Jesús Rafael Soto

Venezuelan Sculptor and Painter

Born: June 5, 1923
Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela
Died: January 14, 2005
Paris, France
What interests me is the transformation of matter. Taking an element, a line, a bit of wood or metal, and transforming it into pure light....transforming it into vibrations
Jesús Rafael Soto

Summary of Jesús Rafael Soto

Jesús Rafael Soto was a pioneer of the idea that a viewer could actually walk into an artwork and experience it from the inside, something we now take for granted, but which was revolutionary in its time. Born in Venezuela, it was in Paris in the 1950s that he immersed himself in the movements that were transforming Geometric Abstraction by using effects of motion and movement to bring artworks to life: literally, as in Kinetic Art, or metaphorically, as in Op Art, in which paintings or sculptures appear to be moving due to visual trickery. His works were realized on increasingly grand scales, so that eventually viewers could move within and throughout his vast sculptural forms. This made his work perfect for realization as grand public art, and so his legacy is visible across many cityscapes today.


The Life of Jesús Rafael Soto

Soto first became fascinated by light, movement, and perception as a child, watching native communities along the Orinoco River fish with bows and arrows, and observing the atmospheric play of light and air as he rode through the countryside on a donkey delivering mail. Years later, after moving to Paris, he encountered and inspired avant-garde artists who shared his interests in perception, illusion, and movement.

Progression of Art


Première Vibration

Soto's first significant series was his Vibrations, created between 1950 and 1960, using a range of materials. In this series, he sought to move from the two-dimensional to the three-dimensional, and to create a sense of movement in static works. In pieces like Première Vibration, he generated this sense of movement by juxtaposing a tangled mass of wires against a background of black and white vertical stripes, causing the movement of the viewer to create a shift in the visual effect of the work. This was a revolutionary idea at the time this piece was made, connected to new developments in Kinetic Art pioneered by other artists also based in Paris, such as Jean Tinguely. Other pieces in the series produce similar effects though the inclusion of T-shaped metal bars arranged in rows, nylon threads, and layers of painted plexiglass.

Curator Jean-Paul Ameline argues that these early works from Soto's "critical first decade" in Paris are "imbued with vibration and movement" and "constitute a breakthrough in his output, laying crucial groundwork for his later kinetic works and the fluid style that shaped his artistic vocabulary". In these works, which exist at the boundary between sculpture and painting, Soto aimed to "engage viewers as active participants in the process of perception" and to create what he called "the displacement of the viewer". As Soto explained, "My works keep their distance. The vibration is not felt as something tangible, as something that involves the body; it is purely optical, without physical substance. The elements that I use, I use them only to bring into reality an abstract world of pure relations, which has a different existence from the world of things".

Paint on wood and metal - Private collection


Spirale (Spiral)

Soto's Spiral is composed of a white spiral printed on a sheet of Plexiglass, mounted a couple of inches above another sheet on which is printed a black spiral. As with his Vibrations, Soto's Spirals sought to introduce a sense of movement and three-dimensionality into the experience of static, two-dimensional works, through optical trickery. As the viewer moves, the black and white spirals intersect each other at different points. This phenomena is termed the Moiré effect, which mathematician Eric W. Weisstein defines as "an interference pattern produced by overlaying similar but slightly offset templates".

Soto was inspired to create this and similar works by Marcel Duchamp's Rotoreliefs series of 1935, which consisted of several discs that, when spun at a certain speed by an electric motor, created optical illusions of depth and oscillation between concave and convex. Says Soto, "I wanted to do something similar, but without a motor." Instead, he says, "as a motor, I have only ever used the eye. At no time did I try to use the electric or mechanical motor. I wanted to implement the spectator as mechanics." Curator Nathalie Ernoult states that Soto's Spirals represent "his definitive passage from optical art to kinetic art," that is, the shift of his focus from the art of illusion and optical effects, to the art of movement.

Screen printing on Plexiglas and painted plywood - Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri



Cardinal takes the form of a vertically-oriented, rectangular black backboard, in front of which 45 steel rods are suspended from a single nylon thread at various off-horizontal angles. Regularly-spaced grooves in the backboard, more perfect horizontals, are painted alternately black and purple, with fine white lines between them. The steel rods, painted black on one side and purple on the other, move with the shift of environmental air currents, creating subtle optical illusions through their interaction with the painted and textured backdrop.

