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In a pale lavender blouse under a gray blazer, Beatriz Milhazes is a portrait in understatement. Soft-spoken and with a bonnet of brown curls, she might be a docent or an art teacher on a class tour. But the bustle of museum handlers orbiting around her today and the scrum of reporters and television crews stalking the corridors of the Rio de Janeiro gallery quickly shatter the idyll.
"As a plastic artist you never think you're going to be in the spotlight," Milhazes tells The Daily Beast on a recent morning in Rio de Janeiro. We have fled the crowded gallery showcasing her career to a quiet room on the top floor of the Paço Imperial, a 18th century palace converted to a museum in downtown Rio. This is the last in a series of interviews for the week, and Milhazes is savoring the rare moment of quiet. "Now I guess it's part of my life."
Judging from the reception in Rio, and beyond, that is unlikely to change anytime soon. For the last two decades, Milhazes has been quietly raising the bar for the Latin American art world. More recently, her paintings have shattered auction records, floored critics, and mobilized dealers and curators from Tokyo to Chicago. In 2009, the Paris based Fondation Cartier dedicated an exhibit to Milhazes. She represented Brazil at the 2003 Venice Biennalle. She designed a wall mural for the restaurant at the Tate Modern and was commissioned to create 19 separate vaulted panels for the Gloucester Road station of the London Underground.
Fortune has followed fame. Her 2001 canvas O Mágico (The Magician), a bold work of deep blues and flying geometric shards, was an art house sleeper for years until Southeby's sold it in 2008 for $1,049,000, at three times the floor price. In June of last year, O Elefante Azul (The Blue Elephant) auctioned for $1.5 million at Christies and in November, her picture Meu Limão (My Lemon), fetched $2.1 million at Southeby's, a record for a living artist from Latin America. "She is a leading talent, and a huge influence," says art dealer Ivor Braka. "There can't be many examples Latin American artists who have impacted people's minds and on markets that the way she has."
The money trail is only one way to plot Milhazes' career. Working from the same modest studio in Rio's arbored Botanical Gardens neighborhood, she has spent the last three decades honing her craft. Fiercely single minded, she has painted through the market hype and the stream of visitors who have turned her atelier into a tourist shrine, turning out 11 or 12 pictures a year. Collectors are willing to wait 18 months or more for a new canvas.
Her rise has been described as meteoric, but that is hardly the case. "My overnight success took 30 years," she likes to say, in a gentle takedown of the hyperventilating art market. "I used to have to go abroad to find collectors and curators. Now they come to the studio. My isolation is gone!"
For those interested in looking at the pictures behind the buzz, the sweep of her work is in full force in the Rio exhibit, a rare homecoming for the wandering artist. The show, Meu Bem (My Dear), which runs through October 27, is a retrospective of her career since 1989, featuring 60 paintings and collages, created out of crochet, lace and silk screens and acrylic paint. Displayed chronologically, each canvas is a starburst of shapes and colors, gathering intensity over the years.
The visual vortex begins even before you reach the main exhibition, as visitors are drawn into the museum rotunda to her giant mobile titled Gamboa 1—a cataract of baubles, orbs, stars, mandalas and cubes tumbling 30 feet from the skylight. Milhazes conceived the piece years ago as a stage prop for her sister, a noted Rio choroegrapher, dangling the sparkling ornaments just above the dancers' heads. Later, with the help of a famous designer of Carnival floats, she rescaled it as ceiling-to-floor museum installation, transposing the sequined cadences of samba to sculpture.
Inside the gallery, each of the paintings on display has a fissile power of its own. Modinha (Little way) is a storm of arabesques, circles overlapping circles, and horizontal stripes, rendered in a brilliant tropical palette. Tempo de verão (Summer weather) is an eruption of Pop Art-styled stars, hearts and flowers gushing from glowing red and orange beams. The fashion designer Christian Lacroix once called her work a visual Big Bang. Milhazes herself celebrates in the chaos and "claustrophobia" of her works, many of which occupy entire walls.
