Modern Brazilian artists to collect right now
Marysol Nieves, Senior Specialist in Latin American art at Christie’s in New York, introduces seven modern artists who emerged during a vibrant period of creativity in Brazil
The 1950s was a period of spirited optimism in Brazil, as the country became an advanced industrialized economy. Through its artists and musicians, a new form of utopian modernism was developing, one that challenged the political and cultural dominance of Europe and the United States, and set a precedent for future artistic innovation.
A group of young artists turned hard-edged abstraction into something sensual and poetic. The aesthetic became known as Neoconcretism, and its bold colours, dynamic use of space, and focus on sensory experience showed the world that geometry could be expressive, political and physical. It was the start of a period of radical and creative innovation in art, literature, music and architecture in Brazil.
‘Post-war Brazilian art represents an extraordinary chapter in the history of global modernism, beginning with Constructivism and Neoconcretism and leading to Tropicalia, conceptual art and abstraction,’ explains Senior Specialist in Latin American Art Marysol Nieves.
These experimental artists created works using materials from everyday life and, despite the range of styles, Nieves argues that there was a common theme: ‘the Brazilian idea of vivência, or total life-experience as evinced in their embrace of participatory, process and multi-disciplinary art.’
‘Recent exhibitions have cast a spotlight on previously under-recognised artists, and amplified the market for modern and contemporary Brazilian art’ — Marysol Nieves
Since that unprecedented era of artistic optimism, Brazil’s artists have continued to drive their spirited agenda, even in the face of political unrest, and the art world is taking note.
Recent exhibitions at leading U.S. and European museums of such key Brazilian figures as Tarsila do Amaral, Lygia Clark, Cildo Meireles, and Lygia Pape have ‘cast a spotlight on previously under-recognised artists, and amplified the market for modern and contemporary Brazilian art’, says the specialist.
Today, modern and contemporary artists such as Sérgio Camargo, Antonio Dias, Tunga, and Jac Leirner are regular fixtures in international exhibitions and biennials, art fairs and auctions. Prices for top works can easily reach $500,000 and above.
Here, Marysol Nieves lists seven Brazilian artists to invest in now, illustrated with works offered for sale at Christie’s.
Geraldo de Barros (1923-1998)
One of the most influential Brazilian artists of the 20th century, Geraldo de Barros is considered a pioneer of concrete art, yet he is also celebrated for his groundbreaking innovations in photography. The artist began taking photographs when he was 16, and quickly began playing with the medium — cutting, scratching and painting negatives, and experimenting with multiple exposures and pinhole photography.
In 1950 he exhibited the results as Fotoformas at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, which earned him a scholarship to Europe, where Untitled (Atelier de Vieira da Silva, France) (1951/1981), below, was made. The work is a disorientating and dynamic depiction of the artist Vieira da Silva’s studio in Paris.
Amilcar de Castro (1920-2002)
Neoconcretism was established in Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s, and one of its key figures was the sculptor Amilcar de Castro. Today, his striking oxidized steel and iron works can be found across Brazil, notably outside São Paulo Cathedral.
No material was too daunting for de Castro, who used nature as a paintbrush, allowing his heavy-metal constructions to rust and erode as a way of mirroring the decay of the urban environment.
Untitled (1990), below, is from his ‘Cut and Fold’ series, and, says Nieves, ‘experiments with two and three-dimensional space, and is continuously transformed by the play of light and shadow’.
Sérgio Camargo (1930-1990)
The Constructivist sculptor Sérgio Camargo was taught by the modernist master Lucio Fontana in Buenos Aires, before travelling to China and France, where he became a member of the opto-kinetic Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV).
According to Nieves, it was in the mid-1960s that the artist began producing his ‘now iconic’ white reliefs in wood and marble, of which Untitled (1979), below right, is one. ‘Their angled surfaces, offset and softly luminous, highlight the opalescence of white Carrara marble and the poetics of minimalist monochrome’.
The later Untitled (1989), below left, which is made of black marble, plays with negatives and positives by both absorbing and reflecting the light around it.
Arthur Luiz Piza (1928-2017)
Arthur Luiz Piza was among the generation of young Latin American artists who arrived in Paris in the 1950s, and is best known for his collages and metal assemblages. He studied engraving under the master printmaker Johnny Friedlaender, and was awarded the National Engraving Prize in 1959.
In the 1960s he began to push the boundaries of printmaking — first by experimenting with collages, and later with sculptural reliefs. Untitled (2004) belongs to a series of sculptures known as ‘Weaves’, in which coloured, geometric plaques float between meshes that open like a book.
Jac Leirner (b. 1961)
Jac Leirner has been a familiar presence on the international biennial and exhibition circuit since the mid-1980s, and is known for her sculptural assemblages that consider the detritus of consumer culture.
Fuelled by punk rock and an obsession for collecting, her most famous and possibly most notorious work is a series called Pulmão (Lung), below, which she began in 1987, the same year she represented Brazil at the Venice Biennale. The sculptures were made from the remnants of 1,200 Marlboro packs which the artist had smoked over three years.
The cardboard packaging was strung onto polyurethane cord and today hangs in the Museum of Modern Art New York, while the cellophane wrappers were stacked inside a Plexiglas box to create a minimalist sculpture. Nieves’ explains that Pulmão (Lung) reflects ‘the residual effects of consumption, from the intimately personal to the ethical and economic’.
Among the pioneering generation of Brazilian conceptualists, the enigmatic Tunga is perhaps best-known for his surreal sculptures and large-scale installations that draw on the body, literature and mythology. His work has been described as ‘ungraspable’ by the artistic director of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, Adriano Pedrosa.
‘No matter how studiously and diligently you try,’ he says, ‘you can't seize it or hold it firmly and entirely in your hands or mind. The work lures and deceives, slipping through your fingers, falling through the cracks, setting up tricks and traps.’
Untitled (1997), below, belongs to a group of works in which terracotta sculptures are forged into bronze and then painted to look lifelike. ‘I try to push the materials as far as possible in assigning them a symbolic function,’ explained Tunga in 2014. Through this transformation, these brutal, inert objects ‘are in effect reincarnated’, says Nieves. ‘Their surfaces become suggestively flesh-like, gleaming softly.’
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Elizabeth Jobim (b. 1957)
Heir to the rich Constructivist tradition in Rio de Janeiro, Elizabeth Jobim has built her practice on the relationship between colour, shape, and line, often breaking and remaking repeated patterns in her large-scale painted installations in order to disorientate the viewer.
‘It’s like having a stone in your shoe, or a stutter,’ she says, ‘but you keep on going and the energy keeps flowing.’
Untitled (2001), above, was originally conceived as part of a large installation of drawings and is created in her signature ultramarine blue. Nieves describes the work as ‘sweeping gestures of translucent blue pigment cascading across the surface, with forms seemingly expanding and shapeshifting before our eyes to suggest movement and depth.’