Jesús Soto

Kinetic artist known for his 'pénétrables'
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The Independent Online

Jesús Soto was one of the greatest and most inventive artists that Latin America produced in the 20th century and a leader in the fine post-war generation of Venezuelan painters.

Jesús Rafael Soto, artist: born Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela 5 June 1923; died Paris 14 January 2005.

Jesús Soto was one of the greatest and most inventive artists that Latin America produced in the 20th century and a leader in the fine post-war generation of Venezuelan painters.

Soto was born in 1923, the eldest of five children of a poor family in Ciudad Bolívar, then a remote and backward part of eastern Venezuela, on the banks of the Orinoco. His birthplace was, he said, "the Venezuelan city most closely linked to the imaginary, the closest to the jungle". His musical and artistic talents were the resources with which he hauled himself out of poverty and into the front rank of artists working in Europe.

His father was a violinist and ensured that his son became competent enough on the guitar to perform in public. The young Jesús helped the family budget by drawing posters for local cinemas and theatres. At 19 he won a scholarship to study at the School of Plastic Arts in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, where he met such artists as Carlos Cruz Diez, a contemporary who, like him, was drawn to kinetic forms, and Alejandro Otero.

As soon as he graduated in 1947 Jesús Soto was offered the directorship of the Julio Arraga School of Art in Maracaibo. In 1950 he followed Otero to seek fame and fortune in Paris where Cruz Diez was later to join them. When his pictures did not bring him an income to live on he supplemented it by playing the guitar with Paco Ibáñez, the robustly anti-Franco guitarist from Spain, or accompanying the singer Carmen Requena.

Once settled in Paris he laid aside his original timid Cézannesque landscapes. Mixing with such as Alexander Calder, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Tinguely and Victor Vasarely, he began a lifelong exploration of colour and vibration and took up the search for ways of bringing the spectator into the centre of his creations, by allowing him or her either to experiment with the "virtual movement" contained in the angularity of the straight lines on the surfaces he presented or by tempting the viewer into the curtains of coloured thread, bands of nylon or plexiglass which from 1967 he started assembling.

Soto started to exhibit in the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in the French capital and became known for his " pénétrables", works into which the viewer could walk and experience a veritable shower of colour and movement in the midst of the different materials which hung from on high.

He was always taken up with changing vision and reality. He once told a friend that when he was young he was fascinated by the saying of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus that one never bathes in the same river. "That's something to be thought about all one's life," he commented.

Denise René became his dealer in Paris while in London he had a show in David Medalla's newly founded Signals Gallery in 1965. It did not take him long to become internationally famous.

Doing in Venezuela for kinetic or Op Art what Bridget Riley was to do for a similar style in Britain, Soto was quickly appreciated in his home country. In 1973 a Soto Museum, designed by Carlos Raúl Villanueva, opened in Ciudad Bolívar, containing much of his work from the 1950s and 1960s as well as that from many other artists. Soto had individual shows at the Guggenheim in New York in 1974 in the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1979 among many others. He was commissioned in 1970 to paint murals for the Unesco headquarters in Paris and in 1975 a work for the Renault works at Boulogne-Billancourt.

Soto received the Venezuelan orders of Andrés Bello and of the Liberator in 1972 and 1996. In 1968 he was named Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, advancing to Commandeur in 1991, and received the Médaille Picasso from Unesco in 1981.

His last great coups were his presentation at the 1996 São Paulo Bienal, which the Rio de Janeiro daily Jornal do Brasil claimed was "The Jesús Soto Bienal" and the collection of his works which was exhibited at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris in 1996 and thereafter toured several countries.

Hugh O'Shaughnessy