São Paulo

Paulo Roberto Leal, Armadura (Armature), 1978, canvas on canvas, 46 5⁄8 × 46 5⁄8".

Paulo Roberto Leal, Armadura (Armature), 1978, canvas on canvas, 46 5⁄8 × 46 5⁄8".

Paulo Roberto Leal

Paulo Roberto Leal (1946–1991) began his artistic career in the late 1960s. Based in Rio de Janeiro, he had the historical distance to perceive the importance of the Neo-Concretism of the preceding generation of Brazilian artists, especially Willys de Castro’s combination of emptiness, inventive settings, and painting in his “Objetos ativos” (Active Objects), ca. 1959–63, and Lygia Clark’s invention of the “organic line” when she abandoned the canvas in the mid-1950s in favor of works constructed from wooden panels with spaces between them. Each of those gaps made up, in the words of the critic Ferreira Gullar, “a half-centimeter separation that constitutes a line or void, of empty space, which cuts the surface in an irregular, diagonal mode.”

Emptiness, voids, interstices, and silence were important concepts for Leal as well. In Armadura (Armature), 1978, he cut a single canvas into pieces that he glued onto another canvas to form a grid with intervals between the modules, the work recalling Clark’s procedure (as well as Anna Maria Maiolino’s 1970s series “O Buracos/Desenhos objectos” [Holes/Drawing Objects], and, of course, Lucio Fontana’s incisions). Leal was interested in materiality, but above all in an expansion of the concept of painting, even in the midst of a growing wave of installation art in Brazil. In this exhibition, close to twenty works, making for a concise panorama of his production, accentuated his proximity to Italian Arte Povera and American Minimalism. Leal had gained a direct familiarity with international production when he took part in the Venice Biennale of 1972, and the dialogue with Robert Ryman in Muralhas do quasar (Quasar Walls), 1984—a canvas lightly painted with white oils, revealing only folds and the marks of time—may not be coincidental.

A material that Leal returned to again and again was paper. The triptych Armagem 73/4 (Articulation 73/4), 1973, presents grids of folded paper, rolled sensuously inside three transparent acrylic boxes whose milky translucency imbues the work with a sensation of velocity and drama. Armagem, 1972, consists of sheets of thick brown paper, superimposed and curling up on themselves, held together by a single nail in the wall. Leal’s paper cocoons evoke delicacy and strength, collapse and resilience, fragility and the potential for vital strength. With an economy of gesture, the artist creates an ephemeral and sensual atmosphere—without allowing us to forget that Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985.

In Leal’s art, and that of his generation more broadly, the geometric legacy of Neo-Concretism opened up to more conceptual conclusions. For Leal, reflecting on painting meant thinking of supports as surfaces. Thus, in Entretela (Interlace), 1976, the canvas is itself the painting—that is, the artist used diagonal strips of canvas to create lines (sewn rather than painted or scored) to define modular, monochromatic, and symmetrical spaces. Once again, this is where the synthesis of his work lies: His silent, economical structures are quietly imbued with gestural energy and are, paradoxical as it may seem, rigorous in a relaxed way.

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers.