Untitled 1963 is an oil painting by the artist Mira Schendel. The composition comprises four diamond shapes – two painted in light cream and two in deep grey – which make up another, larger diamond. The background is a murky grey, upon which the cream shapes stand out and the darker diamonds almost disappear. Despite the austerity of the almost monochromatic composition, the surface of the painting is textured – an effect Schendel achieved by stippling the oil paint.
Born in Switzerland and educated in Italy, Schendel moved to Brazil in 1949 and settled in Sao Paulo in 1953, discovering a dynamic city in the midst of artistic and social revolution. This painting was part of a period of intense activity in the 1960s, when some of her most iconic work began to be produced. As is characteristic of Schendel’s paintings from the 1960s, this work is untitled.
Like many of Schendel’s works, Untitled brings together apparently opposing ideas. While the abstract composition might seem to appeal to the geometric abstraction movement in Brazil at the time of its making, and its concerns with investigating the optical, the texture of the painting’s surface and the hand drawn lines and uneven shapes instead evoke the haptic and the organic. For Schendel these apparent oppositions were intimately connected through the bodies of the artist and the viewer, she commented:
I think that we can never escape this aspect of perception and corporeality. And that is because, in whatever kind of art, even the most abstract, or in architecture, we always have this second category of corporeality that will engage the disposition of each person’s body, isn’t that right? Art that completely covers this texture, this movement of the hand is extremely wrong. I give the utmost importance to it being manual like this, that it be handmade, that it be experienced.
(Mira Schendel in Jorge Guinle, ‘Interview with Mira Schendel’, in Barson and Palhares 2013, pp.198–207, p.202.)
Schendel’s interest in the ‘sensory element of the brushstroke’ marked her work as distinct from attempts to represent abstract ideas or explore the formal quality of shapes and forms by artists associated with concrete art and geometric abstraction. As such Schendel remained on the periphery and was never affiliated with a specific movement. She favoured the company of philosophers and poets, engaging in lengthy correspondence with intellectuals such as Max Bense, Hermann Schmitz and Umberto Eco. Schendel explored these ideas in her work, as the curator Rina Carvajel has noted: ‘motivated by an interest in theology and metaphysics – Schendel studied philosophy at university and was particularly drawn to phenomenology and Zen Buddhism’ (Carvajel 2007, p.295). The spiritual character of Schendel’s work was picked up on by the art critic Theon Spanudis in a text from 1964:
The earnestness, keen sensibility and religious feeling with which these processes are captured and materialised make Mira’s painting a rare and singular case that, given its richness and multiple meanings, goes way beyond contrived geometrisms … this severe notion of composition … works through the contained and silent fervour of religious experience to capture and reveal formative processes in their very essence.
(Quoted in Barson and Palhares 2013, p.224.)
The period when Untitled was created marked a turning point in Schendel’s practice; in the years that followed she began to create a unique visual language that conveyed her intellectual, spiritual and philosophical concerns. Alongside contemporaries such as Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, Schendel was one of Latin America’s most prolific post-war artists. The exhibition at Tate Modern in 2013 was the first international full-scale retrospective of her work.
Rina Carvajel, ‘Mira Schendel’, in Cornelia Butler and Lisa Gabrielle Mark (eds.), WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles 2007, pp.294–5.
Luis Perez-Oramas (ed.), Leon Ferrari and Mira Schendel: Tangled Alphabets, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 2009.
Tanya Barson and Taisa Palhares (eds.), Mira Schendel, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2013.
Supported by Christie’s.