Fifty-one years after the exhibition ‘Brazilian Art Today’ at London’s Royal College of Art, works by Willys de Castro – a prominent member of Rio de Janeiro’s Neo-concrete Group – can be viewed anew at Cecilia Brunson Projects. The exhibition, titled ‘From Painting to Objects 1950-1965’, allows insight into de Castro’s varied artistic trajectory, placing particular focus on his pioneering ‘Active Objects’.
Among the carefully selected works on display are early gouaches and watercolours. Working with pencils and a warm palette, de Castro imposed painted geometrical shapes on small regular pieces of orange graph paper. Such techniques reflect his work at the Graphic Project Studio he established together with his partner Hercules Barsotti. These tiny and fragile works suggest that they were only preparatory drawings for larger projects, for example plans for theatre designs, which he produced while collaborating with some of São Paulo’s most prominent theatres (Teatro de Arena, Teatro Cultura Artística). ‘Pierrot’ (1953) – a cubist figurative oil painting depicting a character from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte – highlights his interest in the performing arts.
In 1959 de Castro joined the newly established Neo-concrete Group. Its members (among them the well-known Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica) wanted to liberate their art from what poet and intellectual Ferreira Gullar described as ‘a dangerously rationalist exacerbation of concrete art’, equipping it with the theoretical background of Gestalt philosophy and phenomenology. At the same time, de Castro started creating his ‘Active Objects’ – narrow wooden strips covered with canvas and hung on the wall occupying a place between sculpture and painting.
Each of the four pieces presented at Cecilia Brunson Projects present geometrical shapes of complementary colours painted in oil. They have carefully organised structures: disconnected rectangular planes are in dialogue with their surrounding space. Nothing is accidental: de Castro’s works reveal a meticulous attention to detail and an obsessive search for basic harmony and logical order. Viewers of such totemic sculptural objects, which are distinguished by a very painterly quality, are invited to examine them from different perspectives, constructing a more complete image with every gaze. Movement is the primary factor that makes these objects active. De Castro’s concrete poetry is represented by two ‘poem-objects’, enforcing the viewer’s engagement as well. Printed on empty yellowed paper, the poem ‘down, down, down, down, deep, down, deep, down, deep, deep, deep, deep’ has to be read in loud, heard and imagined. It is this rhythmic approach by de Castro that proves once again the power of his domestic order and which has sensitively been sustained by the curator of the exhibition.