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Waldemar Cordeiro's Oeuvre and Its Context: A Biographical Note

Eduardo Kac

Waldemar Cordeiro was born in Rome in 1925 of a Brazilian father and an Italian mother. He started to show his early work as a teenager in Italy, but it was not until he arrived in São Paulo in 1946, after choosing Brazilian citizenship, that he got involved with modern art issues. Upon his arrival, he wrote art criticism for a local paper. He also published caricatures and illustrations in daily newspapers.

At the time, modern art in Brazil was still in a slow process of development, despite the important early impetus provided by the pioneering work of painters Anita Malfatti and Tarsila do Amaral in the 1910s and 1920s; the irreverent poetry of Luis Aranha, Oswald de Andrade and Mario de Andrade in the 1920s; and the radical cinema of Mario Peixoto and the innovative happenings of Flávio de Carvalho in the 1930s. For example, in 1945, when the first modern art gallery opened in Rio de Janeiro, Arden Quinn and Gyula Kosice had already founded Agrupación Arte Concreto--Invención (Concrete art--Invention Group) in Argentina. The Argentinean group furthered the Constructivist lesson then being advanced by Max Bill in Switzerland; Bill had been promoting the name (Concrete art) and the ideas first proposed by Theo Van Doesburg in 1930. Cordeiro arrived in an urban and industrialized environment that had witnessed the modern revolution in art and was ready for its next development. The first modern art gallery in São Paulo opened in 1946; in 1947 the Museum of Art of São Paulo opened its doors to the public; and in 1948 both the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo and the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro were founded. The prevailing modern style, however, was a nationalist figurativism of a distant cubist derivation, as exemplified by the work of painter Cândido Portinari. In Rio de Janeiro, a group of young artists was being formed around the art critic Mario Pedrosa in 1947--1948. Pedrosa exposed Abraham Palatnik, Ivan Serpa and Almir Mavignier to the principles of Gestalt theory---an influence that would prove instrumental in the development of geometric abstraction and kinetic art in the country.

Cordeiro painted in an expressionist style throughout the 1940s; however, by 1949 he had already embraced the new international Constructivist trend, which foregrounded geometric abstraction. In 1949, the same year that Palatnik started to develop his kinetic art [1], Cordeiro founded the São Paulo chapter of the International Arts Club and published art criticism in a daily paper. That year, the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo hosted an exhibition showcasing abstract art.

The passage into the 1950s saw increased interest in abstraction in Brazil. In 1950, Max Bill had an exhibition at the Museum of Art of São Paulo. The first São Paulo Biennial took place in 1951, showing the work of Brazilian abstract artists (including Cordeiro, Kazmer Fejer, Luís Sacilotto, Serpa and Palatnik) and presenting awards to Max Bill and Serpa. At last, acceptance of abstract and Constructivist art seemed imminent. The group Frente (Front) was formed in Rio de Janeiro around the influential painter Ivan Serpa, while the group Ruptura (Rupture) was created in São Paulo around the already polemical Cordeiro, both in 1952. Artists from the Ruptura group showed their abstract paintings at the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo in 1952. The same institution hosted an exhibition of Concrete art from Argentina the following year. From that time on, Cordeiro supported his work as a visual artist with professional landscaping contracts. Although at first his landscaping work was just a means to earn a living, soon Cordeiro would realize the need to apply Concrete art principles to all sectors of society, extending his own programmatic creative pursuits to this activity as well.

One important event that ephemerally united both abstract groups was the exhibition "I ExposiŘao Nacional de Arte Concreta" (First National Exhibition of Concrete Art) organized by the Ruptura group in 1956, at the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo. Comprised of visual artists and poets, the show traveled the next year to Rio de Janeiro. This brief moment of unity around the tenets of Concrete art was soon shattered by the refusal of the Rio de Janeiro artists to concentrate on purely rational methods, as expounded by Max Bill. While the São Paulo group, which had Cordeiro as its leader, insisted on mathematical structures and pure form, the group from Rio defended the mixture of sensorial and cognitive operations in the creation of artworks. Based on this idea, they gravitated around poet Ferreira Gullar and in 1959 founded the NeoConcrete movement. Cordeiro profoundly disagreed with their point of view and attacked, through manifestoes and ferocious criticism, their achievements. It is now clear, however, that as much as the rigorous mathematical principles of Concrete art yielded important paintings and sculptures of formal beauty in direct relationship with industrial design principles, it was really through the innovative, challenging, hybrid and informal investigations of artists such as Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, both active members of the NeoConcrete group, that a genuinely new art emerged, simultaneously uniquely Brazilian and international in its mixture of tropical sensuality and Constructivist rigor. Cordeiro's own work and his central role as catalyst of Concrete art sympathizers were certainly very important in that context, but his main contribution was yet to be made.

