Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 14, 2023
Adele Nelson Forming Abstraction: Art and Institutions in Postwar Brazil Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2022. 382 pp.; 50 color ills.; 50 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780520379848)

Adele Nelson’s new book is a significant contribution to the literature on twentieth-century Brazilian art and culture. Brazil has been central to art historical research in the last two decades, and numerous scholars, both international and Brazilian, have turned their attention to the art produced in the immediate postwar period, a moment when the foundation of the São Paulo Bienal and a surge of museum building transformed the artistic landscape in the country. Nelson’s study is groundbreaking in several ways: it challenges the dominant narrative that the emergence and evolution of abstraction in Brazil was tied primarily to a quest for internationalism; it integrates a discussion of artworks and artists into a broader consideration of institutional politics by looking closely at the relationship between modern art and the state; and finally, it is the first English-language study to do so in such depth.

Across six chapters, Nelson takes a thematic and chronological approach to her study of abstraction in Brazil. Chapter one examines the years from 1947 to 1952 when, as part of a quest to modernize in the face of enormous political change, a number of private cultural institutions were formed, including the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (MAM-SP). Nelson considers the impetus and mechanisms through which MAM-SP decided to found an international Bienal rather than focusing on traditional museum practices such as collecting and tradition building. She argues that the museum and the Bienal were not simply replicas of US and European institutions such as MoMA or the Venice Biennale; rather these São Paulo institutions adapted and transformed their international models for the Brazilian context in an attempt to position Brazil and specifically São Paulo at the center of the global contemporary art scene. To contextualize this decision, Nelson analyzes the motivations of Brazilian actors—artists, critics, politicians, and founders of cultural institutions—and the debates surrounding the early promotion of abstraction in Brazil. She pays special attention to the proposal and ultimately paired down inaugural exhibition From Figuration to Abstraction held at MAM-SP in 1949 and the subsequent public reactions to the show, revealing the contested terrain in which abstraction became a dominant trend in the region and the implications of sponsoring a Bienal going forward.

Chapter two focuses on the notion of “forma” (form) through a close examination of Mario Pedrosa and Waldemar Cordeiro’s theories of nonobjective abstraction. Nelson looks at how Pedrosa’s contention that art, no matter its form, must engage society and Cordeiro’s vision of abstraction as primarily connected to materiality both emerged from and shaped artistic practices in the early 1950s. These theoreticians devised their ideas, in part, in response to the 1951 exhibition of works by Almir da Silva Mavignier, one of the earliest exhibitions of nonobjective art in the country. The chapter proceeds with a discussion of early Brazilian concretism through a close examination of Geraldo de Barros’ work. By revising the dating of Barros’ experimental photographs, Nelson proposes a new understanding of the origins of Brazilian conceptualism. The final section of the chapter considers Ivan Serpa who became one of Brazil’s most prominent practitioners of geometric abstraction in the wake of his first-place prize at the inaugural Bienal. Nelson argues that Barros and Serpa’s innovations and their engagement with Pedrosa and Cordeiro’s theories, were key factors in the development of Brazilian concretism.

In the third chapter, Nelson closely examines the role of the first São Paulo Bienal in 1951 in fostering acceptance of abstraction, arguing that while important, the process had already started earlier and that the Bienal’s promotion of abstraction was actually more ambivalent than has been assumed given the strong presence of figuration and intermittent inclusion of abstract works in the show. Rather she demonstrates that Bienal organizers grappled with how to harness abstraction as a form of national or regional expression without disavowing social realist practices. Indeed, at stake was who, which artists and which institutions, should represent Brazilianness. To address this question, Nelson discusses the role the art schools established by MAM-SP and the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) played in shaping the presentation of Brazilian identity on the world stage via the Bienal. She also explains how Bienal organizers promoted a revised image of Brazil by reframing national art history to position modern art as a measure of the country’s economic development and geopolitical status in relation to Europe and the United States. Nelson’s detailed description of the installations, her discussion of critics’ and audiences’ reactions to displays, as well as her challenge to the narrative that Swiss artist Max Bill’s prominence at the first Bienal was the definitive impetus for Brazil’s embrace of abstraction provide a much more nuanced picture of the event than previous scholarship.