The colors are rich and riotous, but the impact is complex and disorienting. I took my eight-year-old to the show, and she skipped through the five separate galleries as if on a sugar rush. Critics shoebox Milhazes as a decorative painter at their peril. "Sometimes people just don't get her. Or they like her work almost for the wrong reasons, because they see it as facile or pretty," says Braka. "In fact, her work is stunningly beautiful. And it's not a la mode to be beautiful."
One of the tropes about Milhazes style is that she is quintessentially Latin American. After all, her paintings at a glance are as big, as noisy and as over-the-top as Brazil itself. Her use of radiant primary colors and rudimentary looking shapes—circles, flowers, mandalas and stripes—flirts with tropical kitsch. "Sitting in gray, overcast London, you can perceive her work as delivering something we could hope for from Latin America," says Tanya Barston, a curator at the Tate Modern. "As soon as I went to Rio I felt I could understand her work. Her studio is in the botanical gardens. The city of Rio emerges from forest, with exquisite tropical flora and fauna. There is incredible visual pleasure there."
But that is partly an optical illusion. In Brazil, Milhazes says, serious contemporary artists steered clear of color, the use of which they associated with folk crafts and "low art." That's why so much of Brazilian modernism was done in drab, muted tones. Milhazes broke the rules, threw open the blinds and put color on steroids. Her canvases radiate shimmering gold and silver, burning orange, throbbing blues and even fluorescent green. "Color is frightening. Especially green, which has always been a stumbling block for painters. I love it," she says.
Milhazes eludes tidy stereotypes even as she toys with them. She took the elements of pattern and decoration, a movement once dismissed as frivolous by art critics, and set them on a deliberate collision course. "She's addressing you bodily," says Barston. "There is a joyfulness and positivity there, but it's wrongly interpreted as simplistic. She stands somewhere between tradition and carnival. There are a lot of other things going on in her painting," she adds.
What distances Milhazes from the Latino cartoon is her willingness to trample boundaries and help herself to what the world serves up. And that in itself is a sensibility rooted in Brazil, a New World culture cooked up—like the national dish, feijoada—from scraps and flavors taken from just about everywhere.
One of her most visible influences is the work of Matisse, from which she learned to appreciate painterly issues of scale and composition. Yet she also proclaims her debt to Tarsila Amaral, the Brazilian modernist, whose work borrows heavily from the brash colors and blunt figures of popular art. Yet another influence is Bridget Riley, the British abstract artist whose storm of shapes and stripes translate vertigo onto canvas.
Pop Art and symbols of commercial culture mingle freely with modernism on her canvases. In one section of the gallery in Rio is a series of her paintings composed of candy wrappers and retail brands emblazoned on shopping bags, a nod to modernism but also to the seductive power of extravagance and consumerism. "I like to draw on elements that shout for attention," Milhazes says. "They interest me chromatically and culturally, as emblems of exaggeration and extravagance."
To Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon Guggenheim museum, that makes Milhazes a rebel. "She's a visual omnivore, she celebrates color and is willing to embrace excess. That goes against the sensibilities of the mainstream, especially the chromophobes. But she's working with vocabulary we haven't seen since the early days of abstraction, which takes all the way back to [Wassily] Kandinsky."
But don't look to the Rio colorist for a soothing wall hanging. One of Milhazes’ "aha!" moments was when she read a statement by the famous French painter Yves Klein, who mastered painting in a single tone. "Klein said he painted in one color because once you add another, you have conflict," she says. "That's when I knew what I wanted and it was the exact opposite. I wanted the conflict."
Picking a fight on canvas poses its challenges, as Milhazes readily admits. "It's not easy to have one of my paintings at home, because it crowds out everything else," she says with a laugh. (Asked if she had any of her own works at home, she smiled. "One, I think. I spend all day surrounded by them.") At home, "most people, like to sit and gaze at something peaceful and serene, like the sea," she says. "That's not my work."
Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes once joked that it took her 25 years to become an overnight success, says Márcia Fortes, cofounder and codirector of Galeria Fortes Vilaça in São Paulo, one of several galleries around the world that represent the artist. Milhazes was likely referring to the excitement that followed a May 2008 Contemporary Art Day auction at Sotheby’s New York, when O Mágico, 2001, zoomed to $1,049,000 — far surpassing the $250–350,000 estimate and more than doubling the artist’s previous auction high of £228,500 ($465,000) achieved just seven months earlier at Christie’s London.
