Laid out sequentially beneath a rectangular pane of glass, 25 single sheets of paper detail the associative powers of Jorge Pinheiro’s imagination. The words of Martin Heidegger, Plutarch, Paul Valéry and others are neatly inked beneath unrelated photocopies of anatomical diagrams, musical scores, road maps and chessboards in play. Observed from above the pages propose recurrent visual structures: arcs, grids, spirals, intersecting lines, diminishing wholes and expanding volumes. This collation of references – titled Immagini Fatte per Signifare una Diversa Cosa da Quella, Che si Vede con L’occhio (Images made to mean a different thing from those which you see with your eye, 2012) – captures the critical tensions and formal obsessions that define a career spanning more than 50 years: classicism and modernity, mathematics and art, the visible and the invisible.
Born in Coimbra, Portugal, in 1931, Pinheiro hesitated for much of his youth over whether he was a painter or an architect. It is a conflict that remains unresolved: while he studied painting he also refers to himself as a ‘frustrated architect’. The Serralves has reflected this with admirable sensitivity by collaborating on the design of this retrospective of his work, ‘D’après Fibonacci and the world out there’ with the artist Pedro Cabrita Reis – whose idea the show was – and the Pritzker prize-winning architect Eduardo Souto Moura. The large central room features a commanding diagonal white partition wall that accentuates the chromatic high contrast of Pinheiro’s early shaped plywood paintings: joyful tesselations of red, blue, orange and green that seemingly hover in space. Acrylic, steel and mirror sculptures take central positions in each of the subsequent rooms, dynamizing visual correspondences with the works on paper. Works such as Babel (c. 1970/2017), a tower built from mirrored planes and a rectilinear steel framework, splinter into reflections of constant modulation. Pinheiro’s sculptures and canvases are always made at a human-scale, propped up, suspended at eye-level, or extending just beyond head height.
The sequence is of signal importance to Pinheiro and it informed his growing tendency to codify. Encouraged to work traditionally and figuratively as a student, it was not until he left Portugal to travel across Europe in 1966 that Pinheiro became acquainted with new forms of expression. This retrospective begins at this pivotal moment, displaying the thickly-painted plywood constructions produced in the late 1960s that were influenced by the hard-edged, geometric compositions the artist had seen in London and Paris. We follow the development of this abstract language – one that takes on a number of vocabularies – over the course of 80 artworks. The mesmerizing properties of Fibonacci numbers and ratios, of Arthur Schoenberg’s dodecaphony, or of Filipe Pires’ atonal Figurations (1969) all work their mysterious logic in the generative planes of his sculptures and syllabary systems of his paintings. These trailing lines of code – dashes, dots, lines, numbers, and spirals of interchangeable colour arranged in grids, along contours, on a five-line staff or in negative space – are more compelling when used like language. Paintings such as Sem título (Untitled, 1976) lack the notational magnetism of the mark-making in his graphic ‘essays’, the ‘rewritings’ of musical scores, or the coded keys of his untitled maps.
Figuration did not disappear from Pinheiro’s work; it has remained an important part of his questioning and is explored by the parallel show dedicated to his drawings at Lisbon’s Fundação Carmona e Costa. Delicate sepia line portraits are shown alongside complex schematic grids and still life paintings alongside technical studies, underscoring similarities in their design. As an initiate to the work of Pinheiro, the lack of descriptive wall text or supporting material in both shows impeded my full appreciation. However, I’m content to linger over a body of work that would rather ask questions of the structural processes of the physical world than provide answers.
Main image: Jorge Pinheiro, installation view, 2017, Serralves Museum, Porto, Portugal. Courtesy: Serralves Museum, Porto, Portugal; photograph: Joaquim Norte