Camargo made his first studies in Paris between 1948 and 1953, encountering there for the first time the organic sculptural language of Jean Arp and Constantin Brancusi, at whose studio he was a frequent guest. Their formal example, which found a touchstone in the eternal process of nature, would remain an important point of reference for Camargo as he returned to Brazil and gradually abandoned representational form for the language of pure abstraction. Returning to Paris in 1960, he began to explore formal problems related to those of Op art and Kinetic art; and his experiments with volume and space led to the evolution of his first wood reliefs, which would preoccupy him for the rest of his career. Playing infinite variations on the same theme, Camargo demonstrated the limitless diversity of solutions to the sculptural problems created by cylindrical wooden modules set in spectacular and carefully crafted relief.
In this early work, Camargo explores the aesthetic range of optical and kinetic effects by contrasting a proliferating mass of white wooden dowels against the material roughness of a raw piece of wood. Encrusted against the dark, visible grain of the wood panel, the white wooden forms take a crystalline form, growing organically away from their support. "They appear like barnacles," Christina Bach has observed. "The small cylindrical entities...start disturbing modest flat areas or the bowels of broken trunks, but they do not hide their purpose of effecting a metastastic proliferation. Like eruptions of the skin, they can spread out ad aeturnum, obeying a compulsion."(1) The dialogue between the rough texture of the unpainted wooden support and the organic growth of the painted white cylinders gives this work a self-reflexive dynamism and structural tension. Although Camargo always maintained his distance from Op art, this work bears a resemblance to the early assemblage sculptures of Jesús Rafael Soto, which combine driftwood with tangles of wire to create optical effects that question the nature of illusionism and material reality.
Camargo's early sculpture is already as much an intellectual exercise as a visual one, however, and its conceptualism distances his work from the more purely phenomenological problems that would preoccupy Soto and others over the following decades. "Far from being just optical," according to Ronaldo Brito, Camargo's reliefs are based on a dialectical relationship between vision and thought. "The veiling and unveiling movement of the structure makes of observation an exercise where the eye and the mind both follow and lose the plot successively," he suggests, describing Camargo's process as a kind of "straw order" that plays havoc with order and method.(2) #120 draws productively on the oppositional and constructive tension between its combined surfaces, checking the logic of rationalism with the less easily quantified expressiveness of the multiplying white forms. The dynamic tension between order and what Brito calls the "insanity of order" would become a hallmark of Camargo's mature work, in which he explored the limits of the Constructivist project through non-systematic and luminously tactile sculptural space.
1) C. Bach, "A Game of Truths," in Mira Schendel, Sergio Camargo, Willys de Castro, Rio de Janeiro: Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, 2000, 61.
2) Brito, "The order and the insanity of order," in Sergio Camargo: relevos e esculturas (1963-1975), Rio de Janeiro: Museu de Arte Moderna, 1975, 11.