Reason as a
Paulo Sergio Duarte
The best-known sculptures by Ascânio MMM, the ones that can be seen in public places, remind me of visual versions of the music of Terry Riley or Steve Reich. Their whiteness, their avoidance of chromatic flourishes, the minimal decalage of the angle in arithmetic progression, differentiating the successive superimposition of the elements (the laths), always preserving the same movement around the axis so as to generate helicoidal torsion, the disciplined rigor of the structure — all of it is reminiscent, in its conception, of the music by the pioneers of what has come to be known as Minimalist music. With their elegant curves, these works have inevitably been described as baroque. (Brazilian critics tend to attach this label, with its strong historical connotation, to everything that contains a well-turned curve; the generalized use of the term would not be a problem if it did not have the effect of eclipsing questions that are closer to home.) Indeed, Ascânio’s curves, in his sculptures made up of overlapping laths, are both sumptuous and discrete in the strict meaning of the word, because they are impregnated with logicomathematical reasoning and could very well be represented by means of lucid algorithms.  They fling into the air generous sine waves that seem to look for tangential points of support on the ground. Or else they rise vertically, like totem poles of reason, proceeding from the initial helicoidal torsion and ending up sometimes as an extended rectangular surface. They had a participatory experience in the late 1960s, exceptional works placed in boxes that could be manipulated by viewers. However, even in this case the playfulness of the work is subjected to geometric asepsis, a sophisticated aesthetics that rejects subjective excesses.
One is tempted to locate the formal source of these sculptures, which Ascânio explored and developed in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, in some works by Mary Vieira. This, however, is no more than a coincidence: the artist was much impressed with Lygia Clark’s Constructivist pieces and admired Sérgio Camargo’s reliefs exhibited at Rio’s Museu de Arte Moderna in 1965, but at the time he had never seen Mary Vieira’s art; Vieira had emigrated to Switzerland in 1951, and to this day her work remains sadly underrepresented in Brazilian museums and exhibitions. His architectural training at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, after studying for a few years at the School of Fine Arts, and the inevitable contact with the work of Oscar Niemeyer, from Pampulha to Brasília, are more likely sources of the curves in his sculptures than the remote eighteenth century with its colonial cities. Besides, there is an additional problem, more at hand: How could an artist of Ascânio’s time give continuity to Constructivist imagination after the extraordinary planar adventures effected in the sculptures of Amilcar de Castro, Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica and Franz Weissmann? How could an artist take the next step without experimenting with movements of the plane, making it malleable to recursive logic by successively shifting elements juxtaposed in space — in short, by exploring curves? Here, I believe, is the most immediate issue in Ascânio’s early works, with which he was involved for over a decade: a sculptural solution for a freedom that broke with the orthogonal rigidity of modern architecture, in which the only place allotted to curves was the cylindrical shapes of the pilotis. The sinuous structural cover of the Pampulha Church in Belo Horizonte; the Oca dome in São Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park; the dome-and-saucer structure of the National Congress in Brasília; the profile of the columns of the palaces and structural arches in Brasília — these curves are more relevant to modern Brazilian art than the rocailles of our colonial churches. But the most immediate connection is the dialogue with the recent tradition of Constructivist sculpture in Brazil and the exploration of the Constructivist imagination.
Elevated to the condition of free variables of the functional thought that constrains architectonic form, Ascânio’s curves transpose the lessons of the great Constructivist sculptors who came before him to the opposite aesthetic camp, given their context. This faithfulness to the project of continuing Constructivism makes it difficult to situate his work in history. When Ascânio started out, New Figuration, on the one hand, had been stealing the scene since 1965; on the other hand, Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Pape were transforming their studios into experimental laboratories for new languages, moving away from the Neo-Concrete explorations that they felt had been exhausted by then. In addition, there was a new generation of artists to whom the conceptual question had to be solved in visual terms, preferably with a strong plastic presence, and not only in theoretical formulations — the generation of Arthur Barrio, Waltercio Caldas, Antonio Manuel and Cildo Meireles, in Rio de Janeiro, and Carlos Fajardo, Carmela Gross, Marcelo Nitsche and José Resende, in São Paulo. Ascânio’s work, however, represents an extension of a tendency in modern aesthetic thought that had begun in Brazil in the 1950s, with experiments ranging from Volpi’s work to Sérgio Camargo’s reliefs in the late 1960s, and that was out of sync with the problems formulated by the new cultural atmosphere. 