Curator and writer Judith Wilkinson notes that this work, as well as Relationships of Contrasting Elements (1965) and many other pieces by Soto from the same period, can be understood as extensions of the artist's Vibrations series, and as further investigations into the major themes that preoccupied him throughout his career, namely "the importance of physics, light and energy". Soto stated that "[w]hat interests me is the transformation of matter. Taking an element, a line, a bit of wood or metal, and transforming it into pure light [...] transforming it into vibrations." Wilkinson posits that the title "Cardinal" may refer to the use of purple in the work, alluding to the vivid red-purple of the robes worn by Catholic cardinals. At the same time, the term "cardinal" often refers to the "cardinal directions," North, South, East, and West), and the title of this piece may hint at the playful subversion of horizontals and verticals through visual illusion.

Wood on chipboard, metal rods and nylon threads - The Tate, London, England


Volume Suspendu

Soto had been experimenting with optical illusions and perception since early series such as Vibrations. However, perhaps the most significant shift in his career occurred in the late 1960s as a result of a question he posed to himself: "I wondered what would happen if I could put myself inside the vibration". Thus began his decades-long exploration of large-scale, interactive works, with which the viewer could engage phenomenologically, with their entire body and all of their senses. Volume Suspendu (1968) adapted the concept of his Vibrations and other early works, creating an environment of painted linear elements and empty spaces through which the viewer could move, becoming an integral part of the work: not just a viewer but a participant.

Soto saw Volume Suspendu as a space in which "the eye panics and loses its bearings". This was one of the first of his renowned Penetrables, works which would "envelop" the viewer. Curator Jean-Paul Ameline recognizes Volume Suspendu as "the transition between the series of Vibrations with a striated background and that of the Pénétrables proper, by associating two kinds of vibrations: on the one hand, those which one perceives from the outside, when we observe the stems which vibrate in front of the striated background fixed to the wall, on the other hand, those which we discover when we enter ourselves inside and become part of the whole".

According to the artist, "[w]hat I want to show is, by means of painting, the energetic force of space; it is for me, in a way, to tame it. If my painting has become multidimensional, it is because movement does not exist in two dimensions....The idea of Virtual Volume, which occupies me a lot, is also in itself something philosophical, like everything that is virtual, since it removes the direct link to the object. In this sense, it is something unreal and not just a new reality."

Painted wood and aluminum rods, metal - Centre Pompidou, Paris, France


Escritura Hurtado (Hurtado Writing)

In the 1960s and 1970s, Soto produced a series of Escrituras ("writings"). Art historian Mimi Ginsberg explains that, in these works, "the surface appears to reveal a mysterious script. A message forms but then visually recedes in a vertical forest of painted lines." Escritura Hurtado (1975) features erratic, curve black wires, suspended in front of a panel painted with black and white vertical stripes. The piece was originally titled Escritura Sobre Gris Oscuro (Writing on Dark Gray). But Soto changed the title to honor his friend, Venezuelan painter, filmmaker, and acting director of the Museum of Modern Art of Latin America, Angel Hurtado.

Ginsberg evokes the experience of interacting with one of Soto's Escrituras. "Move closer, and the curving lines literally dance into the foreground....Spatial relationships in Escritura are fluid. At the bottom, the wires have a physical presence that defines space. But against the background of black and white striations, their materiality dissipates and space becomes ambiguous, indefinite". While Soto's Escrituras partly represent the continuation of his experiments with effects of light, shadow, and movement, they also communicate his love of music in a way that is unique within his oeuvre.

Expanding on the above point, Ginsberg notes that Soto (himself a musician) loved both the "mathematical precision" of classical music, especially compositions by Bach, and the "pure abstraction" of more experimental, modern music. These two influences can be recognized in the visual forms he selected here, with the regular, rhythmic background representing the former, and the free-flowing, seemingly improvisational "writing" of the wires representing the latter.

Paint, wire, nylon cord on wood - Art Museum of the Americas, Washington D.C.


Houston Penetrable

The culmination of Soto's lifelong exploration of perception, movement, and experience was his Penetrables series, which dominated his output from the late 1960s until his passing in 2005. The works in this series were intended not only to be viewed from the outside but to be also entered, touched, moved through, engaged with, and even heard (many of the materials used produced unique sounds when interacted with by viewers). Soto created nearly 30 Penetrables in total. Houston Penetrable is often considered the most ambitious of the series. Though he passed away before its completion a team of assistants worked for several more years after the artist's death to realize his vision. The work comprises 24,000 PVC tubes hanging from a ceiling grid, each precisely painted to create the overall illusion of a floating, yellow elliptical orb. While the majority of Soto's Penetrables were created for outdoor spaces, this is one of the few designed for an indoor setting, and the only one designed to be (semi-)permanent.

