Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 3, 2014
Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, Richard Shiff, and Robert Storr Waltercio Caldas Exh. cat. Austin: University of Texas Press and Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin, 2013. 152 pp.; 113 color ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780292753112)
The Nearest Air: A Survey of Works by Waltercio Caldas
Exhibition schedule: Exhibition schedule: Fundação Iberê Camargo, Porto Alegre, September 1–November 18, 2012; Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, São Paulo, February 7, 2013–April 7, 2013; Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, October 27, 2013–January 12, 2014
Waltercio Caldas. Aquário completamente cheio [Completely filled aquarium] (1981). Glass and water. Collection Everardo Miranda.

The first career retrospective of Waltercio Caldas, The Nearest Air: A Survey of Works by Waltercio Caldas, at the Blanton Museum of Art, and co-organized with the Fundação Iberê Camargo, was shaped by two framing devices before the viewer even set eyes on the art. First, upon entering the museum the visitor was offered headphones and an iPod to listen to music selected by the Brazilian artist. The playlist featured Brazilian bossa nova, jazz, and minimal music from the United States, along with European classical music—all “favorites” of the artist. The booklet with the names of the musicians and song titles explained that the viewer might see and hear “unexpected resonances” between the art and the music. Second, the introductory wall text placed at the entrance to the exhibition provided the usual biographic information about the artist and the larger themes of his work. A bit more unusual was the inclusion of bullet points for the visitor’s consideration, including directives to think about: the spatial relationships of the works, the meaning of the exhibition’s title, the material composition of the art, the difficult asymmetry of language and visual forms, and the site-specificity of the show.

Perhaps these framing devices could be explained by abstract art’s dependence on language (and music in this case). Historically, figurative art found meaning through its use of a narrative, whether a scene of hunting or two warriors playing a game. Abstraction, on the other hand, exiled the story form and, as a result, language. Paradoxically, language reappeared through the writings of the artist turned critic, who helped to unveil the mysteries of, for example, a black square, and suggested ways of looking at and understanding abstract art. Like most contemporary art, Caldas’s work eludes stylistic categorization: simultaneously abstract and conceptual, with uses of the readymade and the figurative. The work emerges from an international history of modern art most associated with abstraction, whether the communion of the visual and musical in Wassily Kandinsky, the Neoconcretists’ exploration of geometric abstraction and the phenomenological, or the serial fabrication of Minimalist art. Yet it is also in dialogue with contemporary Brazilian artists, as Caldas collides the poetics of abstraction with the Duchampian readymade in order to critique the system of art. Unfortunately the exhibition of seventy works and accompanying catalogue, curated and edited by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, director of Fundación Cisneros and Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, did not pursue these lines of thinking. Instead Pérez-Barreiro focused on Caldas’s project as “visual philosophy,” a description found in his essay “The Octopus and a Completely Full Aquarium: Waltercio Caldas” in the beautifully illustrated catalogue. Though Caldas is one of Brazil’s most highly respected artists, the catalogue is the first English-language edition of his work published in the United States in thirty years. Regrettably, the problems examined in the exhibition and catalogue only pursued art as a metaphysical thought experiment, such as the first question posed in the introductory wall text—“What does an idea look like?”—detached from questions of context, history, or production.

