Interview: El Museo Executive Director Jorge Daniel Veneciano & Master Carlos Cruz-Diez

El Museo del Barrio
May 17, 2016 4:02PM

Jorge Daniel Veneciano, Executive Director of El Museo del Barrio and exhibition curator of The Illusive Eye, El Museo’s Op and kinetic art exhibition, interviews Venezuelan-born kinetic artist Carlos Cruz-Diez.

Cruz-Diez was one of the original participants in the Museum of Modern Art's 1965 exhibition The Responsive Eye and is a key figure in The Illusive Eye. The Illusive Eye, an international survey on Op and kinetic art, offers a broad intellectual context for geometric abstraction, one that goes against the grain of formalist art history. The exhibition provides a special focus on artwork from the Americas and features major artists from eighteen countries in Latin America and beyond.

Carlos Cruz-Diez, Jorge Daniel Veneciano

Jorge Daniel Veneciano: There were five artists in The Responsive Eye who were born in Latin America. Not one of them lived in Latin America at that time; they all lived in Europe. What do you make of that fact?

Carlos Cruz-Diez: A historical coincidence comes to mind: At the end of World War II, on the Atlantic side of South America, artists in several countries began to simultaneously feel the need to break with traditional art. Without a common agreement, artists from Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Venezuela all began, to the extent they were able, to carry out experiments in search of new vocabularies. Paris was, at the time, the intellectual center of debates and the avant-garde. Hence many artists, such as the Venezuelan Alejandro Otero in 1947, traveled there seeking information we did not have in our own countries.

Following my first trip to Paris in 1955, I had the opportunity to meet many Latin Americans—artists, musicians, writers, and theater people—who lived and worked there. This means that Europe, especially Paris, was the ideal place to develop new ideas and concepts. New York was not yet what it is today.

JDV: Did you know if there were other Latin American artists who were going to be included in The Responsive Eye when you were selected for the show? Was Latin American art even an issue?

CCD: In 1960, I settled permanently in Paris in order to develop the concepts that I had structured in Caracas. Already in 1955, the exhibition Le Mouvement at the Galerie Denise René had sparked great interest in finding perceptual solutions in art. This was how a movement of artists, each with their own artistic proposal and seeking new expressive media, got started. Artists from Israel, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, Italy, Spain, France, and Latin America participated in this movement. This is also what gave rise to groups such as Equipo 57, GRAV, Gruppo Zero, Gruppo N, Gruppo T, who created art as collective expression and not as the "creation" of a single Romantic artist. All these movements and proposals coalesced in an exhibition entitled Nouvelles Tendances held at the Zagreb Museum in 1961, which was repeated in 1963. We Latin Americans participated in all those events and exhibitions, because since this was an international movement of artistic renewal, the artist's nationality was not relevant.

JDV: In 1965, did you want to be identified as a Latin American artist? Or a European artist? And today, how do you feel about artists having national or regional identifications?

CCD: The main task was to develop a vocabulary of rupture and renewal for world art. By that time, the national and the local focus of my previous work had disappeared from my objectives. I felt I was an artist of the world who worked in a city of the world named Paris. Experience had taught me that art does not need passports nor does it recognize borders. Art is universal and belongs to all beings on the planet, regardless of their place of birth. It is the most beautiful and effective communication mechanism ever invented by humans.     

JDV: Did you have any questions or concerns about the MoMA exhibition when you were invited to participate?

CCD: The curator, William Seitz, toured Europe for two years, I think, visiting the studios of the artists who participated in the shows Le Mouvement and Nouvelles Tendances. He came to Paris several times to interview me and watch me work. In one of those visits to my studio, he selected the works that were later included in the exhibition he was then organizing and which he would title The Responsive Eye. Months after that visit, I received the invitation and the paperwork I needed for the event.

JDV: Did you talk to other artists about the exhibition? And if so, what do you recall about those conversations?

