The road to before

Jacopo Crivelli Visconti

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2011

They are going to demolish this house.

But my room will remain

Not in this, its imperfect form,

in this world of appearances:

it will dwell in eternity,

with its books, its paintings,

intact, suspended in the air,

Manuel Bandeira, Última canção do beco.



When José Bechara was still just a painter, a review by art critic Wilson Coutinho closed with an image to describe his work that might as well have been a premonition: “The wall, that something that closes, encloses and blocks (…). The wall that is both a barrier and protection, and yet becomes something that falls short.”[1] In his essay, Coutinho referred to walls as the physical supports of painting, surfaces in which paintings create apertures, windows to a “Cosmos far beyond us, one that is surely outside the walls.” It is nevertheless interesting to note how, four years before that seminal experience in Faxinal, José Bechara’s work already elicited architectural musings. At about roughly the same time, Rem Koolhaas, recalling his first trip to Berlin, described a deserted city dominated by an omnipresent wall, a wall that could not however be considered architecture per se, since it was essentially a void, an absence. Koolhaas’s city was a metaphysical landscape reminiscent of a painting by De Chirico, where time dilates and shrinks: “As if time is an accordion – a Disney archeology – all of its successive manifestations seem simultaneously present in this deserted city (Holiday? Exile? Atomic threat?)”[2] The concept of flexible time, time that is ultimately perhaps even reversible, was in all other aspects coherent with Koolhaas’ fundamental discovery in Berlin: it is not East Berlin that is imprisoned, but the West, the “open society”. In my imagination, stupidly, the wall was a simple, majestic north- south divide; a clean, philosophical demarcation; a neat, modern Wailing Wall. I now realize that it encircles the city, paradoxically making it “free”.[3] While hardly surprising to those acquainted with German geography, Koolhaas’s “discovery” is curiously evocative of Wilson Coutinho’s description of the wall, by nature “both limiting and protective”, imbued with evident, undeniable metaphorical power: the flight from the socialist to the capitalist regime becomes an escape inwards, like a lion desperately trying to enter a cage. Koolhaas’ city, in emblematic postmodern fashion, becomes abstract and intangible, a paradox according to which times goes in all directions and the wall frees just as it imprisons. And while surreal, the city is nevertheless ideally apprehensible: Koolhaas’ Berlin exists fully and exclusively somewhere in our imagination, like Manuel Bandeira’s room in his poem Última canção do beco.

José Bechara’s cubes, despite the evident physicality of the sculptural groups they belong to,[4] and in spite of the almost sensual character of its materials, are also above all intellectual constructs, primarily because they can be seen simultaneously from all sides, a quality that, among others, both Jean Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty described as pertaining exclusively to imagination. In Sartre’s words, Consider the example of a cube: I do not know it is a cube unless I have seen its six faces; I can possibly see three together, but never more (…) When, on the other hand, I think of a cube by a concrete concept, I think of its six sides and its eight angles at the same time…[5] José Bechara’s cubes are clearly both cubes and drawings of cubes at the same time, and thus one of the more recent and natural products of this trend is the Esculturas Gráficas (Graphic Sculptures) series. The series’ title given to cubes and other emptied-out shapes stresses their dual nature, physical and graphic, tangible and intangible, one with matter and weight, the another a reality of the mind. Regardless of the variations that Bechara introduced in his sculptural experiences over the past few years, changes in scale, color, materials and finishes have only served to heighten the fact that the core of his work, the thread that guarantees its continuity and coherence, resides elsewhere. Ample proof of this is found in pictures taken of his 2004 exhibition A Casa (The House) at the Rio de Janeiro Museum of Modern Art: the piece’s monumental scale is practically a contradiction in itself. A Casa is enveloped in darkness and devoid of people like an architectural model, and thus becomes an object that most closely resembles an abstract concept, an idea, brought into the physical world. A house devoid of authentic doors or windows, with mere openings instead on a few of its sides, it puts the observer, according to Delfim Sardo, in a condition akin to “Gulliver’s arrival at Lilliput: we cannot enter, we cannot cross the change in scale, nor understand the inside of these tiny buildings.”[6] But there is, perhaps, another role for such an absence, another “reason for not being”: what we have here is an idea, the house as a universal concept, one that must therefore re- main conscious and programmatically rid of any particular traits. Doors and windows would be needless concessions; they would contaminate the purity of the house that must be winnowed down to its most basic elements of intelligibility, in other words, in this case, no more than the primordial shape of the cube.