For Soto, "[a] Penetrable is not even a work. It's more of an idea of space that can be realized in any situation and at any scale". He adds, "[w]hen you enter a Penetrable, you have the sensation of being in a light swirl, a total plenitude of vibrations. The Penetrable is a kind of concretization of this plenitude in which I make people move and make them feel the body of space." Curator Mari Carmen Ramírez asserts that this work "really needs the visitor to come alive. It is the culmination of Soto's attempts to take painting out of the painting and into the viewer's space". Similarly, curator Verónica Muñoz-Najar notes that "[a]lthough Soto's work is conceived as a geometric sculpture, it lacks a solid surface or plane; its shape is easily altered by human contact...In other words, it is a work in constant flux....[It] invites the viewer to become one with the work of art".

Art historian Ariel Jiménez argues that "Soto's Penetrable is a work looking to give a sensory form to one of the central ideas of modern science: that the material universe that we know and of which we are an integral part - including space - is essentially, a reality of energy and therefore intangible. As such, the solidity of bodies, their independence from other objects and the space they occupy, are but illusions. Every being in the universe is, thus, intrinsically linked to others. Soto's work gradually opens up until it becomes penetrable. The forms that materialise, like this parallelepipedal volume, are no longer solid bodies. They become penetrated bodies, and the penetrating beings, which instead of occupying a space, inhabit it 'like fish in water'. Bodies and beings cannot be freed from each other: the universe is not a reality dissociated from the consciousness that perceives it".

Lacquered aluminum structure, PVC tubes, and water-based silkscreen ink - The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas

Biography of Jesús Rafael Soto


Jesús Rafael Soto was born in Ciudad Bolívar in Eastern Venezuela. He was the eldest of four children born to father Luis Garcia Parra, a violinist, and mother Emma Soto. As a child, he learned to play guitar, and enjoyed drawing and painting, often recreating famous artworks he found in books and magazines. He also enjoyed reading, with Dante's Divine Comedy a favorite, though it stirred feelings of anxiety in him as he contemplated the nature of God. Soto later recalled his "great relief" upon discovering that "God was only light (in other words, energy), and that he had neither form nor a material body".

Soto explains that, when he was young, "Ciudad Bolívar was like a bridge between Europe and the interior of the country, mainly because of the exploitation of a variety of products that are no longer relevant in our market, like heron feathers, sarrapia trees, and rubber, which at the time were quite important. All those things passed through Ciudad Bolívar, the international port where people came to look for those products." He notes that many European artists also came to the city on their way further south to Brazil.

Soto remembers receiving little creative inspiration from his experiences in Ciudad Bolívar. Instead, his creative curiosity was piqued in more rural settings, as when he used to watch the indigenous communities fishing with bow and arrow along the Orinoco river. He observed with fascination how, instead of shooting directly into the water, they would shoot upward, and the arrows would reach their targets in the river only after "soaring through the air in a curve".

Soto spent a significant portion of his childhood at his aunt's home in the countryside, where he and his cousins were put to work. Soto was given the job of messenger, and rode from house to house on a donkey. It was at this time that he recalls some of his earliest transcendental experiences. He says "I remember the awe I felt as I saw the vibration of the air through the reverberation of the sun upon the earth. It was something I never got tired of seeing, that vibrating mass floating in space and shining over the roads".

Soto also recalls the visual hallucinations he experienced whilst housebound with a high fever (possibly yellow fever). He recounted: "it made me perceive very strange things that were fascinating and gave me great pleasure - so much pleasure, in fact, that I didn't want to get better, because I wanted to keep seeing them. In these visions, I would be observing someone who would suddenly shrink all the way down to a tiny, luminous point. Then the point would grow back, and the original image was restored".

At the age of 16, Soto began painting posters for cinemas in his hometown, which allowed him to bring home some extra money to help support his family. He was proud to "have been given the only paid job in the city for a painter". At this time he learned to mix powdered pigments, and the colors he favored then continued to feature prominently in his work ("perhaps," as he posited, because "they may have become etched upon my retina"). An added perk of the job was that he received free movie tickets, and he attended frequently. His favorite films were comedies, especially those starring Charlie Chaplin.

