Ascânio MMM: Prisma e Quacors: Casa Triângulo, São Paulo, Brazil
Ascânio MMM: Constructive Universality and the Contingency of Perception
The spatial pieces by Ascânio MMM have a public vocation, arising from their essential link to the constructive tradition and, more specifically, their proximity with architecture and with the notion of structure. It is for this reason that many of his works have been installed in open spaces, outside of galleries or museums.
Born in Portugal, in 1941, the artist emigrated to Brazil in 1959, disembarking in Rio de Janeiro during the heyday of constructive art and rationalist architecture. Brasília, then under construction, was to be inaugurated the following year. And the optimism of those “golden years,” under the developmentalist government of Juscelino Kubitschek and the emergence of bossa nova, came hand in hand with the promise of a leap over the nation’s congenital backwardness: the colonial past, the history of slavery and the shameful social inequality. This was a modernity with a “promise of happiness,” forged by a unique civilização de praia [beach civilization] in the words of Tom Jobim.
Constructed during a spurt of the country’s political and economic development, the new capital was the crowning expression in architecture of what is associated, in the field of culture, with a new aesthetic standard, which can be described as sophisticated without being aristocratic. Not by chance, the productions of that period in the visual arts, besides architecture, were all steeped in a slow process of cultural maturing that reverberated beyond its original context, gaining projection worldwide. In the visual arts, it superseded the edifying and nationalist commitment of the modern artists, such as Portinari, Di Cavalcanti and Tarsila do Amaral. In popular music, it incorporated influences from jazz and refined the syncopated beat of samba, coupling this with the prosodic continuity of the spoken word, to create bossa nova. In poetry, it radicalized the formal discussion, based in the notion of structure, considering it something intrinsically linked with the content. And, in architecture, it constructed an entire city amidst the high plains of the tropical savanna, configured in symbolic buildings already quite distant from the initial influence of Le Corbusier.
Brasília is, therefore, an important link in the close relation between a constructive aesthetic project and an ideological developmentalism. In its project, the pendulum of the “dialectic of localism and cosmopolitanism” – according to which literary critic Antonio Candido defined Brazilian “spiritual life” – was weighted to the side of universality. This is to say: the aesthetic project of abstractionism in Brazil during the 1950s and 1960s was an unfolding of the cultural movement for liberation from regional (historical, social, ethnic) repressions – a liberation that began with the modernism of the 1920s, based on the notion of Anthropophagy. With a second turn of the screw, it shifted that movement toward universalism.
The design and construction of Brasília took place, therefore, amidst the victory of constructive art in Brazil: in parallel with the creation of institutions such as the Bienal de São Paulo (1951), the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (1947) and the Museu de Arte Moderna of São Paulo and that of Rio de Janeiro (both in 1948) – and the correlated condensing of a common goal among the various visual arts in the country, contributing to the idea of a local version of the European “synthesis of the arts.” This was a synthesis that configured the city of Brasília as the crowning achievement of the modern vanguards. This idea was put forward by key figures such as Max Bense, an important German semiologist and professor at the School of Ulm. According to Bense, “it is the first visible expression of Cartesian thought converted into design.” In other words, it was the materialization of “a total design analogous to the idea of a total work of art, an enormous reservoir, of both technical as well as artistic intelligence; a nonfortuitous and necessary representation of these synthetic forces in a prospective space of civilization.”
It was in this context that Ascânio disembarked in Brazil. Despite being tropical, through its powerful modern culture the country was the hub of a new Cartesianism in the world’s eyes, as reflected in Bense’s words. This is what informed the “poetics of reason” distilled by Ascânio from that moment onward, seen to a large extent in the production of not only concrete and neoconcrete artists, such as Luis Sacilotto and Franz Weissmann, but also rationalist architects, such as Jorge Machado Moreira, MMM Roberto and Affonso Eduardo Reidy. Symptomatically, Ascânio came to study visual arts at the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes, in 1963 and 1964, and then transferred to the College of Architecture and Urbanism of the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, where he was a student from 1965 to 1969, earning his degree in architecture. In that context, he circulated in the fertile environment of neoconcrete art of Rio de Janeiro, at the exhibitions at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes and the Museu de Arte Moderna, together with figures such as Mário Pedrosa, Ferreira Gullar and Frederico Morais.
