1. Harmonious proportions

Brazilian art critique and art history has given Ascânio MMM's oeuvre short shrift. However, this omission has now been partly remedied by the extraordinary efforts of Paulo Herkenhoff's recent Ascânio MMM: Poética da Razão,[1] a publication of over 400 pages highlighting crucial aspects of the artist's background and the development of his art work, together with a remarkable centrifugal reflection relating it to many other artists, movements and concepts. Raised in a small village on the northern coast of Portugal, Ascânio went on to study art at Escola Nacional de Belas Artes and architecture at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro[2] before becoming well acquainted with many local artists and integrating the milieu around Rio de Janeiro’s Museu de Arte Moderna in the 1960s. Hence, the trajectory from which Herkenhoff takes many pointers for an extensive critique of this oeuvre that touches on many aspects of the history of contemporary art in Brazil to ultimately complement the centripetal tendency of Ascânio’s creative processes and their convergent, centripetal and synthetic nature.

In his writings, therefore, besides addressing the artist’s obvious relationship with the first and second generations of the Brazilian Concrete and Neo-concrete avant-gardes, Herkenhoff`s investigation into Ascânio’s practice extends to include fundamentals of architecture and mathematics. Furthermore, it  brings in architects such as Affonso Eduardo Reidy and Mies van der Rohe, philosophers Gottlob Frege, Martin Heiddeger and Alain Badiou and many others, including verses by Fernando Pessoa (aka Álvaro Campos), paraphrased thus: Newton's binomial is as elegant as the Venus de Milo / But there are only a few people who take heed of this. / Oooo - OOOOOOOOO - OoOoOoOoOoOoOoO / (the wind out there). [3] This poem alone would suffice to guide a revisited critique of Ascânio's oeuvre, but there is another extremely fertile reference in Herkenhoff`s essay that must be taken up and expanded in relation to Le Modulor, a book written by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier in his later period. The title of the first of its two volumes (1948 and 1955)—The Modulor: A Harmonious Measure to the Human Scale Universally applicable to Architecture and Mechanics[4]— suggests a fine point of reference for a discussion of the sophisticated interplay of scale and spatiality in Ascânio MMM's production. However, certain provisos apply to any critique based on Le Modulor: despite perhaps being one of the most widely quoted documents in modern architecture, it is also one of the least read and most misunderstood.

Contemporary discourse around this aspect of Corbusier’s work harps on the alleged dogmatic-schematic approach of the International Style and its indifference to the diversity of peoples, cultures and bodies. This argument has it that the stylized human proportions on the cover of The Modulor shows that architectural modernism's aspiration of functional and pure form, reasoning and calculation will invariably lead to the idiosyncrasies of real people being replaced by prefabricated, colonial, authoritarian and idealized models. Moreover, the arbitrary height designated for the Modulor scale is usually seen as a sign of ethnic and ideological elitism. All these criticisms may be pertinent in the general context of the post-war instrumentalization of modern architecture, but they apparently ignore the actual content of the book and its subtleties.

Originating from a humanist tradition, The Modulor primarily poses a practical problem and a poetic ambition. The practical problem, which could be solved in many different ways, concerns the clash between the metric system and the Imperial system of inches and feet. In addition to creating a conversion problem, both are incomplete: the former is arbitrary and abstract, bearing no relation to the proportions of the human body; the latter was historically based on the body but poses numerous practical challenges for calculations. Corbusier's solution was to create a new scale that would be compatible with both systems while being nimble in use and anthropocentrically meaningful.

As far as the above is concerned, it might be the notions of an ambitious engineer or a mathematician. Yet, the more profound sense of this work is in its poetic ambition.[5]

 

The annotation of sounds in musical scales struck Le Corbusier as one of humanity's admirable feats. Scores dealt with the impossibility of statically recording the ongoing temporal phenomenon of sound, covered the sensory spectrum of human hearing and organized a series of proportional relationships over the centuries that have proved to be both flexible and harmonious. According to parameters of geometric proportion within the domain of sound, the scaled notation involves a certain mathematical consistency, correlations with specific natural phenomena, and easily recognized and applied principles of compositional harmony. In his awe of this rational and flexible manmade system applicable to nature, and still poetically attuned, Le Corbusier dreamed of creating an equivalent means of measuring space: a harmonious scale based on human proportions. To this end, he examined ways of applying the secular golden ratio to measures and spaces, thus creating levels of measures linked by means of a common proportion historically associated with equilibrium in the forms of Nature and Man.

