is as stimulating to experience as it is hard to describe.
Caldas’s Completely Full Aquarium eloquently summarizes many of the artist’s interests, particularly as they relate to the question of empty space. The technical description of the work couldn’t be simpler: an aquarium filled with water. But to fully understand the work, we must take into account both the space that surrounds it and our shifting perceptions of the object. The aquarium acts simultaneously as a mirror and a lens through which to view everything around it. The work complicates notions of what we are seeing, even though we interact with its materials—glass and water—every day. The work makes us aware of something different, and that realization encourages us to stop and question our impressions. There is no trickery apparent here; even the title of the work announces what the object is, with mocking obviousness: a completely filled aquarium. But its plenitude makes central the question of what is in the aquarium: we read it as air, even when we expect it to be water, and then we confirm that it is water after all. While all this may sound banal, the work manages to enchant the viewer with its everyday, simple beauty. The resulting delight has little to do with art theory and much to do with poetics.
Caldas applies this same oblique, probing vision to his book Velázquez, which takes questions of presence and absence, reality and illusion, and applies them to the history of art writ large. By manipulating the images in an art history textbook— blurring the details and removing the figures—Caldas creates an extended essay on representation and meaning, calling into question our relationship with reproduced images and notions of truth. Countless modern and postmodern artists and philosophers have revisited the work of Diego Velázquez, but Caldas does so in a typically atypical fashion, focusing on how most of us encounter the work of Velázquez: through textbooks rather than through physical encounters with the paintings. The blurry pages of Caldas’s book transport the object into another realm, as if it were an object represented in the distance of a painting, where we would expect its images to be indistinct. Yet it is real and in front of us, just as the plates that traditionally seem so real are fictions because of their verisimilitude. The intricate interplay between reality, fiction, representation, present, and past creates an elaborate web, much like one in a Borges short story, in which the elaboration of a logical conundrum begets a thrilling and engaging intellectual experience. The book invites a conversation with the past rather than simply reproducing or commenting on it, and this interaction is what gives the work such power. It is also, incidentally, one of the few works from the 1990s to use Photoshop productively: not to manipulate reality for its own sake, but rather—to paraphrase Picasso—to tell a lie that tells the truth.
Caldas’s many decades of production present a paradox. Not classifiable as minimal or conceptual, neither installation art nor formalist in conceit, Caldas’s work carves out new territory and announces its own terms of engagement. Literary without literature, musical without music, and intellectual without discourse, Caldas presents empty space as an act of resistance, a place in which to think, experience, and, most importantly perhaps, change your mind.
 All quotes from Waltercio Caldas are from conversations with the author conducted over the period 2007–2012.
Waltercio Caldas, Aquário completamente cheio/ Completely Full Aquarium, 1981. Glass and water. Collection Everardo Miranda.
Installation Shot, The Nearest Air: A Survey of Works by Waltercio Caldas at the Blanton Museum of Art. Photo by Mary Myers.
Waltercio Caldas, Velázquez, 1996. Artist’s Book. Archer M. Huntington Museum Fund, 2003.
Waltercio Caldas, Velázquez (Detail), 1996. Artist’s Book. Archer M. Huntington Museum Fund, 2003.