Rainbow Connection: A Tour of Carlos Cruz-Diez's Paris Atelier

Optical artist Carlos Cruz-Diez invites The Skinny to his studios in Paris ahead of the launch of his latest project Dazzle Ship, which sees the Venezuelan kineticist bring an explosion of colour to Liverpool's docks for the city's Biennial

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 01 Jul 2014
  • Carlos Cruz-Díez

Carlos Cruz-Diez is holding court on his favourite subject: colour. “If you ask someone from France, What’s your favourite colour? They’re going to say blue,” says the spry 90-year-old Venezuelan artist as he shows a group of UK journalists around his compact Parisian apartment. “A Spanish person will say, I love red, a German person will say white or black. But British people are very particular: they like red, green and yellow. These are the colours of your house doors and the colours of your Queen’s outfits and hats,” he says, chuckling.  

He’s used these three colours as the palette for his latest piece, Dazzle Ship, a co-commission by Liverpool Biennial, Tate Liverpool and 14-18 NOW. The brief was for Cruz-Diez to apply his techniques – honed in optical kinetic art – to dazzle painting, a system for camouflaging ships during the first world war. His canvas would be the Edmund Gardner, a historic pilot ship conserved by Merseyside Maritime Museum and situated in Liverpool’s dry docks.

Standing barely five feet in his cotton socks, the mischievous nonagenarian – referred to as ‘the Maestro’ by his team – shows us around his front room, which is strewn with optical artworks and prototypes. He shows us one of his “researches,” a foot long plywood board, one side tightly striped with vertical bands of green and yellow. A thin steel bar is raised an inch off the striped side. Cruz-Diez ushers us forward to observe the optical effect as he rotates the artwork around its length. “Look here,” he says, as a variety of additional colours become visible around the edges of the steel. “It’s one little bar and you see the whole spectrum.”

Timelapse: Dazzle Ship

There’s a real innocence and playfulness to Cruz-Diez’s work. Many of his pieces would be equally at home in a science museum as they are in contemporary art spaces. He shows us what he calls his “chromatic calendar,” a nifty little canvas where diagonal stripes can be adjusted using a slider at the base to create myriad colour effects: “every day you can change the harmony, so that every day you have a new artwork,” he beams.

He explains that, to him, the lucid design that he creates (whether it be with paint, card, or plastic) is not the art at all – it’s the support for the true art, the optical illusion of colour that the substrate allows the human eye to perceive. “That’s the idea for the boat, too,” he says. “It will produce colours that are not painted on, that are just happening while you’re watching it.”

Downstairs, in an office off a courtyard shared by his apartment, Cruz-Diez sits in front of one of his kinetic sculptures, five pillars of transparent coloured plastic that refract different hues of light as they rotate and overlap. “Since I was a kid I really loved comics,” he says when asked how he got into art. “My teachers would send notes to my parents saying, ‘this kid doesn’t pay attention in class, he only draws on his notebook.’”

He studied art in Caracas, and payed for his tuition by drawing comics and illustrations for local newspapers. When qualified, he fell into the advertising racket, but it would be a long time before he developed the obsession for colour for which he is now internationally celebrated. Initially his interests were overtly political, and he emerged in the late 1940s as one of his nation’s most important social realists, painting and photographing the poverty he saw of the streets on Caracas. “In the beginning I realised to be an artist isn’t just something personal,” he recalls. “I realised to be an artist is to have a compromise with society. That’s why at the time I thought my job was to be a journalist, a reporter.”

“My teachers would send notes to my parents saying, ‘this kid doesn’t pay attention in class, he only draws on his notebook’” – Carlos Cruz-Diez

The young Cruz-Diez soon discovered, though, that denouncing social injustice wasn’t necessarily going to help bring about its end. “With time I realised that painting the slums wasn’t a solution to poverty; it wasn't making people aware,” he says. “Plus they were selling really well, so I thought, ‘I’m being a clown here.'” So began a period of reflection. “I started to rethink what it meant to be an artist. Where could I be the most efficient? What would be the most satisfying thing to paint? And for me, it was painting colour.”

Since the late 50s, around the time he moved to Paris, Cruz-Diez has been focused on creating art that’s more than something to be hung on a wall. “I thought it was far more important to let people participate in the artwork,” he explains. “So I first made murals that could be interacted with, that people in the street could play with.” Half a century later you’ll find his work in public spaces across the world – a series of patterned crosswalks in Miami, interactive glass sculptures outside the Paris metro, an elegant, gravity defying sculpture in Madrid – all of which play with colour and viewer perception.

And now he comes to the Liverpool docks with Dazzle Ship, his first major work in the UK (his one other piece on these shores is a modest sculpture at Eton school for boys). How does he think his explosion of colour will go down in the less than luminous Northwest? “The same thing was asked when I made pieces for a Swiss Bank,” he recalls. “They said, ‘You come from so far away, with different bright colours – do you think Swiss people are able to live with these colours?’ But when I made it people kept asking, ‘Do you have any Swiss heritage? Because I feel very good with your piece.’ Art doesn’t have borders.”

As we wander around his home and workshops, there’s a sense of a man in complete contentment. His atelier is spread over three buildings on a quaint street in Paris’s 9th. An old butcher shop, its green vintage sign still visible, houses a dusty workshop filled with machinery built to Cruz-Diez’s exact specification. Down the street, half a dozen female technicians do the clean, more detailed work (in this area of the studio, he only employs women, as he says men don’t have the patience for the precision he demands). The third space is his archive, where his team is preserving nine decades' worth of work (we’re shown a stunning little design Cruz-Diez did aged four!).

It’s an impressive setup, but things weren’t always so comfortable. “I used to think I live throughout a society of blind people,” he says wistfully. “Sixty years ago I was saying exactly the same thing as I am today, but they didn’t get it at all.” Today, though, his vivid work in colour garners attention. “Young people seem to understand my work, which makes me really happy, as it means I wasn’t wrong in my research – it was for today’s generation, not my own.”

Dazzle Ship launched 12 Jun and is on display at Liverpool’s dry docks until winter 2015

Liverpool Biennial opens 5 Jul and runs until 6 Oct

For more information on Carlos Cruz-Diez, go to cruz-diez.com

For more information on Liverpool Biennial, go to www.biennial.com