Black in white



Commentary on the work of Amilcar de Castro, which in July would have completed 100 years

Amilcar de Castro's activity over the course of five decades was marked by a passion for coherence. His work as a sculptor, draftsman, engraver or layout artist always obeyed a strict formalization, in the sense of the tradition of constructive art, without this implying, however, a renunciation of the pulse of the work. He produced a language of clear and precise forms, which “grafted poetry on mathematics, or rigor on free images” (Paul Valéry). He created a writing of irreducible signs, which do not stray from their origin, as he has always cultivated “the terrible habit of wanting to start at the beginning, and of starting from scratch”, as Ferreira Gullar said, or, in short, of catching the sign in status born. The main objective of his work – which eliminated everything that repeats itself – was, therefore, difficulty. Amilcar only loved problems.

In the 40s, he studied drawing and painting, landscape and still life with Guignard, at Escola do Parque, in Belo Horizonte. Guignard taught him how to draw with hard pencil and firm lines, aiming, as Amilcar recalls in a recent poem, at “direct communication without adjectives or preciousness”. The pencil, in these drawings, like a dry point or burin, furrows the paper. In his views of Ouro Preto, for example, we observe accurate risks alongside errant risks, traces of errors. Figurative landscapes, with few elements, with clear contours, situated on the threshold of abstraction: roofs are trapezoids; doors, rectangles; balusters, almost spirals. Amilcar learned from Guignard, in short, that art is geometry and risk, marks of his future sculpture.

In Rio, in 53, stimulated by the art and ideas of the Swiss artist Max Bill, decisive in the affirmation of the geometric vanguards in Brazil, he created his first “constructive work”, in copper sheets, exhibited at the 2nd Bienal, and since 95 housed in a street side of the Hélio Oiticica Center (RJ).

Even without actively participating in the theoretical debate between artists from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, “concrete” and “neoconcrete”, he joined the Rio group, signing the Neoconcrete Manifesto of 59, a reaction, in the words of Ferreira Gullar, to the “dangerous rationalist exacerbation ” of “mathematical thinking”. “Geometry could not be limited, reminded Amilcar, to the Pythagorean Theorem, the Moebius Strip or the Fibomacci Table”.

From concrete art, summed up Gullar in 61, Amilcar thus retained the “willingness to be free, defined structures, direct expression”, and not the hard, modular structure, which produces optical illusions, in the style of Bauhaus and concretism. His sculpture, risked Gullar, is not the result of the application of a scheme, but the “dramatic experience”, in an unprecedented way, because “captured at birth”.

For 50 years, Amilcar cut and bent iron sheets. Only from 67 to 71, the period in which he lived in the US, without iron or blacksmithing at hand, did he experiment with stainless steel, a material without any character, according to him, as it is very submissive to torsions. In addition, stainless steel resists the marks of time, while iron welcomes it to rust. The iron sheets, exposed to the day's air, gain stains, change color, incorporating time and the environment.

Returning to Brazil and Gerais, he stuck to iron: his sculpture “is made of sheet iron”, he once said, “because it is necessary, it is native to Minas, it is within reach”. “Everybody here knows how to forge iron.” Amilcar used, however, above all “cor-tem steel”, an alloy of iron with carbon, as it is more malleable and resistant to rust, as this steel, less corrosive and tenacious, produces after a certain time a protection that prevents further oxidation.

Amilcar created works in which he cuts and bends iron sheets; in some, however, there is only a cut; in others, it just folds. Each series, however, did not derogate from the previous one, but added to it, expanding the artist's procedures. It is the cut, which wounds the iron, which forces it into sculpture. Iron insists on being treated as itself, as a “body in itself”, and not as a submissive substratum of any inscription. Iron is, in Amilcar, the material of sculpture, both surface and support.

The act of cutting, prior to that of folding, requires cursing, altercation, as it is necessary to mistreat it, to come to blows, to then cross it and conquer the other side. This act, however, is also surgical, as it leaves the consigned sense in the matter. One should not tear the iron apart, but undermine it with the file of the technique, slowly, in order to then make room in it. After the plate is raised, with the fold that follows the cut, what was flat now becomes a region of space: “organic space” or “experiential space”, in the neoconcrete lexicon.

Amilcar's sculpture is a research into the origin of sculpture itself, the birth of the third dimension: the (two-dimensional) plane, by folding, is turned into a (three-dimensional) sculpture. Folding it is lifting it. It is fire, however, to bend iron: it is not enough to heat it up, it takes a crane, and a lot of flame, to bend it.

Amilcar's fold is not the baroque fold, which goes to infinity, which produces elasticity and detonates the form: the fold as draping. It is, on the contrary, the basic fold, the virility that elevates the plane, that makes it a sculpture without any theatricality. It is a concise fold, which with wisdom engenders, suddenly, after a long wait, a sculpture, and not the flowing, turbulent fold, which ends in a fringe or arabesque. His work is not “mannerist”, but “essentialist”, in Deleuze's language. There is no adornment or excess in her. The work, opened by the fold, is without excess: “I have faith”, he says, “in the form that leaves no residue”. The act of folding, unfolded in each of his works, finally made folding a power, the condition for variation in almost all of his work.