If this were possible, architectural components, materials and spaces would be universally commensurate, thus reducing waste. Moreover, even the most inexperienced of architects would always work from well-proportioned and harmonious measures – just as every composer takes the basics of composition from the musical scale itself. Furthermore, as Le Corbusier showed at great length, there would still be room for improvisation and invention since the potential for creative composition would be unlimited. It was not a matter of imposing a single proportion for the human body, or even of standardizing architectural form and style, but of recognizing logically and aesthetically consistent principles for a new stage in the diffusion of architectural language.

These principles have been all but buried by the way in which critics have appropriated the Swiss-French architect's proposal. In what way, therefore, could they be of use in terms of a close reading of the work of the Portuguese-Brazilian artist Ascânio MMM?

One of the most striking features of his works for attentive observers is that although their appearance is easily understood alongside the legacy of Brazil’s Concrete and Neo-concrete avant-garde, they are very different to the latter in terms of their relationship with mathematical rationale and order.

Although the early discourses of the Concrete movement in Brazil were often imbued with praise of the crystal-clear logic of math calculations and engineering, members of this avant-garde were very rarely bound by such clarity and precision. A point to bear in mind in this respect is that not all geometry is coherent and precise in its numerical translation: there are rectangles and orthogonalities that are more like intuitive compositional tracts than well-ordered replicable systems, while geometric abstractions of the 1950s referred to the rationale of engineering as allegory rather than praxis.[6]

 

Ascânio MMM takes a different approach in that he does actually calculate arithmetic and geometric progressions, just as he plans angular displacements, resorts to trigonometry and locates tangents. Practically all his works since the mid-1960s may be reconstructed as uncluttered mathematical formulas. His Concrete sculptures and reliefs do correspond to phenomena in the domain of abstract logic. However sinuous his curves drawn in the air, however unexpected his topologies, he always retains the legibility of the numerical rationales underpinning the invention and actual construction of each piece.

It is not a question of borderline tension between number and freely drawn line, invention and model, or form and calculation. For Ascânio – as for Le Corbusier’s Modulor – these dichotomies involve kinship relations rather than antinomy. Take for example the reliefs Triângulo Projetado [Projected Triangle] (1968) and Múltiplo 24 [Multiple 24] (1976), two of the first pieces that greet visitors near the exhibition entrance. They are made of wooden slats arranged in calculable rhythmic patterns. The first piece features slats perpendicular to the wall set in pairs at right angles and positioned at gradually longer intervals at different ratios on the vertical and horizontal axes, outlining a tenuous curvature at the core of an orthogonal grid. The other piece features slats parallel to the wall arranged in a fan shape around a single fulcrum following a constant angular ratio, and interrupted by acute diagonal lozenges defining a cut-off line, thus lending a vertical silhouette to a core-principle form.

Once decoded into words or equations, the pieces described above may sound abstract or cold, whereas they are in fact actual and concrete. There is a parallax effect, like reading about musical composition: the precision of words and harmonious ratios helps translate the phenomenon, but this is no substitute for the wonder of listening. Would Le Corbusier   be pursuing a similar aim? An exuberant spatial composition as creation and experience charged with mathematical ratios at core, but not reduced to the latter? The way numbers are used takes a work beyond its abstraction and shows – as does nature and advanced mathematics – the infinite possibilities of form, order, structure and movement held within it.

In his Esculturas brancas (White sculptures) series, Ascânio MMM takes this rationale to the limits of surprise and sensority (sensuality too), using vertical white spirals in Escultura 2 (1976). In these works, wooden slats are stacked at gradually more acute angles calculated around vertical axes, thus emanating possible associations with harmonious ratios enshrined as the undulation of sound waves, the golden mean of Le Modulor or the volute associated with Baroque. These associations demonstrate the extent to which Ascânio's poetics of calculation reaches such exuberance in its suggestion of spatial motion is on the verge of sublimating its logical simplicity.

However, the clearest proof of the integrity of the mathematical core of his work is found in its most singular instance: the intriguing Caixas [Boxes] (1968-9), which in this case have been placed right by the entrance to the exhibition. Intended to prompt participation, these pieces are modular containers in which the same geometry is repeated on successively smaller scales, one inside the other. Like the nested Russian dolls, visitors may look inside and handle them, using the differences between modules to reset alignments and distances. Visitors may play with the pieces to move or rearrange them in endless small deviations and realignments. However, the fact that Ascânio’s pieces may be opened does not indicate or mean a passive role on their part. These pieces do have their own structure and character, so no matter what a participant does, the final shape or line-up will always retain a certain integrity. Therefore, the full range of variations follows precisely the ratio between the thickness and sizes of the pieces so that the composition's rhythm is ensured at any particular time.
 

