Carlos Cruz-Diez’s Physichromie 678 belongs to a series of infinitely modular avant-garde pieces that, from 1959 onwards, would serve as a platform to further radicalize modernist understandings of what art is. By the 1960s, the modernist notion of art as critical engagement with reality of any kind (political, aesthetic and ethical) was well-established, and the fury of the avant-gardes of previous decades had been tamed and channelled into the art-world and its Cold War paradigms, roughly corresponding to a confrontation between abstraction and figuration. Like other Latin American artists in the same context, Cruz-Diez avoids the pitfalls of such polarization, reclaiming the critical aspect of modernist art from Cold War cultural institutions: if modernity meant velocity, perceptual fragmentation, and mass movements, then its art must be equally kinetic. The art of modernity should not produce static reflections in solitude, where conceptual abstractions such as form and content reign, but collective momentary experiences where the primacy of relations becomes undeniable.
Like other works in the series, Physichromie 678 reflects Cruz-Diez’s focus on the relationships between visual elements, highlighting interactions dependent on spectator positions and the environment in which the work is placed. The name reaffirms the physicality of color, its effects not as a vehicle of signification but as the product of light. These “light traps”, as the artist has called them, are entirely relational, in the sense that they change completely in accordance to spatial and personal conditions.
It is in movement where the work takes place, in the active participation of a spectator that changes her relationship to what is being seen by traversing the space where it is found. Cruz-Diez’s kinetic art, and the Physichromie series in particular, is based upon an idea of perception as potentially unmediated access to reality, the departure point to supersede ideas of form/content, of reason/emotion. Thus, every Physichromie is an event, a spatio-temporal dialogue where color is the direct anchor of affects detonated by movement and changes in light.
Physichromie 678, for instance, is centered around a grid of a chromatic scale in which, at first appearance, red and blue constitute diametric opposites, complemented on each side by degrees of white, building up into different combinations. This means that when the spectator is standing before the work, she will be struck by it in a uniquely specific manner that will reflect not only environmental lighting but her own perceptual relation to the space. Whereas the first Physichromies prioritized simplicity of both structure and color palette, by 1973 Cruz-Diez was playing with more complex relationships that widened the kind of events, of experiences, that spectators could have with them.
Thus, 678 builds upon the “organic” articulation of shapes and colors by the viewer’s perception through a different spectrum set beyond the primary, resulting in permutations where squares fade in and out of view, or where red becomes an indeterminate shade of yellow. The year 1973 also marked a shift in Cruz-Diez’s use of materials: up until then, the lattices in Physichromies were built out of painted cardboard upon a wooden base, with aluminum or acrylic flaps that would aid light reflection. Afterwards, he made the entire structure out of aluminum U-shaped pieces, upon which he screenprinted the color bands, giving the works more durability, but also allowing more striking effects from the “light traps”
In the end, it is in movement where the Physichromie is realized, and also where it boldly states that art is not to be contemplated, but to be lived, always rooted in a specific space and time.