Material Immaterial

Prof. Dr. Beate Reifenscheid

Koblenz, Germany, 2015.
Text written for the catalogue of the exhibition “Squares and Patterns”, from José Bechara, in Koblenz, Germany, 2015-2016. Translated by Lis H. Moriconi.


During recent years, José Bechara has continuously practiced the deconstruction of his painting, always embarking on new paths. He became well-known as a constructivist painter whose roots are both in the European avantgarde – in the De Stijl movement that was initiated by Piet Mondrian, in Kandinsky’s Cercle et Carré circle (which united many currents in the Paris of the 1930s, including that of the Bauhaus masters) and just as much in the Constructivismo that was implemented after the Second World War in Brazil through its main protagonists Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica and others. The connecting lines with Europe, especially Germany and France, are visible everywhere.

“The parallels between the German group and the Brazilian movement of the Neoconcretistas – to which Lygia Clark and Palatnik belonged – can,” as emphasised by Van den Valentyn, “be overcome in the prevailing artistic languages: Art Informel in Europe and Concrete Art in Brazil. […] The [Geometria Sensível (Sensitive Geometry)] clearly appears in the Concrete works of Lygia Clark or Hélio Oiticica. However, it can also easily be found in all of the Brazilians who dared to advance into geometric abstraction and exercised a strong influence on the Brazilian and Latin American art of the first half of the 20th century and even those artists who actually rejected this more sensitive side.”[i]

Paris was initially an important melting pot up until the Second World War broke out and even for a short time afterward because currents from Russia, Germany and the USA mixed here. Starting in the early 1950s, this also involved influences from Asia. Above all, the Swiss artist Max Bill – who already exhibited in Brazil during the 1950s – and the artists Heinz Mack, Günther Uecker and Otto Piene – who were active in Germany and triggered a movement with their founding of ZERO, which very quickly operated on an international level – play an important role in the development of Brazilian art. In this process, the artistic interests of an emerging constructive, concrete form language were mixed with that of the kinetically active artists.

Brazil’s most important artist within kinetic art, Abraham Palatnik, was the first to create mobile objects. However, it was initially very difficult for them to gain recognition. On the other hand, Lucio Fontana – who was active during the same time – was capable of achieving considerably more attention with his concetto spaziale in Europe. Yet, there was an enormous spirit of optimism – inspired by the economic emergence of Brazil – during the 1950s that had a transformational effect on art. The outstanding achievements of Oiticica’s and Clark’s positions are the penetration of the abstract geometrical form on the basis of a dynamic and simultaneously playful approach to form, area and space. Despite all of the rationality, this gives them something light and poetically floating at the same time. Lygia Clark understood her art as objetos sensoriais, as virtually living organisms “that receive form and meaning when the viewer’s body enters into a relationship with them.” In this process, it is extremely important to her that her objects are grasped in the truest sense of the word: that they are touched and changed. The sensation on the part of the viewer is actually based on the simple and simultaneously fascinating experience of personally transferring the work into a changed form with minimal movements. “She even includes the experience of a time span in her interactive conceptions. As a result, her art becomes a subjective experience within the arrangement of a context. Among other ways, she expresses this aspiration by calling her works of art “offers”[ii] and she considers the viewers to be “participants”[iii].

José Bechara takes up different ends of these complex developments, whereby two aspects are especially striking: his preference for geometry and great interest in processes, which can also evade the artist’s ultimate influence. When he initially starts like a classic painter, at first glance this may seem to be because he uses a reduced form language that is obligated to Concrete Art in the widest sense of the word. The square picture form, the strict line formations, the moving of the pendulum between picture forms that are freely abstract and geometrically penetrated in a linear way makes an essential contribution to this. However, it also becomes clear that his focus is always on a penetration of the space and the comprehending of its dimensions in the perception. The concrete and non-concrete are based directly on the level of possibility perspectives. So the seeing of his sculptures is always also intended to be a challenge to go beyond the apparent limitations of the work.

