Paris

Arthur Bispo do Rosario

Jeu de Paume

Arthur Bispo do Rosario (1909?–89) refused to call himself an artist. Not out of modesty, but because he had loftier ambitions. Bispo claimed to have been entrusted by seven blue angels and Christ himself with the momentous task of inventorying everything worth redeeming on the impending Day of Judgment. He was diagnosed a paranoid-schizophrenic in 1938 and carried out his divine mission in isolation, confined for life to a psychiatric clinic in Rio de Janeiro. Preparing the material chosen for salvation for the time it would be presented before God, Bispo fashioned ceremonial garments, sculptural models of everything from boats and cars to hand tools and a boxing ring; embroidered banners; and showcased assemblages with an omnifarious array of materials and objects ranging from combs, plastic bottles, and rubber boots to model sailboats and planets and beauty-queen regalia.

Bispo’s offerings were crafted out of whatever he could lay his hands on. Hospital linen, for instance, was turned into banners embroidered with thread obtained by unraveling hospital uniforms. Among the labyrinthine arrangements of images and text in six examples shown here (all works undated) we find patterns of ships, naval signals, and flags, recalling Bispo’s time in the navy as a young man, followed by descriptions of hallucinations, long lists of proper names, and disruptive, self-referential phrases like “Uma obra tão importante que levou 1986 años para ser escrita” (Such an important work that it took 1,986 years to be written).

While Bispo’s obsessive needlework unfolds into a fittingly cryptic picture of his entangled mind, many of his ragtag sculptures feature stimulating plastic juxtapositions that could easily be attributed to a trained contemporary artist. Such is the allure of the surrealistic Placas de ruas (Street Signs), a set of fifteen delicate miniaturized street signs mummified in blue bandages; the post-Minimal-looking Paralelepípedo, a clunky wooden cart designed to carry exactly three beaten-up bricks; and the astonishingly stylized Tres rodos (Three Squeegees), an ode to the symmetry of the squeegee. Beauty-seeking souls will certainly be reassured to find in Bispo an untainted talent whose aesthetic sensibility resonates with ours, in spite of the art world’s institutionalization of it. On the other hand, critical militants who would discard aesthetics altogether would probably condemn the formal charms of such lovable fool’s-art.

Yet there is a paradox behind these charms. To be fair, we could try to refrain from judging Bispo’s output in the terms of contemporary art—kick the habit of cross-referencing and keep our (slightly schizophrenic) art-worldly predisposition in check. But we’d find it impossible to disregard the resemblance of these assemblages to, of all things, the icons of anti-aesthetic avant-garde art. We’re immediately reminded of Rauschenberg’s early antiformal sensibility, Oldenburg’s cataloguing endeavors, and arte povera’s material restrictions. Roda da fortuna (Wheel of Fortune), a decorated bicycle wheel mounted atop a wooden base, looks strikingly like a tropical version of Duchamp’s; the showcase 8034 butões para palitó sobretudo capa pereline (8,034 Buttons for Cardigan Overcoat Cape Cloak) like a poor man’s Arman; and Carpetes, a rack with colorful hanging carpets, like a takeoff on Morris’s felt cuts—even though we know these relationships are strictly coincidental. Bispo unwittingly plundered the readymade, the process work, and concrete art, remaking them as objects worthy of nonartistic but nonetheless aesthetic attention. Considered as not-art, Bispo’s products bypass the Duchampian spell that necessarily estranges any art based on the readymade from the real world. Thus their beauty is ultimately shielded from frivolous considerations art-worldly of taste.

Yishai Jusidman