What are Jesús Rafael Soto’s Pénétrables?

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Jesús Rafael Soto - Pénétrable, 1990, installation view, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2013

Jesús Rafael Soto – Pénétrable, 1990, installation view, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2013, photo: Tito Perez/flickr.com

Published: October 11, 2019

Last updated:

Who was Jesús Rafael?

Jesús Rafael Soto (1923-2005) was a Venezuelan kinetic artist, painter, and sculptor. This artworld icon is known for his kinetic sculptures, which he created in the mid-20th century when many artists focused on movement and illusions.

Education & Influences

Soto’s parents were violin Players, and due to their little income, Soto wanted to feed his family and support them both financially and spiritually. The only challenge he had is that there were no known and prominent artists in his hometown to act as his role models.

He started doing artistic works at a very tender age and participated in a student group affiliated to surrealism ideas in 1938. During this time, he learned how to draw with charcoal. He was a student at the School of Fine Arts and Applied Arts in Caracas. After graduating with a teaching degree, he became director of the Escola de Bellas Artes de Maracaibo for three years from 1947.

He then discovered the works of Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian, which inspired him to suggest the idea of dynamiting their Dutch artistic movement neoplasticism. Soto started painting post-impressionist works and eventually got interested in cubism. The works of other artists, including Malevich and Mondrian, influenced his career.

After rising to international fame, museums such as the MoMA in New York, the Museum Ludwig in Germany, and the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Roma collected his artworks.

Jesús Rafael Soto - Atelier rue des Blancs Manteaux, Paris, 1968, Photo de Michel Desjardins

Jesus Rafael Soto – Atelier rue des Blancs Manteaux, Paris, 1968, photo: Michel Desjardins/louisaguinnessgallery.com

What made him different

What made Soto different from other kinetic artists during this era is the fact that he wanted to make his art to express somewhat totally dissimilar. He befriended world-known artists who made it very easy for him to achieve a lot along the way. Most of his artist’s friends used machines to produce their works.

Vibrations & Spirals

Soto, however, wanted to create movement without the use of machines. He didn’t want to focus entirely on illusions as some of his peers. Soto started experimenting and came up with his Vibrations and Spirals series. These featured a painted surface together with a second transparent surface, both covered with a pattern.

His trick was to make each piece to change before the eyes. This works even when the viewer stands still, from any position. Those two series were the beginning of his breakthrough, but he knew he had to chive more in his career.

Jesús Rafael Soto - 1967, plexiglas, aluminium, wood, 34 x 34 x 18 cm

Jesús Rafael Soto – 1967, plexiglas, aluminium, wood, 34 x 34 x 18 cmJesús Rafael Soto – 1967, plexiglas, aluminium, wood, 34 x 34 x 18 cm, photo: galeriehoffmann.de

Jesús Rafael Soto - 1967, plexiglas, aluminium, wood, 34 x 34 x 18 cm

Jesús Rafael Soto – 1967, plexiglas, aluminium, wood, 34 x 34 x 18 cm, photo: galeriehoffmann.de

Jesús Rafael Soto - Vibrations Metalliques, 1969, 30 x 27,5 cm

Jesús Rafael Soto – Vibrations Metalliques, 1969, 30 x 27,5 cm, photo: bukowskis.com

Jesus Rafael Soto - Vibrations Metalliques, 1969, 30 x 27,5 cm

Jesús Rafael Soto – Vibrations Metalliques, 1969, 30 x 27,5 cm, photo: bukowskis.com

Penetrable series

His works were satisfactory to some degree. However, Soto knew he was to accomplish more. He considered how to integrate the viewer into his work physically and how to use space and time. He achieved this by creating his Penetrable series. He termed his core ideas for them as “A Universe filled with Relationships.”

How they were made

In these works, he hung thousands of strands from either the ceiling or a PVC & steel construction. The Penetrables allowed his spectators to enter them and get immersed in the depth of the work. To get a full understanding of them, a viewer needed to experience them from numerous perspectives within time as they move through space. Thus, the viewer becomes an integral part of the artwork by touching or moving it, or simply by walking through it.