Chapter four focuses on the first group exhibitions of concrete art in Rio and São Paulo. Starting with a consideration of the Grupo Ruptura based in São Paulo, Nelson analyzes their manifesto, leftist political alignment, exhibition strategy, and approach to concrete art to unveil the group’s critique of the very private institutions that initially promoted abstraction. Pairing her examination of Grupo Ruptura with a detailed overview of the National Exhibition of Abstract Art in Rio in 1953 demonstrates, according to Nelson, that artists’ collectives could confront the hegemony of larger institutions, both public and private.

Chapter five, perhaps the book’s most significant contribution, delves into the history of the second São Paulo Bienal in 1953, which according to Nelson was the “most ambitious and historically significant of the exhibition’s early iteration.” Nelson contends that the display of European modernism at the event was a strategy to align Brazilian abstraction with a European historical trajectory. She also discusses Brazil’s ambivalent attitude toward pan-Americanism, largely invented in the United States, and examines how the exhibition space in Niemeyer’s two new buildings complicated the display of national narratives. The exhibition instead positioned Brazil as a hemispheric leader on par with the US rather than a follower of trends established in the North. This strategic self-positioning allowed Brazil to foreground abstraction, in particular concrete and geometric variants, as a signifier of the country’s modernity and leadership on the world stage.

In her final chapter Nelson turns to the city of Rio de Janeiro where Grupo Frente was based. Led by Ivan Serpa and made up primarily of European émigré artists, Grupo Frente has been frequently dismissed as merely a precursor to Neoconcretism. Nelson argues, however, that the group expanded theories of abstraction by imaging the abstract artist as a model democratic citizen. Underpinning her discussion is a consideration of Grupo Frente’s relationship with the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro (MAM-Rio), an analysis of Serpa’s pedagogy, and a look at the group’s exhibition strategies and press coverage. The final section of the chapter reexamines the scholarship on the artist Lygia Clark, arguing that gender politics and political context must be considered in order to understand the artist’s approach to surface. By way of conclusion Nelson turns to a discussion of the pivotal National Exhibition of Concrete Art in São Paulo in 1956.  She contends that the artists’ embrace of nonobjective abstraction was not a rejection of the national in favor of the international, but rather an expression of individual and collective identities in Brazil.

Adele Nelson’s book Forming Abstraction is an in-depth study, grounded in extensive archival research, of the rise of nonobjective abstraction in early 1950s Brazil. By examining case studies from multiple angles—display practice, close reading of artworks, criticism and theory, pedagogy, museum architecture, politics, and institutional histories—Nelson’s study adds nuance to our understanding of a moment that has already received considerable scholarly attention. Among the greatest contributions of the book is its challenge to the predominant narrative that an embrace of internationalism was the primary impetus behind the rise of abstraction in Brazil. The book’s thorough discussion of the São Paulo Bienal and the institutions and artists involved in its creation, as well as its comparative analysis of the contexts in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro underscore the significance of the creative activity in postwar Brazil. Yet, as with many art historical studies of Brazil, the focus of the book tends to be a bit insular and doesn’t substantively engage with narratives from other countries. It would have been helpful, especially since this is an English-language book published as part of a series on Latin American art, to situate the Brazilian case studies in the larger history of Latin American abstraction and to analyze more fully the participation of non-Brazilian artists in the events and exhibitions discussed. The case studies presented are absolutely enlightening, and these should occupy most of the book, but some larger conclusions would have been helpful in fully understanding the impact of the moment it interrogates. The book does, however, provide excellent groundwork for future investigations of the impact of Brazilian developments on Latin American or global modernism more broadly.

Michele Greet
Professor and Director, Art History Program, George Mason University