From ‘aaaaa’ to ‘zeit’, the transparent sheets of Mira Schendel’s 28 suspended ‘Monotypes’ (1964–5) bear handwriting, from strings of letters to words repeatedly scrawled as if an urgent mantra. From what is legible, they appeared to be arranged in roughly alphabetical order, the enveloping row of prints suggesting a new, expanded alphabet – one that includes the numbers 0, 1 and 2, as well as a few more abstract additions of faint, wandering lines. Printed by pressing talcum-powdered rice paper against an oiled pane of glass, Schendel used her fingertips to create the resulting ghostly inscriptions. These could be viewed from either side, incorporating the wet street scene or gallery walls into messages that are pointedly emptied of narrative meaning, instead focusing on a sensual experience of words. In one, the ‘t’ of zeit (time) trails down off the bottom of the page, emphasizing the mirrored motion of her hand and our eyes as we follow the trail. In another trio, the names of colours – blu, bianco, rosso – appear as if a game of semantic musical chairs, with only the white of the paper matching its designated inscription – a more gentle, understated meditation than the contemporaneous stenciled colour-name paintings of Jasper Johns, begun with False Start (1959). Though written with an apparent urgency, each print has the hesitant, temporary quality of a drawing fingered onto a foggy window, attempting to peer into a haze of language.
Swiss-born, Brazilian-based Schendel passed away in 1988, but this was the first time these prints have been exhibited. Although she shared a dual retrospective with Argentinean Léon Ferrari at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, earlier this year, Schendel hasn’t had a solo showing of her work in the UK since 1966. Attempting to rectify this, the gallery also dedicated a whole room to attempt a retrospective in miniature of the artist’s works from 1960 to 1988. From paintings using watercolours, clay and dye, to unfolding plastic ‘Notebooks’, what comes through is Schendel’s informal, exploratory use of basic forms – particularly geometric shapes and typography – as part of an ongoing attempt to cast them as hollow vessels left to be filled by the viewer. In ‘Untitled – Disc Series’ (1974), a light bounces off a clear, flat acrylic disc hanging mid-air, filled with a tangle of Letraset letters and numbers, their individual shapes and sounds becoming a mute black sun. It is apparent Schendel had different affinities to many of the Brazilian artists of the 1960s and ‘70s. Rather than a fellow traveller on the critical carnival of the Tropicália movement, she seems more a restrained, Southern hemisphere housemate of Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. This show also proved to be a fruitful counterpart to the nearby ICA’s concurrent exhibition inspired by concrete poetry, ‘Poor. Tired. Old. Horse.’, highlighting their shared initial concerns, but also where Schendel’s practice steered down a different path; her approach to words and letters was always through the act of painting and the creation, or disruption, of the painterly surface. In Sarrafo (Splint, 1987), one end of a large black ‘L’ jutted out from a blank white canvas, elbowing out into space to rest its other end atop the canvas, as if one of her Letraset forms finally erupted from the contradictions of the flat plane.
Perhaps in their eagerness to celebrate Schendel’s body of work, the snapshot overview of a lifetime’s work instilled a slightly imposing weariness over the delicate touches of the monotypes. Though insightful, the range and variation of work gathered was the kind of uneven assemblage you would never see if attempting to create a coherent, resonant exhibition of a single artist’s work. With the ‘Monotypes’, Schendel tied together language and the mark-making act in such a way to create liminal, haiku-like poems, whose subjects are their own inutterable nuances and blatant shortcomings.