Art Review: The Mechanics Behind Perspective

Once a figure of international renown, Jesús Soto is now mostly remembered as a minor Modernist who worked in the overlap among hard-edge abstraction, kinetic art and Op Art. “Soto: Paris and Beyond, 1950-1970” at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery will not precipitate a run to revive his reputation, but it does open an interesting window on the mid-20th-century philosophical landscape of modern art.

Jesús Soto

Jesús Soto

At a time when the Abstract Expressionists were painting monuments of ecstatic selfhood, Soto (1923-2005) disavowed personal expression. His aim was to heighten viewer awareness of the roles played by eyes and bodies in the experience of art and the world at large. Formally his works were invariably suave, but he was more interested in phenomenology than aesthetics — more in how than what we see. In that sense he anticipated much of what was to come in the art of the past half-century. But by the end of the 1960s his initial radicalism was eclipsed by other avant-garde developments on both sides of the Atlantic.

Born and raised in Venezuela, Soto moved to Paris in 1950 when he was 27. Despite the ravages of recent war and the rising influence of New York, Paris was still widely considered the center of the modern art universe, and Soto went there to find an ambience of innovative cosmopolitanism that his homeland lacked.

One of the earliest paintings in this exhibition, which was organized by Estrellita B. Brodsky, a Soto expert, shows where he was coming from and where he was going. “Untitled (Dynamic Composition)” (1950-51) consists of a jumbled configuration of bold, black, glyphlike forms smoothly painted over horizontal blue and yellow rectangles on a white field. The lower, gridded layer shows the influence of Mondrian’s severe geometry while black silhouetted shapes suggest a more expressive and playful attitude. There is tension between order and spontaneity in the painting, but more significant for Soto’s future is the optical experience of the viewer: it is easy to focus on one or the other layer but hard to see both at once.

Soto’s lesson is that truth depends on perspective. What from here seems to be one thing might from there appear to be something else. To know the absolute truth of a given state of affairs would be God-like. But it is possible to see something from multiple directions. You can walk around it, and further certify its reality by touching and grabbing — if it’s the sort of thing that can be touched and grabbed. However uncertain one or another perspective may be, a lot of them tend to add up in memory to convincing pictures of reality. Yet even so, another observer’s points of view might add up differently.

This was a distinctively modern philosophical conundrum, and Soto more explicitly toyed with it in three-dimensional constructions, also from the early ’50s. On transparent, plexiglass panels he painted compositions of stripes and geometric forms, attaching them to solid panels similarly painted, leaving as much as 10 inches of space between. Works from this series are the exhibition’s most captivating objects. Two from 1955 in which you see spiraling and swirling parallel lines through similarly woozy patterns on the transparent panels are especially effective teasers of eye and mind.

Looking at these pieces you instinctively shift back and forth to see from different angles as the relationship changes between the top and lower levels and different views appear of what is below. A photographic reproduction cannot capture this experience, which is one reason for Soto’s stated resistance to Op Art. He did not simply want to create diverting optical illusions; he wanted viewers to think about how their moving bodies affect how they know what they think they know. Reality is never fixed; the relationship between the observer and the observed is always shifting.

Later in the 1950s Soto developed a new approach. He covered panels with fine parallel lines in black and white and attached three-dimensional objects made of bent wire, string and other materials in front of them. The backgrounds, whether horizontal or vertical, cause the objects in front to flicker, lending the impression of immaterial virtuality.

In numerous pieces he juxtaposed this dissolving effect with areas of emphatic, painterly and sculptural physicality. The biggest and most commanding piece in the show, “Mural” (1961), is a 16-foot-wide diptych in which unidentifiable mechanical refuse is attached to the left side and painted mostly black. To the right, gridded fencing, razor wire and lengths of pipe levitate against a black-and-white-striped background. Between inert grunge and violent dynamism yawns a terrific metaphysical abyss.

Soto went on to create walk-in environments of hanging lengths of nylon tubing that he called “Penétrables,” which, unfortunately, this exhibition’s organizers found unfeasible to include. Absent such innovations, Soto’s later achievement is hard to estimate. Going by what is here, he tended increasingly to sacrifice robust physicality for an elegance bordering on preciousness. Too many works relying on the formula of objects in front of stripes produce intimations of arrested development. But other potentially revelatory perspectives are possible. If we learn anything from Soto, it would be that.