Art: Ernesto Neto and the Legacy of the Neo-Concrete Movement

After Picasso and George Braque pioneered the geometric forms of Cubism in the early twentieth century, many artists sought to make their own mark on the new genre. In the succeeding decades, various movements sprung out of Cubism, from the motion-focused compositions of fascist Futurists to the primary color rectangles of De Stijl. By the 1930s, a style known as Concrete Art emerged, emphasizing extreme flatness, rational forms, and a distancing from reality. Concrete Art was practiced in various regions, becoming especially popular in Brazil. But some artists were dissatisfied with this practical, almost mathematic approach, and sought an alternative.

In Brazil in the late 50s, a group of artists led by Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica founded the Neo-concrete Movement. These artists sought to combine the structured approach of Minimalist and Constructivist styles with a deeper communication of feeling. Their manifesto (penned by poet Ferreira Gullar) speaks out against “the kind of concrete art that is influenced by a dangerously acute rationalism” and encourages concrete art to be “reevaluated with reference to their power of expression rather than to the theories on which they based their art.” These artists felt their movement was “born out of the need to express the complex reality of modern humanity inside the structural language of a new plasticity,” focusing on personal expression and thus contrary to the scientific and positivist ideas running through much Western art of the time. Fascinated by the effects of color on the viewer, Oiticica painted energetic minimal canvases and created complex box sculptures known as Bólides (Fireballs) which viewers could touch and open. In the early 1960s, Clark began making interactive metal sculptures called Bichos (Critters)- geometric shapes attached by hinges which could be moved and re-positioned by the viewer.

Helio Oiticica- MetaesquemaHélio Oiticica: Metaesquema No. 348, 1958. via MoMA

Helio Oiticica- BólideHélio Oiticica: B11 Box Bólide 09, 1964. via Tate Modern

Lygia Clark- BichoLygia Clark: Bicho. via Francisco Quinteiro Pires

Like many artists seeking to re-define visual practices in the 1960s, these artists tended to focus on color, simplicity, and sensation in their work. They sought to connect with viewers on an instinctive level, encouraging personal interaction and multiple interpretations. Now, several decades later, Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto builds upon their ideas in his innovative sculptural installation projects. Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1964, Neto has become known for his use of Lycra as well as his mutable, touchable works. In 1989, he filled Lycra nets with lead balls and styrofoam pellets, creating flexible groups of amorphous objects. By the mid-90s, he was filling his Lycra forms with organic materials, including pungent spices, which oozed through the material and filled the space with intermingled scents and colorful pigments.

ernesto neto- puffErnesto Neto: PUFF (turmeric), 1997. via Tanya Bonakdar Gallery

ernesto-neto-we-stopped-just-here-at-the-timeErnesto Neto: We Stopped Just Here at the Time, 2002. via My Art Agenda

ernesto-netoErnesto Neto: While Nothing Happens, 2008. via Nicola Anthony

ernesto netoErnesto Neto: Madness is Part of Life, 2012. via Inhale Mag

From there, Neto moved into large-scale installation, with more and more focus on viewer participation. In a series of works he called Céus (“Skies”), he suspended Lycra netting from the ceiling, hanging large sacks of spices in towering formations. They filled the gallery space, resulting in a forest of translucent, skin-like forms that surround the viewer both visually and olfactorily. Neto has since expanded into fully interactive sculpture: room-size netting through which visitors can walk and play and move. He says that these works had “acquire[d] the status of bodies that could be folded in on themselves, and I realized that immersion within the body allowed me to appreciate the other side of the skin” (quoted in Art in Latin America: 1990-2010, 25). This emphasis on touching and physical feeling is also seen in his Humanoids, which are puffy sculptures made of Lycra tulle stuffed with styrofoam balls, with spaces for participants to sit, stand, and hug.

I read about Neto for the first time just a week ago, and was instantly infatuated with his work. I’ve always been drawn to immersive installation environments, and have lately become especially interested in tactile and sensual impact. Like many art critics, I soon connected Neto’s work to Lygia Clark, who devoted her later career to therapeutic sculpture and performance. Through masks and other objects she sought healing for her participants. To me, Neto’s work seems just as healing; it is about comfort, and quietude, and warmth. A lot of Minimalist sculpture is associated with coldness, hardness, and distance, but he makes it inviting, and even meditative. His sculpture is utterly simple, taking rounded forms and imbuing them with intriguing interactive qualities. Viewers become absorbed into the work, blurring the boundaries of the standard viewer/artwork relationship. With warm colors, soothing textures, and soft forms, Neto creates a surreal world for his viewer to inhabit, one that is familiar in its materials but fantastic in its structures. Like the Neo-concretists, he stresses emotional response over a rational approach, and seeks a confluence of art and experience. I feel moved by his work even though I haven’t seen it in real life, the ideas alone are enough to make me smile as I imagine sinking into one of his singular constructions.

Mostly I really want huggable sculpture. Really, really.

ernesto neto_humanoidesErnesto Neto: Humanoids Family, 2001. via Tanya Bonakdar Gallery

ernesto neto- ovaloidsErnesto Neto: The Ovaloids’ Meeting, 1998. via Tanya Bonakdar Gallery

ernesto netoErnesto Neto: Celula Nave, 2004. via The Art Gardner

ernesto neto- navedengaErnesto Neto: Navedenga, 1998. via Tanya Bonakdar Gallery

ernesto neto- edges of the worldErnesto Neto: Edges of the World, 2010. via The Art Blog


Iria Candela. Art in Latin America: 1990-2010. Translated by Chris Miller. Tate Publishing, 2013.

Fereira Gullar. “Neo-concrete Manifesto.” Jornal do Brasil, March 22, 1959. Translated by Dawn Ades.

Emily Moore. “Ernesto Neto.” Pulse: Art, Healing, and Transformation. Edited by Jessica Morgan. Steidl for Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2003.

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