When we look back on Ascânio’s career we realize that for over three decades his work has reaffirmed the virtues of Constructivism in an almost dogmatic fashion, as though he wished to prolong the rationalistic optimism by overlaying the changes in the environment that explored a terrain sometimes quite distant from Cartesian premises. He has preserved a sharp and clear vocabulary, unaffected by the changes that the languages of art have undergone throughout this period.
It is necessary to examine his divergence from the choices of almost everyone else in his generation, as well as his atavistic dedication to the Constructivist language of the previous generation, whose great masters in sculpture — Amilcar de Castro and Franz Weissmann — went on working along the lines they had established early in their careers, with none of the discontinuities that characterized Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Pape.
The project and the system of modular construction, which have been present in Ascânio’s work since the very beginning, point to the architectural thinking that became particularly evident in the form with the appearance of the Pyramidals in the 1980s. These works were preceded by meticulous drawing-board studies in which every detail is anticipated, and which make it possible to know on paper what the sculpture will look like. Added to these characteristics is the strict logic that eschews any random intervention within the project: form must be entirely controlled. The only random internal element that can be spotted is the delicate chromatic variation of the wood that occurs when Ascânio, in the late 1970s, begins to explore the texture of his materials instead of painting them white. However, soon later the chromatic oppositions of the different kinds of wood are used to make calculated geometric compositions. Except for that, chance is restricted to the exploration of the play of light and shadow, exterior to construction, which is very much at work in the white reliefs and sculptures. This fixation on the positive values of a radically rationalistic matrix may be Ascânio’s way of distancing himself from the Brazilian cultural milieu, which still values precarious improvisation — a vestige of colonial mercantile capitalism that is quite different from the critique of norms and rules under advanced capitalism, where the use of improvisation and chance takes on the character of libertarian inventiveness, as in jazz and Informalism, or of productive improvisation adopted as a survival strategy by the poor.
In addition to this permanent resistance against chance and improvisation, there are other elements in modular construction that require a closer look. Another invariant in Ascânio’s work is the presence of a primal generating module. In the beginning there are parallel exercises, such as reliefs in painted wood, but even here one often finds a module. The module operates for each form searched in experimental periods spaced in time. In a process that has been going on for almost forty years, only two modules — laths and hollowed aluminum blocks — have been explored, except for a few reliefs and participatory boxes in which wooden boards were used. This persistence is not gratuitous. It points to an insistent investigation of form until all of the possibilities offered by a given material — its aesthetic DNA — are definitely exhausted. It also indicates a refusal to treat art as a variety show, a showroom for a market subordinated to the ebb and flow of fashion.
In modern architecture, a module is any measuring unit that facilitates prefabrication. This is how the term is defined in technical dictionaries. But this definition, while it may be perfectly sufficient from a technical perspective, does not do justice to aesthetic phenomena. In the case of Ascânio the module is the mother cell of formal thought. They are minimal signifying units, whose sense-producing role is visible only in the collective organization and which are never disguised — their discrete individuality is always preserved in the totality — and therefore cannot be reduced to supporting actors manipulated as a resource of fabrication. A reciprocity is established in a direct order: to each form there corresponds a particular behavior of the module; to each modular behavior there is one form.
A change in the module itself may have suggested the potentialities of new forms. This is a hypothesis. At a certain moment the laths are no longer painted and the wood is explored in its natural state; soon the unpainted laths are placed one atop the other, taking on volume and forming more stable hollowed shapes. When the shifting, overlapping laths are gone, gone are the helicoids. The sculptures no longer defy gravity, but collaborate with it: they want to be heavy in order to show off their mosaics and spatial reliefs. They willingly rest on the ground; they have abandoned for good the ascendancy of the plane in order to assume a volume disciplined by the orthogonal virtues of the new configuration of the module. The sculptures take on body just as the laths do, now that they are no longer shifted: there is an evident consonance between module and final form. That is why they never give up their strongly geometric character.