Bechara further amplifies this momentum by increasingly applying colours, pigments and metal particles to the canvas that change over the course of time and are therefore directly subjugate the appearance of the works to this process. Metal and paint amalgate with each other. They release traces of rust that stick to the surface. The look and feel of his work oscillates between the precise rationality of closely set stripes, clearly measured picture surfaces and the virtuoso power of colour combinations that evoke new spaces. The painterly texture of the rusting surfaces develops an effective force that gives evidence of weathering, the ageing process and velvety colourfulness.

There is a correspondence between traces of time and the potential for expansion within them, which is based in the colour itself. How strong this difference actually is becomes visible precisely where the picture surface that has been divided into lines encounters the same picture size that dispenses with stripes or grids. Instead, it is only lined by the traces of weathering and minimal colour modulations. With the chemical reactions of the oxidation, José Bechara brings the essential aspect of time into his art – in addition to constructive and colouristic references – because this inevitably manifests the subjugation to the process of change. Nothing remains as it is but there is a sense of the transitory and what does not permanently remain, which occasionally turns the unstable into the sustaining category of his concept. For their part, these imponderables refer time and again to the old masters of Brazilian Constructivismo, especially the already cited Sensitive Geometry. However, the material properties of Corten steel – the particles of which the artist includes in his painting – tend to be more closely connected with sculpture in the field of art. During the 1960s, Corten steel was considered by artists as material because it replaced the elaborate, expensive bronze. In addition, it could be used in much larger dimensions for artistic sculptures. The American Richard Serra was one of the first who propelled his sculpture to monumental size. Artists such as Eduardo Chillida, Tony Cragg, Werner Pokorny and others formulated new forms it in time and again, using both its static presence and the painterly look and feel of the rusty colour combination.

While Corten steel is almost automatically associated with sculpture, it is extremely rare to find it within painting. In the course of including a variety of different materials and their properties – such as those used by Mario Merz, Jannis Kounellis, Günther Uecker to Penone and Anselm Kiefer – the rusting patina of the steel also finds its new purpose within painting. José Bechara draws on the processual and painterly possibilities by bringing together steel and canvas, metal dust and paints that even still include some old materials. These are transformed into a painterly identity transformed, which virtually develop and unfold through time. Bechara formulates an almost subversive variability, yet this is not triggered by the viewer, but solely by the picture itself. This seems to be unnoticeably assimilated with the space in which it was created (Rio) and potentially also with the place of exhibition, where the change continues to progress. But even more than the constructive concept, the possibilities of the additional materials are what José Bechara explores time and again. Starting in 2002, the occupation with space increasingly became visible on his horizon in his installations such as The House or Ok, Ok Let’s Talk (2006).

In contrast to the largely classic sculptures (such as Full, 2010), Bechara uses objects and materials that exist in the real world and are subject to concrete applications. The square and cube are equally retained as the fundamental principles of form, even though the artist completely removes them from their actual function and transforms them into a visible and physical state of almost painful instability and uselessness: A house that is bursting apart, as well as a table and chair arrangement that has become unusable – because it is completely distorted. And yet, the visual power is found in the energetically charged dynamic that spits its inner fire and magma like a volcano. Nevertheless: Nothing winds up in disorder, and nothing slips into chaos. Instead, this is also further evidence of Bechara’s nuanced playing with the possibilities of gravity and breaking of viewing habits. There is a temptation here to see a contextual closeness to Erwin Wurm (The House), which does not entirely pan out. However, a parallel can certainly be drawn with François Morellet, the grand master of geometrical instability. Not least because both of them put their humorous esprit into the works. Quite rightly[iv], Marilyn A. Zeitlin talks about Bechara in terms of “a sculpture experience”[v]. As postulated at the start, the dissolution of the painting is continued in the newer works in which Bechara deals with glass. It was still a carrier and participant in his painterly conceptions at the beginning, whereby the Gelosia created in 2010 plays a key role. On a number of large-format glass plates – which he leans staggered behind and next to each other on the wall – the artist formulates horizontal stripes of rust emulsion and acrylic paint. The strict geometrical arrangement of the stripes, their staggering and the painterly expansion of the diffuse colour combination are once again interlaced in an irritatingly sensual manner. Another factor is the reflections on the glass surfaces, which partially mirrors the space and in which viewers can also experience themselves as reflections, as well as the transparency of the glass. Although the latter is visible, its permeability has a strong aesthetic effect. Within this context, it inevitably calls to mind Gerhard Richter and his magnificent glass works – especially Eight Grey of 2001. Time and again, Richter has explored the effective force of this transparent and yet simultaneously solid material in relation to his painting – not least also at the Cologne Cathedral. For Richter, there is a much stronger focus “on this fascination with the ambivalent appearance of colour as a means of representation and as an amorphous material”(vi). However, many factors occur in Bechara that clearly differentiate him from Richter. On the one hand, he is always concerned with the relatedness of space: the interaction between the concretely defined space and the space that is constituted by visually perceiving it. The object – the sculpture or glass work itself – proves itself in its solid composition, only to be irritatingly evasive at the same time.

