Interview with Sérgio Sister

by Kiki Mazzucchelli

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In the 1960s, while working as a journalist and pursuing a degree in Social Sciences, you became deeply involved with left-wing political activism under a dictatorial regime, which eventually led to your arrest in 1970. Could you tell me a bit more about this period? Were you already making art at this point?

I studied Social Sciences, but before that I was already working as a journalist and I already painted, although I wasn’t working as a professional artist. Back then, the art circuit in Brazil wasn’t professionalised yet. I started taking painting lessons in 1964 with an artist called Ernestina Karman, who had exhibited at the São Paulo Biennial and made lyrical abstract work using asphalt. When I started to paint, my works were very much influenced by Pop Art. The São Paulo Biennial was one of the only places where you could see new international art, and the 1965 and 1967 editions featured a large sample of international Pop works. At the time, local artists were either aligned to the legacy of Concretism and Neoconcretism or to Pop Art, in which we saw the possibility of political expression. In Brazil, we understood Pop Art as something political and we used it as a means of communication under dictatorship. I was an 18-year-old Social Sciences student and a member of a communist party that employed armed guerrilla tactics. I mean, I didn’t participate in armed guerrilla personally, but it was part of the party’s strategy. Then I was arrested in January 1970 for 19 months, until the end of July 1971. There were several artists and architects in jail at the time, such as Sérgio Ferro, Rodrigo Lefèvre and Carlos Takaoka. These guys had a large supply of art materials, and my girlfriend (now wife) also brought me lots of materials in jail. We had plenty of spare time so we produced a lot of art in jail. Sometimes our materials were confiscated, but in general we could work without problems. We also read and talked a lot about art, so it was an environment conducive to making art. Sérgio Ferro, who was an intellectual, taught me a great deal about art history and theory. When I left jail I started to work a little more systematically, although I still had to have a job to support myself, and I went back to university. 

Your first trips abroad took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when you finally had the chance to visit museums and galleries, coming into direct contact with international contemporary art. How did these trips affect your perception of art and of your own work?

My first trip was to France, and fortunately it coincided with the opening of Centre Pompidou, in 1977. However, what was really important to me was a trip to New York City in 1985. I had seen lots of Pop artworks at the São Paulo Biennials, and I knew lots of American artists from reproductions in books and catalogues. However, the art circuit in NYC was really vibrant at the time for a young artist. I could see the work of all my heroes from Abstract Expressionism, but there were also many great young painters like Basquiat and Schnabel, and seeing all this came as a shock to me. Painting needs to be seen in the flesh, as scale and materiality – what I call the ‘skin’ of the painting’ - are impossible to convey in photographs or on the screen.

Was it soon after this that your work started to change?

Yes, in 1986-7, my work started to change. Not only did I give up figurative painting altogether – although I have nothing against figuration -, but I also felt that I wanted to become a real painter, to have matter and colour as central concerns to my work. This was of course a very personal quest. I began to understand the physical surface of the painting with more clarity, so I started to undertake a process of erasure that consisted in covering my existing paintings in black paint. Soon I proceeded to mix black paint with other types of pigments, in other shades of black. I used brushstrokes in a way to reflect external light, applying reflexive metallic pigments on the black surface. At this point, I became interested in how external light can be reflected on the canvas, as opposed to the internal light that emanates from painting itself. This is where I found my own poetics, my own language, and light became the fundamental question in my work. Of course, this whole process was quite intuitive. 

At the same time I became quite close to some people who were crucial to the development of my work: critics Rodrigo Naves, Alberto Tassinari, Lorenzo Mammi, and Sonia Salzstein, as well as a generation of younger artists affiliated to the Casa 7 group. From this group, the only one I knew before was Rodrigo Andrade, because he used to come to prison to visit his father as a boy. So I became quite close to the Casa 7 artists, especially Paulo Monteiro, Rodrigo Andrade and Carlito Carvalhosa. I learned a lot from them, and they helped me understand my own practice, as we would often get together to discuss our works. At this point, I started to travel more and it was very important to me to keep seeing new things. I then began to reintroduce colour in my paintings, but what I consider a major shift in my practice happened in 1996. I was feeling a bit stuck and needed to change something in my work. At the time, I was making paintings with stripes in an attempt to achieve a great degree of luminosity, but I was aware that this was not the way to achieve it. I had a solo exhibition in a commercial gallery in 1996 and I was very disappointed at myself, I had the feeling I was going nowhere. This is when I discovered the fruit crates, which offered a way to break with the two-dimensionality of the canvas and expand the work into space.

You mentioned how light became a central concern in your work. What kinds of possibilities were opened up by appropriating the fruit crates as a support? 

My work has always been very physical – it’s fundamentally painting, but there is always a physical presence. The Crates introduced other variables to the work: namely space, shadow and air (the latter is something a bit more complex to explain). Air is a very important element, because the plane in a pure sense doesn’t really exist. When you apply colours to both the back and front slats of a crate, the air – or the distance, the phenomenon that takes place in between these two colours – modifies the colours. It is like when you look at a grey, monochromatic building, against a blue sky and there is no continuity between the grey and the blue. You can see that there is something in between these colours, a distance. It is this ‘in between’ that I call the ‘air’, and this is what I try to explore in these crates. 

