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The Cristal

Paulo Herkenhoff

Over nearly five decades of artistic output, Ascânio Maria Monteiro Martins has created a carefully crafted body of work − transparent in its poetry and firm in its constructive logic − that secures him a place in the Latin American history of geometric abstraction. This has been his unique praxis. Ascânio has never created a figurative piece. From his first work, in 1964, he has consistently reiterated his constructive choice through the ongoing process of invention of visual problems and experimentation with new materials. Ascânio’s place in the world of Concrete art, the cultural aspects of his Portuguese roots, his training, the effort to create a language and its material signs, his phenomenological and symbolic propositions, his role in the historical process of Brazilian art, particularly as part of the MAM Generation, the scope of his production, his aesthetics, the poetry and meaning of his work; the constructive will and the architectonic and political bias of his sculpture in the context of the social issue of housing, the dialectical and political substrata of his forms and the mathematical unconscious − these are all issues that fascinate this historian. Understanding the dialectical dimension of Ascânio’s work is similar in nature to understanding the “psychology of the scientific spirit“ − an expression coined by Gaston Bachelard − and experiencing the strange geometric split personality that emerged over the last century and a half of mathematical culture.[1] However, unlike the mathematician, Ascânio MMM does not suppress his intuition (or sublimate his experience). His Bachelardian challenge has always been one to realize the conversion of rational reality into experimental poetry.

Born in Portugal in 1941, Ascânio immigrated to Brazil in 1959.

I had a wonderful childhood. Even today, when I go to Fão, I like to visit the places and streets of my childhood days. I like to wander about anonymously in Fão. Freedom to me meant wandering through the docks or the pine forest, strolling along the dunes and the beach, especially in summer. It was while walking in the pine forest, looking at those houses in modern architecture − 
one day I even visited one − that I began to dream of being an architect.[2]

Ascânio’s unique genesis has roots in his Portuguese origins and in Brazil’s cultural context, specifically that of Rio de Janeiro, a city impregnated by the neo-concretist revolution and its aftermath. But his work also places him in the international horizons of sculpture − especially that of the post-war Anglo-Saxons − and situates him between the response of Brazilian culture to the political process after the military coup of 1964, through the relations between art and society, and the way in which architecture and urban design permeate this discussion − hence his own feelings about tridimensional work. At that time, he joined those who claimed that there was no such thing as “neutrality” in art. The value system in Ascânio‘s work requests an in-depth investigation of its genesis, which up to this point has been insufficiently and indeed even incorrectly examined.

The artist’s long-lasting production and complex agenda require an investigative methodology that takes into account both the multidisciplinary nature of his work and the consistency of his discourse. The architectonic total of Ascânio’s sculpture draws on the logic of the number for the constitution of the social and political meaning of this discourse. Here Ascânio’s oeuvre is examined in chapters designed within language parameters, beginning with his first sculpture through to the current problems involving his concept of the visual arts. “This book discusses several aspects of my career: Fão, the School of Fine Arts, the School of Architecture, the MAM Generation, etc. But there is one actor who has played a key role in my career, and her name is Ana,”[3] says the artist.

Ascânio and Ana Maria Ferreira da Costa Monteiro met in 1972 and married in 1974. She holds a PhD in Education from PUC-Rio and is the director of the School of Education at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro − UFRJ. For her, to follow Ascânio’s developments meant being close to production − through the stages of conceptualization to execution − but it also meant opening their home to artists like Raymundo Colares, who lived with them for several months. Ana Monteiro is the author of numerous books, including Professores de história: entre saberes e práticas [Teachers of history: knowledge and practice].[4] In a review, Professor Circe Fernandes Bittencourt praised the excellence of the book, an offspring of Monteiro’s doctoral dissertation and research findings:

[...] the author’s professional engagement, lived experience and commitment to the academia have turned her research into a more comprehensive and complex work as regards the handling of relations in the web of knowledge woven in daily life at school, in an quest to understand the activities of a history teacher, as well as to learn how certain historical knowledge is effectively produced in the process of teaching and learning in the classroom environment.[5]

Something similar takes place when a critic or historian attends an artist’s studio to learn about his/her work. With Ana Monteiro, I discussed the role of writing on art and art education in the daily process of mobilization of knowledge.

