This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist, dated 6 October 2016.
Since his Pop-inspired beginnings in the early 1960s, Dias has explored the existential ironies of life with wry humor, probing the subjectivities of the corporeal body and its social and ideological conditionings. Dias studied printmaking under Osvaldo Goeldi in Rio de Janeiro, where he moved in 1957, and began to circulate in the milieu of Brazilian New Figuration. He left during the military dictatorship, moving first to Paris, in 1966, and settling two years later in Milan, there initiating a period in which his work started to take new cues from conceptually- and politically-charged minimalism and multimedia experimentation. A member of the ascendant Brazilian generation that includes Cildo Meireles, Waltercio Caldas, and Anna Bella Geiger, Dias has long worked within modes of conceptualism, cogitating on the experience of exile, nomadism, and freedom.
“While the geographical distance from Brazil was probably leading me away from the problems I had attempted to deal with in my painting,” Dias acknowledged of his sojourn in Paris, “I was also becoming interested in subjects like astronomy and geometry, as well as paradoxes. I began to make simpler, more self-contained objects.” Dias left for Milan in the aftermath of the May 1968 demonstrations in Paris, which carried resonances of the military regime he had left: “All of a sudden I was witnessing scenes I knew from Brazil: cars intercepting people in the middle of the street, people being arrested by plainclothes policemen, plenty of street fighting. . . . I lived near the Latin Quarter and worked nights as a security guard in a clandestine hospital.”
Dias moved to Milan in August 1968, and with the support of the collector Marcello Rumma he grew close to a number of artists associated with the Arte Povera movement, among them Gilberto Zorio, Luciano Fabro and Giulio Paolini. He began to work out of Lucio Del Pezzo’s studio, coming into proximity with Zero Group artists, including Enrico Castellani and Agostino Bonalumi, and their purist explorations of monochrome, light, and space. “It was a period of direct contact with the Italian art of that moment,” Dias later stated. “When I arrived in Italy I was no longer interested in objects and had instead begun to consider bigger projects, using territories, inspired by architectural plans, and I eventually settled for a totally paint-spattered field that was a sort of non-image.”
His work became more and more austere in the decade following his move to Milan, its political urgency distilled in diagrammatic grids marked with words and symbols, often both cynical and melancholy in kind. “Although this period of the artist's career has not infrequently been described as a ‘new phase,’” Sônia Salzstein has remarked, “‘minimalist and conceptual’ in opposition to the expressive prodigality of the previous moment, the more recent works had preserved, as stated, the essential part of that work: the pathetic perception of human scale, scattered throughout the perceptual development of grids, reticules, or patterns.” In works such as Do It Yourself: Freedom Territory (1968) and Anywhere is My Land (1968), Dias probed the conditional freedoms of the grid, rendered as both a provisional refuge from the tyranny of the outside world and an allegory of never-ending displacement. “The work opened itself up to new interests,” Salzstein explains, “and the elements that in it up until then seemed to refer immediately to the Brazilian political situation – for instance, the term ‘prisoner’ associated with grids of empty and oppressive spaces that constantly appeared in his paintings and papers – henceforth evinced the revelatory strength of a new international order in art and in culture.”
Desert is one of a number of grid-based paintings, including Environment for the Prisoner (1968) and AlphaOmega Biography (1968), that Dias made in the transitional period surrounding his move from Paris to Milan. The word “desert” also appears in Keep Dry My Eyes (1969) and Camuflagem (1968), in the latter case in juxtaposition to the word “universe.” The incorporation of language into these works harks back to the example of Concrete art and poetry, particularly its manifestation in Brazil during the 1950s, with which Dias was familiar. In the present work, the word appears at the center of canvas, laconic against a paint-dripped ground whose cruciform containment critiques the “all-over,” existential void that long haunted Abstract Expressionism. A barren wilderness, in one sense, and as a verb suggestive of abandonment and departure, the word “desert” evokes here the placeless aporia of the modern nomad faced with the prospect, “Anywhere is My Land.”
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1 Antonio Dias, quoted in “Hans-Michael Herzog in Conversation with Antonio Dias,” Antonio Dias: Anywhere is My Land (Zurich: Daros Latinamerica AG, 2009), 134, 136.
2 Ibid., 138.
3 Sônia Salzstein, “The Many Masquerades of Antonio Dias,” Antonio Dias: Anywhere is My Land, 48, 52.