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Controlled Freedom

“I like to work with pure process,” says Beatriz Milhazes, one of contemporary art’s most sought-after figures.

Words by Martin Holman

As one of the most successful artists at work today, Beatriz Milhazes says “Nothing is there by chance,” A painter defined by her distinctive technique, she combines acrylic paint with aspects of printing and collage. Her ideas about form and colour merge the characteristics of postwar abstract art with a deep desire to acknowledge the folk and popular cultures specific to her country, Brazil. The result is complex interweaving of geometrical images into a coherent style based on highly structured patterns. A selection spanning almost 40 years makes up her current retrospective exhibition at Tate St Ives. 

Beatriz Milhazes, Leblon 3, 2004.   Thomas Dane, London. Photo Eduardo Ortega. © Beatriz Milhazes Studio
Beatriz Milhazes, Leblon 3, 2004. Thomas Dane, London. Photo Eduardo Ortega. © Beatriz Milhazes Studio

“My approach is very rational,” she stresses, pointing to the repertoire of motifs – circles, dots, stripes and graphic emblems superficially reminiscent of the wingding fonts found on computers, but in reality, incomparably far more resonant. These shapes have recurred over years of production. Distilled from the abundance of natural and man-made traces she sees in her surroundings, they never seem to be repeated. Arrangements vary as experiences accumulate; new formulations in vibrant colours appear to alter their appearance.

Unlike many prominent and productive artists constantly in demand for shows and collections around the world who have multiple workplaces, Milhazes has only one studio. A generous-sized building but by no means huge, it is located in her native city, Rio de Janeiro. A walking distance from where she lives, it is nonetheless important to her that work is separated from home life. 

Once she arrives at the studio, her attention is turned away from the world outside its windows. Her focus is trained on the canvas. The first decision at the start of a new work is its size, then whether the format will be horizontal or vertical. The surfaces she tackles are seldom small-scale: the earliest canvas in this exhibition measures six feet tall by almost as wide. It is one of the smallest pieces on display. 

Yet it has a special significance for this artist. Made in 1989, ‘Eu só queria entender por que ele fez isso’ (“I just wanted to understand why he did that”) marked a new and propulsive way of working. Previously, she used a rigid geometry, such as grids, to divide up her surfaces in an architectural fashion that echoed the geography of her urban outlook. For several years, artworks were assembled by collaging pieces of fabrics she found into a composition that borrowed other makers’ designs. 

By contrast, the loosely vertical stripes in this canvas suggest the swing and sway of textiles. Hand-painted blue, star-like flower heads of her own invention alternate with bands of a wine red colour in a strong repeated pattern that includes overlapping and layering. Ways of making jostle with a strip of decorative lace fixed to the surface with the conviction of a manifesto. The different elements seem to set a pace, as in the irregular rhythm of a curtain swaying in a draught. 

LEFT: Beatriz Milhazes, Eu só queria entender por que ele fez isso, 1989. Ivor Braka Ltd. Photo Phillips de Pury. © Beatriz Milhazes Studio

RIGHT: Beatriz Milhazes Maresias, 2002-03. TBA21 Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Collection. Photo Fausto Fleury. © Beatriz Milhazes Studio

In language, metaphors help to describe impressions. The visual equivalent occurs here with her allusion to fabric. Immediate and obvious as a reference, it adds to the exalted practice of painting a popular dimension drawn from Brazil’s rich tradition of applied art. This picture, however, is not about specific objects but their character. In the same way, the intriguing title offers no narrative clues to meaning; it may have no relevance beyond sharing a mood – or distinguishing one canvas from another. 

For abstract painting is its own universe: the artist feels free to capture shapes from any source that interests her and reinvent them. Her aim is to build anew from the mix and to attract the viewer’s imagination to explore the strikingly intricate framework she constructs. Since 1989, instead of painting directly onto canvas, Milhazes has built up surfaces with synthetic abstract forms that she searches out or creates. Painted onto plastic foil sheets, she applies them to the canvas and waits until the paint is dry to pull them off. The sheets are never part of a painting; they are stored, reused and added to. But they leave a residue of flat acrylic colour, sometimes with a metallic sheen that energises the transferred shapes. 