One difficulty in the preparation of this retrospective essay was the sparse and reserved manner in which Ascânio made his personal documents and even his early work − especially that of the 1960s and 1970s − available to the author. A review of his production and the discussions about his beginnings and career path were already underway when Ascânio was challenged to reveal the origins of his history with sculpture − a territory that he had always repressed for believing that the autonomy of art required that his political agenda not be revealed. Another hurdle to overcome in the course of the four years of data collection for this essay was the artist’s tendency not to speak up against certain comparisons or interpretations of his work with which he disagreed. For ever-elegant Ascânio, his acceptance of all interpretations was a way to show intellectual respect for his interlocutors, he did not wish to interfere with the ideas of others.[6] Once all these parameters and constraints were conquered, new frontiers were opened to his personal history, allowing the conceptual understanding of the sculptor’s work, correcting more mechanistic conclusions and forcefully seeking new methodological parameters for analysis. Ana Monteiro and Ascânio have ongoing discussions about the coherence of sculptural procedures, their relations with society and the immense challenge posed by a historical survey of the same high level as Ascânio MMM’s oeuvre.

Those who are not aware of the relations between sculpture, architecture, mathematics and philosophy in Ascânio’s work will be restricted to viewing solely the formal aspects of his work. In exercising such a formalist gaze, the critic may even reduce his analysis of the sculptor’s work to a discussion of form, projecting onto the work interpretations limited by his/her own knowledge and lack of capacity to grasp the ontological dimension of sculpture. Ana Monteiro, herself a historian and university professor, was a very steady, albeit discrete voice in gauging the time required for the epistemological process to produce a text as ambitious as this one. She understands the meaning of boundaries between the fields of art and history. She also knows that few Brazilian geometric sculptors have a suitably extensive history and that Ascânio himself created a dense and extensive body of work − a work that needs to be explored on a retrospective plane and have its place in history more vigorously defined. 

A non-formalist critic who habitually makes the correlations between signifier and signified will be surprised by the complex syntax of Ascânio’s work. First, however, the critic must understand the mathematical dimensions of the sculpture to set out from a real contact with the work itself in its Husserlian dimension of aesthetic phenomenon. Then any architectural and urbanism biases must be unveiled − their theory, history, contemporary practice and even their collective dimensions − to convey the archeology of Ascânio’s tridimensional construction to the realm of social space. Subtle and discrete, his sculpture has never been insulated against contamination by the concrete conditions of the social practice of architecture in Brazil. Approaching his work means understanding the artist’s dialectical view of society and the cultural and political fabric in which his sculpture is critically inscribed. A materialistic approximation of this issue includes, by definition, both the nature of its communication in the construction of dialogue, as well as the material and historic conditions of the art production. The relationship of sculpture to architecture realized a hypothesis that discourse can be simultaneously rational and poetic. In the historical approach, iconology is helpful, not as an aesthetic standard, but as the aesthetics of the architectural axis of Ascânio’s work, based on mathematics and physics.

The arc of theoretical linguistics that has expanded since the publication of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics has an impact on the interpretation of Ascânio’s work. His visually harmonious sculpture permits a linguistic approach using Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of “architectonics,” the conceptualist dimension of color in Wittgenstein’s work or the theory of Maurice Blanchot’s book, for example, because Ascânio’s work itself is a complex linguistic challenge.  Perhaps the essential missing element around which his production develops is the issue of housing, i.e. homelessness. Heidegger’s aphorism that speaks of language as the abode of the being is quite befitting here. Ascânio’s sculpture always advances perception as an exciting experience. This generosity with the subject of perception is linked with the phenomenology of perception − the basis of neo-concretism − in its relation with the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty.[7] Lacan never abandoned Merleau-Ponty. Psychoanalysis, especially in the Freud-Lacanian sense, allows us to explore the mathematical-architectural unconscious − a dimension of the political unconscious discussed by Fredric Jameson and the optical unconscious of Rosalind Krauss. However, such psychoanalytic notions as the void of the subject and the organization of the unconscious as a linguistic chain contribute to the spectator’s understanding of certain movements in Ascânio’s work. Gilles Deleuze’s reflections on the meaning of smooth, striated and folded spaces, or yet Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia can be expanded to include an analysis of Ascânio’s sculpture as unsettling architecture.
The history of Ascânio’s adolescence in Portugal prior to his immigration in Brazil enlightens the discussion of his sculptural training. Taken on a visit by his family’s laundry woman, Ascânio experienced an epiphany inside a house that did not conform to the design or the aesthetic standards of Salazarian architecture. 

