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Helena Almeida (1934–2018)

Helena Almeida, the Portuguese avant-gardist who merged drawing, painting, photography, sculpture, and performance to unsettle the possibilities of self-representation, died on Tuesday, September 25, at age eighty-four. Almeida earned international recognition starting in the 1970s for her striking black-and-white images, which often portrayed impossible acts—the artist with pen making lines midair, or erasing herself with blue brushstrokes—to challenge the limitations of media as well as subject- and objecthood. Almeida was widely considered one of Portugal’s most significant postwar artists, and in addition to her numerous exhibitions worldwide, showed work at the 1982 and 2005 Venice Biennales. She was featured in two retrospectives at the Serralves Foundation in Porto, one in 2003 and one in 2010. A third retrospective, “Corpus,” was held at the Jeu de Paume in Paris in 2016.

Born in 1934 in Lisbon, Almeida studied painting at the University of Lisbon. Her father was the modernist sculptor Leopoldo de Almeida. She married architect Artur Rosa, and their daughter Joana Rosa went on to become an artist. She moved to Paris in 1964, and in 1967 she staged her first exhibition, which included paintings created with window shutters. She made her first photograph two years later, Pink Canvas for Wearing; in it, she dons a canvas on her torso, from which her baggy sleeves seemingly emerge. In the series “Inhabited Drawing,” 1975–77, drawn lines (evoked with horsehair) become three-dimensional objects, snaking and floating through space. Between 1975 and 1976, she worked on the series “Inhabited Painting(s),” which chronicled gestures and scenarios Almeida devised with swathes of Klein Blue paint. “I was impressed by the obscure side of the slash, the mystery of what is beyond the canvas,” she said in a 2011 interview. “I wanted to do something that would detach from the painting. Instead of showing the reverse of the canvas, I went out of the canvas.” In another interview, she described her work as “painting outwards.”

Reviewing an exhibition of Almeida’s work for Artforum’s September 2004 issue, Alexandre Melo wrote that her work confronts beholders “with the presence of her body in a manner that forces us, as observers, to take cognizance of the place and limits of the action and power of our own bodies.” While her work is often interpreted as belonging to a feminist tradition, Almeida rebuked the label in recent interviews. As she once put it, “My painting is my body, my work is my body.” Almeida continued to make art in her later years from her Lisbon studio, and an exhibition of her work from the 1990s is currently being shown in London at Tate Modern through November 4.