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Ferreira Gullar

Ferreira Gullar in his Copacabana home, Rio de Janeiro, August 1, 2013. Photo: Cecília Acioli/Folhapress.

FIRST-TIME VISITORS to the poet Ferreira Gullar’s apartment were often struck by his homemade replicas of works by Piet Mondrian and Alexander Calder. “Since I cannot afford originals,” he used to say, “I make my own.” His nonchalance about copying these masters underscores just how close Gullar and the midcentury circle of Brazilian artists around him felt to the modernist lineage they admired; Lygia Clark even wrote a personal letter to the long-deceased Mondrian in which she told him, “You are more alive today for me than all the people who understand me, up to a point.” Instead of revering the works of their avant-garde predecessors as canonical museum pieces, Gullar, Clark, and their peers treated them as a continually pertinent and accessible set of problems. Indeed, neither the weight of modernist forebears nor the intellectual milieu of Brazil’s cultural capitals intimidated the young poet from the poor and distant state of Maranhão: In the years following Gullar’s move to Rio in 1951, he initially joined forces with Concretist artists and poets from São Paulo, then quarreled with them; became arts editor of a vibrant literary supplement; and eventually became the leading theorist of Rio’s Concretist—later neo-Concretist—group. It was in the latter capacity that he shaped much of our contemporary understanding of the movement, especially the peculiarity of the sensuous, temporally inflected and historically conscious development of Concretist geometric abstraction.

It was perhaps natural, given his prominent role in the movement, that Gullar in his writings tended to portray neo-Concretism as far more cohesive than it ever really was. The “Manifesto neoconcreto” (Neo-Concretist Manifesto) of March 1959 was signed by the likes of Clark, Lygia Pape, Franz Weissmann, and Amilcar de Castro, but the subsequent and even more ambitious “Teoria do não-objeto” (Theory of the Non-Object), published in December of that year, faced a mixed reception within the group’s own ranks. Gullar characterized the non-object as the outcome of the modernist dialectic between form and support, stressing in particular the historical overcoming of the frame in painting and the base in sculpture. The concept derived its name from the purported lack of self-sufficient objecthood in the artworks it attempted to describe—that is, from their dependence on the subject that experienced them. While Hélio Oiticica remained a lifelong enthusiast of Gullar’s newfound concept, Clark immediately registered her skepticism in her personal diaries, insisting that the plane, rather than the frame was the metaphysical problem of modernist painting. In the early 1960s, the poet himself began to criticize his earlier affiliations; Gullar diagnosed avant-gardist heroism as increasingly alienated, given the cultural contradictions stemming from Brazil’s uneven economic development. Still, the non-object remained a hugely influential concept for subsequent generations of artists and critics.

Though it may be misleading to read Gullar’s neo-Concrete writings as grand interpretive keys to the entire group’s artistic production, they nevertheless played a crucial role in the development of the Brazilian avant-garde. On the one hand, Gullar’s teleological reconstruction of the history of European modern art was crucial in enabling a young generation of artists to hijack this very tradition and posit themselves as its faithful yet inventive heirs. On the other, Gullar’s virtuosic and profound rendering of the experiential dimensions of his encounters with artworks was unparalleled in Brazil at that time (even compared to, say, the much broader scope of the criticism of his mentor and friend Mário Pedrosa). Gullar’s penetrating and original recourse to the philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre, Susanne Langer, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty formed the crux of his neo-Concrete writings. Formed in a Francophile milieu, Gullar was able to engage and incorporate Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology years before American Minimalist artists such as Robert Morris first came into contact with the philosopher through English translations.

Sadly, unlike his neo-Concrete texts, most of Gullar’s poetry has not appeared in English and remains obscure, with the possible exception of his masterpiece Poema sujo (Dirty Poem), a book-length meditation on time, memory, and finitude written in 1975, during a tense period of exile in Argentina. This is regrettable not only from a literary standpoint—Gullar is arguably at the top of the post-1945 Brazilian poetry pantheon—but also because his art theory cannot be fully grasped without reference to the dilemmas he faced in his own medium. These confrontations were often violent: His 1954 book A luta corporal (The Bodily Struggle) stages a relentless assault on the subject/object divide. The book’s tragic outcome—the loss of language also becomes the loss of things—is at the root of the poet’s later redemptive take on Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, and of the burning intensity that permeates key descriptive passages of his neo-Concrete texts.

Gullar’s absence now presents a double challenge for those of us struggling to come to terms with his legacy. On the one hand, the poet himself obsessively narrated his own artistic and intellectual trajectory, often exaggerating the originality of his indubitably important contributions. On the other, his political and aesthetic stances, strengthened by his continued polemical contributions to Brazilian newspapers, became increasingly conservative over the years. And yet his passing was felt deeply even in circles that frequently took his posturing as an easy excuse to dismiss him tout court. As John Berger—another recently departed writer whose dazzling work is on par with Gullar’s—once claimed, with death “a life becomes readable.” Indeed, Gullar’s legacy is now open to yet another moment of reevaluation, one that will hopefully do justice to his defining role in the realms of postwar art and poetry.

Sérgio B. Martins is a professor in the history department of the Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Rio De Janeiro and the author of Constructing an Avant-Garde: Art in Brazil, 1949–1979 (MIT Press, 2013).

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