Around the same time, he began publishing avant-garde poetry in a local journal, and joined a local Surrealist student group, which experimented with automatic writing and charcoal drawing. Soto demonstrated talent for portraiture, and with the help of friends and a local bishop, he earned a scholarship in 1942 to study at the School of Visual and Applied Arts of Caracas.

Education and Early Training

At art school in Caracas, Soto took classes in "pure art" and "art education history". He was strongly influenced by his teacher, the school's director Antonio Edmundo Monsanto. Monsanto introduced Soto to Cubism, as well as the work of other Venezuelan artists like Narciso Debourg, Dora Hersen, Mateo Manaure, Luis Guevara-Moreño, and Pascual Navarro. He befriended other Venezuelan artists, like Carlos Cruz-Diez, Mercedes Pardo, Omar Carreño, and Alejandro Otero. He regularly attended meetings at the Taller Libre de Artes, where creatives and intellectuals debated new avant-garde ideas from Europe and Latin America.

It is important to note that, although he spent the majority of his career in Europe, Soto was deeply influenced by contemporary art in his home country prior to emigrating. A particularly important figure to him was the director of Caracas's art school, Antonio Edmundo Monsanto. As well as introducing the young artist to a range of contemporaries like those above, with whom Soto maintained both personal and creative relationships, Monsanto introduced his students to developments in European modernism such as Post-Impressionism and Cubism. Soto spoke of the influence of Braque on him as a young artist, and he also spent a period of time deeply influenced by Russian Constructivism and Suprematism, including the work of Kazimir Malevich. This was all thanks to the education he received in Venezuela prior to moving to Paris.

In 1947, Soto graduated with a teaching degree, and was immediately hired as the director of the Escuela de Bellas Artes ("fine arts college") in Maracaibo, a position he held until 1950. His first solo exhibition was held at the Taller Libre de Artes in Caracas in 1949. In 1950, Otero encouraged Soto to apply for a government grant to travel abroad. He was successful, and left promptly for Paris. He later told collector Claude-Louis Renard that he was struck by the quality of light in Paris, which was much more diffuse and atmospheric than the "harsh" light of Venezuela. He said: "I was truly awestruck when I arrived for the first time on the outskirts of Paris. It was the beginning of autumn, and when I saw the russet birch trees, I immediately understood why the Impressionists painted as they did."

In Paris, Soto fell in love the work of Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian. He also developed an interest in Geometric Abstraction, joining Los Disidentes, a group of expatriate Venezuelan artists mainly working in in that movement. Soto attended Belgian art critic Léon Degand's lectures at the Atelier d'Art Abstrait and befriended figures connected with the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles and the Galerie Denise René, such as Yaacov Agam, Pol Bury, Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Daniel Spoerri, and Victor Vasarely. He became personally close with Vasarely and Tinguely and through them connected with Galerie Denise René, the galley which launched the Kinetic Art movement later during the 1950s. Soto's work during this period focused on Geometric Abstraction whilst beginning to incorporate optical effects and illusions.

In April 1952, Soto married Hélène de Robert. The couple went on to have four children, Isabelle, Christophe, Anne, and Florence. That same year, the artist got involved in the Projet d'intégration des arts ("Integration Project of the Arts") at the Central University of Venezuela. The project aimed to integrate avant-garde art with architecture. Other artists involved included Otero, Fernand Léger, Hans Arp, and Henri Laurens.

Mature Period

Soto participated in the 1955 exhibition Le Mouvement, at the Galerie Denise René, which was essentially the debut of Kinetic Art. The show included work by Alexander Calder, Yaavoc Agam, Jean Tinguely, Victor Vasarely, and many other artists of international significance. Many of these artists were exploring ideas that would later come to be central to Soto's work on a grander scale, in particular the idea that the audience's movement around an artwork would affect how they experiened it; the idea that artworks could move on their own; or that they might use optical illusions to create the appearance of movement when they were static.

It was also this exhibition that launched Soto into the international spotlight, as did his participation in exhibitions with the ZERO Group, with whom he shared an interest in the empty space within an artwork as an important creative component. At this time he was still playing guitar at local bars to earn money to support his art-making. He later remembered: "I played from 11pm to 5am, slept until 2pm, then painted until 8pm. That's how I lived for ten years." This financial picture would change over the coming years, however.

