Carlos Cruz-Diez’s Physichromie No. 965

Carlos Cruz-Diez was born in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1923. In his early career, Cruz-Diez portrayed Venezuela’s working poor. But he quickly came to the conclusion that simply representing the downtrodden on his canvas was not going to change their situation. He aimed to create work with which the public could interact.

Traditionally, works of art have been described in terms of their use of color and form. Cruz-Diez focused almost exclusively – and radically – on color, and did away with form entirely in his creation of  the Physichromies. Since 1959, he has produced countless Physichromies, structures whose colors appear to change when viewed from different angles. The Physichromies mark a departure from traditional painting in two ways: first, instead of representing people or objects, the works focus on the sensory experience of color; second, the appearance of the Physichromies changes dynamically as the viewer moves in front of and around the work. This particular Physichromie, for example, appears “red” from one side and “blue” from the other.

The Physichromie contains vertical stripes of single colors made out of plastic and metal. The inner layer of these stripes forms the structure of the work. An outer layer appears, perceptually, as the stripes are continuously reflected by thin, mirror-like strips of metal. As the viewer approaches the Physichromie, individual stripes of color come into view. Directly in front of the work, this inner layer of color is most visible.  Yet the viewer doesn’t just see colored stripes. Viewed from a distance, the stripes merge to suggest new colors.

In these works, Cruz-Diez makes use of the phenomenon of additive color, in which two colors added together form a third color. The human eye can see three colors: red, green, and blue. We call these the primary colors. All other colors that we perceive are combinations of the three primaries. When the viewer looks at a number of colored stripes, as in the Physichromies, he or she perceives the optical effect of a third color, which is a combination of the visible colors in the Physichromie. The colors of the Physichromie will appear differently under changing lighting conditions throughout the day. By moving around the Physichromie and seeing different manifestations of color, the viewer chooses his or her own visual experience.

The Physichromies contributed to the resurgence, in the 1960s, of kinetic art, in which optical and sensory effects are induced by mechanical and perceived movement. Bridging science and art, Cruz-Diez applied his knowledge of the physics of color and vision to his philosophical convictions about the social role that art plays. For Cruz-Diez, the Physichromies represent the ultimate form of participatory art, one in which the pure experience of color becomes a liberating force.

By Sandra Schachat.