Therefore, his boxes are like "human-scale harmonious proportions applicable to composition". Not by chance, Ascânio also used them as models for some of his white reliefs. Like exhibition visitors, the artist played with the boxes and found the visual rhythms and dynamics consolidated in pieces such as Triângulos 1 [Triangles 1] (1968-2009), which crystallizes or ‘fixes’ one of the several possible arrangements of Caixa 3 [Box 3] (1969). It would be wrong to assume that mathematical logic operates as a restrictive template. Rather, it informs a consistent structure for the game of endless possibilities that Ascânio has refined over his several decades of art production.

 

2. Structure, construction and expertise

Structure, then. Even when the visible topology of Ascânio's sculpture is twisted into sinuous volutes, it reflects the same structural precision that starts from mathematical logic and takes in its concrete materiality. Be it as a legacy from his architectural studies in Rio de Janeiro or remembrance of the boats built in his hometown, or yet a physical manifestation of the principles of geometry, the fact is that the artist’s attachment to certain recurring constructivist logic is apparent.

In Brazilian art, the term “constructivist” has conventionally been broadened to include any intention of abstract-geometric ordering of forms. As one of the pillars of local historiography, the term tends to be applied with the appropriate tweaking to any artist directly or indirectly associated with the Brazilian Concrete and Neo-concrete avant-gardes. Since they were very diverse groupings, the meaning of “constructive” has been overextended, so the sense in which this concept is applied to Ascânio's work should be spelled out.

We can interpret the term “constructive” in the same way as modern architects: a syntax that has each form arising directly, free of decor or disguise, from a way of measuring materials and arranging them together while challenging gravity like a self-supporting body in physical space inhabited by Man. In effect, there is no excess in Ascânio's sculpture; everything in his work is “on to something”: there are forms in suspension, materials in equilibrium, points of support and structures – more specifically, axes and modules provide the basic resources for all of the artist’s (constructivist) poetics.

His white sculptures too are paradigmatic with their explicit modules: slats made from wood (or metal in the case of pieces for outdoor spaces) that tend to be of the same thickness and length.[7] Relations between these modules are very straightforward: the pieces are stacked or juxtaposed at successively altered distances around an axis that is usually not only virtual but material too. Vertical, horizontal or diagonal axes are effectively structured by metallic components that “fasten” the piece end-to-end.[8] The immediately pragmatic character of these solutions might seem improbable from the angle of reasoning based on the genealogy of Western sculpture alone, but it is entirely plausible for an architectural approach to the sculptural / spatial object.

 

Herkenhoff claims there is an “architectural subconscious” permeating Ascânio's oeuvre and subliminally relating to the humanisms of the postwar modernisms of Corbusier, Candilis (1913-1995) & Josic (1921-2011) and the Brazilian Affonso Eduardo Reidy. If that is so, there is also a conscious use of the architectural rationale and its expertise in Ascânio's constant insistence on crafting his materials in his own studio. This approach is not restricted to his white sculptures, but is rather based in them, to expand and be confirmed in his explorations of other finishings and materials.

 

Hence, his use of wood for Fitangulares follows directly from his exploring modular strips juxtaposed and cross-sectioned by apparent angular cuts. Take Fitangular Ipê 1 (1985), for example: the contrast between darker and lighter lines brings out the resulting cutoffs and angulations that transform horizontal parallelism into oscillating dynamic diagonals.

His apparent-wood sculptures retain modular logic although supported by alternative stacking or heaping concepts. For Piramidais and other works given the Tupi names for the woods used, his practice involves direct additions – literally stacking – that emphasize the difference between the sides and tops of modules on each facet of a sculpture. In turn, a vertical axis persists in Formações but, in this instance, it is freed from a rectilinear solution to experiment with solutions that refer to rings or portals. Both sculptural families thus emphasize the physicality of their specific materials. By evading the symmetry that usually goes with one single centralized axis, there are marked differences from each viewing angle.

In this exhibition, Formação 20 (1979) is a borderline case that may even mislead visitors who have only seen it in photographs. A considerable dose of spatial imagination is needed to see how such diverse appearances from supposedly one single topology may arise similarly when viewed from different angles – the image is transformed as the viewer moves. On the other hand, Gramixinga 1 (1986), also on display, subverts the usual sense of juxtaposed slats positioned laterally at a near-vertical angle – the rhythm of the diagonals recalls the two-dimensional angles of Fitangulares. However, the volume of the resulting piece takes on the proportions of a pillar sustaining its own weight on the ground, while also creating a subtle mismatch between its halves that hints at the imminence of motion.