In some cases the structures rise from the ground to turn into wall sculptures. In this they contrast with the spatial thinking that is characteristic of modern sculpture, approaching the condition of the drawings in wood. They are drawings made without paper or pencil, in which the lines are materialized in the thickness of the wood. The organic element that is strongly conspicuous in the texture of the material does not evoke any “naturalization” of the work, because the system is controlled by geometric reasoning. The virtues inherent to the material are present and are skillfully manipulated by the artist, who has always made a point of performing all the manual labor involved in the making of his sculptures, but they are constrained by the rigor of the design, without simulating, at any moment, the impossible commerce between nature and culture. The latter is reinforced in the titles of the works, in which the names of the species appear: “guataia” (the same as “pau-marfim”), “acaju-catinga” (cedar), “jacarandá” (jacaranda). This is the single anecdotal appearance of an intentional relationship with the environment, and even here the relationship is mediated by the abstract link of language. The use of exposed wood, with its grain and color, without any figurative appeal, brings the sculptures closer to the viewer, disconnecting them from Platonic ideas and placing them in a more worldly geometry; they are down-to-earth works, freed from the purity of whiteness, demonstrating once again that form is always fully actualized with the participation of all material elements.
After exploring the unpainted laths, in the 1990s Ascânio began to work with hollowed aluminum modules. Aluminum as a material evokes lightness, and lightness is emphasized by the fact that the modules are hollowed. A new plastic element is added to the sculptures: as the viewer wanders among the works, they vary from total opacity to almost complete transparency. They range from emphatic presence to dematerialization in the geometric grid of thin lines that acts as a frame of reference for the environment. The similarity to architecture, which was already conspicuous in many works in wood — the first Pyramidals — is heightened by the aspect of the aluminum pieces. The world of technique, which had been present earlier in the logic of form, is now a powerful presence in the new material. With it there is a new metallic, gray luminosity that is always radiated, sometimes broken by the chromatic intervention of strong colors: blue, red, green. Given the monotony and poverty of contemporary Brazilian architecture, increasingly distant from the brilliant moments of its recent past, seen today only in the projects of Oscar Niemeyer, Paulo Mendes da Rocha and a few other exceptions, Ascânio’s aluminum sculptures remind one of scale models of architectural works — possible buildings, as if they wanted to free the new urban landscape from utter mediocrity.
Thus the abstract Pyramidals begin to take on a presence of their own thanks to their inescapable kinship with architectonic forms. A whole cycle of modern
architecture is condensed in an oeuvre whose historical roots hark back to Russian Constructivism of the first three decades of the twentieth century: the study of planes in space, their revolutions in curves. From the search for emancipation is space through the incorporation of weight and place of sculpture to the adoption of the material as determining element in the syntax of the work, when raw wood and aluminum are used, an entire rigorous trajectory is traced with an admirable economy of means. The trajectory concludes with a return to architecture, no longer as a decorative accessory
to its spaces, but prefiguring monumental building possibilities. Such is the present state of this oeuvre.
Ascânio’s strict reason, his blind faith in the Constructivist precepts, may seem even embarrassing in the contemporary art scene, dominated by postmodern anything-goes and wholesale relativism. It is as if this oeuvre were a sort of dike of principles disregarded by the ruling irrationalism. Its historicity, a veritable reservoir of clarity, does not belong to its own time, with which it is clearly at variance, but to its productive links with the past, reiterating in the present an aesthetics that many see as outdated. This self-restrained body of work never allows, for a single moment, an experiment in which the rules are not clearly spelled out. In today’s context of unrestrained deconstruction, parody and contempt for rules of any kind, such steadfastness is like an archeology of the Enlightenment.
 That is why Ascânio’s works are closer to Riley’s or Reich’s music then to that of Philip Glass, which came later and is easier to enjoy.
 The first major retrospective of Brazilian Constructivism was held only in 1977: “Brazilian Constructive Project and Art — 1950-1962.” Curated by Aracy Amaral. São Paulo–Rio de Janeiro: Pinacoteca do Estado — Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro, 1977.
 It is important to observe that even in his own generation Ascânio was not alone in this choice. The painting of Raymundo Colares, which takes as its point of departure the bodies of urban buses, submits to Constructivist rigor. Antonio Manuel, one of the artists of the second half of the twentieth century who was most adept at reconciling formal precision with political protest, developed in his paintings a clear continuation of Constructivism. Luciano Figueiredo, who at first was better known as a graphic artist and for his work in research on and preservation of Hélio Oiticica’s oeuvre, also has formal links with this same recent tradition.