Art critic Guy Brett first met Mira Schendel in the 1960s and was immediately attracted by the energy that he found in her work, which he said ‘charged the space around it’.

Here Brett remembers that first encounter and talks about the significance of Schendel’s work as she reinvented the language of Europena modernism in a Brazilian context. Tate Modern’s exhibition is the first ever international full-scale survey of her work. It reveals aspects of Schendel’s dialogues with a diverse range of philosophers and thinkers, as well as her engagement with universal ideas of faith, self-understanding and existence.

An art avoids when the utmost redundancy begins to produce original information. An art of words and quasi-words where the graphic form veils and unveils, seals and unseals. An art of constellated alphabets, of beelike letters swarming and solitary; an art of lines that sink and stand fronting by a minimal vertigo of space the semiotic art of icons, indexes, symbols, which print on the blank of the page their numinous foam. This is the art of Mira Schendel.

I first met Mira in 1965. At that time I was working as an art critic for the London Times. We went to her house in the suburb of Sao Paulo, and we spent the whole day there without eating or drinking anything, we were so absorbed in her work and what she had to say about it.

At that time she was making the monotypes. She spoke about the notion of the void, of the empty space, and how in her work, the lines stimulate, I think was the word she used – stimulate that space. I bought a selection of these monotypes of Mira’s in the sixties. It seemed to convey the idea of growth with the simplest possible lines. And here there is the empty void which these plants or energies or whatever they are, are going to activate.

Very rapidly she would choose something with her fingernail, or something like that, a bit fatter, and then she would do another one very quickly, having established this kind of readiness and mood. And she would go one after another just making as light a gesture as she could. The line always had a slightly fuzzy character, which to me, sort of denotes the presence of energy. It’s like some kind of electric element which charges the space around.

There was a growing expansiveness of feeling. Her work went through different phases, and these phases are very well shown, I think, in the Tate Modern exhibition. Now we are building up a more accurate idea of the extent of her work. Waves of probability; it’s a space filled with very fine hanging threads, which diffuse in your vision, you know, as you look into it. It’s a void which is only very, very delicately interrupted or filled. It’s really, again, space that you can activate.

She belonged to that group of people who were, in one way or another, exiles or refugees, which was an important component in the evolution of contemporary art.