In Two Perrotin Shows, Jesús Rafael Soto Proves the Importance of Seeing Art in Person
“Soto’s work is not photogenic,” says Matthieu Poirier, the curator at the helm of Galerie Perrotin’s “Chronochome,” two simultaneous Jesús Rafael Soto shows now on view in Paris and New York. “[His] works need to be explored, need to be experienced—art is an experience with Soto,” he emphasizes during a tour through the show on the day of its opening in New York.
Throughout the tour Poirier encourages visitors to move around and inquisitively explore the works from the infinite vantages through which they were meant to be seen. The New York show, featuring a vibrating chorus of wall-mounted reliefs with black-and-white pinstripes, dangling wires, dark colors, and floating squares, offers a refreshing call to action: put the camera phone away and take in the works with perception in mind; walk around and before them and watch as Soto’s genius elegantly unfolds.
Born in Venezuela, Soto is frequently discussed among fellow Latin American masters of abstraction, yet Poirier’s two shows aim to loosen these ties and highlight the artist’s universality. He moved to Paris in 1950, and it was there that he became exposed to major contemporaries and forebears including Piet Mondrian, Yves Klein, László Moholy-Nagy, and Kazimir Malevich. The late works by Mondrian, Malevich’s iconic White on White (1918), Moholy-Nagy’s dynamic grids, and Klein’s investigations into color were all highly influential. The show, which celebrates the beginning of Perrotin’s collaboration with the Soto estate, is a retrospective of sorts featuring nearly 60 works across the two venues, spanning 1957 to 2003—two years before the artist died. Poirier has set the works, which come from the estate and museum collections, in conversation, presenting the major dialogues that characterize the artist’s output. He notes that the trajectory of Soto’s career was cyclical, rather than linear, which becomes evident through the exhibition, where there are no clear distinctions between early and late works.
In 1965, Soto famously refused to be included in the Museum of Modern Art’s monumental op and kinetic art exhibition “The Responsive Eye.” Despite his associations with both movements, Soto rejected these labels. His works are not easily categorized—they’re not paintings or sculptures, not narrative or symbolic, and despite their appearances, they’re not optical illusions. “Perception is the medium,” Poirier notes, and the show’s title, “Chronochome” (combining concepts of chronology and monochrome), further encapsulates Soto’s intentions. “The experience of the work takes place in the real time and space of its perception,” Poirier explains.
Today, Soto may be best known for his “Penetrable” installations—large-scale environments made primarily from nylon tube verticals hung from above—which are photogenic, but must be experienced in person. One such work is included in the Paris exhibition, which invites visitors into its bounds, offering constant physical contact while inside. Poirier explains that this is “the ultimate experience” of Soto’s work: “You are diving into a monochrome.” Untitled, (Mur bleu) (1966), in the New York show, is an important precursor to these works; a miniature version that hangs on the wall, its tendrils sway ever so slightly as viewers walk by.
While smaller in scale and subtler in effect, Soto’s wall-mounted pieces are made from layers of simple forms and materials—sheet metal, panel, wire, nylon thread, dowels—yet combined in such a way that they produce stunning effects, often dizzying or appearing as though certain parts are floating. In Poirer’s words, there is an “amazing discrepancy between the simplicity of the physical fact and the complexity of the perceptual effects.” The works share a resistance to stasis; shape and color, foreground and background, negative and positive space are all in flux. In an art world that is quickly becoming as virtual as it is physical, Soto’s works are a comforting reminder that nothing can replace the delightful and necessary act of seeing art in person.