The constructive trend of Ascânio's trajectory has been confirmed by the apparent-aluminum pieces he started producing in the 1990s. As mentioned above, his Piramidais family of sculptures includes experimental wooden pieces precisely showing the importance of the structural use of materials for his plastic-visual investigation. Although the basic principle of the metal pieces of the Piramidais series is the same as for wooden pieces – lateral juxtaposition of orthogonal profiles in solid angled forms – the differences go far beyond the obvious ones of color and gloss. Given their favorable weight-to-strength ratio, Ascânio’s aluminum-profile sculptures may reach monumental proportions while retaining their specially enduring properties.

 

Thanks to such durability, these pieces tackle the challenge of public spaces, as in the case of Piramidal 12.4 (1991-93), a previous version of a work previously installed in Fão, Portugal, which for this exhibition has been placed outside the gallery. The accentuated verticality of this 5.20-meter tall form weighing just over 400 kilograms corresponds to the heights of the facade and the surrounding buildings, like punctuation in a dialog with pre-existing features of urban space. Although higher than pedestrians, the piece shies away from interrupting the horizontality of its surroundings. Despite its architectural proportions, it is surprisingly light and quickly assembled. Even with the reflective metal opacity of its component parts, it allows gazes to meet in its disconcerting transparency. Ascânio's wise use of materials structured by a coherent constructive criterion produced a work that is landmark and landscape, monolith and window, body and space.

 

3. A body, one more and yet another

Although this essay moves along a logical pathway starting from the ratios of proportion and advances through the constructive and architectural sense of material structuring in Ascânio's sculptures, a point to bear in mind is that the real development of his work often blurs linear boundaries between idea, form and rendition. Despite such familiarity with number, calculation and structure, his oeuvre eschews the polarized separation typical of architects who keep design-project in one place and job-site-object in another, as if there were two domains segregated by a division of labor between thinkers and makers.

Ascânio's own words deserve special mention here:

“An important aspect of my oeuvre is that my pieces are all made at my own studio. The journey from DESIGN to OBJECT takes place there. I design and assemble everything myself: I order the aluminum profiles, which are delivered to the studio as 6-meter bars. It is the same aluminum used in industry, especially construction. Handling materials and discovering their new potentialities – whether wood or aluminum, cutting or drilling etc. – has been very important to me as a means of investigating materials and discovering new ways of using them. My current Quasos project was only possible through day-to-day work at the studio. I would not have reached this far but for this daily struggle [with materials].”[9]

Ascânio's logical precision and structural clarity owe their existence to his directly handling materials in the course of day-to-day practice. So, there is this bodily contact that is critical for his creative practice, even at the ellipse stage of precise finishing for a work. As he himself points out, recent production using narrow segments of articulated metal profiles on various surfaces and volumes was only possible because he had been insistently observing leftovers heaped in the studio that proceeded to take on very specific plastic properties when he adopted different ways of fastening them.

 

The same heap of cutouts from thin metal profiles (frames and hoops) may be made into different surfaces if they are taken as modules of a non-planar orthogonal grid. In other words, these 2 “x 2” aluminum profiles cut into hundreds of 1 cm-wide sections may be fastened to each other by drilling along their sides forming a kind of quilt. If this fastening is not simply rigid and orthogonal (as are the bolt fasteners on the Piramidais sculptures and Estrutura reliefs), then “soft” or malleable planes are created.

 

Hence the Flexos and Qualas families Ascânio has been developing since 2003. The former has pieces joined by pieces of wire twisted in the same way builders use wire or rebar in concrete beams; the latter have the same pieces associated with small hoops of the type medieval chain-mail was made from. In both cases, squares combine on winding curved surfaces, but Flexos seems to have its motion frozen by the elastic strength of the wire that secures it into a certain arrangement, while gravity (and perhaps the visiting public too) is continuously shaping the form of Qualas into many possible arrangements acting on both visual and tactile levels.

More recently, since 2014, Ascânio has been working on yet another Quasos family in which modules are connected by screws of different lengths, generating complex topological surfaces in a play of negotiation between the weights of pieces and gravity. This exhibition includes the transitional piece Qualas 1 (2004), the sensitive Qualas 13 (2010), the massive Qualas 11 (2008) and the very different Quasos 14 (2016). Throughout this whole group are signs left by bodily toil as he cuts, screws, twists, fastens and plays with the weight and strength of materials.