Soto's participation in the iconic Le Mouvement exhibition marked his association with the Op Art movement. But his work oscillated over the next decade between this scientifically informed, precise and process-led style, and a more intuitive, gestural form of abstraction. Across this same period he began making kinetic constructions with modern synthetic and functional materials such as nylon, Perspex, steel, and industrial paint. This was a typical maneuver for an artist associated with Op and Kinetic Art. An exhibition of Soto's work was held in 1965 at London's influential if short-lived Signals gallery.

By the late 1960s, Soto had become an internationally-renowned figure. In 1968 he had two largescale solo exhibitions at important global venues for contemporary art, the Kunsthalle in Berne, Switzerland and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. One year later, a solo exhibition followed at the Musée de la Ville de Paris. Soto's first solo show in the United States was at the Guggenheim in New York in 1974. It was also during the late 1960s and 1970s that Soto began to receive prestigious commissions for monumental public works, such as at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in 1969, Paris's Grand Hall de la Régie Renault in 1975, and the Royal Bank of Toronto in 1977.

In 1973, Soto collaborated with his friend, architect Carlos Raul Villanueva, to create the Museo de Arte Moderno Jesús Soto in his hometown of Ciudad Bolívar. The museum contains works by Soto, as well as works from his personal collection of kinetic and geometric works by other artists, Like Alejandro Otero and Berto Lardera. Another major solo exhibition of Soto's work was held at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1979.

Late Period and Death

A notable creation of Soto's later years was the large-scale Penetrables, artworks that would invite the viewer to truly "enter" the work, and make meaning through the interplay of work and body. In 1987, one such work, a monumental installation made up of the artist's distinctive, vertically suspended and closely aligned tubes or stems was shown at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The work was called Volume Virtuel, expressing Soto's long-held interest in manifesting the immaterial through the presence of material elements. Soto's art was included in numerous group shows representing Op Art, Kinetic Art, Geometric Abstraction, Concrete Art, Minimalism and more. He also featured in touring exhibitions of both French contemporary art (such as Living Forms, Two Generations of French Artists, 1951-1983 in 1983) and South-American art (for example, Art in Latin America, which traveled to Spain, Sweden, and the UK in 1989).

Following the turn of the century, in 2001, Soto's work featured in The Intrepid Denise René, A Gallery in the Adventure of Abstract Art, 1944-1978 at the Pompidou, a show honoring the gallerist who had first broken the Op Art movement. Soto was also included in Le Mouvement, From Cinema to Kinetic at the Museum Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland, a gallery established to house the work of his peer and fellow Kinetic artist Jean Tinguely. This was a reflection of how closely the two had been associated in Paris, and their mutual influence during the early days of Kinetic Art. Many exhibitions of Latin American art staged at a range of international galleries featured work by Soto over the coming decades.

In later years, Soto continued to enjoy the same pleasures as in his youth, stating in a 1974 interview, "I still love music, and live a very casual life, seeing friends often. If I have any excuse to give a party, I give one". Jesús Rafael Soto died in 2005 in Paris at the age of 81, and is buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse.

The Legacy of Jesús Rafael Soto

Soto was both an integral part of developments in Modern Art during the 1950s-60s and a unique figure. While Soto's contemporaries in the Op and Kinetic Art movement, such as Carlos Cruz-Diez and Alejandro Otero, focused on the way that colors were perceived by the eye, Soto was more concerned with light and movement, or "optical movement" (also known as retinality). He was also interested in exploring the boundary between painting and sculpture. While Soto was by no means the only artist of his time to explore and experiment with visual and multi-sensory illusions and effects, he strove to set himself apart from his peers by rejecting the use of motors or other technological gadgets. His works thus stand out for their elegant simplicity. According to Curator Mari Carmen Ramirez, Soto "is one of the most important artists to have emerged in Latin America in the second half of the twentieth century. He was not only a great artist but a pioneer in the exploration of movement as it relates to both the artistic movement and the participation of the viewer."

Soto's work is also intimately linked to the concept of "dematerialization" that influenced the artworld during the mid-to-late twentieth century. As the artist himself stated, "I am not interested in the connections between things, only in their relationships. I am not interested in how colors or lines are connected. Relationships are worth more than connections....My work is essentially relationship. Not between two elements of the work itself, but between the principle that governs the work - for instance, dematerialization - and a general law of the universe that determines everything". Arts writer Steve Taylor argues that "[e]choes of [Soto's works'] principle of immersive engagement can be found in more recent works as diverse as Olafur Eliasson's fog tunnel, Yayoi Kusama's Mirror Infinity Rooms, Antony Gormley's Blind Light and James Turrell's Skyspaces."

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