in Contemporary Brazilian Art
Renato Rodrigues da Silva
In 1959, Brazilian poet and critic Ferreira Gullar published the “Neoconcrete Manifesto” in Jornal do Brasil, articulating and giving voice to a five-year-old dissidence against Concretism.1 The document was co-signed by artists Amílcar de Castro, Franz Weissmann, Lygia Clark, and Lygia Pape as well as poets Reynaldo Jardim and Theon Spanudis. Soon after its publication, Aluísio Carvão, Décio Vieira, Hélio Oiticica, Hércules Barsotti, Willys de Castro, and others joined the movement. Until the mid 1960s, they systematically transformed contemporary Brazilian art, producing a formidable number of new formulations that continue to resonate in contemporary practices, perhaps as a result of their original radicalism and innovation.
If Neoconcretism had begun as a critique of concrete rationality—in an attempt to ground art in phenomenology—its last phase was characterized by free experimentation in the expanded field of culture. Thanks to this movement, interdisciplinarity and the participation of the observer were introduced into Brazilian art and ultimately became accepted practices, which engendered revolutionary experiments exemplified in early iterations of environmental art, institutional critique, body art, and performance, sometimes years before their appearance in American and European contexts. Neoconcretism’s contribution is thus significant within the history of contemporary art and should also be addressed in postcolonial studies.2
We now celebrating over fifty years of Neoconcretism, but rather than look back at the movement with the paralyzing eyes of a neophyte, let us approach this legacy with the purpose of creating new and unexpected formulations—the task is one of appropriation. However, the reception of Neoconcretism today still echoes ideas first developed by Gullar in the late 1950s—ideas that were essentially formalist in nature, which, as a consequence, overlooked the interdisciplinarity developed by this movement and disregarded its social context. In this article, I would like to more fully examine Neoconcretism, arguing that it cannot be understood on formal terms alone as it sheltered many different kinds of projects that eventually came to define the mainstream of contemporary Brazilian art.
Lygia Clark’s Organic Line Abstractionism was introduced in Brazil in the late 1940s, but its introduction differed from that of other countries. American Abstract Expressionism did not dominate the local art circuit at that time because the critic Mario Pedrosa exerted perhaps the most significant influence on young artists through various activities, such as promoting constructivism through the São Paulo Biennial, facilitating an exchange with European and Argentinean avant-gardes, and organizing international exhibitions. Led by Waldemar Cordeiro, these emerging artists founded the Rupture Group in São Paulo, in 1952, wholeheartedly subscribing to Max Bill’s version of Concretism.3 Eventually, the association of Brazilian culture with the Superior School of Form at Ulm (Germany) was not improbable: whereas the former was implementing an ambitious program of economic development, the latter was participating in the reconstruction of Europe after World War II. Both countries were developing their economies as a way of overcoming historical difficulties.
The Rupture Group gave a new direction to Brazilian art: instead of emphasizing national identity, its artists tried to bridge the gap between art and industry, so that the work could be adjusted to the requirements of rapid industrialization. To achieve this goal, they employed primary colours and geometric elements, which were visually organized according to Gestalt psychology. By 1948, Pedrosa had already adapted this theory to the study of art—perhaps for the first time worldwide, launching a trend in the field of art history.4 Concrete artists were, thus, well prepared to create new visual parameters for an emerging industrial society, but their works were ultimately characterized by an extreme visual rationalization in an attempt to illustrate the laws of form (the pregnancy of form, figure, and ground opposition, etc).
Despite the widespread influence of this approach, Lygia Clark developed a different investigation. Living in Rio de Janeiro City, she was not influenced by Rupture Group activities as other artists were, and her participation in this movement became secondary to her concept of the “organic line,” which she created in 1954, affirming that “the artist could also research in function of the lines that I will name ‘organic,’ functional lines of doors, mends of cloths, etc., to modulate an entire surface,” since “the plastic problem is simply to value or devalue this line”.5 Clark based this concept on functional elements, realizing that the connection between a closed door and its architectural frame produces a subtle spatial line—but when the door is open, this line disappears in the context of contrasting elements. She then noticed that the weak visuality of the organic line hides a material reality that could be used for expressive purposes.
Clark’s discovery played a major role in the development of contemporary Brazilian art. The organic line refused the pure visual parameters of Concretism, advocating a new artistic approach—indeed it could not perform a projective function, displaying instead the material characteristics of the real. After reflecting on this concept, the artist produced an astonishing series of experiments: Discovery of the Organic Line (1954), Destruction of the Frame (1954), Maquette for Interior Design (1955), Modulated Surface (1955–56), Plans in Modulated Surface (1956–57), Modulated Space (1958–59), Unity (1959), Counter-Relief (1959), _Cocoon_ (1959), Beast (1960), and Trailing (1963).
This was perhaps Clark’s most creative phase, which followed in a sequence of achievements. After incorporating the frame into her work (Discovery of the Organic Line and Destruction of the Frame), she explored the expressive possibilities of the organic line (Maquette for Interior Design, Modulated Surface, Plans in Modulated Surface, Modulate Space, and Unity), extending its influence beyond the object to include the gallery wall as a meaningful element. During this beginning stage of Neoconcretism, however, the artist still aimed at producing an autonomous work. The palpable paradox for Clark could be explained through the notion of organic expression. For her, “the expressive reality of our epoch is sculpture taking this total expressive signification and the surface expressing itself in this living totality”.6 Consequently, a material surface and space expanded the possibility of expression in painting and sculpture, respectively.
In Counter Relief and Cocoon, Clark developed new parameters. According to her, the plane of the painting was now dead, since it served to accommodate traditional compositions. Nonetheless, the same did not happen to pictorial surface, if it were declared flat. The artist soon noticed that the back of the surface should also be activated. But this activation belonged to the realm of sculpture, which she believed should produce a total expressive space. Thus, Clark understood sculpture through the means of painting—a contradiction that remained at the core of her work. She eventually connected both media in Counter Relief and Cocoon, and the organic line allowed the reversible transformation of two into three-dimensional elements. Therefore, her practice became interdisciplinary, defined by her steady efforts at expressing real space through the activation of the surface.
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About the Author
Renato Rodrigues da Silva holds a PhD in art history from the University of Texas at Austin. He has written largely on contemporary Brazilian art, publishing articles in Third Text, Leonardo Journal, Word & Image, and Border Crossings, among others. He is currently writing a book on neoconcretism for the University of Texas Press. He is also a curator and recently organized the 10th Northwest Biennial for the Tacoma Art Museum.