That was where the young man discovered modern space and became instantly aware of his affinity for architecture. This insight turned into excitement over the imaginary of the space.[8] The sculptor’s training was also owed to the fortuitous time that he spent − with a critical outlook − going through heterogeneous stages at the Escola Nacional de Belas-Artes − ENBA [The National School of Fine Arts] in 1963-1964, and the School of Architecture and Urbanism (FAU, 1965-1969), both part of the Universidade Federal of Rio de Janeiro. Ascânio’s early college years coincided with the onset of the military dictatorship in Brazil. His gaze experienced trauma and awakenings, previously unrevealed, which were consolidated between two shocks:
Upon enrolling in ENBA in 1963, I visited a museum for the first time: the Museu Nacional de Belas-Artes − MNBA [National Museum of Fine Arts]. Here I saw the winners of the National Salon of Modern Art, which caught my attention. That was my first shock of fascination with art. This is what I want, I thought. As a boy in my hometown, I had experienced a similar shock the first time I entered a house of modern architecture.[9]

Ascânio does not dissociate ENBA from the experience of discovering neo-Concrete art in the halls of the MNBA, which shares the same building with the school.

The present analysis of Ascânio’s body of work gives more emphasis to a certain “constructivist project in Latin American art” [10] still lacking a definition of historical landmarks that − without twisting the facts of the period – inadequaterly situated various artists in a secondary stage instead of mechanically ordering this generation’s production in chronological order. Without a proper definition of these landmarks there will continue to be considerable confusion, a fact that is of interest only to the market but not to history. Evidently, the more remote foundations include, among modernist painters and sculptors, those artists who embraced geometry or cubist and post-cubist language − artists like Diego Rivera, Vicente do Rego Monteiro, Victor Brecheret, Tarsila do Amaral, Joaquín Torres García, Emilio Pettorutti and Curatella Manes, the Portuguese artist Maria Hele­na Vieira da Silva, who lived in Rio de Janeiro between 1940 and 1947, or even the Brazilian artist Belmiro de Almeida, who created occasional geometric works ​​between 1908 and 1921. However, the first generation, which is alternatively called constructivist, concretist, or geometric has left historical marks created in different dates, in different countries. Ascânio’s vigor has always derived from the logic of mathematics and aesthetic emotions of form, thus indicating an affinity of certain sculptures with the Latin American tradition of “sensitive geometry.”

Ascânio’s political and intellectual trajectory includes his steadfast adherence to constructive canons in the 1960s. According to Lauro Cavalcanti, “Ascânio is an artist whose work combines a number of influences and central issues of Brazilian art in the last fifty years.”11 He could also be viewed in this way in relation to Latin American art. The consistency of Ascânio’s production raises countless historiographical discussions both new and unresolved, such as the way the second generation emerged in Brazil and Latin America, alongside a Cesar Paternosto, for example. Very little in the way of geometric abstraction identifiable with the surrealism or magical realism of countries like Mexico and Cuba was produced. Isolated artists working in countries with no solid constructive tradition included Mathias Goeritz in Mexico, Luis Martínez Pedro in Cuba, or Carmen Herrera in Puerto Rico. Except for Goeritz, the others still belong in the periphery with respect to Latin American history. In terms of Latin America, the watershed was the anthological exhibition Konkrete Kunst [Concrete Art] − organized in 1960 by Max Bill at the Helmhaus Museum in Zurich − that included dozens of Latin Americans and almost 20 Brazilian artists. Thus, in the history of 20th-century Brazilian art, Ascânio’s production should be placed in the context of two generations. It is necessary to understand his works as part of the chronological generation that emerged in the late 1960s around the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro − the headquarters of the Brazilian vanguard. Simultaneously, the sculptor was inscribed in the new historical cycle of constructive artists, to which he still belongs, who emerged in 1959, with neo-concretism and then the “Theory of the Non-Object.”

