Rio de Janeiro

Abraham Palatnik, Objeto Cinético KK - 9ª (Kinetic Object KK - 9ª), 1966/2009, wood, Formica, steel, motor, 24 × 38 5/8 × 6 5/8". From the series “Objetos Cinéticos” (Kinetic Objects), 1964–.

Abraham Palatnik, Objeto Cinético KK - 9ª (Kinetic Object KK - 9ª), 1966/2009, wood, Formica, steel, motor, 24 × 38 5/8 × 6 5/8". From the series “Objetos Cinéticos” (Kinetic Objects), 1964–.

Abraham Palatnik

Centro Cultural Banco Do Brasil

Abraham Palatnik, Objeto Cinético KK - 9ª (Kinetic Object KK - 9ª), 1966/2009, wood, Formica, steel, motor, 24 × 38 5/8 × 6 5/8". From the series “Objetos Cinéticos” (Kinetic Objects), 1964–.

Eighteen years have passed since octogenarian Abraham Palatnik’s last retrospective. In the meantime, the burgeoning historiography of midcentury Brazilian geometric and constructive abstraction has left his role relatively unexamined. Indeed, as Palatnik himself recognizes, his interest in kineticism distanced him from the debates that raged around Concretism and Neo-Concretism throughout the 1950s and ultimately defined the critical reception of the art of the period. Curated by Felipe Scovino and Pieter Tjabbes, the eighty-six works in “Abraham Palatnik—a reinvenção da pintura” (Abraham Palatnik: The Reinvention of Painting) offered a concise but meaningful contribution to the important task of further fleshing out Palatnik’s historical significance—an effort begun in the exhibition’s richly illustrated catalogue with new essays by Scovino and art historian Michael Asbury.

In the opening room, viewers were introduced to Palatnik’s trajectory and to an array of works produced in the 1940s, mostly during the period the artist studied in Tel Aviv (1943–47). One portrait, painted in gouache, exemplified the consolidation of Palatnik’s palette, as the naturalism of the beginning of the Tel Aviv period morphs into an expressionist juxtaposition of complementaries, with the work’s orange and green duality heightening the subject’s moody expression. This same palette recurs both in the trademark kinetic works he started devising in 1949and in later abstract paintings he composed by alternating very slender, vertical wooden slats. In these works, the organic patterns of both the wood veins and the fluid layers of paint coating the matrixes are submitted to a rhythmic, positive/negative progression. After initial experiences with sawn wood, Palatnik subsequently applied this same technique to other materials, including metal, cardboard, and laser-cut acrylic.

The exhibition also highlighted Palatnik’s experience in the Pedro II Psychiatric Hospital, in the Rio de Janeiro suburb of Engenho de Dentro, where he joined fellow artists Almir Mavignier and Ivan Serpa in leading a painting workshop that, surprisingly, became one of the birthplaces of geometric abstraction in Brazil in the late 1940s. The inclusion of works by patients Emygdio de Barros and Raphael Domingues is helpful: The latter’s drawings and Palatnik’s “Objetos Cinéticos” (Kinetic Objects), 1964–, share a special interest in the line, which suggests forms while never allowing them to coalesce completely. In the “Objetos Cinéticos” series, of course, automated movement is crucial: The work’s animation constantly shifts the linear arrangement and moves colored discs around against the backdrop of square or triangular bases that conceal the mechanism. In wall-mounted works, in particular, such underpinnings operate as surrogates of the frame common around whose limits the wire lines and painted discs keep testing. It is easy to understand why Palatnik would draw the attention of critic Mário Pedrosa, a champion of Alexander Calder’s works in Brazil. Pedrosa reportedly presented Palatnik with a book by mathematician Norbert Wiener that became instrumental to Palatnik’s turn to kineticism. More important, Palatnik’s recurrent use of motion as a means of probing formal emergence and dissolution resonates with Pedrosa’s work on Gestalt theory, developed amid constant visits of the critic to the workshop at the hospital.

Conservation concerns meant that the “Objetos Cinéticos” and “Aparelhos Cinecromáticos” (Kinechromatic Devices), 1949–83, could operate only for limited periods of time; unfortunately, this unplanned inertness neutralizes their dynamic formal dialectic. And the decision to exhibit the “Aparelhos Cinecromáticos” brings up the thorny problem of replacing the original colored bulbs with newer ones while preserving their original chromatic relations—indeed, Palatnik himself only rarely authorizes such replacements. An explicit discussion of such issues would have added a layer of critical interest to the exhibition. Still, the inclusion of Palatnik’s furniture designs and of the “Objetos Lúdicos” (Playful Objects), 1959–2005, created as toys for the artist’s children, highlighted his inventive take on the relation between fine and applied arts that fascinated the artists of his generation. Here, as elsewhere, Palatnik’s unique viewpoint on a pervasive concern remains remarkable.

––Sérgio B. Martins