And if the spirit of the time was already pointing to the affirmation of a “constructive urge” in the arts, as an antidote to the irrational and personalist tendencies of Brazilian society, Ascânio’s personal temperament reinforced that tendency, seeing sculpture, architecture, mathematics, design and engineering in the same light, based on the manual and industrial imperative of calculation, planning and precision. Part and parcel with this was his thinking about sculpture in terms of the regularity of its form, along with the assembly of pieces produced in series, in a studio that was a sort of workshop. His work not only expresses the legacy of cold constructive reasoning, but also approaches what could be called a sensitive geometry. Because, as observed by Paulo Herkenhoff, “Ascânio’s vigor always derived from the oscillation between the logic of mathematics and the aesthetic feeling of the form.” Thus, through the mere operation of increasing or decreasing the spacings in his serial and regular geometric modules, the artist was able to generate organic shapes among them, such as parabolas and spirals, as seen in the series Quadrados [Squares] and Caixas [Boxes] from 1968, where the collision of Mondrianesque squares gives rise to spiral waves of golden sections, as seen in Le Corbusier’s Modulor. Volumetric twists that are closer to the organic world than to a Cartesian reference, and which were present in important examples of art and architecture of the period, served as bases for Ascânio’s production. Here I refer to examples such as Coluna neoconcreta [Neoconcrete Column] by Weissmann (1957), the spiral staircase designed by Reidy (1953) at the Museu de Arte Moderna of Rio de Janeiro, and the urban designs by George Candilis, Alexis Josic and Shadrach Woods (1950s and ’60s).
With these questions in mind, it is possible to think about Ascânio’s works shown at Casa Triângulo, in São Paulo. Depending on the angle from which we look at his spatial pieces – Quasos and Piramidais [Pyramidals] – they gain more solidity or more emptiness, due to the depth of the individual pieces used in their construction. A similar effect occurs with the diaphanous curtains made of modules of aluminum and screws (Quacors): their distances in relation to the wall give rise to shifting shadows, and the halo of color produced by the painted lateral surfaces of the modules creates fleeting settings that change according to the spectator’s point of view. In both cases, there is a dialectic relationship between the universality of the constructive essence and the contingent datum of the experience that each person establishes with the artworks and the surrounding environment.
All of the artist’s pieces are constructed according to clear principles (modular pieces that are fit together in regular ways), but the perceptions we get from them are ambiguous. This is a crucial question in Ascânio’s work: the ideality of the form is tempered by the contingent nature of the perception. This explains the oscillation between the rigid attachments of the larger pieces, made to ensure the stability of the form and of the volume on a large scale, and the flexible articulations of the curtains and meshes, in which the loose fit of the screws in the assembled pieces results in a certain fluidity, lending a dynamic quality to the otherwise rigid structure and giving the geometry a certain organicity closer to life. In these Quacors, the ambiguity between the bidimensional and tridimensional gives rise to a double possibility: a clear “urge for form” on the one hand, an opening to the variable indeterminations of life, on the other.
Also in the show, the pyramidal typology, alluding to historical totemic forms, is combined with a new, more open and abstract work (Quasos/Prisma 1 [Quasos/Prism 1]), whose scale allows people to enter and cross through it. Its diaphanous consistency denotes an intense dialogue with modern architecture, for which the dilution of borders between inside and outside is foundational in the construction of a continuous spatiality. And, not by chance, the volume of the piece gets narrower as it delicately touches the floor or ground, thus floating in space, as in the serial porticos of the Museu de Arte Moderna of Rio de Janeiro, or in countless architectural works in São Paulo, such as the Gymnasium of the Clube Atlético Paulistano (1958), by Paulo Mendes da Rocha, and the Boat Garage of the Iate Clube Santa Paula (1961), by Vilanova Artigas. An ethereal “penetrable,” placed in the center of the gallery, like one architecture within another. A portal of lightness, without doors or borders. An enduring metaphor of the culture of a country that imagined it could leap over its backwardness toward a beautiful and solidary future.