Mexico City

Mira Schendel

Because of her use of simplified geometric forms to evoke poetic feelings and sensuality, the Brazilian artist Mira Schendel (1919–88; born Myrrha Dagmar Dub in Switzerland) has often been linked to the Neo-concrete art developed in Brazil as an offspring of and reaction to international Constructivism, placing her on an equal footing with such pioneers as Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, and Lygia Pape. With remarkable consistency, Schendel strove to reach a point where her works verged on sameness without being arid or repetitive. As she once stated in a letter to a critic, she was interested in the notion of “possibility” rather than “necessity” provided by art, with an ultimate goal (paraphrasing Haroldo de Campos)—of “emptying of the form.”

This exhibition, entitled “Continuum amorfo,” presented the artist’s works from the ’60s through the ’80s as a dialogue among the materials she used to produce her works, the forms she created, and her inner life. It seems that what most interested Schendel was the fragility and fluidity—or perhaps vulnerability—of all of those components. Her preoccupation with presence-in-absence and the centrality of the void may have been influenced by Asian philosophies like Buddhism, to which she alludes in the series of gouache-and-charcoal drawings titled “Mais ou menos frutas” (More or Less Fruits), 1983, whose simplified forms of fruits are depicted as detached from a vine or string represented by an “elastic” horizontal line crossing the white page. Perhaps surprisingly, these pieces recall traditional Chinese calligraphy through their reliance on controlled yet immediate gestures as ways of searching for broader meaning in art and its communication of life, without giving up the attempt to make a distinctive personal mark.

Marks, in fact, take on many forms in Schendel’s art. In “Droguinhas” (“insignificant things” or “little nothings”), a series of spatial works on paper from 1964, they appear as gestures of coiling, braiding, and knotting. The forms have a “concrete” presence, yet they are nonutilitarian and abstract; their subject is neither refined nor rarefied. In a series of untitled monotypes, also from the ’60s, Schendel’s marks appear as stains and scratches, created by transferring ink drawings from a piece of glass to rice paper. In these, the delicacy of line is emphasized without direct interaction with the fragile, tissuelike paper: The ink simply bleeds through. What occasionally disturbs that Zen feeling of corporeal relationship between the artist and her work is the use of words and letters, inscribed by hand or written with Letraset, which results in an extraneous graphic feel that seems out of sync with the delicacy of the image.

Schendel returned to a stricter geometry in her late works, for example, the series “Sarratos” (Sluts), 1987, in which she assembled narrow pieces of black-painted wood with rectangular, near-white pieces treated as “canvas.” Organized in a minimalist fashion that stresses materiality, these assemblages stood in sharp contrast to her visceral earlier works. They remind us that Constructivism at its best is a Great Utopia to which art that aims at reaching the essence of self will perhaps always return.

Marek Bartelik