Some of the installations were clear, while others were in uni colors. All of them brought the same experience. Other Penetrables contained painted elements that you will notice from a distance. From afar, these works presented the illusion of a dense mass, but when the viewer comes into contact, they give an utterly different aesthetic experience from the inner self.

Jesús Rafael Soto - Pénétrable BBL bleu, 1999, installation view, Espace Louis Vuitton Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan, 2018 Dec to 2019 May

Jesús Rafael Soto – Pénétrable BBL bleu, 1999, installation view, Espace Louis Vuitton Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan, Dec 2018 to May 2019

Jesús Rafael Soto - Pénétrable BBL bleu, 1999, installation view, Espace Louis Vuitton Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan, 2018 Dec to 2019 May

Jesús Rafael Soto – Pénétrable BBL bleu, 1999, installation view, Espace Louis Vuitton Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan, Dec 2018 to May 2019

Jesus Rafael Soto - BBL Blue Penetrable Installation, 1999, installation view, Sculptures exhibition in Mouvement, Chateau Lacoste, Lacoste, France, 2011

Jesús Rafael Soto – Pénétrable BBL bleu, pvc, metal, 1999, installation view, Sculptures exhibition in Mouvement, Chateau Lacoste, Lacoste, France, 2011, photo: fondationlouisvuitton.fr

Jesús Rafael Soto - Cube de Paris, 1990, Aluminium, nylon, 300 x 200 x 200 cm (118 1/8 x 78 3/4 x 78 3/4 inch)

Jesús Rafael Soto – Cube de Paris, 1990, Aluminium, nylon, 300 x 200 x 200 cm (118 1/8 x 78 3/4 x 78 3/4 inch), photo: Groume/flickr.com

Jesus Rafael Soto - Double progression blue and black (Doble progresion azul y negra), 1975, paint on metal, unique, installation view, Chronochrome, Perrotin Gallery, Paris, 2015

Jesús Rafael Soto – Double progression blue and black (Doble progresion azul y negra), 1975, paint on metal, unique, installation view, Chronochrome, Perrotin Gallery, Paris, 2015

The Revelation of sensible space

Soto had achieved most of what he wanted. For this reason, he called his Penetrables “the revelation of sensible space“. As mentioned before, this approach was quite different from what other kinetic artists were doing. Many of them were using motors, pulleys, or gadgets to create similar work.

Jesús Rafael Soto - The Houston Pénétrable, installation view, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas

Jesús Rafael Soto – The Houston Pénétrable, installation view, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas

Jesús Rafael Soto - The Houston Pénétrable, installation view, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas

Jesús Rafael Soto – The Houston Pénétrable, installation view, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas

Jesús Rafael Soto – The Houston Pénétrable, installation view, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas

Jesús Rafael Soto – The Houston Pénétrable, installation view, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, photo: piuarch.it

Jesús Rafael Soto – The Houston Pénétrable, installation view, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas

Jesús Rafael Soto – The Houston Pénétrable, installation view, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, photo: Dave Rossman/houstonchronicle.com

Video: The Houston Penetrable

4 min 34 sec

Conclusion

With his Penetrables, people were no longer outside the work. Soto successfully created artworks that connect directly with the people. The Penetrables are his most exceptional works. The main reason for this is because he considered viewers as potential collaborators and forced them to become participants. The notion that people are essential in any artwork made his work a success.

Jesus Rafael Soto - Penetrable de Chicago, installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago Chicago, USA, 2014

Jesús Rafael Soto – Pénétrable de Chicago, installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, USA, 2014

Jesus Rafael Soto - Penetrable, 1982, painted wood and PVC flexible pipes, installation view, Museo Reina Sofia

Jesús Rafael Soto – Pénétrable, 1982, painted wood, PVC flexible pipes, installation view, Museo Reina Sofía

All images: Jesús Rafael Soto/perrotin.com & ADAGP, Paris unless otherwise noted
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