BY Laura Fried in Reviews | 06 SEP 13
Featured in
Issue 157

Mira Schendel

BY Laura Fried in Reviews | 06 SEP 13

Mira Schendel, Untitled from the series Cadernos, 1970s, mixed media on paper, 23.5 cm x 37 cm x 8.5 cm

The launch of Letraset’s dry transfer lettering system in 1961 brought to graphic design an advanced and efficient method for typesetting, although one that was still fundamentally tied to the designer’s hand. By the early 1990s, Letraset had given way to word processing and desktop publishing, but from its first appearance on the commercial market, to its obsolescence decades later, artist Mira Schendel diligently incorporated this alphabet-made-material into her graphic-based practice.

Schendel was born in Zurich in 1919 and, after periods in Milan and Rome, emigrated to Brazil in 1949, settling in São Paolo four years later. While the enormous body of work she produced there was at once integral to, and apart from, the language of the Brazilian avant-garde, her engagement with the problems of abstraction – and the face of language itself – were twinned to the intellectual circles in which she moved (philosopher Vilém Flusser and Concrete poet Haroldo de Campos among them). Closely engaged with a community of philosophers, poets, artists, critics and fellow émigrés, her varied practice also revealed the fissures of a displaced geography and tongue. And in many of her disparate experiments over the years, the Letraset alphabet would appear again and again, not as units of signification but as drifting letters, excised from a system, inscribed as abstraction and as mute images operating apart from spoken language.

This quiet exhibition at Hannah Hoffman Gallery – the space’s inaugural show – comprised a range of Schendel’s graphic and text explorations from the 1960s and ’70s. In a small disc suspended from the ceiling, Letraset ‘r’s are sandwiched between sheets of acrylic, and pressed between them are more letters whose legibility fades behind accumulating layers (Untitled, 1974). This telescoped alphabet appears again in a splayed tablet from the series ‘Cadernos’ (Notebooks, c.1970s), where beneath thick acrylic a scattered typography converges with spare geometric lines. If the Letraset dry-transfers offer an alphabet-cum-material, the ‘Datiloscritos’ (Typewritings, 1974) reveal typewritten text as stutterings within the frame. At the centre of the exhibition was a one-metre-square drawing hovering above the floor in the main gallery, and here automatic writing gives way to dense handwritten characters. Evoking a photographic negative, white clusters of words and numbers swarm across rice paper sheets that float within a black surface, suggesting an exercise in writing presented (again) not as legible language but as unutterable form. This and another, smaller work beside it belong to a series of Schendel’s ‘Objetos gráficos’ (Graphic Objects) from the 1960s: wordless images, suspended in a space that is not-yet writing; where text operates in motion, and where the temporal experience of reading through and around the transparent surface informs their very palpable presence as objects.

While these various text-based manoeuvres might have spoken for the exhibition as a whole, a series of small, economical abstractions formed a powerful undercurrent. Typography dissolves and the calligraphic gesture drifts open in a series of four ‘Monotipias’ (Monotypes, 1964), in which delicate lines chart across transparent sheets of rice paper. Each panel is suspended from the ceiling, and as one moves across and around the works, there is a sense that these ethereal graphics could evaporate. The ‘Toquinhos’ (Little Pieces, 1972–80), while attached to the wall, seem equally engaged in the possibilities for luminous, untethered and shifting pictorial planes. The works here offered only a glimpse of Schendel’s prolific practice. She produced, for instance, more than 2,000 monotypes during a period in the mid-1960s, and Tate Modern will present a full-scale survey this autumn in London. But what this spare installation advanced was a space to reflect on the tenuous line between transparency and corporeality, between windows and voids – and on the fragile space occupied by Schendel’s drawings that speak with no words. Unmoored from the wall, cast off from language, these abstractions hover as apparitions in our field of vision, as if, as art historian Briony Fer has said, the shape of vision itself is what’s at stake.