“The minus is Minas”

In the 80s, however, Amilcar also cut works without folds. They are smaller, monolithic, minimalist works, mini-menhirs for interiors in Minas Gerais. Some of them are blocks wounded or split by longitudinal or transverse cracks. Others have internal cutouts, composing a puzzle primitive: male-female blocks. These massive totem poles distance themselves from the minimal from Carl André or Le Witt, because they are not modular units, and from Morris or Smith, because they are not polished, repressing brands. O minimal of Amilcar is not Yankee (does not follow the maxim "less is more”). In it, “the least is Minas”: it is iron and its metaphors.

There are works in which there is no cut, only folds. Several of them, made of thin Cor-Ten steel sheets, look like winged capes: parangolés of light tons. They are steel “hagoromos” (“feather cloaks”) that radicalize the tension, always present in Amilcar, between the arcane solidity of the ore and the aerodynamic lightness, therefore modern, of its forms. They are hang-gliders of up to 2,40 mx 2,40 m: on one side, coming from deposits, they are rooted in the ground. They have a “markedly sculptural” weight, as Ronaldo Brito said, which gives them a “sense of permanence”: with bare feet, as without pedestals, they lie on the ground, where they originated. The folds, giving lightness to the forms, make them upward, turning the sheets into layers and the steel into wings. In 66, Hélio helped him with a scenography for Mangueira; and in 99, Amilcar reciprocated the gesture with these capes and dance steps.

In addition to being a sculptor (here, not as a modeler of volumes like Henry Moore, but as a “builder of spaces” like Richard Serra), Amilcar is also a painter, engraver and draftsman. He does not simply transpose the same form, made in mold, to all media, but the same economy is visible in all. In the paintings or, as the artist wants it, acrylic “drawings” on large canvas, Franz Kline's tachism appears in a constructivist version à la Malevitch and Mondrian. Black macrosigns, Klein's nights, are poured, in Amilcar's alchemy, into white squares on a black background, Malevitch's dawn. De Mondrian still holds the pure palette: in addition to white, black and gray, it admits only primary colors.

It is, therefore, a gestural geometry, also visible in his drawings in India ink or in acrylic on paper and in his lithographs. They are traits between the ideogram and the scribble, which at each occurrence are surprising due to the originality of the configuration. Amilcar's writing is made of lines that never wear out, because, with the same dryness and roughness as his sculpture, these auroral signs erupt in the white of the page like a bang; as opening strokes or parietal inscriptions. Amilcar finally created, over the decades, a castrography, today a robust branch of the glossematic trunk (from proto-speech: letters before la lettre) avant-garde, composed of kleography, michauxgraphy, duuffetgraphy, and cytomblygraphy.

the layout artist

In the good constructivist tradition, Amilcar is also a layout artist. In 59, he carried out the graphic reform of the Newspapers in Brazil, a milestone in the Brazilian press, and, in 1999, produced the cover and graphic design of Journal of Reviews, from Discurso Editorial. The graphic structure is, as he says, the “character of a newspaper”, so the page must be “severe, clear, light, but serious”, without ornaments or greying: “Direct, black on white”.

No Journal of Reviews, Amilcar valued horizontals and verticals, broken only by fine lines displaced in relation to the titles. It emphasizes the whiteness of the page and images of graphic strength that, by aerating the text, make it easier to read. Here, white is an air space that allows each review to breathe: it is not a null or hollow space, but magnetized, because it echoes the texts. The conciseness of the titles, the core of the reviews, further reinforces this logic of marrows or essences.

In the last logos created for Jornal de Resenhas, however, he used sinuous shapes and, in a series of recent lithographs, spiral shapes. This writing does not imply the introduction of excess in his work, because here we also have a generous, joyful gesture, which becomes geometry without becoming plastered; in its brush strokes or fine line sinuosities, without retouching, it is the drive that is carried out in precision writing.

Amilcar thus built, over decades, in various media, a sum and unified work made only of variations of cut, fold and line. His expert and accurate gestures produced purified, refined, substantive forms. Each of his works is just marrow, a bone so centered that it has no adjective or ornament. “It is an artifact without artifice, naked, without skin” (Gullar): – with bare bones. Everything about it is clear and looks easy; hence he cherished contempt for vague things. Even his speech had the simplicity and conciseness of his works, it was a sharp speech, with a dry aftertaste: “I have faith”, he said directly, “in the work that leaves no residue”. This iron coherence distanced him from fads: “My easy way bores me. My difficult one guides me” (Paul Valéry via Augusto de Campos). The easy is the spectacular, the pompous. The difficult thing is purity, rigor. His work is, finally, admirably accurate: but “what is more mysterious, asks Paul Valéry, than clarity?”. And it is from this structural clarity that Amilcar derives his universality, as evidenced by his work, multiple and unique: series open to the future of Brazilian art of constructive tradition.

*Ricardo Fabbrini He is a professor at the Department of Philosophy at USP. Author, among other books, of Art after the vanguards (Unicamp).

Revised version of article published in Journal of Reviews No. 57.

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