Ruben Nuñez (1930–2012)

Ruben Nuñez was passionate about almost everything: the people he met, the artworks he created, the studios he occupied, the exhibitions he showed in – all of which made up an unusual ‘space’ – his “Photonic Cosmos”.

At a time in the late 1970s and early 1980s when artists were starting to embrace holography by recording three-dimensional objects and models, Nuñez was attempting to capture light and vibration.  He was unusual in the field, not least because of his background in contemporary art and glass.

While working within the Op-art and kinetic art movement during the 1950s, he had contact with artists such as Victor Vasarely, Joan Miró and Alexander Calder. Unsurprisingly, their influences encouraged his remarkable enthusiasm for colour, vibration and movement.

Early attempts to ‘capture’ light can be found in his cast glass sculptures where he intentionally caused bubbles and defects to form in the molten glass so that they would reflect and refract the light passing through them.  He certainly knew just how much to distress and distort his molten casts, but he was unable to ‘fix’ or ‘stabilise’ the refracted colours being produced.

Holography offered a solution, a way of solidifying the memory of his light constructions and, by the late 1970’s, he made his first holograms. They provided a three-dimensional ‘memory’ of the path and effect of light passing through his spontaneously generated bubbles and carefully cut surfaces.  There is a remarkable logic to the way these early pieces developed and the resulting holograms gave Nuñez the opportunity to replay the quality of light and colour he wanted his audiences to engage with.

He coined the term ‘Holokinetics’ – kinetic art through holography.  Rosemary Jackson, founding director of the Museum of Holography in New York, recognised the quality and passion of his research and offered him a solo exhibition in the SoHo based museum during 1978.  These were early days for artists, curators and the museum-visiting public who often struggled to comprehend this new visual vocabulary.  They were expecting the cleverness and recognised familiarity of 3D ‘objects’ floating in space.  Nuñez gave them the subtle colours and ephemeral forms he was so passionate about.

During the early 1980s I helped Ruben build his holography studio in a basement of a building in lower Manhattan.  We carried bags of sand, heaps of car tyres and buckets of chemicals down into the dark where he constructed an unconventional laboratory more akin to that of an alchemist than optical engineer or artist.  He had an infectious enthusiasm manifest through his constant narrative and desire to ‘tinker’.  I would leave those sessions exhausted and slightly frustrated that simple tasks would take so long – we constantly had to have ‘breaks’ in local cafes and bars so that he could contemplate his next ‘move’ and how that would influence future works and experiments.  Those were very special ‘breaks’ full of circuitous conversation with a very special person.

His enthusiasm was infectious – he knew he would succeed and the tiny holographic gems he has distributed in galleries and collections around the world will maintain a fitting epitaph for a remarkable thinker, maker and lovely individual with true integrity and generosity of spirit.

Ruben Nuñez died on 7 January 2012.

Andrew Pepper January 2012

A book about his life and work, overseen by Nuñez, was to be published by Editorial Arte in Caracas during 2001.  It was partially funded with a grant from the Shearwater Foundation in 1999 and 2000.  Sadly it never made it into print.  Perhaps now is a good time to resurrect the project and permanently document the remarkable impact Ruben Nuñez made on kinetics, glass and holography.

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