Mira Schendel

IN THE DRAWINGS of Mira Schendel, text and image often coalesce over creamy backgrounds, as if the two should be read as one. The well-known “Objeto Gráfico”series shows letters clumped in thickets; in other works, they are transposed over each other or stretched out over a blank background—either way, they never spell out anything but their shape. This catalogue, published alongside Schendel’s recent retrospective at the Tate, is thick with reproductions of these pieces, along with lesser-known sculptures and installations for which the spiral frequently acts as an organizing principle: Letters whirl in vortices, knots of rice paper pulp into balls, a tenuous line curls over a spare geometric shape. For Schendel, who is considered to be among the most significant Brazilian artists of her generation, a key motif is the collapse of opposites—how does the opaque become transparent, or the figurative abstract?

Mira Schendel, Homage to God—Father of the West (detail), 1975, transfer lettering and ink on paper, sixteen parts, each 19 3/4 x 10 1/4".
Mira Schendel, Homage to God—Father of the West (detail), 1975, transfer lettering and ink on paper, sixteen parts, each 19 3/4 x 10 1/4″.

These concerns are rooted in her biography. Schendel was a product of dueling religions and conflicting cultures, and much of her work is about reconciliation. Born Jewish in Switzerland in 1919 but raised Roman Catholic in Italy, Schendel spent her childhood being shuttled between convents and her grandparents’ home in Berlin. During World War II she lived in Bulgaria, Austria, and Sarajevo, before fleeing to Brazil in 1949. She eventually settled in São Paulo alongside a community of émigrés immersed in debates about aesthetics and philosophy. Issues of statelessness and faith appear throughout her work, as in Homage to God—Father of the West (above), 1975,a series of sixteen prints featuring fragments of text from the Old Testament, rendered in multiple languages, alongside frenetic forms including sunlike swirls, pitch-black orbs, and wavy scrawls of ink. In other work, the delineations are less pronounced, with babbles of letters twisting out of readability but still forming a cohesive image. As Taisa Palhares points out in her essay “Living in Between”—one of the five texts included in the catalogue—the spiraling movement becomes a way for heterogeneous groups to “resonate around a common nucleus, as if fundamental issues were being addressed according to different points of view.”

Along with Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, Schendel was a forerunner of the Neo-concrete movement, which aimed to insert a poetics of experience into the more scientific approach of Concrete art. In her 1977 installation Variants, a mass of nylon thread is suspended from ceiling to floor, gossamer like a weeping willow. Hung between the translucent threads are ninety-three sheets of rice paper covered in constellations of letters. She created a couple of these installations, and they crystallized her practice, acting as the apotheosis of a larger project that conflates reading with seeing. The sheets of letters, like palimpsests in pandemonium, dangle within a three-dimensional curtain: Distinctions are eliminated, united within a single space, but their differences are maintained.