While Venezuelan artist Jesús Rafael Soto (1923-2005) is recognized as an important 20th-century Latin American artist and a key figure within the Kinetic and Op art movements, he is arguably a neglected presence in the history of postwar art. A recent exhibition at Haunch of Venison was the first substantial presentation of the artist’s work in New York since a solo show at the Guggenheim Museum in 1974. And not surprisingly, this occasion offered a subtle reminder that Soto’s object-paintings and sculptures, particularly those of the 1950s and ’60s, should be more carefully considered and incorporated into the annals of art history.
The thoughtfully installed exhibition contained more than 20 works ranging from 1954 to 2004, a year before his death. At the show’s entrance, visitors encountered a strong midcareer kinetic work from 1973 titled Black and White Triptych. Three striped panels (painted black and white) in dialogue with a suspended mass of thin metal rods that gently vibrate and flutter before the panels, the dizzying triptych is reminiscent of both Calder’s kinetic pieces and Eva Hesse’s Metronomic Irregularity II (1966), a more contemporaneous, Post-Minimalist comparison. Despite these similarities, Soto creates something unique: the highly pristine nature of the work allows for an engagement beyond the material and mechanical components. We stop seeking what causes the movement and vibration and are instead mesmerized by how the work animatedly performs.
The early pieces (several of which were clustered in a smaller back gallery) offered evidence of Soto’s handmade esthetic and were some of the most interesting in the show. The Small Blue Cube (1962) highlights his playfulness, an important aspect of his early work and one related to his Zero Group contemporaries. Kinetic Structure (1954) consists of a 15¾-inch-square Plexiglas panel with white lines in front of a wood panel with a multicolor linear arrangement; the panels are attached by four metal bars about 10 inches long. The work exemplifies Soto’s formal concerns about perception on a basic and perfunctory level; we are unapologetically made aware of the effects he enlists for his end result (such as the rudimentary optical play between the Plexiglas and wooden panels) and are allowed access to the artist’s thoughtful working process.
The monumental Writing, N.Y. (1984), measuring more than 16 feet long, was one of the more successful later works on view. Soto effortlessly encourages the viewer to decode the textlike forms. Part mural, part kinetic object-painting, the piece possesses an unexpected coherence as a multitude of metal rods unfolds across five panels (comprising Soto’s preferred squares), much like a sheet of impenetrable music. But when viewed from the side, the work becomes a three-dimensional drawing, wildly dancing into the gallery space. As the rods erratically penetrate the room, they belie the coherence of the work when viewed head-on. While much of Soto’s oeuvre actively engages with perceived movement, here the viewer inevitably moves around the work, which entails an altered impression of the composition: order suddenly turns to chaos.
Photo: View of Jesús Rafael Soto’s exhibition, showing New Writing (left), 1963, paint on wood and metal with nylon, 34 1/4 by 63 by 5 1/2 inches; at Haunch of Venison