Twenty-five years ago, on the occasion of the Museum of Modern Art's landmark international exhibition "Information," Cildo Meireles declared "I am here in this exhibition to defend neither a career nor any nationality," a sentiment echoed by his fellow artist Helio Oiticica, who proclaimed "I am not here representing Brazil, or representing anything else." Today these statements evoke a bygone era of internationalism: the reduction of artistic substance to the trope of "information" implied a logic of universal equivalence in the esthetic realm that promised an easy traversal of political and cultural borders. To be seen as representing some particular collectivity was to be doomed to marginalization. Naturally this was exactly what happened. Neither Meireles' nor Oiticica's work would be exhibited again in New York until 1988, and then only in exhibitions that straight-forwardly declared their "representative" ambitions: "Brazil Projects" at P.S. 1 and "The Latin American Spirit" at the Bronx Museum. (Meireles was also included that year in another exhibition, "The Debt," at Exit Art.) The most recent venture into this arena, "Art from Brazil in New York" (January/February 1995), was accompanied by a catalogue that cited Meireles' and Oiticica's proudly defiant assertions; twenty-five years later the evident untruth of these declarations fills them with pathos.
All this goes to underline the fact that if art from Brazil has begun to gain a toe-hold in New York in recent years, it has been very much in a context inflected by an identity politics that, in only a seeming paradox, is also a politics of difference. Like a number of similar ventures in the past few years ("Art Israel: The 1980s," 1986; "Parallel Project," [Mexican art], 1991; "The Argentine Project," 1991-92), "Art from Brazil in New York" was not a museum survey but an attempt on the part of the Brazilian government to promote a nation's art through a series of coordinated exhibitions in private galleries and alternative spaces. Such efforts betray mixed intentions: the desire both to promote the image of the country and to insinuate selected artists as individual exhibitors in the gallery system - to play up local identity yet to assimilate. Above all, they reflect the belief that there is an art world whose center is stable and coherent enough to confer "recognition."
Does it work? Past experience suggests that little of the art imported this way will make any lasting impact, no matter how significant some of the artists may be. This failure may have something to do with the way such projects benefit neither from the comprehensiveness of a museum survey nor from a gallery's sustained investment in a single artist's career. For instance, though Oiticica was accorded a retrospective at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center two years ago, his piece at the Marian Goodman Gallery, Cosmococa CC5 Hendrix: War, 1973 (created in collaboration with the filmmaker Neville d'Almeida), did little to suggest why. More revealing of the roots of contemporary Brazilian art was the other presentation of a past master at the Drawing Center: the remarkable selection of works on paper ("Objetos graficos" [Graphic objects]) by Mira Schendel, who worked with both subjective gesture and readymade form - drawn line and typography - in dazzling ways. The work with typography in particular suggests the connection of this Swiss-born artist to Constructivism, reminding us of the peculiar trajectory that begins with Max Bill, of all people, and the first Sao Paulo Bienal, and ends with the emergence in Brazil (as in Argentina) of a vital Concrete art movement. …