Ferreira Gullar, 2015. Photo: Greg Salibian.

I ENCOUNTERED FERREIRA GULLAR’s WRITINGS IN THE MID 1990s. I had become familiar with the work of Neo-concrete artists Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark—then utterly unknown in American academia—so it was Gullar’s writings in support of those artists and his criticism of the period that I first tackled. With the Neoconcrete cohort, Gullar penned the famous “Neoconcrete Manifesto” of 1959, which was published as a pamphlet and in the revolutionary Suplemento Dominical Jornal do Brasil, for which Gullar served as visual-arts editor. But by then Gullar was an established poet too, author of A luta corporal (1954) and O formigueiro (1955)—which helped define experimental poetry in Brazil.

A native of São Luís, Maranhão, on the northeast coast of Brazil, Gullar moved to Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of the 1950s. There, he met towering critic Mário Pedrosa, with whom Gullar sustained a productive dialogue that radically transformed Concrete art and poetry in Brazil. It was partly Pedrosa who provided Gullar with the tools to question the Concrete doxa—which in art and poetry had become an exemplary model of aesthetic production. Under the aegis of phenomenology, Gullar sought to rethink Concretism by privileging experience and expression instead of a priori conceptualization and theoretical interpretation. His attentive reading of Clark’s work contributed to this antiobjectivist and antifunctionalist understanding of geometric abstraction but also led him to forcefully question the ontology of the art object. By focusing on the beyond-the-frame that Clark’s work postulated, Gullar reflected on a crisis of mediums that he articulated through the concept of the nonobject (1959). The nonobject was the result of the exhaustion of representation as a function of art, but it signaled, too, the limits and conventions of painting and sculpture. In work that did away with the frame and the base, Gullar identified a new sense of meaning, a new mode of participatory interaction, a new rapport with the space of everyday life. He explored this dissolution of mediums in a series of spatial poems in which he inscribed single words upon wooden structures that revealed and concealed the words via the manipulation of the structures. In Lembra, (1959) for example, which consists of the Portuguese word for “remember” in the center of a white, wooden, square panel that is covered by a small blue cube, the meaning of the word is echoed in its concealment—enacted by a “reader” who shapes the semantic and visual tenor of the poem.

In 1961, Gullar became increasingly concerned with popular art and politics. A member of the Communist Party, he lived in exile for most of the 1970s. Upon his return in 1977 he resumed his activities as poet, critic, writer, and journalist. One of the region’s most important poets, honored as such by multiple awards and accolades, Gullar, in his criticism, also made a pivotal contribution to theories of modern art—an achievement with which we have just begun to cope.

For additional Ferreira Gullar Passages, see the forthcoming April issue of Artforum.

Monica Amor is a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.