Construction of perspex, paper and board: a black vertical rectangle, with cardboard strips inserted in a square frame in the upper half, forming a circular shape

Fig.1
Carlos Cruz-Diez
Physichromie No. 123 1964
Tate T03715
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Franco-Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez displayed his first series of abstract works at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Caracas in 1960.1 These were his Physichromies, named by merging the phrase ‘physical chromatism’, since according to Cruz-Diez ‘they put into play the color of light, a physical color’.2 The Physichromie series embodied extreme abstraction: strips of red, green and white cardboard inserted in a frame, sometimes forming geometric shapes, with no trace of a recognisable subject (see, for example, Physichromie No. 123 1964; fig.1).

The critical reaction to the Caracas exhibition was not positive. Cruz-Diez was criticised for having turned away from his own much-admired figurative work, and was accused of having lost his artistic creativity to graphic design.3 Six years later, he exhibited the same series in the same city – this time at the Fundación Eugenio Mendoza – and half of the works were sold within two hours of the exhibition’s opening. The artist was acclaimed by critics and would soon be commissioned to create a series of public works throughout Venezuela.4 This paper will explore the reasons why this series experienced such opposing receptions only six years apart, arguing that it was not due to changes in the works or to an increased audience openness towards abstraction. The difference in reception will in part be explained through reference to art historian and critic Terry Smith’s well-known 1974 article on ‘the provincialism problem’, in which he writes about a common pattern whereby artists who work in places that are geographically removed from metropolitan centres achieve success and validation by travelling abroad.5 However, I will also argue that Cruz-Diez’s Physichromies provide a case study in how charges of conformity to the centre can mask the continued relevance of local contexts.

Several art historians have suggested that with Cruz-Diez’s move to Paris in 1960, and his adoption of a European form of modernism, he abandoned his Venezuelan identity. Oriana Baddeley and Valerie Fraser, for instance, excluded Venezuelan kineticism from their survey of Latin American art, declaring that it embodied the values of ‘international capitalism’ and could therefore not be discussed as ‘Latin American’ art.6 The apparently neutral, denationalised and depoliticised universality sought by Venezuelan abstractionists was deemed too typical of the art of the metropolitan centre, and not of the ‘periphery’ with which Venezuela was identified.7

Although a stylistic shift is clearly evident in Cruz-Diez’s work following his move to Paris, I will argue that Cruz-Diez continued to be deeply invested in the art of Venezuela and in fact used his turn to European modernism to raise the profile of Venezuelan art. When Cruz-Diez studied history and art history in Caracas, he recognised that both Venezuela and Latin America as a whole were absent from his textbooks.8 This absence triggered his highly modernist ambition to put his country and name on the map, followed by a physical move to what he recognised as the artistic ‘centre’ in Paris – both actions which, as will be discussed below, would seem to fit the provincialist patterns discussed by Terry Smith. Moreover, the absence of Venezuela in history books was set against the constant presence of Europe in those books, creating a tension for Cruz-Diez between history and modernity, between past and future, where Europe is seen as ‘history’ whereas the Americas are recognised as the site of modernity. As a consequence, Cruz-Diez aimed to work between the two, finding a place for himself in history while simultaneously embracing America’s ‘youth’ and freedom from historical baggage. In 1955, when the artist spent a year in Spain, his project to make Venezuelan art visible involved working in a figurative style; by 1959, when he first began to conceptualise the Physichromie series, this tactic had changed.

The ‘American problem’ and the ‘Provincialism problem’

Fellow Venezuelan artist Jesús Rafael Soto was a close contemporary of Cruz-Diez, with both attending the School of Visual and Applied Arts in Caracas in the 1940s and both later embracing a style of art that came to be known as kineticism.9 Kineticism was a geometric form of abstraction, developed by artists of different nationalities in Paris during the 1950s and 1960s, all of whom directed their attention towards movement. While some artists achieved this by including motors in their artworks, Soto and Cruz-Diez were among those whose kineticism relied on the movement of the spectator. Both artists’ shift to kineticism was precipitated by an engagement with European styles, although at different times. Soto made the journey first, moving to Paris in 1950, a decade earlier than Cruz-Diez. Shortly after his arrival, Soto wrote to Cruz-Diez, who years later recalled having the following reaction to Soto’s letter:

When he arrived in Paris, Soto sent me a letter filled with his impressions about the plastic arts and with his fascination for the great museums and masters. I was extremely annoyed by it and didn’t even reply. I thought he had eluded the American problem. He had eluded the commitment that an artist should have to his homeland, which was to narrate folklore and local issues through painting.10

The ‘American problem’ was Cruz-Diez’s own term, and it was his short-hand way of referring to the responsibility that any American artist had to represent the social contexts and issues of their homelands. In 1950, when the letter was sent, Cruz-Diez was a figurative painter identifying specifically as ‘American’ – using the term ‘America’ to refer to the continent, and not to the part of North America that is the United States. Venezuelan landscape, folklore and social inequalities were recurrent subject matter in his work at this time; for instance, in El Papagayo Verde (The Green Kite) 1949 (fig.2) Cruz-Diez narrated the local issue of extreme urban inequality by placing the green kite of the title in the slum areas on the edges of Caracas. While the artist’s experimentations with geometry and colour were already starting to take place in this work, Cruz-Diez’s commitment was visibly directed towards the portrayal of a local context in line with his idea of the ‘American problem’. From 1959 onwards, after his transition from figuration to abstraction, Cruz-Diez would refuse the label of ‘Latin American’ or ‘American’ art for his work, instead promoting the idea of a ‘universal’ art.

Landscape painting with men in the foreground flying green kites on hilltops overlooking slum areas on the edges of Caracas

Fig.2
Carlos Cruz-Diez
El Papagayo Verde 1949
Collection Familia Savino

The critical and academic debate around the construction of American, Pan-American and Latin American identities was intense in the mid-twentieth century.11 The idea of ‘greater America’ had been advanced as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century by Venezuelan military leader Simón Bolívar, who was known as ‘El Libertador’ (The Liberator) for his role in fighting for Latin American independence from the Europeans.12 The term ‘greater America’ parallels the later term ‘Pan-America’, fostered by the Pan-American Union that was founded in Washington, D.C. in 1890. Although the Pan-American Union included a very active and influential Visual Arts Unit, with Cuban lawyer, art critic and writer José Gómez Sicre as its chief at the height of the Cold War, it must be noted that the Union focused on socio-political and economic interactions between the US and other countries in the continent, rather than artistic ones.13 The presence of the US as an economic power in Latin America was a crucial part of the Pan-American Union and its promotion of Pan-American identity. While the details of this history extend beyond the scope of this article, it is important to highlight how Cruz-Diez’s idea of America was far removed from these geopolitical concerns. Instead, he focused on the contrast between the ‘youth’ of the American continent and the ‘history’ of the European continent. According to the artist, the ‘old’ culture found in Europe was distracting fellow American artists from narrating their own stories, leading them instead to conform to foreign rules.

Carlos Cruz–Diez's Untitled (from the series Parenchymas) 1955, an abstract painting featuring rounded and lozenge shape forms similar to paving stones or cobbles

Carlos Cruz–Diez
Untitled from the series Parenchymas 1955
Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros
© 2019 Carlos Cruz-Diez/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

By using a definition of America that encompassed the continent as a whole, Cruz-Diez positioned Soto’s fascination with Europe within a broader, continental context. It is clear from Cruz-Diez’s reaction to Soto’s 1950 letter that at the time he regarded the role of the American artist as one of narrating the specificities of local issues and national folklore, and that he thought artists who left to live in Europe were treacherous. In the 1956 catalogue of his first European exhibition in Madrid, Cruz-Diez describes the task of the American artist as that of avoiding work that is merely a late echo of European accomplishments.14 As a result, the American artist must find a language and a logic of their own, a fusion of colonial and indigenous histories. Since this fusion was possible only for American artists, in order for it to be preserved Cruz-Diez believed that they must engage with Europe in ways that did not overwhelm their uniquely American perspective. Cruz-Diez’s series Parenchymas of 1955–6 ­(see fig.3) – in fact produced in Europe during his stay in El Masnou, Spain – are an attempt to create signs and symbols which form a new local vocabulary, blending transnational influences with those from Venezuelan culture.15