That first $1 million price at auction, though coming near the peak of the contemporary-art market boom, has been exceeded twice since. Christie’s London set the current record this past June when a final price of £937,250 ($1.5 million) was realized for O elefante azul, 2002, one of the works shown when Milhazes represented Brazil at the 2003 Venice Biennale. About two dozen other works have fetched solid six-figure prices at auction in recent years.
“She’s a superstar,” says Amy Cappellazzo, chair of post-war and contemporary development at Christie’s, who first visited the artist’s studio in Rio de Janeiro in the mid-1990s and has followed the work ever since. “Her market has￼ expanded tremendously, and more people want them than want to sell them.” She adds that Christie’s has handled private sales of Milhazes’s paintings for prices that are in line with the public auction record.
James Cohan, who represents the artist in New York, concurs, observing that some of the auction battles can get “quite aggressive because of limited supply.” On the primary market, new large paintings range in price from about $300,000 to $800,000, having made a steady climb from the $100–150,000 range in 2004. Since Milhazes produces on average eight paintings a year, the international team of dealers that represents her, including Fortes Vilaça, Cohan, Stephen Friedman Gallery in London, and Galerie Max Hetzler in Berlin, collaborate closely on price and follow a set order for solo shows, with each gallery typically navigating a gap of four or five years between exhibitions. Steering works into museums and other institutional collections is a priority, Cohan says.
The next solo gallery show is scheduled for late summer of next year in São Paulo, and Fortes says she is already daunted by the notion of 100 collectors lining up for just five or six works.
They virtually explode with layer upon layer of intricate patterns and wild, rich colors. These derive from a vast variety of sources, including, in her earlier works, Baroque imagery and feminine lace or ruffle motifs that refer to 19th-century embroidery. Among continuing sources of inspiration are the rhythms of Brazilian music and the festive imagery of the Carnival, as well as the tropical flora and fauna of Brazil’s lush rain forests. Her studio in Rio de Janeiro sits next to the city’s botanical garden, and its influence on her practice — frequently studded with blooming rings of petals and elaborate floral designs — is palpable. Milhazes’s later works have less of the spiderwebby patterns and feature more mechanical-looking swirls, circles, and squares.
This imagery is “a kind of defiant feminism,” according to Cohan. “There is an audacity that goes along with making this kind of painting today.” For her part, Milhazes described her work in a 2008 interview in the biannual art review RES as having “a healthy conflict. Many people say, ‘Wow, it’s beautiful,’” she said, “but on the other hand, it’s not a comfortable beauty.”
Her meticulous process limits the number of paintings she can produce. Milhazes applies paint to plastic sheets and allows it to dry before transferring the pigment to canvas and then removing the plastic. The result is an exceptionally flat, smooth appearance. “I do not want the texture of the brushstrokes or the ‘hand’ of the painter to be visible on my canvases,” the artist explained in an interview at the time of a 2009 show at the Fondation Cartier, in Paris.
Milhazes was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1960. Her father was a lawyer and her mother an art historian; both were deeply involved in art and music. She originally studied journalism in college before opting for the School of Visual Arts in Parque Lage, Brazil. Her first solo exhibition, coming a few years after graduation, at the Galeria César Aché, in Rio, was a success, and near-annual solo shows followed with various dealers in her native country for the next seven years. Brazilian collectors were avid fans of her work from the start, particularly as the country’s broader art market began to expand owing to a growing population and increasing wealth.
International interest in Milhazes’s work from collectors, curators, and critics had been rising steadily since at least the mid-1990s. She was invited to participate in the 1995 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh by the museum’s then-curator, Richard Armstrong, now director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation in New York. In 1996 she had the first of several solo shows at the Edward Thorp Gallery, in New York, followed by gallery exhibitions in Madrid, Paris, and London.
Milhazes’s London dealer, Friedman, says her representation of Brazil at the 2003 Venice Biennale marked “a turning point for the artist in her reach, both in Europe and across borders,” as reflected by a “growth in demand for her work by private collectors and institutions worldwide.” In 2005 alone, three high-profile public art commissions in the UK helped solidify her position on the world stage: a monumental artwork spanning 19 vaulted archways in a London Underground station; a wall mural for the restaurant at Tate Modern; and a multilevel window installation for the façade of Selfridges department store in Manchester.