CCD: Like I said before, we all were excited that the MoMA regarded us as a movement, not as citizens from some specific place. The only thing that was of concern to us was for Mr. Seitz to properly understand our aesthetic proposals, because our objective was not to focus on optical effects, but rather to prompt a reflection on the history of art and to search for new discursive possibilities.

JDV: What do you think was significant about The Responsive Eye?

CCD: That it was a distortion of our objectives, aggravated by the opinion of the New York Times reviewer, who disparagingly termed it "Op Art." This repeated a pattern: the Impressionists and Fauves were also discredited by critics at the time, who misunderstood the vocabulary used by these artists. However, on the positive side was the publicity given to our artistic vocabularies by this exhibition.

JDV: What do you think of the negative reviews it received?

CCD: Firstly, I should say that the negative reviews were the result of a lack of understanding. The vocabularies used by the artists were rendered banal. On the other hand, it turns out that American artists were not sufficiently well represented in relation to the Europeans and the Latin Americans. Secondly, it so happened that, at the same time as The Responsive Eye, Pop Art was being launched in the United States in a showy and pompous fashion, and that movement achieved global influence. This scenario explains well what happened because when it comes to art, people are lean towards familiar and well-known forms as opposed to non-traditional artistic proposals, which was the case of our work.

JDV: What do you recall about the treatment that Latin American artists received during the show? And after the exhibition?

CCD: I remember that one night, just before the show, my friend Jesús Soto came over. He was extremely upset because having analyzed the design of the exhibition, it was clear that the show intended to consecrate Victor Vasarely as the father of kinetic art. Soto, like all of us, felt that Vasarely was a great artist, but his technique was not properly kinetic. True kinetic artists were people like Soto, Agam, Tinguely. So that night we wrote a letter in which Soto irrevocably refused to participate in the exhibition, and we sent as telegram to the New York Times.

Installation shot of El Museo del Barrio's exhibition, The Illusive Eye featuring a piece by Carlos Cruz-Diez. Image by Martin Seck

JDV: Do you have any comments about the way your work was contextualized in the show and catalog?

CCD: Although in the show ideas were distorted and some key artists were missing, it was important for the way it massively disseminated in the United States—a movement that had developed in Europe, mainly in Paris. In terms of the American participation in the show, what happened was that Mr. Seitz was unable to find enough artists who represented our tendency because the most important artists at the time were involved with Pop Art. With the exception of Alexander Calder and George Rickey, it could be argued that Kinetic Art is a European and Latin American movement.

JDV: What would you have added, if anything, to the way your work was framed intellectually?

CCD: I have said many times that I have the impression of having lived in a society of blind people, where some people in the art world still do not see what my works so obviously express. Fortunately, new generations are discovering, participating in, and immediately enjoying color emerging and disappearing in time and space. It means they have learned to see what their predecessors were unable to see.

The difficulties the The Responsive Eye faced were the result of the exhibition’s lack of attention to the historical reflection that Kinetic Art suggested. Both experts and ordinary people thought the exhibit was about gratuitous optical effects or objects that cavorted around with the help of a small motor. That’s why I've said many times that the word "kinetic" is not the most suitable one to define the analytical goals of our artworks.

Naum Gabo was right when he called his artistic proposal "Realist Manifesto," because we work with realities, not with references. For the first time, time and space become the basis of artistic invention. If art was about transposing reality and feelings onto two dimensions or onto an inert volume, why not create "realities in themselves," instead of imitating reality?

A piece of Kinetic Art is not a painting or a sculpture in the traditional sense—it is the physical medium where real events are taking place in real time and space. It is the enjoyment of an unprecedented reality, not a reference to something. We have exchanged the passive and obedient contemplation that characterized art for millennia, for a dynamic and participatory attitude, making viewer and artist complicit in the creation of the work.

If these ideas had been expressed in The Responsive Eye, our works would have been received differently, in the light of a very different understanding.    

Carlos Cruz-Diez's piece on-view during El Museo del Barrio's exhibition, The Illusive Eye. Image by Martin Seck

El Museo del Barrio