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Abraham Palatnik. Courtesy of the artist’s estate and Galeria Nara Roesler. Photo: Vicente de Mello.

Abraham Palatnik (1928–2020)

Brazilian artist, inventor, and designer Abraham Palatnik, a giant of kinetic and Op art who harnessed technology to create painterly images with light, movement, and shadow in his groundbreaking series “Kinechromatic Devices,” 1951–2004, died from Covid-19 in Rio de Janeiro on May 9. He was ninety-two years old. Palatnik’s motorized apparatuses—combining Plexiglas, wood, metal, electric wiring, and, in his early experiments, hundreds of lightbulbs—pushed the boundaries of sculpture but also the medium itself. These vibrant “painting machines” quickly drew praise from artists and critics, including leading Brazilian public intellectual Mário Pedrosa, who called them “frescoes of light.”

Born in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil, in 1928 to a family of Russian Jews, Palatnik moved with his family to Tel Aviv (then Palestine) when he was four years old. He attended Montefiori Technical School, where he specialized in internal combustion engines, and studied art under the tutelage of the painter Haaron Avni and the sculptor Sternshus at the Municipal Institute of Art. When he returned to Brazil in 1948, his output consisted mainly of figurative and landscape paintings and charcoal drawings. However, his encounters with the complex works made by schizophrenic patients at the Pedro II Psychiatric Hospital, where he taught painting workshops alongside Almir Mavignier and Ivan Serpa, caused him to abandon his early approach to traditional image-making: “I decided to start all over from scratch,” Palatnik said. “The discipline from the school, the studio, was no longer of any use.”

Freed from the perceived restrictions of his training, Palatnik became closely associated with Grupo Frente, a movement started by Serpa and rooted in geometric abstraction. He used his knowledge of engineering and mechanics as well as his interest in natural forces to build his first Kinechromatic work. Titled Azul e roxo em seu primeiro movimento (Blue and Purple in First Movement), 1949, the piece debuted at the inaugural São Paulo Bienal in 1951. “In reality, it was luck that got me into the biennial,” Palatnik said in a 1986 interview. “At first, my machine was rejected, because it wasn’t a painting, a sculpture, a drawing, or a print.” The piece, which eventually gained entry, shocked the biennial’s grand prize jury, who gave Palatnik an honorable mention, calling his work an “important manifestation of modern art.” By 1969, he had participated in seven more editions of the international exhibition.

Palatnik would also present work in the 1964 Venice Biennale, the 1966 Biennial of Córdoba, and the 1997 and 2005 editions of the Mercosul Biennial. His art was featured in significant exhibitions on kinetic art, including “Mouvement 2” (1964) at Denise René gallery in Paris; “Lumière, Mouvement et Optique” (1965) at the Brussels Palace of Fine Arts; “Kinetic Art” (1966) at the Museum of San Francisco; and, more recently, “Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason, 1950–1980” (2017) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and “The Other Trans-Atlantic: Kinetic & Op Art in Central & Eastern Europe and Latin America 1950s–1970s” (2018) at Sesc Pinheiros in São Paulo. A major retrospective, “Abraham Palatnik—The Reinvention of Painting,” was staged at several venues across Brazil, including the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil Rio de Janeiro (2017); the Fundação Iberê Camargo, Porto Alegre (2015); the Museu Oscar Niemeyer, Curitiba (2014); and the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (2014).

Heavily influenced by design principles—Palatnik established the furniture factory Arte Vida with his brother in 1954, which churned out glass-topped tables as well as sofas and chairs—the artist began creating his “Progressive Relief” series, abstractions made from arrangements of thin strips of jacaranda wood and polyester resin positioned side by side, in the ’60s. Throughout his seven-decade career, Palatnik would produce his “Kinetic Objects” series, which focused on the metal rods, strings, gears and motors, and sometimes electromagnets, previously hidden in his “Kinechromatic Devices,” that set the pieces in motion; his “Ludic Objects” series, which comprised geometric shapes in various colors that were activated by viewers through a magnetized stick; and his late “W” paintings. He also designed dozens of acrylic animals as part of a collection sold by the design firm Silon, which he and his brother opened in the 1970s.

Likening his “W” paintings, which were first presented by his longtime gallery, Galeria Nara Roesler, in 2004, to television broadcast interruptions, critic Kaira M. Cabañas wrote in Artforum’s November 2013 issue that Palatnik “might be said to deploy the beauty of an otherwise unwelcome visual rhythm toward expanding what is perceptible through art.” The artist himself once said: “My role as an artist is to discipline the chaos regarding information.” 

Although not widely shown in the United States and Europe, his art resides in the collections of various institutions worldwide, including the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro; the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo; the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium; the Adolpho Leirner Collection of Brazilian Constructive Art–Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Houston; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Installation View of “Abraham Palatnik: Recent Works and Historical Punctuations” (2020). Courtesy of the artist’s estate and Galeria Nara Roesler. Photo: Erika Mayumi.

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