• July 27, 2023
  • by Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros

Excerpt: Jesús Soto in Conversation with Ariel Jiménez

The following text is an excerpt from the book Jesús Soto in Conversation with Ariel Jiménez, published by Fundación Cisneros/Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in 2012.

Jesús Soto was born in Venezuela in 1923 and is well-known for his participation in the development of Kinetic Art in Paris in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as his subsequent involvement in the Geometric Abstraction movements in Venezuela. Soto is recognized today as one of the most important Latin American artists of the twentieth century.

Ariel Jiménez (AJ): Another important aspect about this period is that you seem to re-engage in the process that stopped with the metal structures of 1956–57, to slowly arrive at the Penetrable, one of your most important contributions. Could you describe the process that took you from these first metal structures, which you would later term Pre-penetrables, to the Penetrables that we know today?

Jesús Soto (JS): That was a very slow process that perhaps came from—and I’m saying this to myself now—the fascination I felt for what went on between the Plexiglas sheets of my first kinetic structures. I always wanted to get inside them. Later on, when I started working with the metal rods over the woven background, I started wondering what would happen if I put myself inside that vibration. If I started to superimpose the rods on several levels, like I did with Plexiglas twenty years earlier, maybe I could capture new values. This was what I tried to do at the Venice Biennale in 1966, although it wasn’t truly a Penetrable. I took an angle and covered it with rods, trying to envelop the spectator. Then in 1966 and 1967 the idea of the Penetrable progressively emerged, by multiplying those rods until they covered the whole space and became an autonomous work.

Jesús Soto in his Paris studio on rue de Turenne, c. 1967. Courtesy Hélène Soto, © André Morain.
AJ: If we were to try to write a short history of the Penetrable, I believe the next point on the timeline would be the exhibition Denise René organized for you in 1967, in which the rods invade a large part of the space, even beyond what happened in Venice, isn’t that right?

JS: In reality there were two exhibitions, one at the gallery on the Left Bank of the Seine, and the other at the gallery on the Right Bank. At the gallery on the Left Bank I exhibited my first Penetrable, although it was not more than a meter wide. It was small, but people could go in and they had a lot of fun; they played inside. It was a floor-to-ceiling metal Penetrable with wire rods that were unpainted, which gave them a very beautiful silvery color. [1] When you entered, since they were metal rods, they produced a sound like this (Soto lowers his head and makes a gesture with his hands, trying to describe an enveloping sound, like that of rain).

AJ: To my understanding, it is significant that the core shape of your first Penetrable is a wide black cross, exactly like Black Cross, 1915, by Kazimir Malevich. It’s as if this first Penetrable were telling us that, by entering that small area of light and sound, we were also penetrating the historic and visual boundary defined by Malevich, an area that also had an obvious mystical dimension.
Sketch of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Cross, 1915, and Jesús Soto’s first Penetrable, 1967.
Doesn’t this fact suggest the possibility of a very particular reading of the Penetrable, in the sense that it allows us to consider it a doubly redeeming device, both historical and metaphysical, so to speak?

JS: I never thought of it that way, but it is a surprisingly seductive reading. In any event, I was trying to create truly enveloping works. That’s what I called them: “enveloping.” It was Jean Clay who started calling them Penetrables, perhaps because I told him that I had always wanted to penetrate that vibrating world of my Plexiglasses. For that reason I tried to make an enveloping wall at that first exhibition, a kind of half oval around the first Penetrable. I remember that the director of the Marlborough Gallery came to the exhibition and when he saw the rods that ended close to the gallery window, he turned to me, surprised, and said: “It is like a dream.” [2]

At the Right Bank exhibition I showed several pieces; some were of Plexiglas and there was also a suspended volume that was in fact the model I used for the large volume I exhibited at the Venezuelan Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Montreal. Its support was a white square with a cross inscribed on it diagonally. The cross was narrower than Malevich’s... Villanueva liked it a lot. The sides of the cross formed a curve. I also did an enveloping work there that started on the ceiling and covered one of the walls of the gallery.

After that first Penetrable I made another one that was more autonomous, at the 1968 exhibition at the Fondation Maeght in Saint Paul de Vence. It was a large virtual cube with transparent striped walls. You entered it through a penetrable tower at one of the corners, and inside the cube you arrived at a circular space formed by the rods that covered the walls and corners of the cube. That circle was uncovered; it had no roof. Then I made other Penetrables, before the one I presented at my 1969 retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, but I don’t remember details of their characteristics.

