São Paulo

Tunic from the Wari culture, ca. 600–1000, camelid fibers. From “Nosso norte é o sul” (Our North Is the South).

Tunic from the Wari culture, ca. 600–1000, camelid fibers. From “Nosso norte é o sul” (Our North Is the South).

“Our North Is the South”

Just to the right of the entrance to Bergamin & Gomide hangs a small fresco on burlap by Joaquín Torres García. Constructivo América, 1942, distills the aesthetic principles that the modernist painter developed following his return to Uruguay from Europe in 1934. Ideograms of life in the Americas, from dugout canoes to skyscrapers, appear in an uneven and nonhierarchical grid, above which a sun, modeled after the Inca god Inti, shines its benevolent rays. The work is a perfect starting point for “Nosso norte é o sul”  (Our North Is the South), a compact yet ambitious exhibition that takes its name from Torres García’s 1934 manifesto, “La Escuela del Sur” (The School of the South), in which the artist called for a turn to indigenous rather than European sources of inspiration. Although his “universal constructivism” tended to flatten cultural differences, it upended the Eurocentrism of academic art. This show takes up Torres García’s charge without making any overt historical claims. For instance, Constructivo América is placed above an ornately carved wooden bench from Marajó Island, whose ideogrammatic incisions it uncannily resembles. Although Torres García never visited the Amazon River delta, the similarity helps underscore the sense that his painting style, so frequently historicized as a product of his avant-garde European education, is really a uniquely American synthesis.

Two paintings by Paris-educated Brazilian modernist Vicente do Rego Monteiro, both titled Composição indigena and dated 1922, evoke the forms of Tupi body painting, rhyming with two nearby paintings in acrylic on cane stucco paper by Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, a Yanomami artist born in 1974 in the Upper Orinoco whose delicate gridded patterns in rust-red ink refer to systems of ritual communication. Self-taught abstractionist Alfredo Volpi was equally influenced by the Amazon. In his Pintura no. 1, 1958, the three white squares that float on a dark-blue background like stars in a night sky resemble the geometry of nearby works by Rubem Valentim and Jorge dos Anjos, two Afro-Brazilian artists of different generations, whose abstract lexicon is derived from the spiritual pantheon of candomblé.

Material affinities abound here, too. Artists from Antonio Dias to Mira Schendel favor the rough texture of burlap on panel. Its earthy tone complements the gallery’s unfired-clay walls, installed by artist Jejo Cornelsen. Sensuously curved plinths designed by architects Jaqueline Lessa and Isabella Madureira, along with spotlights tucked behind a gauzy scrim, give the space the feel of a jute cocoon.

The star works in the show are a set of mesmerizing Wari unkunas, finely woven tunics. Their spiraling step motifs are more dynamic than most of the modernist works on view, which they predate by at least a millennium. One tunic with a deep-red-and-blue cross motif unfurls behind Lygia Clark’s gleaming golden Sundial, 1960, the pairing invoking the Andean tradition of elaborate metalwork as well as the Intihuatana, or Inca astronomical clock. As art critic Tiago Mesquita observes in the exhibition catalogue, Clark’s sculpture, which was designed to be rearranged by viewers, emblematizes the Brazilian Neo-Concretists’ shift away from the production of static works toward the deployment of objects in elaborate social rituals—a conception of art more closely aligned with its use value in indigenous cultures.

Neo-Concretism, widely considered the most important Brazilian artistic movement of the twentieth century, was initiated by critic Ferreira Gullar’s call, in a 1959 edition of the Jornal do Brasil, for artists to abandon the “dangerously acute rationalism” of European abstraction. European artists such as Josef and Anni Albers imposed that tendency on the indigenous forms they observed during their travels in the Americas and subsequently incorporated into their work. “Our North Is the South” makes a striking visual case that South America’s most celebrated modernists, in contrast, deployed their hard-edge geometries in deeply intuitive and spiritual ways.