Photo by Frank Perrin


By Frank Perrin

In memory of the legendary Carlos Cruz-Diez who passed away on Saturday 27th, we would like to share with you our interview with him in conversation with Adel Abdessemed from our March 2019 issue 87.

A conversation between Carlos Cruz-Diez, one of the leading figures of Op Art since the 1960s, and Adel Abdessemed, French-Algerian visual artist whose deeply political works convey the muffled violence of the modern world. Neither artist shies away from triggering strong emotional responses in their works, thereby urging viewers to change their perspective on complex issues. One born in Venezuela, the other in Algeria, they both found refuge in Paris before rounding the globe in search of cultural and social discoveries. Two generations converge in a conversation revolving around art’s ability to transcend concepts of time and form a single, perpetual present.

Frank: You are both flâneurs, wanderers and nomads who each discovered Paris in your own way. Carlos, why did you choose Paris?

Carlos: I came to Paris for the first time in 1955. Paris was the city of real debate. Paris was the hub of all the heated discussions and artistic movements. All the Latin American artists went to Paris—it was Mecca. I came to Paris to talk about concepts I had developed in Caracas. That was in 1954. I arrived with my artist friend Soto, a chum from school. He suggested I go se the exhibition Le Mouvement at Galerie Denise René. I was stunned to see how the exhibition synthesized so many of the ideas germinating in my mind back then, since I was realizing that painting had become exhausted: everyone was doing the same thing. It was formalism at every turn. For example, when I went to see the Salon de Mai, I thought it was a solo exhibition since everyone was showing the same paintings. (laughs) I saw the same painting everywhere! When I settled in Paris definitively in the 1960s, I knew I had to find other ways of painting. 

Frank: Yes, that was the era of lyrical abstraction, when everyone was doing the same thing.

Carlos: It was all academicism, the result of a failure. I started art school in 1939 in Venezuela and spent five years there before becoming a professor. At the time I thought the artist’s role was similar to a reporter: to recognize what is right in front of you. And what was right in front of me? Poverty. So I started talking about poverty and slums in my paintings. Everything I painted sold. So I thought, “If I paint poverty and it sells immediately, that means poverty sells well, which means I’m just playing the clown”. But deep down I felt like an artist, so I started wondering what I could do. One day I saw Las Meninas by Velazquez and that painting made me realize that I had to come up with a message and not just sell pretty pictures. But what could I come up with? That was the question. Then I stumbled upon Goethe’s Theory of Color. It was fascinating and so poetic. It made me think that I color might contain a framework to discover something unique. So then I started to take an almost scientific approach to using and researching color.

Frank: Carlos came to Paris to free his work from an academic environment… How did you arrive here, Adel?

Adel: My situation was closer to a form of nomadism, since that word evokes people smuggling. Smuggling is an innocent word for me, but I was fleeing a tragedy. I was fleeing death. I didn’t come to Paris with the intent of reaching a cultural hub; I was fleeing my country. I didn’t go looking for Saint-Germain des Près and the art world like Walter Benjamin. I arrived first in Lyon, and came later to Paris. In my head, Paris was enormous. Paris was part of art history. The first contemporary art show I saw was at Beaubourg. It was Joseph Beuys show in 1994. Harald Szeeman was the curator and I was nearly twenty-four. It was a total culture shock for me.

Frank: Afterwards you worked in New York and London, and then you returned to Paris with your family.

Adel: I acted as a smuggler. I use the word “smuggler” because it’s someone who is influenced by and who influences others. Someone who learns and transmits.

Frank: You’re the smuggler of Paris?

Adel: Yes, a smuggler and not a flâneur … I have vast intellectual curiosity; I’m a stray dog! (laughs)

Frank: There is one element that connects your work on a fundamental level, and that’s the question of time: the time of action and a very organic present. You both employ a strong present moment and a sense of urgency in your work.

Carlos: I’ve always set out to make art that is not contemplative, but participatory and able to evolve and change in public space. So that requires an active present moment.

Adel: I designate this urgency in different ways every time, but the goal is always the same. The creative moment starts out as a space of procreation growing in my head. The moment arrives and it happens: it’s crystallized. It becomes like a crystal. It’s like Las Meninas for Carlos: it’s when the light arrives. The technique doesn’t matter. I think technique is just a myth, the semiology of language. But the rest can be short, long… It all happens inside. I frequently make use of the psyche and depth. When ideas descend to the depths and then resurface, they seem true to me.

Frank: The creative moment may be very long or slow. But your works are like an electric shock that awaken the viewer and conveys something immediate.

Adel: My first work was a poster of a man who had to put his head in the mouth of a tiger or a lion. It started with the voice and mouth. It all started with the monstrous. That tension is still in my work. There is always a sense of urgency and tension.

Frank: And in your work, Carlos, there is something like a perpetual present. Inspiration is an archaic word that has become too romantic. Nothing inspires me, instead it’s me who thinks. All my work is based on a line of thought into the chromatic universe. Color has always gone overlooked. Every philosopher has focused on drawing, perspective and themes. When I started getting interested in color, my friends would say to me: “what are your getting yourself into? Color is an open and shut case!” Color was a minor concern.

Adel: Matisse even sang the praises of drawing. He said that his drawings were paintings done with fewer materials. Our eye is painting, even when we are using video or sculpture. That means color is always a part of the equation. In fact, Plato refused to recognize the role of the artist or poet. The poet did not have a place in his system. He didn’t take poets seriously. But thanks to artists, painting is still around, with all its history and long legacy. The word “resistance” always makes me think of painting. It has resisted everything. It’s like Dostoyevsky. I’m always drawn to works that have a of whiff of political engagement. It’s something I’ve always found exciting. You can find it in painting, as well. Painting has a long and vast history that is still present today.

Carlos: I wanted to create a work like the color of the present moment. I create a perpetual present. Color is a perpetual present. We are surrounded by colors. Whenever there is sunlight, there are colors everywhere.

Frank: Color is also very present in your work, Adel, notably in your exhibition that opened this weekend in Naples, with the new series of Cocorico paintings. What do you think about the false abstraction and color returning to the forefront, which was not necessarily the case before?

Adel: In my work, color indicates the opposite of memory. Memory is often in black and white. Color is always the present. Color is like when my grandmother prepared her dyes for making tapestries. She made rugs in an incredibly magical way. I think she saw yellow as green, because she was color blind. By recycling food tins I found a way to connect with an ancient tradition practiced by the Berbers and in Peru. They built wood houses, filled them with offerings and then burned down the houses. They did it to break evil spells. But in the end, they each took a small remnant of the house. I’m interested in those remnants, such as tins that may have contained products like food or paint. I reclaim them and turn them into something else to celebrate for a second time what was supposed to die, leave, disappear or be rejected by consumers.  

Frank: Your Cocorico paintings are like a contemporary cuisine in which you weave together buildings, food and color. It’s like a main thread, a cuisine that activates something like a periodic table of contemporary consumption, something both physical and mental.

Adel: To go back to History, Gauguin always put a phrase in the same place. It’s in almost all of his paintings. In my work, it might be a quotation and then something else that is completely unrelated. But I never use obsessive or semiotic sentences, and they are never poetic. It might say one word but mean the opposite. Like we were saying last time, no one knows what the Neapolitan phrase “tomo tomo, caqio caqio” means. It has several meanings. Perhaps that is where the present comes into play in my work. It is only after the work is finished that I come back over it with a phrase that translates my feeling with the result, the composition the arrangement. It has to be the perfect fit. If I’m looking at a piece and Cheb Hasni’s song “C’est difficile” comes to mind, I’ll put it on there. It could be any of the world’s languages. It could be Kafka’s Metamorphosis or it could be a movie. It’s about using bricolage to achieve excellence.

Frank: You are both artists of real action with no symbolism, narrative or story. There is a real action at play in your work.

Carlos: Artworks acquire meaning when we find it interesting. Things exist when you assign a meaning to them. Sometimes artists go through too many steps. I don’t go through any. Since 1959, I have gone through eight research processes. My work has developed and gained more depth. Adding depth makes art more powerful. But it takes hard work and thought to get there.

Adel: Do you title your works?

Carlos: Yes, my titles always have a specific meaning. The title offers a precise description of the work; it’s never subjective. A message has to be consistent. If your poetic message is not consistent, it won’t work. You can’t change directions once you have a roadmap. You would lose credibility.