Besides producing postwar western concrete sculpture, Ascânio also studied the Russian constructive movements, including the use of wood in the works of El Lissitzky and Rodchenko. His arsenal of references comprises the development of an abstract-geometric language on a broader international scene through the collective Grupo Zero, the minimalist movement, and isolated sculptors. It also comprises specifically the white reliefs of singular artists such as Jean Arp, Hélio Oiticica, Victor Pasmore, Günther Uecker, Luis Tomasello and Jan Schoonhoven towards the late 1950s, with whose work Ascânio maintained a dialogue without resorting to Brazilian agents. Neither did he have a need for intermediaries in Rio de Janeiro. Ascânio’s history indicates that his roots lie in either neo-Concrete art or international art. Some Brazilians, including Ascânio himself, are coeval and simultaneous heirs of those visual values that disturbed European art.[12]

Geometric abstraction is the only form of art that Ascânio has never done.
The use of wood requires an understanding of Ascânio’s intellectual identification with the sculpture of Carl Andre, but the nature of the former’s production should not to be mistakenly viewed as having a minimalist perspective. The differences between Ascânio’s works and the metal sculptures of Anthony Caro and Kenneth Martin reveal that both the use of wood and the architectonic unconscious, of sociable nature, have secured for the Brazilian artist the mechanically-oriented modular logic that make him unique in the world scene. Formalism is always a trap that leads the gaze to careless comparisons and historical misconceptions. Ascânio’s constructive will is also informed by the sculptural imaginary and by its inscription not only in the history of Brazilian art, but in the history of Latin American and international art as well, with reviews by authors ranging from Albert Elsen and Sidney Geist to Margit Rowell, Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss.

The wealth of acclaim for Ascânio’s work includes the most active critics in the Rio de Janeiro press at the end of the 1960s, such as, for example, Francisco Bittencourt, Roberto Pontual, Jayme Maurício and Walmir Ayala. Aligned with the thinking of Henri Focillon, Mário Barata stressed Ascânio’s “ascetic elegance” and strongly implied “life of forms.”[13] Cited throughout this essay, Frederico Morais is the critic who, historically, has most closely followed Ascânio’s career.[14] After him, the names of Lygia Pape, Antonio Manuel, Aracy Amaral, Wilson Coutinho, Luiz Camilo Osório, Fernando Cocchiarale, Lauro Cavalcanti, Marcio Doctors, Paulo Sergio Duarte and others have been added to the list. In Portugal, Alexandre Pomar and João Pinharanda have also written about Ascânio’s work, revealing a different agenda from that of Brazilian critics.

The paradox the formalists face with respect to Ascânio’s work is that they deny the possibility of a more complex signification; furthermore, their reasoning does not include historical perspective. Their own opinion suffices, they can dispense with information on the history of the work. In turn, because of their bias against geometric shapes, non-formalists do not understand the substrata of meaning in the deeper layers of his sculpture. With this paradoxical distance between two extremes, Ascânio’s work ends up revealing the idiosyncrasies of segments of Brazilian criticism, their subordination to the market and their self-proclaimed contempt for historical rigor. These two positions lead to the conclusion that the critics should always check their operating hypotheses for stereotypes.

For nearly a decade, artists Ascânio MMM and Ronaldo do Rego Macedo worked together, in Rio de Janeiro, on the design of two curatorial programs. Having started at the headquarters of the Instituto dos Arquitetos do Brasil − IAB (1981-1982), later they moved their office to Galeria do Centro Empresarial Rio (1983-1989). Their curatorial programs launched pioneering exhibitions of works by Brazilian masters of constructive art, and followed up on the theme of two anthological shows held in Rio de Janeiro in the previous decade. At the IAB gallery, exhibitions featured works by Franz Weissmann, Ione Saldanha, Joaquim Tenreiro, Abraham Palatnik, in 1981, and by Maria Leontina, in 1982. The artists’ double objective with their curatorial programs, which included carefully designed catalogues, was to introduce art in the debate about architecture and urbanism, and train the gaze of architects, allowing them a more sophisticated outlook on modern visual culture.

