Painting From Another Angle

Willard Spiegelman, the Hughes professor of English at SMU, writes about an exhibit of art by Carlos Cruz-Diez now on exhibit at the Houston Museum of Fine Art.


In the beginning, with darkness on the face of the deep, God said "Let there be light." Had he visited "Carlos Cruz-Diez: Color in Space and Time," at the Museum of Fine Arts here, he might have said "Let there be color." The MFA has made a specialty out of Latin American art, and it included the Venezuelan Mr. Cruz-Diez in a 2004 show, "Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America." This is the artist's first full retrospective. At first glance, it looks like a display of decorative experiments, only to draw you in slowly with its depth of focus and alluring splendors.

Mr. Cruz-Diez (born in 1923) has lived and worked for the past half-century in Paris. He began as a painter and still considers himself one. Aside from their dazzling palette, the five early conventional oils in the retrospective show little evidence of what Mr. Cruz-Diez would turn into. His mature work—especially the continuing series of "physichromies," of which 55 are on display—defies ordinary definitions of painting.

Mr. Cruz-Diez has become a master of visual effect, a creator of art with connections to many movements and "isms": Op Art, Kineticism, Abstract Expressionism, even Minimalism. You see his work and you think of Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, but you also think of Josef Albers, Victor Vasarely and, earlier, Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian. Because Mr. Cruz-Diez has called color "an autonomous reality . . . devoid of form" (and of anecdote and reference), you might also think of Ellsworth Kelly. But with one difference: Mr. Cruz-Diez's three-dimensional art changes as you move around it—or, in some cases, as it moves around you. It works in time as well as space.

Theories of color often seem as loony as astrology. Goethe, Vasily Kandinsky, Albers and Sonia Delaunay, among many others, had theories aplenty. Results are more important than intention.

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