Although Cruz-Diez stressed that American art needed to avoid simply echoing European art, it was not clear at the time exactly how much stylistic ‘influence’ an artist might be allowed in order for their work to be acceptable on these terms. The presence of European echoes was Cruz-Diez’s main criticism of Soto’s new works, yet by 1957 Cruz-Diez had begun investigations on the instability of the picture plane that shared remarkable methodological similarities with the very works by Soto that Cruz-Diez had previously rejected. From this point onwards, both artists experimented with the animation of the picture plane and the simplification of form seen in Parisian concrete and kinetic art.16 This is an apparent shift from one culture to another that, in order for its full set of complexities and contradictions to be understood, needs to be seen in terms of the fact that Europe has always been an integral part of Venezuelan culture.

It has been observed that weak links between Venezuela and its pre-colonial past meant that European culture was in some senses a more current and approachable tradition than the indigenous one, especially in a coastal city like Caracas.17 According to the historian Guillermo Morón, Venezuelans are the product of both old mestizaje (mixing or hybridity), which was a combination of European colonisers and indigenous peoples, and new mestizaje, taking place as a result of the waves of migration in the twentieth century.18 The first areas that the Spanish occupied in the Latin American mainland in 1501 correspond to what became the Venezuelan coast, and the mixing of populations started that same year. Venezuelan identity can therefore be understood through the encounter of hispanic and pre-hispanic heritage since the very earliest stages of colonialism. As opposed to other countries in Latin America, all the indigenous populations in the Venezuelan territory were nomadic, meaning that there was never any monumental construction or city for the Spanish to destroy. This made the Spanish invasion of the territory less antagonistic than in other cases, and consequently the disappearance of the nomadic tribes was more gradual, taking place more through racial mixing than through destruction.19 It is also worth noting that Venezuelan independence from the Spanish was not initiated by indigenous people, but by the criollos – a group that included both full Spanish descendants and Spanish and indigenous descendants. By the beginning of the twentieth century, when Cruz-Diez was born, the traces of Venezuelan indigenous cultures were mainly seen in the form of portable art – clay votive figurines in human and animal forms – and were therefore not as visible as either the colonial cities that had been built by the Spanish colonisers, or the other European influences brought to the country through immigration.

Spanish colonisation of Venezuela was not only territorial but notably cultural, and in the first few decades of the twentieth century, when artists like Cruz-Diez and Soto began their training, education was still very much centred on European teachings, and teachers were of Spanish or Spanish descent.20 The educational programmes of the School of Visual and Applied Arts in Caracas in the 1940s still presented impressionism and cubism as the greatest innovations in art, often in black and white reproductions and detached from their contexts and legacies.21 The dictator Marcos Perez Jiménez fervently promoted European immigration into Venezuela, adding a fresh layer of European presence in the country.22 Despite the strong ties to European heritage in Venezuela, the first access that Cruz-Diez had to more up-to-date forms of European modernism was through the public commissions awarded to European artists by Venezuelan architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva for his Ciudad Universitaria (1954), and through journals like Art d’Aujourdhui or Domus.23