Frank: The titles of your works describe how they work.

Carlos: Yes, they explain how they work in simple terms.

Adel: Do you like Lucio Fontana?

Carlos: Yes, of course, because he was a conceptualist.

Adel : Fontana also wrote a line from a poem on the back of every painting to identify them. Do you use the space on the back, too?

Carlos: No. My work is complex to make. That’s why I had to invent the right tools. I do all that so there are no mistakes in my works. Otherwise the mistakes would become more important than the meaning of the work.

Frank: You each have a discipline and daily method of working. Can you tell me about how you work?

Adel: My method is not having a method. (laughs) It’s like life and its moods. I might work when I’m on the toilet, while eating, when I’m with people or listening to music. I work whenever anything moves me. It might be a text, a newspaper article, a visit from a friend, listening to Tosca or Bach… (laughs) So I don’t have one! That’s my method.

Frank: But you still have discipline. You get up early in the morning.

Adel: Yes. Even though when I was younger and first married, I had insomnia. I went to sleep at dawn. I was an avid reader because I was learning. I read voraciously. The birth of my daughter threw off the entire rhythm of my life. I noticed that my soul was becoming more positive than before. Before I was into existentialism, nightlife, drinking… There was a tragic side to everything. Ever since my first daughter was born, my thinking has gotten brighter. I started to like waking up with the sunrise. I started to appreciate the sun’s energy. It’s a time of meditation and concentration that I allow myself.

Carlos: You have an advanced and refined sense of the news. And that’s not a common thing. You dissect all the important events going on. Your disorder is a reflection of the present moment, of everything happening in society.

Frank: That’s a beautiful thing to say, Carlos. Both of you have an extremely refined sense of the news.

Carlos: I’ve been working my whole life, ever since I was little. I’ve always drawn, invented and created things, from morning to night. Even at night, I dream about new artworks. Unfortunately I don’t always remember them in the morning. (laughs) But I’m always working.

Adel: Autobiography is very important. It’s not something you can see, but it is anchored deeply within us. It’s your engine, Carlos.

Carlos: I draw and invent every day. Every work creates new avenues for making others. I end up with results that I never expected, and then I want to do another work based on all the issues I just discovered. There is time, space, distance, saturation, the quantity of data, but we are never sure of the result. I’m quite happy to work on a computer today. I worked like a musician before, and I imagined colors. It took me a month or two to finish a painting. I never ended up liking the work and I had to destroy it. Now I can kind of see the result of my work before it is finished. That way I can improve it and find solutions to achieve a stronger result.

Frank: What inspires you on a daily basis, whether literature, music, nature or television?

Carlos: Stimuli are the work itself. Like I was saying, when I finish a work, I start seeing what else I could improve or explore. There is always another detail to develop.

Adel: Wherever my gaze lands, wherever my emotions settle. My art focuses on screams, so I’m influenced by things that make me want to scream. It might come or it might not. I don’t control inspiration.

Frank: In your own way, you each have an important relationship to public space.

Carlos: I have long considered the street as the perfect venue for self-expression. You can reach a lot of people through the street. A private collection in a museum will only reach a limited number of people. In the street, you have all the aggression, impulses and obedience, but not pleasure. If we create playful areas with artworks, we can convey messages to these people who are ordinarily so robotic.

Adel: The poetry of everyday life.

Frank: Adel, both with your “headbutt” on the Beaubourg pavilion and some lesser known public commissions in Japan (house, train, etc.), you have also worked in public space. What have you learned from these experiences?

Adel: I learned that there is real life. Real life is absent from museums sometimes. There is real life in public commissions. There is curiosity, something other. Since I was also a nomad, in Berlin where I didn’t have a studio, I set up my workspace in the street. I produced a great deal of work next to where I lived. The street was my studio. First in Berlin, then in New York. It was a way of saying that I wasn’t going to pay rent or electricity. My art was free. (laughs)

Frank: I remember the first videos I saw when you were still in school… The film with the body covered in newspaper burning in the street.

Adel: The street was essential for me. I didn’t have a real, physical studio.

