The hypnotic art of Jesús Rafael Soto, the Venezuelan genius who conquered Paris | ICON Design

A single exhibition can make history, as can a single artist. In Paris in 1955, gallery owner Denise René organized a group show called The Movement which marked the official birth of an artistic movement, kinetic art, which used the perception of movement for expressive purposes. The public was fascinated by a set of works that developed thanks to the movement of the spectators themselves, which incorporated motors or simply oscillated in perpetual unstable equilibrium. It was also a meeting between generations, bringing together veterans of the stature of Duchamp and Calder with mid-career creators, such as the already famous Victor Vasarely, and also a flock of young people led by Jean Tinguely. Among the latter was a thirty-something Venezuelan who had been living in the French capital for five years, and whose work had caught the eye of the mythical Denise René. His name was Jesús Rafael Soto (Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela, 1923-Paris, 2005), and his identification with that newly born movement would become so close that, just as Dalí had done with surrealism, he could have proclaimed: “Kinetic art is me.”

Soto never did such a thing, of course. And, on this point, gallery owner Adolfo Cayón is in charge of demolishing clichés. “Soto had very deep roots, compared to the overabundance of kinetic artists who were purely visual,” he explains. “Often, the kinetic has fallen into the decorative, while Soto’s work was more intellectual.” The headquarters of his gallery, Cayón, in Mahón (Menorca), presents this summer (until August 29) the solo exhibition SOTO with 41 pieces by the Venezuelan artist, the fourth since he began managing his legacy a little over a decade ago. In September, the two spaces at his headquarters in Madrid will open the season with another exhibition by Soto, focused on his T-shaped metal pieces. “In total, over three months, there will be around 60 works on display that cover all of his intellectual work,” says the gallery owner. “It is a very ambitious exhibition, due to the number and quality of the works, many of which have never been on the market.”

‘Big Orange on High’ (2001), Cayón Menorca. Works by Soto courtesy of Atelier Soto, Paris, 2024.Cayon Gallery, Madrid/Manila/Menorca

Jesús Rafael Soto was born in 1923 in Ciudad Bolívar, some 500 kilometres from Caracas, into a family that his daughter Florence Soto describes as hard-working and “matriarchal.” “His mother, Emma Soto, was the pillar of the family,” recalls Florence Soto. “And his grandmother, Paola Soto, was a schoolteacher and used to ride to Caracas on horseback to get notebooks, books and pencils for the schools. His father, Luis Rafael García Parra, a renowned violinist in the region, played for weddings and other family events, and also, as was customary at the time, improvised at silent film screenings.” Jesús Rafael Soto himself, who had shown skill and interest in drawing since childhood, would contribute to the family economy at just 16 years old, painting movie posters for the three movie theaters in Ciudad Bolívar, as well as engraving tombstones for the local cemetery.

At the age of 19, he won a scholarship to study at the Cristóbal Rojas School of Fine Arts in Caracas, which he would later remember as a great studio, with its facilities open until late at night and teachers very dedicated to their work. One of them, the painter Antonio Edmundo Monsanto, a supporter of an entire generation of Venezuelan artists, supported him with particular commitment. Shortly after graduating, Soto was appointed director of the School of Fine Arts in Maracaibo. The discovery of an artistic work dating from 1918 changed his view of things. “It was then that he heard about the painting,” he said. White on white, “Kazimir Malevich’s work, which was exhibited in New York,” explains Soto’s daughter. “But he was also somewhat discouraged by the teachers’ lack of interest in new trends. So he responded to his classmate Alejandro Otero’s invitation to travel to Paris.”

