During a few days in Sao Paulo, I went to several museums and about a dozen far-flung galleries. Each had something to recommend it, whether the art or exhibition on view or the architecture or physical lay-out of the space, but nothing I saw or experienced surprised or captivated me as much as what I saw at MASP.
MASP, the Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo, is a private, nonprofit museum founded by Brazilian businessman Assis Chateaubriand in 1947. Originally located elsewhere, it moved in 1968 into a Modernist structure designed by Italian-born Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi on Avenida Paulista, a busy shopping and business thoroughfare. The museum occupies a glass-walled rectangular box that is suspended high above the street by vivid red cement brackets that extend the length of the building. A large, open plaza is below. The building is striking and stands out from its bland surroundings. However, it is when you go upstairs to the Permanent Collection floor that you are bowled over by Lina Bo Bardi’s creativity and ingenuity. It is then that you understand why this museum with an encyclopedic collection extending from the ancient world to the present on an international scale identifies itself as “Brazil’s first modern museum.”
Occupying a football field-sized, entirely open, glass-enclosed expanse, is a seemingly endless parade of paintings that appear to hover in space. In defiance of the tradition of hanging paintings on solid walls, here the paintings–by Bosch, Memling, Bernini, Botticelli, Raphael, Rembrandt, Ingres, El Greco, Gainsborough, Chardin, Picasso, and a host of others–are freestanding, each bolted to a glass panel that is supported by a small cement and wood block. The backs of the paintings are clearly revealed, the “wall labels” affixed to them. The experience of viewing works in this manner, once you get over the shock of its unconventionality, is wonderful, each painting almost literally “standing on its own two feet,” commanding the space around it and your attention. And there are a great many high quality works to be seen, as well as a few unexpected discoveries (i.e., a large-scale portrait of a lion hunter by Edouard Manet).
The arrangement of the paintings is roughly chronological with time marching forward from the front to the back of the display. Multiple works by individual artists are aligned, while some juxtapositions seem random and a bit jarring (a Hans Holbein portrait beside a Tintoretto Pieta). As you weave your way back through the display, paintings by Brazilian artists appear with greater frequency. When I was there, the only women artists to be found were two Brazilians whose work, the most contemporary on view, stood in very last row–a 2005 photograph by Barbara Wagner and an interactive table piece of 2015 by Rivane Neuenschwander (visitors were invited to draw upon it with chalk).
The lack of representation of work by women was not true elsewhere in the museum, as a Guerilla Girls retrospective was on display downstairs, together with an exhibition of the work of Tunga that explored his bodily references. Both of these shows were adjuncts to the large exhibition on the museum’s third floor entitled Histories of Sexuality, which was the culmination of MASP’s devotion of the year 2017 to exploring this topic in its various aspects through exhibitions, seminars, courses, and workshops. The wholly uncensored nature of the work in the exhibition, the allowances for artist freedom of expression and representations of sexuality in its many forms, was extraordinary to an American viewer.
Histories of Sexuality was organized thematically and opened in a gallery devoted to Nudes that featured drawings by Egon Schiele and Nancy Spiro, a collage by Mickalene Thomas, and paintings by Ingres and Balthus (of late, the subject of controversy at the Met due to images deemed “offensive’). While the exhibition includes some historical material, as indicated above, most of the work was fairly recent and included pieces by Ana Mendieta, Louise Bourgeois, Alice Neel, Betty Tomkins, Robert Mapplethorpe, Zoe Leonard, as well as Brazilians Ernesto Neto, Leticia Parente, Adriana Varejao, Jac Leirner, and a host of others. Among my favorite moments in the show was when I found, in the section devoted to Voyeurism, Tracey Moffatt’s video Heaven (1997) in which she filmed male surfers changing out of their wetsuits juxtaposed with a Degas bather.
At MAC, the Museu de Arte Contemporanea, situated in an 8-storey Oscar Niemeyer building located on the campus of the University of Sao Paulo, the focus is on Latin American artists. I was taken with the paintings by Brazilian artist Tasila do Amaral (1886-1973), who was previously unknown to me. I was delighted to see that she has an exhibition opening at MoMA in February. I was also struck by a photographic series and gorgeous video of dancers performing in a narrow corridor entitled El Tango del Pasillo, by Patricia Osses, based in Santiago, Chile. It was interesting to see more work by artists with whom I had been unacquainted before I visited the exhibition Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985, at the Hammer Museum, and read its groundbreaking catalogue. On view was an early piece by Claudia Andujar, a video by Analivia Cordeiro, and videos and shaped paintings Regina Silveira.
The Pinocoteca (Pinacoteca do Estado de Sao Paulo), founded in 1905, is the oldest museum in Sao Paulo. Renovated in the 1990s, it is devoted to Brazilian art and has a collection dating from the 17th to the 21st century and an exhibition program of equal range. I found it fascinating to trace the history of art from the Baroque to Impressionism to 1930s Social Realism and after through the work of wholly unfamiliar artists. As may be expected, the theme of the worker and the farmer figure prominently, as does the preponderance of portraits of black and mixed-race subjects, a few by Afro-Brazilian artists like Arthur Timotheo da Costa, whose work I first encountered at MASP. The gallery devoted to the work of Brazilian Pop on long-term loan from the collection of Roger Wright is a must for anyone interested in this movement and in international Pop. Prime examples of 1960s work by Mira Schendel, Anna Maria Maiolino, Wesley Duke Lee, and Maria do Carmo Secco are included.
Among the commercial galleries I visited were Galeria Luisa Strina, Vermelho, Galeria Nara Roesler, Mendes Wood DM, Galerie Jaqueline Martins, Casa Triangulo, Fortes D’Aloia + Gabriel, and Galeria Millan, which had an installation by Lenora de Barros, who was included in Radical Women. A standout was the Luciana Brito Gallery, which is located in a home designed by Brazilian Modernist architect Rino Levi located in Sao Paulo’s beautiful Jardim Europa district. The home’s open plan works in tandem with the lush tropical vegetation that surrounds and penetrates the house, which was designed by Roberto Burle Marx, the landscape architect who initiated and inspired the gardens at Inhotim. When I visited, one of the exhibitions on view was devoted to work by Caio Reisewitz, which interacted with the house and gardens. In September 2017, the Luciana Brito Gallery opened a branch in Tribeca, New York, to showcase Brazilian artists.
An awareness of Brazilian and Latin American art in the U.S. has for several years been gathering momentum. The Getty’s recent LA/LA (Latin American Art/Los Angeles) initiative of which the Hammer’s Radical Women and the proyectosLA art fair were a part, MoMA’s ever-expanding Latin American art collection and upcoming Tasila do Amaral exhibition, and Patricia Phelps de Cisneros bounteous gifts to museums of Latin American art from her collection and funding of the MoMA’s Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Institute for the Study of Art in Latin America testify that history is being rewritten and horizons expanded.
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