The effect is curiously urban and inexpressive, like a street billboard. Motifs can be repeated exactly and layered on top of a ground textured with a combative, abraded quality, like a wall exposed to wear and the sun that passers-by might scrape or write on. Space is reduced to a single integrated zone within which exuberance abounds in colour and line. Which is on top is indistinguishable from what lies beneath. Yet, as with any long-lasting structure, nothing is random. Apparent, too, is a high level of order, a fusion she paraphrases as “geometry overlaid by imagination”.

This method is unusual and patently her own. As unique to the artist as her voice, like any language, it has evolved its vocabulary to communicate thoughts between the painted surface and her audiences. The intricate layered patterns in ‘O Diamante’ (2002) unfold along its 12-foot length. They are not easily described other than in broadly graphic terms: circular formations and extravagant tones, especially the reds and radiant yellows that take on a metallic sheen from the transfer process. 

Beatriz Milhazes, Banho de Rio, 2017.  Tate. Presented by Ivor Braka, White Cube Ltd and an anonymous donor 2019. © Beatriz Milhazes
Beatriz Milhazes, Banho de Rio, 2017. Tate. Presented by Ivor Braka, White Cube Ltd and an anonymous donor 2019. © Beatriz Milhazes

Milhazes refers obliquely in her abstract images to the world that surrounds all of us. For her, the city and its atmosphere of hustle and bustle and cultural hybridity is ever-present. So is landscape, the Tijuca forest and the Atlantic ocean. Contact with real nature is essential. Her studio is adjacent to the city’s botanical gardens, where exotic greenery and luscious blooms spill over pediments and enclosures, and it is not surprising that plant shapes are cited in her motifs. 

While these locations are not her subjects, she is concerned to stimulate feelings known to her audience by being in those contrasting environments. Clashes occur between forms and colours as often as connections are made, with stop-start and push-pull motions that spur the eye to travel these surfaces. Her means belong entirely to art’s gift for transforming material into experiences that go beyond objects and places to touch nerve-endings and emotions.

One example accompanies the title of the exhibition at Tate St Ives. ‘Maresias’ is the soft ocean breeze of the artist’s beach neighbourhood in Rio. The name also belongs to a small Mediterranean wildflower. Both associations can be imagined fitting retrospectively the painting to which she gave the same name (2002-3). The picture revels in decorative patterning; its free chromatic geometry generates a dreamy effect in the mind’s eye. Starbursts of colour and line erupt at multiple intervals in ever-advancing layers. 

Such mesmeric phenomena, however, are not the sole function of her work. Milhazes’s sophisticated brand of abstraction is multi-dimensional, channelling profound metaphors from diverse sources. Abstract art has a reputation for objectivity, a cool mathematical quality that transcends borders and personalities. This artist’s motifs, colours, technique go beyond that definition into also being a distillation of what Brazil entails. 

Beatriz Milhazes, O sol de Londres, 2003.  Private Collection, London. Photo Sid Hoeltzell. © Beatriz Milhazes Studio
Beatriz Milhazes, O sol de Londres, 2003. Private Collection, London. Photo Sid Hoeltzell. © Beatriz Milhazes Studio

A hybrid nation formed of numerous indigenous ancient cultures blending with new immigrant communities and foreign traditions, the country’s diversity and drive, turbulence and discontinuities are folded into emblems that express them. That aspect is the hardest for foreign viewers to trace; once located, however, new awareness follows. What’s more, that approach places her in a century-old practice alongside several generations of Brazilian writers, philosophers and artists. 

For Milhazes, compositions take shape while being made in the studio. As a rule, she does not make preliminary drawings (although, like all rules, it can be broken in exceptional circumstances, as happened during the pandemic). She relies on the inspiration of the moment to move her forward through a sequence of decisions that affect where line and colour are deployed. 

She talks about unleashing “a chain reaction”, a scientific term not out of place in this environment. In ‘Maracorola’ (2015), dots, stripes, diagonals and looping arabesques suggest machinery, a notion the vibrant colour refutes. Dance comes to mind, although the design excludes the body as Milhazes’s art is never figurative. The property it exudes, however, is energy – the motive force linking man, machinery and, supremely, nature. 

Speaking to a writer in 2018, Milhazes said “Colour is a way for me to create contrast, drama, and mystery. Every work I create is a mathematical dream and colours are a way of emphasising that.” Colour is her principal medium. From time to time, it implies the sun or the sea, but never directly represents them. Another medium is repetition, which regulates her abstraction like the beat in music. It allows her to instinctively incorporate allusions to designs and practices in the folk and popular cultures that mean much to her, as a woman and as a Brazilian. 