What Cruz-Diez discussed as the ‘American problem’ can be usefully contextualised by setting it against Terry Smith’s later discussions of the ‘provincialism problem’ (outlined in 1974, and taken up again in 2017).24 According to Smith in his analysis of the ‘provincialism problem’, the geographical isolation of artists in the ‘peripheries’ creates a tension between an ‘urge to localism’ and a ‘reluctant recognition’ that all the standards and criteria for art are being established in the ‘centre’. In artistic production outside of the ‘centre’, for instance, European ‘faithful echoes’ are often selective and are taken up within a context of historical and cultural dependence on Europe. Smith emphasises how both the detachment of certain European works from their backgrounds, and sometimes the quality of their reproductions, can contribute to a distortion of the European source.25 The concepts of distortion and the selective assimilation of sources are crucial to Latin American modernism, and are explored by Mari Carmen Ramírez in the catalogue of the groundbreaking 2004 show Inverted Utopias at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.26 The ‘distortions’ found in Smith are reframed as ‘inversions’ by Ramírez – a reference to the famous Inverted Map of Latin America of 1943 by the Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-Garcia, but also to the ways in which Latin American modernists transformed European influences through their local contexts. The best-known Venezuelan kinetic artists – Alejandro Otero, Soto and Cruz-Diez – recognised the limits of their education to different extents and at different stages of their careers. They all found a solution to these ‘distortions’ and geographical isolation through another one of Smith’s provincialist ‘patterns’: the physical move to the ‘centre’. By moving to Europe, and specifically Paris, Venezuelan kineticists created inevitable connections between their own localisms and what they viewed as a centre. In their cases, the consequent ‘inversion’ of these European influences happened through a selection of sources, an ‘irreverent syncretism’, to use Ramírez’s words, where references that were sometimes in contradiction were equally assimilated and repurposed.27

The fact that Venezuelan kinetic artists approached their work with an emphasis on abstraction, movement, space and time was nonetheless regarded by a number of contemporary critics as eurocentrism or a dependence on European influences. In 1972, Marta Traba provided a particularly notorious example of such critical responses, writing that ‘Soto and Cruz-Diez follow the European path of self-loyalty, and the stubborn, sexless and experimental neutralism of the “visual investigations” group which they enrich with technically impeccable works’.28 This comment was made following Traba’s Marxist turn at the end of the 1960s when, to use the words of the academic Florencia Bazzano-Nelson, she shifted her approach from ‘internationalism’ to ‘regional resistance’.29 Earlier Venezuelan kineticism had been very much in line with Traba’s initial enthusiasm for Latin American artists who had become fluent in European modernism.30 Her comments on Soto’s and Cruz-Diez’s neutrality exemplify her new concerns about the dangers of surrendering to US imperialism specifically, and western criteria more broadly. According to Traba, a non-resistant attitude towards the socio-political and economic presence of the US in Latin America could result in the loss of authenticity in art.31

Traba’s ideal of ‘resistance’ was highly significant within Latin American art criticism. While it can be argued that Venezuelan abstraction does demonstrate greater cultural closeness to Europe than to its neighbouring countries, the example of Cruz-Diez shows that there was more to this than simply the adoption of a Eurocentric model of modernism and art history. Cruz-Diez’s art involved a search for a national cultural identity that was nonetheless inevitably shot through with European interaction and influence due to the long history of colonialism. This very engagement with the complexity of the national culture could easily be overlooked, as Traba and her followers expected artists across Latin America to produce works that valued the pre-colonial indigenous roots of their countries, bypassing the fact that in countries like Venezuela colonialism had resulted in little real connection with their pre-Columbian past.32 Latin American identity is indeed the result of mestizaje or ‘hybridity’ – a mixture of local and non-local roots that the academic and anthropologist Néstor García Canclini describes in terms of the ‘sedimentation, juxtaposition, and interweaving’ of cultures.33 Yet despite its usefulness as a term, ‘hybridity’ can be misleading if it implies the formation of a new homogeneous ‘Latin American’ identity, as if cultural layering and interaction took place in exactly the same way within each nation.34

The concepts of ‘youth’, ‘future’ and a freedom from an overbearing past that paralyses artistic expression are crucial to the emergence of a variety of Latin American modernisms. What is sometimes overlooked in the artists’ narratives, however, is the fact that this ‘youth’ – the absence of the cultural ‘weight’ of a connection with an indigenous culture – is in some cases a deeply colonial legacy. Tensions between old and new, past and present, individual and universal are notable factors in the development of geometric abstraction and ‘pure plastic arts’ in Europe in the first decades of the twentieth century. Just as those examples cannot be disconnected from their highly local, socio-political and historical roots, abstraction in Latin America is equally grounded in its contexts.35 The absence of explicit political and social messages, or of a recognisably indigenous set of motifs, has led to Venezuelan kinetics being placed by critics either in relation to a Parisian discourse of kineticism, or a New York discourse of op art. This has also occasionally marginalised their works in discussions of Latin American art because they are themselves thought to have become part of the hegemonic ‘centre’. Cruz-Diez’s case, however, shows how such apparently neutral works might instead be seen as examples of an extremely local attempt to access history, not just for himself but to serve his aim of positioning Venezuela in modern art history. By moving to Paris or displaying their works in New York, Venezuelan kinetic artists did not simply abandon the so-called margins in favour of the centre. Rather, they took those margins with them and worked towards their inclusion in the centre.

