Carlos Cruz-Diez is known for his work with color — paintings where tightly packed stripes seem to vibrate as the viewer shifts perspective, light chambers where participant-observers saunter through drenching color lights. But an exhibit at the Americas Society in New York puts the artist himself in a new light, showcasing his early fascination with photography.
The exhibit Within the Light Trap features some 50 photographs – from gem-size contact prints to imposing enlargements – taken in his native Venezuela as the country embraced modernity thanks to its oil boom. Taken mostly during the late 1940s and early 1950s, the images show a country where the folkloric music and dance are found in places old and new; where shantytowns begin to sprout on hillsides in Caracas; and where syncretic religious traditions keep newly citified migrants tied to the rituals of their ancestors.
“When I saw his photos, I saw all the social and participatory aspects of his later work came from here,” said Gabriela Rangel, the Americas Society’s director of visual arts and chief curator. “He wanted people to be involved in materializing color in the body. He was obsessed with people participating in the things he photographed. This is all about people participating in rituals.”
The motivation for Mr. Cruz-Diez, and other artists and intellectuals of his generation, was the idea of Venezuela’s becoming a modern nation. Born in 1923 in Caracas — though he now lives in Paris — he had become enamored of various mechanical reproduction techniques, including photography, which intrigued him when he saw the “minuteros” who took and processed pictures in plazas (even fixing them in lime juice).
Though he was a painter and designer — going to work for an oil company and, later, an advertising agency — Mr. Cruz-Diez used photography not only to capture scenes he would later paint, but also to document the world around him. This became more important as a national identity was debated and developed.
“Something that worried me was the submission to ideas coming from abroad,” he said in “Cruz-Diez in Black and White,” a collection published last year. “Why accept foreign ideas? Couldn’t we create our own art? That’s why I dedicated myself to the study of folklore and went to the interior to take photographs and make films.”
Those images captured a nation whose major cities — Caracas, its capital, and Maracaibo, the cradle of the oil industry — were being transformed, too. He captured scenes that showed the past meeting the future; where poverty was evident, but, so too were soul-nourishing customs. Even when he took documentary pictures of such important rituals as Los Diablos de Yare, carnivalesque dancers hidden under masks and folkloric costumes, he presented them in compositions that at times had an abstract sensibility.
Mr. Cruz-Diez abandoned realism — and photography — by the end of the 1950s, embarking on the chromatic work that would gain him an international reputation. In fact, it was while doing the catalog for a 2008 show of that work that Ms. Rangel discovered his photographs while visiting him in Paris.
“I told him they were really good, they were not random,” Ms. Rangel said. “They were serious. How he loved popular, vernacular culture. This was unusual. This was not episodic.”
His response: “Do you think?”
Ms. Rangel said that his later chromatic work displayed a photographer’s understanding of light, something that resonated in him when he read a paper by Edwin Land on the Polaroid process.
“He used the same principles in his light chambers,” she said. “Photography allowed him to elaborate on this discourse.”
What it often did not allow, she said, was for the medium itself to be taken seriously in surveys of Latin American art. That might explain that while he kept photography as an avocation, Mr. Cruz-Diez did not exhibit his images for decades.
“Photography has been ignored in Latin America,” Ms. Rangel said. “Yet it was a very important part of the development of the visual discourse in Latin America. These photographs by Cruz-Diez show that.”
They also show a country that faced the future with hope, said Ms. Rangel, who herself is Venezuelan. This is no small thing, considering the political upheavals and divisions that have wracked the country in recent years.
“Venezuelans come here and they cry,” she said. “These photos were taken of a country that could have been. A country that was a shared project, full of vision. They saw the idea of a country.”
It is now an idea that has opposing definitions – in black-and-white, so to speak – depending on whom you ask, read or see.
“These photos show the country that was possible,” Ms. Rangel said. “They had the human and natural resources. And they had immense creative energy. Cruz-Diez saw that.”
“Within the Light Trap” is open at the Americas Society in New York and will remain on view through March 22.