'Penetrable BBL Yellow' (1999), Cayón Menorca.  Soto works courtesy of Atelier Soto, Paris, 2024.
‘Penetrable BBL Yellow’ (1999), Cayón Menorca. Soto works courtesy of Atelier Soto, Paris, 2024.Cayon Gallery, Madrid/Manila/Menorca

The beginnings there were not all that easy. “In order to be able to live in Paris, he began to play Venezuelan music, guitar and maracas, and to sing in different night spots in the city,” continues Florence Soto. “That’s how he met his wife and mother of his four children, Hélène de Robert. She was his companion in every way and his bridge to French culture. From the beginning of Soto’s career in France, our mother took care of preserving and organizing the documentation on his work. Thanks to that, today we have an invaluable archive.”

Settled in what was the great European capital of art, Soto deepened his interest in cubism, Mondrian and geometricism, and became part of the group of Venezuelan abstract artists The Dissidents (of which Alejandro Otero was a founding member), approached Vasarely and joined Denise René’s staff. Already in 1956, a year after The MovementRené’s gallery dedicated his first solo exhibition to him. By the early sixties he was a highly recognized artist for his geometric and kinetic practice, which was initially two-dimensional, then jumping into the expanded field of space. In the following years he won numerous awards and distinctions both in France and Venezuela, intervened in the interiors of unique buildings and installed various monumental works in public spaces. In 1973, in collaboration with the architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva, he created the Jesús Soto Museum of Modern Art in his hometown, with his own work and that of other artists from his collection. In 1966 he had participated in the Venice Biennale with a large installation of vertical rods that was intended to envelop the spectator, and which was the germ of his Penetrableworks that the visitor can walk through, which would become the most personal and recognizable part of his work.

One of the more than 20 Penetrable that Soto would make throughout his career is in the exhibition at the Cayón gallery in Menorca. Adolfo Cayón finds links between this series and the work of the French impressionist painter Claude Monet: “For me it refers to The water lilies Monet. Although Soto is often associated with constructivism or the geometric artists he encountered in Paris, he actually most revered the Renaissance artists, as intellectual creators, and the Impressionists, for their use of color.

'Progression elliptique rose et blanche (Pink and white elliptical progression)' (1974), Cayón Menorca. Works by Soto courtesy of Atelier Soto, Paris, 2024.
‘Progression elliptique rose et blanche (Pink and white elliptical progression)’ (1974), Cayón Menorca. Works by Soto courtesy of Atelier Soto, Paris, 2024.Cayon Gallery, Madrid/Manila/Menorca

The exhibition takes advantage of the scenographic splendour of the old cinema in which Cayón’s Menorcan headquarters are located, and offers a tour of five decades of Soto’s career, ending up becoming an exhaustive catalogue of geometry, colour, movement and moiré effects. Something similar happened three years ago in the same place, when Cayón presented his fifth exhibition of Carlos Cruz-Díez, another Venezuelan kinetic artist, close to Soto and born the same year as him. “We have had the enormous luck of working with these two fundamental artists, who have in common a great demand, as well as the obligation they impose on the spectator to participate in the work,” says Adolfo Cayón. “The differences between them are very subtle, but I would say that Cruz-Díez was an artist of pure visual enjoyment, while Soto was more intellectual.”

As for Soto’s legacy, his daughter Florence believes that it remains fully relevant. “Both the public and young artists continue to study through his work the incorporation of movement and time into artistic creation,” she says.

It so happens that the exhibition coincides with another dedicated by the recently opened space in Mahón of the Madrid gallery Albarrán Bourdais, dedicated to Felice Varini, a contemporary Swiss artist who also stands out for his personal use of geometry, colour and optical effects. His work is further proof of the relevance that artists such as Soto and the first kinetic artists maintain intact.

Exhibition of Jesús Rafael Soto at the Cayón Gallery in Menorca (Balearic Islands, Spain). Works by Soto courtesy of Atelier Soto, Paris, 2024.
Exhibition of Jesús Rafael Soto at the Cayón Gallery in Menorca (Balearic Islands, Spain). Works by Soto courtesy of Atelier Soto, Paris, 2024.Cayon Gallery, Madrid/Manila/Menorca

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