In this process, the new glass works involve not only the colour itself but increasingly its renunciation due to the use of the material’s own diffusion of surface and space. This haptic virtually derails into the non-haptic, includes the space behind and in front of it but without itself determining it. Space latently mutates into surface and vice versa. The references are no longer clear and this is precisely the irritation for which Bechara strives. It is his reflection on time and space through questioning what may be regarded as a verified perception – but without the real things simultaneously reflecting the entire complexity of reality. With this approach, he continues with what has inspired the artists of Constructivismo in their enthusiasm for euphoria and belief in progress: playing with the mobile, rational form that sets itself in motion and is moved by others in a virtuoso embodiment of lightness and flexibility. This is still latently present in Bechara.

However, a minor chord also occurs in the musical scores of his works, which are characterised by bursting forces, dreams of infinity, forms of possibilities and a latent dissolution and revocation of laws. He has caused the painting to do this in two regards: In the transformation through the metal emulsion (changeability of the painterly surface in the temporal process) and the detachment of painting with the glass that increasingly highlights the space without itself being painting). In this sense, José Bechara pursues an elimination of painting in the proper meaning of the word. Bechara’s atelier in Rio is located on a hill, not far from the famous Mount Corcovado with the Cristo Redentor on its peak, the monumental statue of Christ that towers over Rio in blessing and represents its own trendy neighbourhood. Here, in Santa Teresa, little boutiques alternate with nice restaurants and are interspersed by many residential buildings. Sometimes they are renovated and styled, and sometimes they are doomed to their demise. It is a quarter with much charm, but the interaction of the social differences, the great chasm between the poor and rich, the brutal traces of time that show the city’s ups and downs seem much more important here. As so frequently in this city, this results in the unimaginable vistas that are created by the hilly tectonics on the Atlantic front of this interaction between the wide horizon and the density of the settlements. This changes between the grey of the city – which occasionally appears “spruced up” due to more recent splashes of colour on the renovated house facades – and the calming blue of the sky and sea. It reflects the differences of social structures, between beauty and decline, between hope and demise. Bechara’s works testify to constant transformation, and simultaneously have their roots in the intellectual climate of his country. However, he counters the disturbing imprisonment in structures that appear to hardly be changeable with the transitory and lucid character of his art through a new experiential horizon that promises opening and expansiveness.


[i] Beate Reifenscheid José Bechara Material – Immaterial
[ii] Annalice Del Vecchio, Kinetische Kunst: ohne zeitliche oder räumliche Grenzen (Kinetic Art: Without Temporal or Spatial Boundaries), see:
[iii] 8
[iv] ibidem 9
[v] Marilyn A. Zeitlin, José Bechara. “Breaking but not entering” in: José Bechara, Belfuscu, Santiago de Compostella, Arte Dardo, 2008, p. 197.