AJ: What was your intention? What made you think of an entrance tower? Why did you leave the middle uncovered, like a roofless dome?

JS: What I tried to do—I think—was join the tower of the cross, the one from my first Penetrable, with an enveloping space.

AJ: Why not do it with the same height?

JS: To mark the entrance...

AJ: Do you realize that this structure is essentially the same as that of a Baroque church, with its clearly marked entrance and its inner dome metaphorically open to heaven?

JS: No, I hadn’t thought of it that way. And yet, it reminds me of an experience I had in Rome during my first exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery in the 1960s. I remember that a friend of mine, Sergio Tosi, took me to the Roman Pantheon, telling me “Come with me, I want you to see a world very similar to yours.” When I entered, I was surprised to see the space of that perfect building dominated by the opening in the roof from which a stream of light descended...and through which you could see infinity.

Pantheon, Rome. © Tobias Machhaus.
It is very similar to one of the Penetrables I made later on, in 1971, [3] where a number of rods penetrate a plane that is open in the middle, like a stream of light descending from the ceiling, or like the stream that seemed to emerge from Espiral, of 1955, that came out of the painting, perpendicular to the two Plexiglas planes...

Penetrable set design for Violostries (by Bernard Parmegiani), Ballet-théâtre contemporain de Paris, 1971.
I conceive light like that, as a kind of intermediary between energy and matter. Energy is absolutely sublime, whereas light is already an initial loss of speed... It’s as if energy were becoming gradually less sublime until it becomes matter, its less sublime state. What I don’t understand is why the sublime starts becoming less sublime as it becomes matter... Even so, I believe that someday it will return to its original sublime state...

AJ: Luis Enrique Pérez-Oramas pointed out to me that the Penetrables have been discussed in two different ways: either insisting upon the possibility of materializing or making evident what you call the plenitude of space, that “gelatin” you have often mentioned to me; or else emphasizing their ability to optically dematerialize the bodies that penetrate them. For you, what is more important in the Penetrable, the possibility of making the density of space evident, or its dematerializing capacity?

JS: The important thing is to show that space is fluid and full, because it has always been considered—as in the Renaissance—a place where things can be put, more than as a primal and universal value. I have often told you that I don’t care about the elements; they are there only to make relationships evident. So what interests me primarily in the Penetrable is the density of space... and people feel it like that; when they enter a Penetrable they feel that it is another space, and they begin to play and move. I discussed it a lot with Yves Klein, because to his way of thinking the most important thing was the void. Of course, he said it from the perspective of Oriental wisdom, while I insisted upon the density of space, its plenitude.

AJ: The Penetrables are conceived as structures that can encompass the entirety of a space. Now, if you had to make a Penetrable in an irregular space, would you cover all the existing space?

JS: Of course: the Penetrable isn’t even a work, it is an idea of space that can materialize in any situation and at any scale... If it were possible, you could even cover the whole planet... that’s not the important thing.

AJ: Despite that, when you have the chance to do it in an open space, you invariably resort to the cube.

Penetrable, 1990 (temporary installation), Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA), 2003. Painted iron, aluminum, and plastic tubing. 508 × 508 × 508 cm (200 × 200 × 200 inches). Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros
JS: Because that is the most obvious thing; if not, the public would perceive it as a sculpture or something drawn, and would ascribe to the form of the penetrable an aesthetic value it doesn’t have in my work.

[1] It is interesting to note the silvery quality of the metal rods. “Silvery” is the same term that Soto used to describe the light of the Impressionists.

[2] Because of the title that ultimately stayed with these types of pieces, they have traditionally been interpreted as penetrable works—in other words, structures that allow the spectator to penetrate the work from the outside. Soto’s descriptions and the terms he used at the beginning present them as the active product of a “painting” that, on the contrary, seeks to absorb the spectator from the inside. This simple fact situates these works within a broad family of pieces that have traditionally sought to draw the spectator in as a participant in the work, just as Leon Battista Alberti described it in his treatise On Painting, dated 1435.

[3] Soto does not say he created that 1971 Penetrable thinking expressly of Agrippa’s Pantheon, nor did I ask him about it at the time. In any event, the experience at the Roman Pantheon occurred before the Penetrable, which allows us to infer that, in fact, something of that experience did ultimately get expressed in the 1971 Penetrable.