The Physichromie series and the ‘colour-event’

Only a few years after he expressed his concerns about the ‘American problem’, Cruz-Diez created Additive Yellow 1959, the first step towards the Physichromie series, and a programmatic work in his research on colour. It could be argued that every subsequent series produced by the artist from 1959 to today is a result of specific experiments and findings made at this point. The artist has often claimed that moving from figuration to abstraction was his way of no longer representing poverty without offering a solution, and of proposing an alternative to everyday socio-political struggles.36 Here I argue that despite the ‘universal’ and ‘apolitical’ appearance and historicising narrative attached to them, the Physichromies were indeed engaged with issues that were as ‘local’ as they were ‘universal’.

Throughout Cruz-Diez’s lifetime, Venezuela had lived under a series of dictatorial regimes of different kinds, some known as ‘dictaduras’ and others as ‘dictablandas’ (following a wordplay, with ‘duras’ and ‘blandas’ connoting ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ dictatorships, respectively).37 The 1948 presidency of Romulo Gallegos, a key figure of Venezuelan literature, was the first, brief instance of democracy in the country’s history; Gallegos was overthrown after only seven months by a military coup that took the dictator Perez Jiménez to power. This continuous political instability generated a dual reaction in the world of culture: although public institutions and private entrepreneurs kept investing in art, Venezuelan artists continued their migration to Europe, including Soto in 1950 and Cruz-Diez in 1955. Perez Jiménez’s rule is a distinctive example of military-led progress and of what scholar Lisa Blackmore called ‘spectacular modernity’.38 It was during his dictatorship that the first international art journals reached Venezuela. Art d’aujourd’hui and Domus repeatedly celebrated the aforementioned Ciudad Universitaria, designed by Carlos Raúl Villanueva and inaugurated in 1954, as a symbol of modernity. The new university was globally recognised as an example of integration of the arts following Bauhaus principles and included both European and Venezuelan artists.39 Villanueva’s successful example of putting Venezuela on the map, however, remained tied to local politics. Ciudad Universitaria was promoted as a demonstration that the absence of political debate and opposition parties meant that the government could focus on progress and infrastructural improvements.40

Perez Jiménez’s modernising desires of the 1950s provide a key context for Cruz-Diez’s research on colour. The artist’s sources for this research were art historical, philosophical and scientific, and drew on his studies of the physiology of vision and his experience as an illustrator and graphic designer. After his brief period in El Masnou in Spain during 1955, where Cruz-Diez went back and forth between figuration and non-figuration, it was back in Caracas in 1959 that his art became permanently detached from representation. It became detached, too, from the idea of the spectator as a passive viewer and from the concept of ‘chemical colour’, to use philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s terminology.41 From then on, Cruz-Diez approached colour from a physical perspective – no longer as a pigment on a canvas, but rather as the viewer’s perception of light triggered by the support.

A black canvas with a two thin lines overlapping in the centre, one green and one red

Fig.4
Carlos Cruz–Diez
Additive Yellow 1959
Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros
© 2019 Carlos Cruz-Diez/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