In the Centro Empresarial Rio Galeria, the two curators held close to 60 exhibitions, including a program of geometric abstract art, featuring works by Aluísio Carvão, Rubem Ludolf, Lygia Pape, Joaquim Tenreiro, and Jackson Ribeiro. They also presented Abstração Geométrica with works by Amilcar de Castro, Ione Saldanha, Ivan Serpa, Lothar Charoux, Maria Leontina, Mário Silésio, Mira Schendel and other artists in the Gilberto Chateaubriand Collection. Another important exhibition was Expressão e Conceito / Anos 70 na Galeria Gilberto Chateaubriand presenting works by Artur Barrio, Carlos Zilio, Cildo Meireles, José Resende, Luiz Alphonsus, Milton Machado, Thereza Simões, Tunga, Waltercio Caldas and others. The program included solo exhibitions by emerging artists or artists with little visibility − such as João Modé, Sálvio Daré, Sandra Kogut, Cristina Canale, André Costa, Gonçalo Ivo, Jorge Barrão, Angelo Venosa, Daniel Senise and Katie van Scherpenberg. It also included group shows such as Novos Novos, with works by Adriana Varejão, Carla Guagliardi, Cristina Canale, Fernando Leite, Sandra Sartori and others; Brasil Hightech, featuring Eduardo Kac, Fernando Catta-Preta, Júlio Plaza, and Mário Ramiro among others; Novos Novos 88, presenting Brígida Baltar, Chang Chai, David Cury, Eduardo Frota, Franklin Cassaro, Márcia X, Ricardo Maurício and others, and Nova Escultura Gaúcha, with Elaine Tedesco, Gaudêncio Fidelis and José Francisco Alves. Exhibitions of architectural design, seldom organized in Brazil, were also held at that time. They included Tendências da Arquitetura Portuguesa with works by Portuguese architects Álvaro Siza, Manuel Vicente, Tomás Taveira and others. The consistency in programming kindled the discussions of the main aesthetic issues of the period, including the revival of painting in Brazil. That was an exemplary and continuing program of exposure of Brazilian art to discussion like no institution in Rio de Janeiro was able to match during that period.

“Mathematical logic“[15] often prevailed over poetic form in the so-called constructive projects in Brazilian art, though it seemed far from the precision preconized by Max Bill, according to whom art would convert invisible thought, and the abstract would become concrete, visible and graspable by the senses, creating “almost unimaginable axioms.”[16] The experimental confrontation with the unimaginable is precisely at the roots of Ascânio MMM’s poetics of modules. In Brazil, in the production of Concrete art such as that of the collective Grupo Ruptura, for instance, it was reasonable to invert the thinking, to think in imaginable axioms, such the subordination to two ideas: the “pure visibility” of Konrad Fiedler and the pre-Formism of Theo van Doesburg’s group. In 1930, the manifesto “The Basis of Concrete Art” issued by van Doesburg, Helion and others, stated, “The work of art must be fully conceived and spiritually shaped before it is produced.”[17] In São Paulo, Waldemar Cordeiro mirrored and refined this position when he advocated, in the “Manifesto Ruptura” (1952), an art that would operate “as a means of knowledge deducible of concepts, situating it above opinion and demanding it, for its review, a previous knowledge.” The claim of “Manifesto Ruptura” for mathematical transparency of form led some Concrete artists to slip into painted drawings, the mechanistic operation of the laws of perception in Gestalt terms, and the seductive illusionistic effects of Op Art − in other words, the preview is lost into predictability. However, in the case of Ascânio, mathematics, while a decisive element, was placed at the service of relations rooted in architectural language, from which a large part of his production was developed. To polish the constructive crystal is to organize the module in an order beyond the mechanics of perception, according to the Gestalt, and its usefulness for the architectural monument. Early on, Ascânio rejected mechanistic optical effects in favor of the phenomenology of perception. In the space between these two boundaries, the crystal shines, but the notion of corpus solidum, even if not discarded, should still give rise to a body in visual transit. If architecture is space, as Mário Pedrosa once defined it, then everything is more transparent, because Ascânio’s sculpture seems to come forth as time, space and the phenomenon of perception.