The Crates I made back in 1996 were made from found fruit crates that I painted over. Initially after my discovery, I produced several of them, but soon stopped. Then I arrived at the Pontaletes (Posts), in which I introduced weight as well as colour. The Pontaletes have a more architectural scale, but they also bring the element of shadow and colour. In 1999, I returned to the Crates, because I realised I hadn’t fully explored them. This return happened after I visited a large exhibition of Albers’ Homage to the Square series in São Paulo, which featured numerous works from the Yale University collection. I had seen two or three of these works together before, but I had never seen so many. When I saw them together, I somehow figured out Albers’ system of painting: he worked simultaneously with tonal approximations and contrast, so that his paintings are pulsating but at the same time also very calming to the eye.

When I returned to the Crates, I had them made by a carpenter; the first ones were found objects, fruit crates from the market. Previously, I had explored only the outer slats of the crates, because it was very difficult to paint the bottom layer of the readymade objects. I asked the carpenter to make the frame in a good quality but very neutral type of dark wood, and I also asked him to prepare the slats separately so that I could paint them individually before they were fixed to the frame. So now I paint the slats separately and I assemble the crates afterwards, and this method gives me infinite possibilities. 

Left: Work from the Pontalete series

Left: Work from the Pontalete series

Are you at all interested in referencing the original object?

Yes, because crates are very ordinary things. To me, this has something in common with how Jasper Johns incorporated objects in his paintings. There’s this idea of taking a common thing and almost making it disappear as a thing. The object is there but it is somehow pacified. In Johns’ case, this procedure comes from Duchamp, as a way of incorporating the readymade into painting. My own relationship comes from Neoconcrete art. Although my work is very influenced by Brice Marden, Barnett Newman, Jasper Johns and Mark Rothko, at some point I started to review the Concrete and Neoconcrete legacy, not only the work of Mira Schendel, with whom I spent time, but also Willys de Castro, whose Objetos Ativos (Active Objects) were a great influence in the development of Pontaletes. However, differently from Pontaletes, the Objetos Ativos - which in my opinion are some of the best things Brazilian art has produced - are self-enclosed objects, in the sense that everything happens around the object. Willys performs all these formal variations, which are extremely rich, within these little pieces of wood, and this is amazing. When I made the Pontaletes, I wanted to expand these objects into space. But it took me – and my generation – a while to realise how important artists like Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark were to us. These artists had been around us for a long time, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that they started to get the attention they deserve.

Willys de Castro, Objeto Ativo, 1959

Willys de Castro, Objeto Ativo, 1959

 

How was your relationship with Mira Schendel?

I had known her casually since the 1960s, but not very well. My relationship with her started around the same time I met the Casa 7 artists (1). She also became very close to some of them, particularly Nuno Ramos and she was also very close to Rodrigo Naves. One day I went to the art supply shop to ask the manager, who is very knowledgeable about materials, about how to use a particular type of metallic pigment. Mira overheard the conversation and came to ask me what I used the pigments for. I explained it and she asked me to come to her house to show my work. It was my lucky day. At the time she was working on her series of quasi-monochrome tempera and gesso paintings punctuated by painted arcs and traces (Brancos e Pretos, 1985-7) and on the Sarrafos (1987) series. She asked me to sit down while she and her assistant worked on these monochromes, and she compared the traces to things like the flight of an aeroplane. It was very interesting. I spent the afternoon with her, and she saw some of my drawings and said: ‘I was also going in this direction at some point, this is why your conversation caught my attention’. After that, we used to speak a lot on the phone, because she became ill. I wanted to talk about art, but she wanted to talk about politics. I suppose she had already understood my work. She also talked about religion, and she was very worried about the expansion of Islamism. It’s not that she was Islamophobic at all, but she was worried about the idea that religion was taking over politics. In any case, this was an important moment in terms of a kind of rediscovery of her work, because it was not until she met this new generation of artists and critics that her work started to be truly reassessed and valued.

Since the beginning of your artistic career, you have always been directly involved in political activism. Do you consider your work to be political?

No, I wouldn’t say my work is directly political, although there is an element of materiality in my practice. But I don’t really believe in a direct relationship between art and culture, because, in my view, everything is mediated. For instance, subjectivity is something that is present in my work, but I don’t think the work transforms subjectivity into an artistic subject. My belief is that all phenomena take place in the material world. There is perhaps an indirect relationship to politics insofar as everything we make has some kind of meaning, therefore we produce meaning. I work along some lines: the light, the plane, life itself, but in the sense of a material life, of being in the world. Maybe this is the political sense of my work. But in general I am very suspicious of artworks that are presented as eminently political. Here in Brazil, for instance, there is a lot of talk about intolerance in the art world right now. Of course I am against intolerance and I attend all the demonstrations against censorship that are currently taking place. However I am a bit suspicious of the type of exhibitions we are currently defending. Obviously not for the same reasons as the right-wing movements, but I am sceptical of the idea of relating art and culture so directly. 

 

 

 

[1] The group that became known as Casa 7 was formed by a new generation of artists who turned a mews house into their studio in the city of São Paulo between 1982 and 1985. Rodrigo Andrade, Carlito Carvalhosa, Fábio Miguez, Paulo Monteiro and Nuno Ramos (who was preceded by Antonio Malta) were all painters who met at school and whose work was greatly influenced by German Neo-Expressionism and the work of American painter Philip Guston. The studio was regularly frequented by other artists, filmmakers, musicians and writers, becoming a sort of cultural hub in the city.