However, this is not the only body on stage. An aspect of his oeuvre that has hardly been discussed is the bodily quality of his works. Although strictly free from figuration, many of them – particularly the sculptures – turn on the proportion of the human body as a viewer constantly factored into Ascânio's decisions. The selection of works from different periods and materials brought together for the exhibition Ascânio MMM: As medidas dos corpos [Ascânio MMM: Bodily Proportions] meets a number of objectives. In particular, it deploys metonymy to show the complexity of his artistic career from the 1960s to the present day; creates a complex spatiality that eschews linear associations by series or period in a set of transverse temporalities; and explores the bodily quality – almost that of a character – of his sculptural production.

Perusing the gallery space is like walking between works that are also figures of particular density and sinuosity, with a certain unique posture, bearing and motion among the assembled volumes that hint at some extremely personable attitude, as well they might. Together their volumes give emphasis to their states and properties in one single meeting place.

At the beginning and end of the exhibition, all this clearly prompts a sequence of opportunities for the viewer’s body, whose proportions and spontaneity of movement complement the physicality of the works determined by the artist. Even outside the gallery, Piramidal 12.4 responds to a visitor's movements by becoming opaque or transparent; then Caixas invites visitors entering the room to touch and improvise. Next, the monumental entanglement of Qualas 14 predominates as volume full of acoustic and visual titillation of architectural proportions, gradual revealing partly covered light and objects. Then, there follows a series of accentuated vertical sculptures, erect bodies in repose or poised for action. Finally, on the last wall, Quasos 14 combines a hollowed, agitated form protruding onto the edge of a mirror that engulfs a reflection of the entire room and consequently of the visitor's body too, which is eventually assimilated as part of the equations of proportion and harmony in space posed by Ascânio's oeuvre.

Thus, we are back at the beginning, the confabulation around a “harmonious measure to the universally applicable human scale.” Ascânio's spatial symphonies show that this visionary possibility will always be linked to the poetics of bodies in motion and reciprocity between work and viewer, mediated by knowledge of proportion and expertise materialized in sculpture.

The short shrift given to Ascânio’s work may incur precisely the loss of clarity of this resolution capable of bringing together many of the dreams of three or four generations of 20th-century artists and architects pursuing a new generous and provocative spatiality. This spatiality would be sensitive to the needs of a humanity evermore alienated from icons of domination, segregation and difference. In the current period of recrudescence of incommunicable differences, to accentuate this legacy is an act of hope.

 

Notes

[1] São Paulo: BEI Comunicação, 2012

[2] Ascânio was born in Fão, Portugal, in 1941. He moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1959, enrolled at ENBA from 1963 to 1964 and earned a degree  at FAU-UFRJ  from 1965  to 1969.

[3] This introduction to Paulo Herkenhoff’s arguments and approaches is required as reference for a study whose publication offered new perspectives for comprehension of this artist's oeuvre in the context of Brazilian art history.

[4] Le Corbusier, Peter de Francia and Anna Bostock (trans.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954.

[5] Le Corbusier conducted this study in the hope he would contribute it to the French National Association for Standardization (AFNOR). He believed his role as an architect was to address a global problem.

[6] Numerous examples show intuitive choices unrelated to any geometric basis in the concrete production of Waldemar Cordeiro (1925-1973), to take one example, despite his discourse.  Ivan Serpa (1923-1973) too, another iconic example, was hardly ever programmatic in his geometric abstractions. Herkenhoff`s essay includes a similar comment concerning the white reliefs by Sérgio Camargo (1930-1990). Exceptions have included the sculptors Amilcar de Castro (1920-2002) and Franz Weissmann (1911-2005).

[7]  In each of the pieces, the modules have the same profile (height and width) and usually the same length too – except those in which a diagonal "section" alters their lengths, such as the above-mentioned Múltiplo 24. However, even in these cases the appearance of the slats is such that they might well have been identical originally to be altered only later. Other exceptions include the slats that are not only modules but also transversal axes between two parallel columns, in which case the slat length is doubled.

[8] "In the white wooden sculptures, there are polished steel axes with screw-threaded ends. Sculptures over 150 cm use  1/2" (half-inch) gauge  while  smaller ones use  3/16",  1/4 "or 3/8" exes, and  white reliefs  3/8 "or 1/2". The public-space sculptures use stainless steel pipe diameters 1" to 3" (2.54 to 7.62 cm), with nuts screwed on each end. Gauge depends on the sculpture's size."  (E-mail  of June 16, 2016 from the artist to the author)

[9] E-mail of June 16, 2016 from the artist to the author.

Ascânio MMM:
bodily measures

Paulo Miyada, 2015