A careful analysis of Ascânio’s sculptural logic will reveal how, in his work, mathematics has always nurtured musings on the poetics of Number. Alain Badiou’s philosophical reflections further contribute to the elucidation of the sense of these poetics in Ascânio’s work. Unlike L. Brunschvicg in The Stages of Mathematical Philosophy,[18] in Number and Numbers [19] Badiou argues that “the three challenges to which a modern doctrine of number must address itself are those if the infinite, of zero and of the absence of any grounding by the One.” Sculpture performs the transition from the tridimensionality of modules to the two-dimensionality of the plane given by the perception of two phenomena: mathematics and light.

No matter the stage of his career, Ascânio’s sculpture has always evolved from its roots in architecture, on the logic, materials, space and aesthetic values​​ of which it thrives.
To discuss his work, therefore a rigorous historical methodology must also engage the theory of architecture. Two experiences from his childhood in Portugal should be remembered here: the Cangosta dos Godos in Fão, and the summerhouse in Ofir. In several instances, the ideas of Le Corbusier stimulated in a broad and deep fashion the agenda of Ascânio’s tridimensional work. The notion of organicity in architecture, the poetics of sensuality articulated with rationality, the modulation and human scale of architecture, as in the case of Modulor, are some of Le Corbusier’s values admitted into Ascânio’s sculpture. Some 1969 drawings appear to refer to the volumes designed by Marcel Breuer for the Whitney Museum of Art, opened in 1966 (see p. 110, 111). On the other hand, the melodic strength and the modular rhythm of certain of Ascânio’s sculptures precede dialogically the white architecture of Santiago Calatrava. Ascânio himself rejects the idea that he may have influenced the Spanish architect, as he believes that his work had not circulated widely enough internationally to merit such an impact. The use of aluminum, assumed by many to be the modern material of the 20th century, underpins the Ascânio’s structures, the theories of Buckminster Fuller, and the constructions of Mies van der Rohe. Small and hardly rationalist gestures of tying aluminum cross-sections together with wire evoke the ways the structures of reinforced concrete are assembled − a technology crucial to the renditions of daring designs in modern Brazilian architecture. Perhaps the pregnancy of this dense and elegant activation of the unconscious in Ascânio’s architectonic work emphatically justifies an architect as renowned as Norman Foster having acquired the relief work Quadrados 19 [Squares 19, 1968-2006] by the Brazilian artist for his private collection. This crossing of architectural spatial thinking in sculpture − besides the fact that they belonged in the MAM Generation and were close friends with Lygia Pape − is one of the reasons for the affinity of Lauro Cavalcanti’s criticism with Ascânio’s work.

One book in particular made an impact on Ascânio and defined the course of his work: Candilis, Josic, Woods: A Decade of Architecture and Urban Design [20] The writings on the three European urban architects provided Ascânio with the most extreme stimulus to ponder the relationship between sculpture and architecture. For months he “coveted” the Jürgen Joedicke book, flipping through its pages at the FAU bookstore, until December 1968, when he could afford to buy it – and he was thinking about his sculpture rather than architecture. From the images of floor plans, elevations, models and photographs of buildings presented in the book, Ascânio began to think in terms of certain drawings and sculptures. The graphic contact with the urban designs of Candilis, Josic and Woods led the artist to a better understanding of the spatial dimensions of tridimensional neo-Concrete art, and the creation of his sculptures clearly switched to a process of metabolizing architectural ideas. In the light of certain social aspects of architecture, Ascânio’s sculpture relates to that “essential abandonment” found in the works of architects he was interested in, like Affonso Eduardo Reidy and Carlos Nelson Ferreira dos Santos. [21] Because of the aesthetic and engineering solutions that he adopted for the project of the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro, Reidy – rather than Oscar Niemeyer, the designer of Brasília and the Pampulha complex – was the architect that artists of the same Rio de Janeiro generation as Ascânio most discussed. It is not just the MAM stairway informs Ascânio’s harmonious sculpture and his way of creating tension between the baroque and the neoclassical. The design of some of their socially oriented buildings was also consciously absorbed into Ascânio’s work, as for example the Albergue da Boa Vontade, which crosses Bauhaus and Art Deco, and the Pedregulho Housing Project, both built in Rio de Janeiro.