Cruz-Diez created Additive Yellow (fig.4) in 1959. He had studied an investigation by the US scientist Edwin Land, derived from an experiment with screens by physicist Isaac Newton, in which Land used projection to combine two colours, making a third colour appear between them without it being physically there.42 This phenomenon is known as colour addition and it triggered a series by Cruz-Diez that also involved colour irradiation, a process in which the additive colour – the yellow formed by two lines of green and red – does not appear to expand laterally, out towards the black background of the painting, but rather frontally, towards the spectator. In Additive Yellow, the phenomena of colour addition and irradiation create an impression of a yellow line coming towards our eyes and changing its intensity according to our distance from the work. The experience of seeing yellow in these works is surprising when the spectator views it more closely and realises that the yellow colour is not really there. This optical illusion is what Cruz-Diez called a colour-event. By offering an experience rather than expecting passive contemplation of his work, the artist made a strong, if implicit, democratic statement, and one related to the Venezuelan context. Cruz-Diez’s first abstract experiments made the viewer the crucial element in the ‘event’ of the work, a shift from passive to active individual involvement that paralleled the emerging democracy of his own country.

Two black panels face each other like pages of a book, each framing a square of thin vertical stripes

Fig.5
Carlos Cruz–Diez
Physichromie 1 1959
Cruz-Diez Foundation at the Museum of fine Arts, Houston
© 2011 Carlos Cruz-Diez/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

A square bas relief, comprised of a sequence of thin vertical coloured bands and fine raised polished stainless steel plates. Positioned slightly below the mid-point of the composition is a large floating circle.

Fig.6
Carlos Cruz–Diez
Physichromie 113 1963, reconstructed 1976
Tate T02094
© 2011 Carlos Cruz-Diez/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

The programmatic work of this new view of colour is Physichromie 1 1959 (fig.5), a direct consequence of Additive Yellow. While in Additive Yellow, colour was simply painted onto the canvas, in Physichromie 1 colour is featured as painted edges on a series of cardboard strips. As such, the formal novelty of Physichromie 1 lies in the kinetic quality of the picture plane. Since the two primary colours/lights (red and green) are no longer flat lines on a picture plane, they can now interact more dynamically with the absence of light (black), and the maximum of light (white). Indeed, the fact that the strips are not painted on a flat surface but appear in relief allows the combination of colour addition and reflection, depending on the ways in which light impacts the work. Moreover, the new multiplicity of planes creates a different interaction with the work, where viewers experience colour as an evolving situation when moving both in parallel and perpendicular to the work. The colour addition seen in Additive Yellow was limited to a single line of colour seeming to exit a flat canvas. In Physichromie 1, that same phenomenon is multiplied and intensified through the combination of the kinetic and plastic aspects of the work.

The Physichromies would later develop to become a synthesis of three colour phenomena: colour addition, reflection and subtraction. Subtraction takes place when the original additive strips of the first Physichromies start to be alternated with transparent monochrome strips which, instead of being laid flat on the support, are adhered at a ninety-degree angle from it along their long edge, projecting out towards the viewer. As a result, the strips play the role of filters and create further, ‘subtractive’ colour effects.43 An early example of the coexistence of these three visual phenomena is Physichromie 113 1963, reconstructed 1976 (fig.6), which features both the cardboard strips of Physichromie 1 and a new, reflective material called lumaline. This new material adds the phenomenon of subtraction to those of reflection and addition of the previous works, while the introduction of a circle provides a visual contrast that ensures that the transformation of colour takes place for the viewer.

In creating the first Physichromies, Cruz-Diez believed he had found his direction. The artist’s archive in Panama City holds an unpublished letter that Cruz-Diez wrote to Soto in 1960 while Cruz-Diez was still in Caracas and Soto had already moved to Paris. Here, Cruz-Diez explains the magnitude of his finding and asks Soto to discuss his first Physichromies with gallery owner Denise René and kinetic and op artist Victor Vasarely, clearly trying to push forward his findings before the imminent move to Paris:

I have worked intensively, and I believe I have reached a very interesting experience that has me enthusiastic and in high spirits. It is something I have called FISICROMIA and that has enormous possibilities of work and experimentation … I believe this is the greatest step of my life, my most solid and definitive step yet.44

On the one hand, this letter presents Physichromie 1 as a starting point in Cruz-Diez’s art. On the other, it confirms how this ‘step’ was the result of ‘intensive work’, a process of transition started years before, and one which in the artist’s mind required international visibility.