Both José Bechara’s solid cubes and the other more ethereal, skeleton cubes, are in fact developments of the primordial house, where it all began. Its story is by now well known. José Bechara was in the city of Faxinal, by himself in his studio, unable to paint. He then transformed a simple country house into a huge installation, giving free reign to something that retrospectively seems to have always been an element of temptation latent in his work: an aspiration that conspires, beyond painting, towards sculpture. Bechara reached the decisive moment in the process when he lifted up tables and chairs leaving them precariously balanced, as if they were hurriedly fleeing the house and leaning outwards looking at the night, which, in Bechara’s own words, had only just begun to press against the windows. The suspended objects have indisputable visual impact, made all the more potent through Bechara’s various repetitions of the motif in different sizes. They are part of a process that Bechara describes as form of sublimation of internal threats, tensions and struggles present in every house, that the furniture tries to escape: It is a ghost house, it is a nest, a place that preserves the individual, that protects him or her, that offers the opportunity for protection.. But protection from what? From its surroundings, from external threats… but, in fact, the house speaks of internal, not external threats…[7] Special attention must be given to this inversion in the house’s symbolic meaning (that is, from shelter to place of conflict) which is not new in itself, but because symbolic inversion is a method that Bechara so often uses in his work. Bechara’s symbolic inversions come in many guises: in some cases they are tarps taken off the backs of trucks; the more thoroughly used, battered, spent and stained, the “newer” and more stimulating they are for the artist in him. In other words by subverting the use of tarpaulins, taking them out of the realm of practical use and into the world of aesthetics, physical traits become precisely the opposite of what they are: wear and tear and stains, especially, become positive attributes. Bechara described the sudden epiphany that he experienced when saw a truck driver washing a tarpaulin, “it was… a painting in reverse, that began backwards from the end.”[8] Evidently, the procedure, or his gaze, is analogously present in his other series, the paintings in which he uses animal skins for support, or works in which he intervenes through oxidized layers on glass and canvases. What José Bechara in fact does in all instances is to take a path that can be described as a road to before, through a subtle, practically imperceptible inversion of the natural aging process. In Bechara’s paintings and in his installations that employ oxidation, tarps and animal skins become frozen instants of a process that stresses a change of state and thus the passage of time itself; he reverses the direction of time, if it were possible to conceive of such a thing.

Reviewers of Bechara’s work have noted in some of his pieces a conceptual and formal affinity with Hélio Oiticica and Gordon Matta-Clark, among others. The afore- mentioned points would suggest associating Bechara’s work to that of another artist from that same generation: Raymundo Colares. In his well-known series of paintings depicting trucks’ frames, Colares, like Bechara, used various supports, sometimes in different planes which were able to freeze the vehicles without stopping them, without making them linear or comprehensible: one could even say that Colares’ vehicles come and go in all directions. In much the same way, Bechara employs materials whose duration in time is also a two-way street, in which everything advances and recedes based on the work of art’s unique and immobile time. And if everything advances and recedes, and if inversions are one of the few constant elements in a body of work that reinvents itself from time to time with profound and surprising reversals, and whose coherence is revealed gradually even to the artist’s own eyes, then it may not be too bold to imagine that, for an instant, the chairs, tables, beds and all the other furniture, despite current interpretation, are not fleeing outwards, but into the house, like refugees of the socialist regime in Berlin. In other words, to imagine that José Bechara provides us with a film frame of a movie that runs, unnaturally, backwards, or even in both directions, precisely like Rem Koolhaas’ accordion time. It is an exercise of the imagination that one cannot do without when discussing José Bechara’s work. And although it is an arbitrary exercise, it allows us to reevaluate the importance of the social or anthropological interpretations of the series that followed the installation at Faxinal. Bechara himself, describing it with deceptive simplicity and straight forwardly, stressed his interest his piece’s formal aspects and its clear and direct impact: This project is not “social art” nor is it “psychological art”. It is an attempt to work with aesthetic elements, reconstructing and creating formal tension (…). We naturally recognize familiar objects that fill our homes – mattresses, tables and benches – they are shapes and reductively geometric or geometricizing shapes. For example, a bench is commonly made up of a circle or square on top of usually vertical lines; mattresses are rectangles.[9] In other words, it is clear that Bechara’s work is dense and complex enough to show various levels of interpretation, and among them surely there is a meditation on the intimate meaning of residence. One cannot provide a measure of Bechara’s interest in the aesthetic motif of the house, whether it is merely a simple cube, whether with the conventional gabled roof of the series Externo e interno (Internal and External), Ar (Air) and Casa do Futuro (House of the Future). In this sense, to reduce these works to a reflection on the house as a symbolic place, a space for a Bachelardian daydream or consumer dream of the Brazilian middle class would be equally reductive of the many paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire were they ascribed to Cézanne’s love of nature and to an ecological militancy ante litteram.[10]

