Waltercio Caldas: Mirror for Velázquez, 2000, framed mirror, cardboard and yarn, 24⅜ by 88⅝ by 5⅞ inches; at the Blanton Museum of Art. 

Evoking both substance and poetics, "The Nearest Air" was a fitting title for the first comprehensive survey of works by Waltercio Caldas (b. 1946, Rio de Janeiro). Caldas has been familiar to followers of Latin American art since the late 1960s, when he began making conceptual objects, photographs, books, drawings and installations, often incorporating references to art history. Steeped in Neo-Concrete art from the late 1950s, Caldas's forms may be modest, but they leave a large perceptual footprint. Take, for example, the show's title work, O Ar Mais Próximo (The Nearest Air), 1991, which colonized an alcove near the entrance with just four pieces of yarn hung from the ceiling, two blue and two red. One of each color dangled straight down, while the other two formed languid droops that crossed in the middle. The piece recalled Fred Sandback's yarn-based works, but Caldas's effort left more to chance, the strands swaying as people passed.

Caldas arranged the 70 works in the show in one large gallery, using walls, vitrines and platforms to create a constellation of objects. Placed at the center of the space was one of his earliest works, from 1969: two silver-tipped glass wands tucked into a velvet box fitted with a plaque bearing the title of the piece, Condutores de Percepção (Perception Conductors). From its perch, this small piece resonated throughout the show. Nearby, a suite of five framed black-and-white photographs (Estudos Sobre a Vontade [Studies on Will], 1975) explored ontological concerns, each picturing a pair of hands "shaping" a ball of air. Elsewhere was Desenho (Drawing), 2011, one of several mixed-medium drawings that conjured three-dimensional objects. This one features a fractured, incomplete cube, its black edges only partially drawn and its yellow, painted faces studded with black resin. The installation Meio Espelho Sustenido (Half Mirror Sharp), 2007, was one of a handful of large works that evoked an object either coming apart or coming together. Here, Caldas fitted a wall with protruding steel rods and black vinyl shapes that suggested holes to nowhere. A glass plane hung perpendicular to the wall, and on either side of it orange yarn fell from the ceiling toward two stones that balanced the ethereal arrangement with a sense of the concrete.

Several of Caldas's pieces tether such material exploration of perception to history. In one series from 1995, cotton puffs are stretched and stamped with the names of artists—Braque, Picasso, Rodin, Mondrian—to form inch-wide clouds that honor the legacy of modernism while also questioning its substance. A number of pieces on view referenced Diego Velázquez. Espelho para Velázquez (Mirror for Velázquez), 2000, for instance, consists of a large framed mirror and a small reproduction of the Baroque artist's masterpiece Las Meninas (1656) attached at 90 degrees to the frame, so that it is reflected in the glass. Standing before the mirror, which is bisected with black and red yarn, your gaze shifts between your reflection, the painting, the lines and what is behind you. The result is a dizzying reminder that artist, viewer, context and history all play roles in the way art is seen and experienced.