Through memory and observation, Milhazes taps into the ardour that fuels Carnival and the immense labour, especially by women, devoted to its celebration, which almost has the status of religion. Ideas for marks derived from stitching, pattern and surface touch upon hand-made production in villages and homes. Pearl shapes in her paintings evoke that source as well as the rosary of ever-present Christianity. Yet these metaphors of activity are never static or reverential; importing their energy into her work, they become avenues of creation as ingredients in a new, voracious mix.

Beatriz Milhazes. Photography by Vicente de Paulo © Beatriz Milhazes
Beatriz Milhazes. Photography by Vicente de Paulo © Beatriz Milhazes

Milhazes grew up in a country undergoing considerable change. A radical wave of cultural growth swept through music (the bossa nova), film, theatre, writing, visual art and architecture from the late 1950s. The new federal capital of Brasilia was inaugurated in 1960 as a masterpiece of modernist architecture and artistic planning. Her parents identified with the modern pulse so that when a military coup in 1964 gradually snuffed out that spirit while Milhazes was growing to adulthood, they encouraged debate and questioning in a creative homelife where the arts were followed closely. 

The family’s house hosted artworks that imbued Milhazes and her sister with a sense of art’s traditions and its centrality to emotional growth and learning. (Her sister became a dancer and the two later collaborated with Milhazes making her first sculptural pieces.) Aesthetic influences from Europe remain strong, drawn from Matisse paper cut outs to the optical illusion and geometric abstraction of Bridget Riley. The political influence of ideas shaped in the counter-culture of the 1960s is signalled from time to time in her work, such as when the broken cross logo of CND appears among her circular motifs. 

The global success of her career has helped in the international discovery of compatriot artists from previous generations who inspire her. One example is Tarsila do Amaral, a trailblazer for modernism between the world wars, with a pictorial vision of nature as unreachable and mysterious but lyrical, qualities inherited by Milhazes. 

LEFT: Beatriz Milhazes, O Diamante, 2002. Contemporary Art Collection _la Caixa_ Foundation. Photo Vicente de Mello. © Beatriz Milhazes Studio

RIGHT: Beatriz-Milhazes,-Mel,-2010.-Private-Collection,-UK.-Photo-Sid-Hoeltzell.-©-Beatriz-Milhazes-Studio

Although she has spent time in New York and Europe, and visits Pennsylvania regularly to make prints, Milhazes was always reluctant to settle abroad, as many of her contemporaries had done. With the decline of the dictatorship, she was keen to help ‘restart’ her country, becoming prominent in Geração Oitenta (“Generation 80”). This loose grouping of makers articulated with colour and painterly expression the popular optimism anticipating the return of democracy, which occurred in 1985.

She travels frequently and the show at Tate St Ives is just the latest in an international career that since the pandemic alone has seen her present solo projects in Berlin, Margate, New York, São Paulo, Vienna and Shanghai. Like everyone else on the planet, however, the Covid 19 emergency grounded her. Locked down in her house, she could not go the short distance to her studio. 

So, she adapted her methods, took up paper and acrylic markers, and made small sketches. “It was very welcome,” she says, “because I discovered a different way of experimenting, an openness.” Its impact has percolated into her latest canvases. In ‘O desfile de leques I’ (‘Fan Parade I’), 2023, quilt-like sectors of transferred pattern combine with rhythmic strokes applied straight onto the canvas in wave-like formations, organic shapes intersecting with the fragmented geometry of pure abstraction. 

Milhazes has to make art. Prolific and organised, she will work around any obstacle to feel the freedom of fertile creativity. “I like to work with pure process,” she says. “It brings interesting things to me.”

Beatrix Milhazes: Maresias continues at Tate St Ives until 29 September 2024. All images courtesy Tate St Ives 2024 © Tate.

Beatriz Milhazes, Maracorola, 2015.   Ivor Braka Limited. Photo Manuel Águas and Pepe Schettino. © Beatriz Milhazes Studio
Beatriz Milhazes, Maracorola, 2015. Ivor Braka Limited. Photo Manuel Águas and Pepe Schettino. © Beatriz Milhazes Studio


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