Colour is inseparable from art. In many ways, art is the manipulation of light and as a result, colour. Carlos Cruz-Diez, one of the most innovative artists of the 20th century, mastered and manipulated colour like no other. His understanding of how it functioned bordered on the scientific - his artworks looking like a catalogue of experiments.
The Venezuelan’s life was a long history of breaking new ground. If we look at his awards, his first major one coming in 1965 for the ‘Grand award’ from the National University of Córdoba’s (Argentina) exact science department to his 2015 Turner Medal for Colour, they display a fascination for the exploration of the way light makes colour and, in a larger context, how we can view the whole world through this lens.
Cruz-Diez’ most important work is viewed by many to be his Physicromie series. It constitutes hundreds of artistic compositions that relentlessly investigate how colours work. This idea came to his mind partly by accident, as so many of art and science's greatest discoveries do. Whilst designing a programme for the New York Philharmonic orchestra, he observed the way the vivid red of one page contrasted, initially, with the bright white of the adjacent page.
Then, when turning the page slowly, the red reflected on the white page as a sort of spectrum, from dark to light, depending on where and how he held it in relation to a light source. He was fascinated. Beginning to build around this phenomenon, he cut out cardboard strips, intersecting them on a surface and compiling them in various formations to influence how our eyes perceived their properties as an entirety.
Structuring the ‘chromatic event modules’ allowed him to better understand the effects of light and reflection from one colour onto another - almost like an optical illusion. These interactions were transformative on the surface. Like his wonderment at the initial discovery, his audience were now able to observe as he did by orienting themselves around each piece, seeing a kinetic display unfold before their eyes.
By using transparent layers and solid layers, colours were projected where that colour didn’t physically exist, inasmuch as he never actually used the colours visible in some parts of the artworks, rather they were the result of various colours interaction with light. These physicromie’s adapted in accordance to the way people moved in relation to the fixed image.
Walking from one side to the other, the images shifted before his audience’s eyes, changing from various colours and patterns into singular coloured blocks, an effect exasperated by the intensity of the light on show. These were almost living organisms, perfect renders of nature and biology itself.
His process, Cruz-Diez felt, was similar to that of a composer. They existed in his head, but were only performed when interpreted by an audience in a certain space. That is when they came alive. “Colour is a series of occurrences,” the artist said in an interview, “it is not static and permanent, so every time I finished an artwork, there was an element of surprise. Sometimes wonderful surprises, other times not so wonderful.”
It took a vast amount of time to experiment to get it right. The process was also partly hidden as the effect could only be viewed when completed in its entirety. If it didn’t work - they were destroyed. His own amazement is a key emotion to be translated to his audience. It is to amaze, he said, that art exists.
“We live in a world so full of colour that we don’t notice it anymore”, he mused, making it a part of his mission to promote the colours we see and, if possible, to make people notice again by emphasising them. His influence can be seen in many artists' works who, thanks to him, allow for the continuation of his ideas. Just like the colours shifting, his influence, now posthumously after his death in 2019 at the age of 95, is a part of a new life-cycle of exploring the unnoticed power of colour.
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