Carlos: Art is one of the most beautiful communication systems that humanity has invented. Art is a means of expression, invention and discovery. And all for whom? For people. I don’t paint for myself, but for other people. When you sing, you don’t do it for yourself, but for others. Same with writing. Artists work for society. They create products to be consumed. Poems are consumed.

Adel: Like Rimbaud said: “Je est un autre” [“I is another”]. When an artwork is done right, it looks at your and says: “You have to change your life”. (laughs)

Frank: What do you think about the market, which has transformed and reorganized everything today? Especially with art fairs that have domesticated artworks… What do you think is the function of art in connection with the commodification of the world?

Adel: My answer is short. Your questions is relevant but I prefer the next one. (laughs) The market is the weakest part of art.   

Carlos: Don’t forget that everything we produce becomes a commodity. The market has always existed, since Antiquity. We cannot deny things that have existed for millennia. Art needs a market, just like poetry needs a market. If a poet does not have a publisher, then they cannot express themselves. It’s the same for artists.

Adel: But that is patronage in a sense. It’s like Leonardo da Vinci’s horse, which was financed by the king of France. His work required technology, resources and a colossal investment for the artist. Today the market is speculative and linked to corruption. It’s a contemporary form of corruption that has nothing to do with the artist’s intention, sincerity or innocence. Today’s market is far from innocent. It has a dangerous side.

Frank: Even in Antiquity, when Praxiteles was making his sculptures, they were everywhere, as common as traffic lights are today. It’s clear that there can never be art without a market. But today it seems that the market has gotten the upper hand over art, to the point of canceling out its message.

Carlos: History contains several periods of creative recession. We are going through one right now. The 1960s were incredible. But there was still a market. Since there are no inventive artists, everything becomes a commodity. Commodities are not art. There are very few actual creators today.

Adel: Artists have become no more than suppliers.

Frank: Now we have our answer. We have never had art without a market, but now the market’s domination is leading us into what you call a creative recession. Like Deleuze said, there are times when there are deserts. Creative deserts. We don’t know when it’s lacking. We don’t notice what’s lacking because we don’t have it. There are periods that are more creative and others that are less so. I’m glad you gave a dialectic and synthetic answer: art has always existed together with the market, but there are periods when creativity is more vehement than others, and today we are in the vast desert of the Art Fair…

Carlos: Periods of recession are preludes to something major. When I was living in Paris in the 1960s, I saw an exhibition that taught me a lot: The Origins of the Twentieth Century. Everything in it came from the end of the nineteenth century. It was crap. (laughs) It was the prelude to the great art movements of the twentieth century. They are gestation periods.

Adel: Artists need to be the ones who make the bread but don’t sell it. They cannot become salesmen. (laughs) Bread is substance, but if people want to cut it up, that’s their problem. As long as it’s good bread.

Frank: Which artists, from any period, speak to you the most? Who is in your personal Pantheons? Which artists truly opened your eyes?

Adel: From Caravaggio and Rembrandt to Kounellis… Kounellis for his underground and Mediterranean darkness. Beuys for his energy and attitude. Pasolini for my fascination with black and white, as well as Bela Tarr. I’m fascinated by the work of Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Pasolini, things like that… Works that contain resistance and carry a political meaning. Works that aim to change the world, or at least change our perspective. We have no idea what may happen in four thousand years. How will people look at art then? Maybe they won’t even look at it. But no matter what, art has to change your life. The crises we mentioned earlier can be avoided. As long as it has substance, art will stay healthy. The sky is feverish today. Don’t forget that Beuys found inspiration in Zola’s Germinal. Beuys’ work says it: “I am the revolution”. I’m interested in the word “revolution”.

Frank: What is an artist in the end? Is it simply a person who has had an extraordinary life?

Carlos: In principle, an artist is an innovator, through intuition, intelligence and discipline. Sometimes artists advance faster than their time: they have premonitions. Everything that happened in the Impressionist movement changed society. Kinetic art changed society. Everything we see today stems from the kinetic art movement. Some movements in history have profoundly altered society. An artist’s vision is like a time bomb. It is only later that we notice the repercussions…

Carlos Cruz-Diez. Vues de détail de Physichromies (1959/2019), Inductions Chromatiques (1963/2019), Inductions Chromatiques à Double Fréquence (1986/2019) © Adagp, Paris 2019

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