This interpenetration of various themes, the way in which things are layered over each other both in Bechara’s work and in the interpretations of his work, is, in all other res- pects, another constant trait of his. Beyond its marked differences, his work seems to base itself quite frequently on a binary matrix, on a fundamental duality. Just as with his inversions, this does not mean there is a single predominant dichotomy, but that Bechara’s works are frequently created through relations of opposition. Such is the case, for example, of the Ar (Air) series of drawings, in which houses, with their simple geometry and schoolbook typology, clash with an organic stain, a deep watery ultramarine blue, a stain given all the traits of dreams rather than reality. The same contrast has been noted in Bechara’s other works, between life impregnating tarps and oxidations on perfect lines, all identical, (and it cannot be mere chance that they remind us so closely, in some cases, of Daniel Buren’s lines, Buren also searched for a painting that was the most impersonal and automatic possible.)[11] This is also true of cattle skins, inherently full of life and yet they appear in José Bechara’s work always cut up in squares or rectangles, highly abstract, pure and geometric shapes. It is also true of his recent Gelosias series, in which oxidations make glass alternatively transparent and opaque. The clash is present, of course, in the small sculptures of the Open House series, its solid cubes juxtaposed with, touching and leaning on skeleton cubes. Ultimately, perhaps the purest of the series, in which the artist’s efforts seem to be channeled entirely in a single meaningful direction, are the drawings en- titled collectively O Outro (The Other). In those vases, jars and practically Morandian bottles, of monastic simplicity and austerity, we discover in Bechara a rather different artist, and no accident it is an ‘other’, as determined in its title, always so appropriate and pertinent. O Outro which, like many other titles was probably inspired in writings [12] and which almost ratifies, definitively, that José Bechara’s work takes place in a struggle between the matter, so vibrant and alive, of his paintings and sculptures, with the words, sentences and ideas that the works themselves inspire.



[1] COUTINHO, Wilson. “A ação – pesos densos”, article included in the exhibition catalog José Bechara, Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, 1998, currently also available at http://www. in translation as “The Action – José Bechara, dense weights.”

[2] O.M.A.; KOOLHAS, Rem; MAU, Bruce. S, M, L, XL. New York: Monacelli Press, 1995, p. 219

[3] Ibid, p. 216

[4] Here I refer to the Open House series. Most of its pieces are composed of solid cubes with openings from which emerge small, stylized models of furniture such as beds, chairs and ta- bles, and a skeleton cube structure made of 12 edges.

[5] SARTRE, Jean-Paul. The Imaginary. New York: Routledge, 2004, p. 8 (1st. ed. 1940) Also see MERLEAU-PONTY, Maurice. “Le cinéma et la nouvelle psychologie”, a talk given in 1945 and published in Sens et non-sens. Paris: Nagel, 1966, p. 91. The same concept is present in art criticism, see KRAUSS, Rosalind. Caminhos da escultura moderna. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2001, p.22.

[6] SARDO, Delfim. “Blefuscu – 6 points on the work of José Bechara”, article included in the book Blefuscu.

[7] “Nightfall against Window Panes” an interview with José Bechara, by Glória Ferreira, in the book Blefuscu.

[8] Text in the book Blefuscu.

[9] BECHARA, José. A casa – José Bechara. Rio de Janeiro: Barléu, 2006, p. 8.

[10] This observation draws inspiration from the article/interview by Paulo Reis, translated as “Deambulations about qualities”(In José Bechara – desenhos, como piscada de vaga-lume, Rio de Janeiro: Réptil, 2010, p. 223), in which the author suggests that Bechara relates to the house in much the same manner that Cézanne was moved by the mountain, and Bechara admits it: “…yes, it is my mountain.”

[11] Marilyn Zeitlin’s article “José Bechara: Breaking but not entering”, included in this book, mentions a “contrast between order and chaos” and “ambivalence”.

[12] In this case, a passage from Fernando Cochiarale’s article whose title (translated as “Firefly Flashes, an Adventure in Oz, and the Drawings of José Bechara”) evidently also inspired the title of the book José Bechara – Desenhos, como piscada de vaga-lume. Another example is the reference to the island of Blefescu, mentioned in Delfim Sardo’s article that lent its title to this book.