The design of the exhibition, heavily influenced by Caldas, relied on formal resonances and rhythms so that the viewer interacted spatially with a grouping of works she or he would see again in another part of the gallery. For example, the first room of the gallery gathered works that ranged in date from 1974 to 2002 and played with ideas of the frame, the mirror, and the reflective, whether through the use of referential titles (Espelho do jazz [Mirror of jazz], 2002), shapes (O Recém-Nascido [The newborn], 1976), or materials (Espelho com luz [Mirror with light], 1974; and Platão [Plato], 1996). Possible interpretations of the works include a kind of poetics of art as a mirror for life or an allusion to the absent frame of contemporary art (think Daniel Buren), which is no longer needed to distinguish art from life. More broadly the works reflect on the meaning of Art, and throughout the exhibition the visitor was only offered the possibility to contemplate and interpret the works through a universal and noble idea of Art. The use of reflective or shiny surfaces reappeared throughout the gallery installation, for instance, on the opposite side of the room with a work from 1975 entitled Água/Cálice/Espelhos [Water/Glass/Mirrors] or a recent work from 2011, O que é o mundo. O que não é. [What is world. What is not.] These rhythmic repetitions served as links to works already seen and opportunities to reflect on Caldas’s reliance on particular materials. Other scholars of Caldas’s art, such as Tadeu Chiarelli, point to the ways these tropes often frustrate the expectations of contemporary art and its preoccupation with participation as essential to the making of the work’s meaning. Caldas trumps these desires for the viewer to become an active participant in the work by giving spectators their own reflection in the mirror (see Tadeu Chiarelli, “Para que Duchamp? Ou: sobre alguns trabalhos de Waltercio Caldas,” in Por que Duchamp? Leituras duchampianas por artistas e críticos brasileiros, ed., Ricardo Ribenboim, São Paulo: Itaú Cultural, 1999, 22–31). Chiarelli’s argument about Caldas’s deflection of audience expectations relies on an understanding of Brazilian art history in which the role of the spectator as participant was a highly valued concept developed and formulated in the 1960s, around the time when the artist began his career.

In his catalogue essay, Pérez-Barreiro, eschewing chronology and history, considers instead the beauty of Caldas’s works as a tool “to create a space in which a certain kind of experience can occur.” The experience is the space and time of slow looking that can lead to new ideas and new understandings of the world (2). Works that hold together the spectator and the institution of art, literally through the reflection of the gallery, for Pérez-Barreiro become an opportunity to ruminate about empty space, art as a form of defamiliarization, and simple truths. Pérez-Barreiro motions toward Caldas’s debt to Brazilian Concrete art, but rejects historicizing the work as Latin American Conceptual art or through comparative categories of the readymade or institutional critique in art from Brazil and across the Americas. Instead, the exhibition as a whole asked the viewer to approach each work with new eyes, and maybe new sounds from the audio component, so that she or he could stop asking questions about the context out of which the artist and works emerged, or preexisting theories, or about the history of art. And yet while this same imagined viewer could possibly be charmed, as I was, by the collection of sculptural objects installed on a large platform, many of them whimsical in design and resembling musical instruments, at the next turn she or he might be confused by a hidden corner installation of three objects: an open book with the word “figure” stamped once on each page and a string of red yarn floating above the pages (Figura figura [Figure figure], 1998), a series of five black-and-white photographs of hands forming an empty round space (Estudos sobre a vontade [Studies on will], 1975), and a black iron stand holding multiple sheets of glass (Aparelho de arte [Art apparatus], 1978). Rather than simply moments of delight and wonder, the work and its multiple meanings might be expanded through a consideration of it in relation to its critique of the system of art, or the desire to frustrate the viewer with the persistent removal of the content to be seen. Some of the objects, such as those just mentioned along with other work from the 1970s including Como funciona a máquina fotográfica? (How does the camera work? 1977), exude the same humor as some of John Baldessari’s artwork, but lose their oppositional laughter when installed side by side with works that represent Caldas’s more recent turn to something resembling furniture design (another possible and productive comparison to U.S. Minimalist art). Série negra natureza morta (The black series, still life, 2005) epitomizes Caldas’s contemporary production with its inclusion of a granite black table upon which sit two wine glasses, intersecting steel rods, hanging yarn, and a pane of glass. In his essay for the catalogue, Robert Storr considers the work an example of pictorialism emerging from a Constructivist tradition. In contrast I found the work difficult to appreciate, nevertheless comprehend, within the curatorial structure of the exhibition. While elegantly designed, like many of the works themselves, the exhibition sought to cleanse the art of any overt meaning or message, and as a result, often left the viewer staring in a mirror at herself or himself with bossa nova floating through the ears.

Mariola Alvarez
Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Rice University

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