Cruz-Diez confirmed the modernist approach of these years in his 2014 autobiography, stating that he believed he had found a discourse on colour that was a contribution to art. However, he notes that the ‘coordinates of history’ did not emanate from Venezuela, and therefore his discourse had to be moved to a place where those coordinates could be found: Paris.45 In other words, Cruz-Diez shows a desire for a place in history, and that history to him is an evolutionary notion. This explains his concern for being the first to achieve a result and the first to be recognised for it. Being ‘internationally valid’ was a priority for Cruz-Diez as part of his goal of progress, not just for himself but for his country. Cruz-Diez’s discourse on colour was formed and matured before his move to Paris. The six years between the Caracas Physichromie shows of 1960 and 1966, while seeing technical improvements, did not change the essence of these works: reflective, additive and subtractive colour. The following decades were dedicated to perfecting the same findings through new technologies and materials and through the abandonment of the hand of the artist in favour of the most efficient machines.

Cruz-Diez’s double-bind

In the context of socio-political and cultural tensions between the centre and the periphery, the successes that Cruz-Diez experienced in cities like London, Paris and New York became the foundation for his success in Venezuela. By 1966 Cruz-Diez had exhibited in solo and group shows at Galerie Denise René – a known hub for Latin American artists in Paris experimenting with geometric abstraction – and at Signals, the London gallery managed by artist David Medalla and curator Paul Keeler which showed a variety of Latin American art accompanied by comprehensive bulletins.46 On the occasion of Cruz-Diez’s solo exhibition at Signals in 1965, the Signals journal devoted a special issue to the artist at a time when he was barely known in Europe.47

Cruz-Diez’s first success within an internationally known institution was the 1965 show The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, known as the first op art exhibition. This show was surrounded by a series of criticisms questioning the museum’s role in creating, rather than recording, a new trend.48 While fellow Venezuelan Jesús Soto refused to exhibit his works at MoMA, Cruz-Diez – who shared Soto’s reservations about being presented as a follower of Victor Vasarely and Josef Albers – participated with the specific aim of positioning his Physichromies on a globally recognised platform.49 Cruz-Diez displayed Physichromie 116 1964 in the exhibition and consequently started to be recognised on a more international scale; the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art each bought a Physichromie from the Signals exhibition that same year.50 While MoMA was commissioning US artists to produce optical works and promoting op art as an international tendency, the museum and show became a means to achieve international status for several non-US artists.

The centre-periphery tensions were even more evident in the ways that these artists were presented in the exhibition – not with reference to their individual nationalities, but rather by emphasising where the artists were based. In both the catalogue and the brochures, Albers was not presented as a German artist but as a German-born American; Cruz-Diez was not presented as a Venezuelan artist but as a Venezuelan living in Paris; Julio Le Parc was an Argentinian living in Paris, and so on.51 Most Latin American artists in the show were identified as European because of their connections with Galerie Denise René. Differentiating the origins of the artists and that of their artistic discourses can be seen as a way of raising the profile of specific artworks included in the exhibition, and of highlighting both the transnational links and the local features of the show.

Venezuelan kineticism embodies what Terry Smith discussed as the coexistence of the ‘urge to localism’ and the acceptance of the fact that the criteria for innovation in art are determined in the so-called ‘centre’.52 Cruz-Diez’s path towards abstraction was indeed intertwined with the provincialist process of appropriation of European culture, which led to the recurring problem of his positioning either as Latin American or European. The Physichromie series is the consequence of a choice to study colour with the motivation of being part of art history and allowing it to advance. Although Cruz-Diez’s figurative production was promoted by the artist as American and his abstract production as universal, his obsession with progress is without a doubt a common denominator in the first examples of Latin American abstraction, and is therefore a regional, continental and local manifestation. Whether the works were created in Caracas or Paris, the idea of progress found in Cruz-Diez’s work is at once American, Latin American, Venezuelan and European. The success of the Caracas Physichromie show of 1966 demonstrates how the international platforms that Cruz-Diez so fervently sought for his work were a necessary step towards a national recognition for Venezuela. On the other hand, it confirms both the artist’s and the country’s desire for inclusion in an international historical narrative.