At the School of Architecture and Urbanism – FAU, Ascânio took lessons from Mário Pedrosa, a critic who nurtured the philosophical bases of neo-concretism and who best understood the prodigy of modern architecture in Brazil. Furthermore, the student’s gaze strived to better understand the architectural corpus of neo-concretism with architecture appearing in the works of Lygia Pape (Livro da Arquitetura [Book of architecture]), Lygia Clark (Construa Você Mesmo o Seu Espaço de Viver [Build your own living space], A Casa do Poeta [The house of the poet], and Abrigo Poético [Poetic shelter]), Franz Weissmann (Torre e Ponte  [Tower and Bridge]) and Hélio Oiticica (Núcleos [Nuclei] and Projeto Cães de caça [Hunting dogs project]). Ferreira Gullar spotted “the essential abandonment” in Amilcar de Castro’s work of cutting and folding sheet steel, because it dealt with “the condition of the aesthetic experience, both for the artist and the spectator.”[22]

 These facts illustrate Ascânio’s phenomenology. In 1983, he and Ronaldo Rego Macedo curated O Olho do Guará [Guará’s Eye], an exhibition of works by Lygia Pape at the Centro Empresarial Rio.  At that time, Pape was already far along in her discussion of constructive intelligence in the favelas (slums) which she used as classroom space for her classes in architecture at the University of Santa Ursula. The affinity between Pape and Ascânio, which emerged over the period of the project, was also consolidated around the social dimension of architecture in a country like Brazil.
The vulnerability of being demands shelter, the basic function of architecture from which Ascânio’s sculpture never strays because of its overlap with the urban planning of social action. In Heidegger’s view, the language is the shelter of being. Therefore, from the perspective of social space included as part of architecture, Ascânio’s work frequently favored the idea of a dialectic dimension in composition, which he honed when he found, and was swept along by, the work led by Carlos Nelson Ferreira dos Santos in the field of urban design in Rio de Janeiro. This surprising sense of the social responsibility of sculpture, which is derived from the practices of social architecture by Reidy and Carlos Nelson, is close to the concept of “architectonics” in Bakhtin. The Russian philosopher and semiotician advocated that art and life must assume mutual answerability, [23] a position dear to neo-concretism and the MAM Generation that juxtaposes Ascânio’s architectonic-sculpture – one in which sculptural form is not detached from architectonic imagination – and the aesthetic object that emerges in the process. The architectonic categories constituted in Ascânio’s cohesive corpus are constantly engaged in dialogue; after all, a Livro-Arquitetura is not alien to works as disparate as Flexos and Fitangulares. All his work is marked by an architectonic instance.

For more than four decades, starting in 1963 when he was an art student, Ascânio MMM’s production has remained consistent. His gaze was defined by his own architectonic-constructive logic polished as clearly as a crystal. The challenge of this essay, then, is to understand how Ascânio polished the crystal. His production still has problems with acceptance and understanding, but this is not very much different from what happens in general terms with Brazilian art.

The image of the crystal to refer to Ascânio’s work comes from the way in which Georges Vantongerloo, of the De Stijl group, described the purely rational form in art. By Vantongerloo’s canon, Max Bill’s topological sculpture Mobius Strip would be merely another “pure crystal,” not a sculpture. [24] This view of art as construction under a regime of pure reason of form was strictly reiterated by Waldemar Cordeiro when he wrote, “Content in art is a crystal, a real and visible ‘corpus solidum’.”[25] Transparency and structural planes predominate, as in Bichos by Lygia Clark or Objetos Espaciais [Spatial objects] by Hélio Oiticica. This logic of the crystalline form prevailed over most of Ascânio MMM’s trajectory, suffering a deliberate interruption and clashing with his more recent production as result of the way in which his poetics deals with logic. Ascânio’s consistent work proved to be a crystal that cannot be scratched, much less cracked.


1    BACHELARD, Gaston. “Dilemmas in the Philosophy of Geometry.” In: The New Scientific Spirit. Arthur Goldhammer (trans.). Foreword by Patrick A. Heelan. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984.

2    E-mail interview with José Belo. Fão, Novo Fangueiro, December 14, 2008. 

3    E-mail from the artist to the author on October 13, 2009. 

4    MONTEIRO, Ana Maria Ferreira da Costa. Professores de História: Entre Saberes e Práticas. Rio de

Janeiro: Mauad, 2007. 

