How does a New York gallery justify six-figure pricetags for work by artists that even seasoned collectors are unlikely to know? That’s a question currently facing dealers of art from Brazil, where the market has been internally strong for decades but is only now starting to catch on in other parts of the world.
The influential Swiss and American gallery Hauser & Wirth is among those dealers promoting mid-century Brazilian art in New York with its new exhibition “Sensitive Geometries”—a show that organizer Olivier Renaud-Clément called a market “experiment.”
The exhibition of abstract work from postwar-era Brazil, which ranges in price from $15,000 to more than $1 million, omits many of the most recognizable names from the region, such as Neo-Concrete stars Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticica. Instead, the gallery is focusing on figures that remain largely unknown in the U.S., such as metalworker Franz Weissmann—“probably the most famous sculptor in Brazil,” according to Renaud-Clement—and painter Joao Jose Costa, whose work Latin American art advisor Anna Di Stasi says she has “never seen in New York.”
The issue is probably not aesthetic. Heavily influenced by the European Constructivist movement, Brazilian art from the 1950s to the 1980s operates within a modern visual language of clean lines, blocks of color, and rigid symmetry that’s easily accessible to American audiences who have come in contact with minimal work from the U.S. and Europe. (Much of Brazilian art from this period, it bears mentioning, is also décor-friendly). Instead, the lack of familiarity with the genre seems to stem from a century of Eurocentrism at mainstream museums and, perhaps, “a lack of curiosity in the world,” as Renaud-Clement put it.
The Hauser & Wirth show is “an introduction for many of their collectors,” said Di Stasi, a former Latin American specialist at Christie’s. “It takes time for people to get comfortable with the idea that a completely unknown figure is worth a quarter of a million dollars. They think, ‘If it’s so important why didn’t I know about it?’ It doesn’t happen immediately, but the awareness is getting much greater, and prices are showing that.”
In May, for example, Phillips set Lygia Clark’s record at $2.2 million, more than quadruple its previous standing. And Mira Schendel, whose work Di Stasi says she had a “very difficult time” selling even at bargain-basement prices of $2,000 to $5,000 ten years ago, now routinely sells for six figures at auction. Next week, a set of Schendel’s five earthy watercolors will hit the block for an estimated $110,000 at Christie’s London.
Brazil exported $27 million worth of art last year, an increase of 350 percent since 2007, according to a recent report from Latitude, an alliance of galleries promoting Brazilian art abroad. After, SP-Arte and ArtRio, the study ranks Art Basel Miami Beach as the most lucrative fair, and the city will likely see an even bigger influx of Latin American art this year with the debut of the new Brazil ArtFair, which will bring 40 Brazilian galleries to Miami in December.
Institutions, too, are taking strides to educate viewers on Brazil's influential geometric art movements (and Latin American art more broadly). Schendel currently has an exhibition up at the Tate Modern, which also surveyed Oiticica’s career in 2007, and Lygia Clark is the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art next year, where the Latin American art patron Estrellita Brodsky endowed a curatorial post dedicated to art from the region in 2006. Meanwhile, contemporary Brazilian art stars like Vik Muniz, Cildo Miereles, and Ernesto Neto have staged major exhibitions around the globe, drawing copious attention to the country's art.
“Slowly, major museums in Europe and the U.S. have begun curating retrospectives with figures that are very common names in Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico,” Di Stasi said. “I think we’re going to be having a very different conversation in ten years.”