Some observers say the wide appeal of her work lies in what is often described as an international language. Fortes describes the artist’s style as “a perfect balance between geometric abstraction and ornamentation. She’s developed a language that is very much international but obviously has a Brazilian characteristic.”
“She is definitely a crossover artist,” says Henry Allsopp, international director of Latin American art and a senior specialist at Phillips de Pury & Company in London. In terms of major art fairs and gallery shows, “she was on the international scene at a pretty early stage in her career,” he says, adding that Phillips continues to place her work in both its contemporary and Latin American sales, depending on the client or the timing of the consignment. “They fit well in both and because of the interest, will do well in either if properly estimated,” he says.
Christie’s generally places the works in its contemporary sales, where Cappellazzo says their “conceptual quality” draws a wide range of buyers, “not just dedicated painting collectors.” Among the paintings there is a hierarchy. Works dating from the late 1990s into the 2000s are particularly in demand, and “color plays a very big role, as do complexity and scale,” with collectors chasing works with vivid hues and metallic paints.
Beyond her paintings, Milhazes creates collages and prints and is beginning to experiment with three-dimensional work. The collages incorporate everyday objects like shiny candy wrappers, shopping bags, and vividly colored papers. Not unlike the paintings, near-dizzying patterns fill the collages. However, they are much more affordable, currently ranging from about $100,000 to $200,000 on the primary and secondary markets.
In 1996 Milhazes also embarked on what turned into a 16-year printmaking collaboration with Jean-Paul Russell and his wife, Ann Marshall, co-owners of Durham Press in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Russell says printmaking has played a major role in Milhazes’s development as an artist. Printmaking is “a way to inform and think about what she’s doing with her paintings. She comes up with 156 ideas for painting while making prints,” he says, adding that her prints are unusual in their size and elaborateness, making them closer to her paintings than most other artists’ editioned works.
Milhazes has returned to Durham Press dozens of times over the years, and together they have produced roughly 25 sets of prints in various sizes and editions, using both screen print and wood-block techniques. Prices range from $5,000 to $70,000, depending on size.
Since 2007, the artist has designed stage sets for her sister, Marcia Milhazes, a choreographer who has a dance company in Rio de Janeiro. One was later shown at James Cohan in New York, but because the same company that produces Carnival floats makes the sets from flimsy, fragile materials, they have not been offered for sale. The experience has sparked her to explore working in three dimensions.
In 2009 Cartier commissioned her to create a large-scale mobile incorporating 14,980 carats of diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and other rare jewels; it was shown at last year’s Art Basel Miami Beach. “It was a big challenge. I am a painter, I do collages, and they are all connected,” Milhazes told an interviewer. “I like to think of it as an adventure.”
BEATRIZ MILHAZES IN MAJOR SOLO EXHIBITION AT PACO IMPERIAL, RIO DE JANEIRO
29 August 2013
Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes will have a major solo exhibition at Paço Imperial, Rio de Janeiro. 'Meu Bem' will bring together about 50 artworks from 1989 until the present day including paintings, prints and collages. This exhibition will showcase the exceptional artistic career of one of Brazils leading artists, represented in national and international collections, both public and private, such as MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museums.
Early twentieth century European modernism plays a significant role in the artist's formal references. Milhazes cites three artists as the ‘centre of her interest': Matisse, Mondrian and Tarsila do Amaral. This unification of Western and Latin American influences inspired an entirely unique formal exploration, which cements Milhazes's position as one of the leading South American artists working today.
Milhazes has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Beyeler Foundation, Basel, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Cartier Foundation, Paris and Estação Pinacoteca, Sao Paulo. She was the artist selected for a solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery at Windsor, Vero Beach Florida in December 2011.
In 2012 Milhazes had a major retrospective at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
'Meu Bem' will also be presented at the Museu Oscar Niemeyer - MON, in Curitiba, Brazil, from November 2013 to February 2014.
The exhibition runs from 29 August to 27 October 2013.