The enthusiasm of 1950s Concrete art carried over into the early 1960s. Max Bill organized the "Konkrete Kunst" exhibition in Zurich in 1960; that same year saw several exhibitions of Concrete and NeoConcrete art in Brazil. In the mid- and late 1960s, however, under the impact of a dramatic expansion of mass media and the emergence of the international Pop Art movement (which placed the figure once again at the center of the artistic debate), Cordeiro struggled to find a balance between his previous geometric abstraction and the new, ubiquitous, popular iconography. In an attempt to merge the two tendencies, he created a series of assemblages, among other works, in which he manipulated clearly identifiable everyday objects into rigorously composed visual structures. He called this new work "Semantic Concrete Art."

At the same time that Cordeiro's work as an artist was shifting focus around the mid- and late 1960s, his interest in architecture, landscaping, interior design and urban planning increased. It seems that the artist, responding to the impact of mass media and the economic and philosophical issues it raised, identified new aesthetic challenges in the creation of public spaces to be experienced by the masses, rather than in the crafting of objects to be viewed by isolated individuals as is the case in galleries and museums. In 1967 he obtained an advanced degree in landscaping. From 1950 to 1973 he worked on more than 150 landscaping projects.

As a consequence of his interest in artificial languages, which he saw as directly related to the syntax of forms promoted by Concrete art, Cordeiro ended up embracing the latest technological tool---the computer. On the one hand, he saw the need to integrate the Constructivist lesson with the new qualitative and quantitative demands posed by mass society in order to address new communicative problems raised by electronic means of communication in an ever-shrinking world. On the other hand, the artist found that the unique object created manually for the consumption of a few was obsolete. For him, the global culture of the future would require an electronic art that could reach millions simultaneously without any loss of its informational content. When he started to create computer art in 1968, Cordeiro was motivated to do so for political and aesthetic reasons. He was committed to the creation of a new art, but he was also interested in the social implications of this new art, which for the first time could overcome, in electronic form, insurmountable geographic barriers and participate in a worldwide culture. Some of the ideas expressed by Cordeiro in his Arteônica ("Arteonic"---a contraction of arte [art] and eletronica [electronic]) manifesto (included here in its first English translation) anticipate cultural, aesthetic and economic issues raised today by the World Wide Web, for example. In her article also included here, Annateresa Fabris further analyses his works and writings, particularly those related to his computer art.

In Arteônica, Cordeiro's seminal text on electronic art, he stated that Brazilian Concrete art employed digital creative methods and offered algorithms largely employed in communications. It must be clarified that he did not use the words "digital" and "algorithms" literally here. He was not referring to actual computer programs; rather, he was suggesting that the visual forms created by Concrete art were applicable to mass communications and graphic and industrial design.

It was not until 1969 that Cordeiro, working in collaboration with physicist Giorgio Moscati, created his first visual computer artwork. In this and in subsequent computer artworks (the last produced before his premature death of a heart attack in 1973), Cordeiro synthesized his lifelong concern with radically innovative forms and the social and political dimension of art. Cordeiro started his career exploring purely visual geometric abstract forms, only to incorporate semantically charged shapes and objects at a later stage. Ultimately, in his computer art, mathematical abstraction (as digitized and processed imagery) and political and emotional concerns (as content-oriented art) came together in a truly original and challenging way for the first time in his career. In forging this unique synthesis, the product of a natural evolution of his ideas, Cordeiro produced some of the most important works of the first phase of computer art. Abraham Moles, Pierre Restany, and Jonathan Benthall are among the international critics who recognized Cordeiro's early contribution to the incipient new art. In the context of Brazilian art, his work ranks as one of the most innovative and stimulating, side by side with Flávio de Carvalho, Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica and Abraham Palatnik. If we are to write the history of electronic art from a truly global perspective, we must acknowledge Waldemar Cordeiro's pioneering contribution.


1. See Mario Pedrosa, "The Chromatic Plastic Dynamism of Abraham Palatnik," Walter Zanini, "A New Technique in Modern Painting," and Eduardo Kac, "Abraham Palatnik, Pioneer of Kinetic Art," all of which are also available in print in Leonardo 29, No. 2 (1996).

Editor's Note: A great deal of information (in Portuguese) about Waldemar Cordeiro's work (including his pioneering computer art) is available at http://www.impa.br/visgraf/Gallery/waldemar/waldemar.html.

For the print version of this article, see Leonardo Volume 30, No. 1 (February 1997), available from the MIT Press.


copyright 1997 ISAST

created 7 March 1997

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