5    BITTENCOURT, Circe Fernandes. Resenha (Review article), 2007. Available online in Porrtuguese at: http://www.educacao.  Accessed on September 25, 2011.  The author is a lecturer in the Graduate Program of the Universidade de São Paulo’s School of Education and in the graduate program Education: History, Politics and Society, at PUC/SP.

6    A similar attitude informed the writing of certain texts about his œuvre published in Ascânio MMM. Rio de Janeiro: Andrea Jakobsson Estúdio, 2005.

7    For this reason, the artist was selected for the exhibition Poética da Percepção: Questões da Fenomenologia na Arte Brasileira [Poetics of Perception: Questions of Phenomenology in Brazilian Art]. Rio de Janeiro: Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro, 2008.

8    This essay, however, will not discuss Ascânio’s architectural designs. 

9    E-mail from the artist to the author on July 28, 2010.

10     This term was borrowed from the exhibition and catalogue Projeto Construtivo Brasileiro na Arte, 1950-1962, Aracy Amaral (coord.). Rio de Janeiro-São Paulo: Museu de Arte Moderna-Pinacoteca do Estado, 1977.

11    CAVALCANTI, Lauro. “Ascânio MMM: the construction of the sculpture”. In: ASCÂNIO MMM (ed.). Ascânio MMM. Paulo Henriques Britto (trans.) Rio de Janeiro: Andrea Jakobsson Estúdio, 2005, p. 246.

12    See the catalogue of the exhibitions Le Relief held at the Galerie XXe Siècle, in Paris, 1960 and 1962. 

13    BARATA, Mário. “Uma introdução à escultura moderna no Brasil.” 1st Sesc Exhibition of Open-Air Sculpture. Rio de Janeiro: Sesc Tijuca, 1977, p. 11.  Barata was informed by Henri Focillon’s book The Life of Form in Art.

14    In: AMARAL, Aracy (org.). Projeto Construtivo Brasileiro na Arte (1950-1962). Rio de Janeiro-São Paulo: Museu de Arte Moderna-Pinacoteca do Estado, 1977.

15    BELLUZZO, Ana Maria. “Rupture and Concrete Art”. In: AMARAL, Aracy (ed.).  Constructive Art in Brazil: Adolpho Leirner Collection, São Paulo: Dórea Books and Art, 1998, p. 118.

16    BILL, Max. “The mathematical approach in contemporary art” [1949]. In: MALDONADO, Tomás. Max Bill. Buenos Aires: Nueva Visión, 1955, p. 37.

17    BALJEU, Joost and VAN DOESBURG, Theo. “The Basis of Concrete Art.” In: Theo van Doesburg. New York: Macmillan, 1974, p. 97.

18    BRUNSCHVICG, L. Les Étapes de la Philosophie Mathématique (1912). Paris: Blanchard, 1993.

19    BADIOU, Alain. Number and Numbers (1990). Robin Mackay (trans.). Cambridge: Polity, 2009, p. 13.

20    JOEDICKE, Jürgen. Candilis, Josic, Woods: a Decade of Architecture and Urban Design. James C. Palmes (trans.). Stuttgart-Bern: Karel Krämer Verlag, 1968.

21    Architect and anthropologist, author of books such as A Cidade Como Jogo de Cartas and Quando a Rua Vira Casa, the latter with other authors.

22    “Arte neoconcreta: uma contribuição brasileira.” In: AMARAL, Aracy (org.), Projeto Construtivo Brasileiro na Arte (1950-1962). Rio de Janeiro-São Paulo: Museu de Arte Moderna-Pinacoteca do Estado, 1977, p. 127. Translated for this edition.

23    BAKHTIN, Mikhail. “Art and Answerability” (1919). In: Early Philosophical Essays by M. Bakhtin. Vadim Liapunov and Kenneth Brostom (trans.). Houston: The University of Texas Press, 2011, p. 1.

24    Cf. RICKEY, George. Constructivism, Origins and Evolution. New York: George Braziller, 1967, p. 146.

25    RAMIREZ, Mari Carmen and OLEA, Héctor. Building on a Construct: The Adolpho Leirner

Collection of Brazilian Constructive Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Houston: Museum Fine Arts Houston, 2010, p. 271.

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