“Intimate Immensity”: Maria Helena Vieira da Silva
Maria Helena Vieira da Silva at Di Donna Galleries
April 22 to September 25, 2020
744 Madison Avenue, at 65th Street
New York City, didonna.com
The paintings of Maria Helena Vieira da Silva exist in a perpetual ambivalence between an abstracted perspectival matrix and a figurative sense of place, often sliding between an interior and a panoramic urban view. Both motifs are united by a cool spectral transparency; everything is an interiority.
Portugal’s most famous modern artist and a leading exemplar of Art Informel (Europe’s equivalent of Abstract Expressionism), Vieira da Silva was the subject of a rare traveling exhibition staged by three international galleries. Following its debut in Paris at Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger in 2019 and Waddington Custot Gallery in London in 2019-20, this selected retrospective opened in the spring at Di Donna Gallery just in time to close under lockdown. It enjoyed a limited reopening this fall, which is when I was able to view it. Hard though it is to believe, this was the first exhibition of her work in New York since 1971.
Typically, as we gaze into her paintings, stage-like fields of latticework expand before our eyes until they become, in Gaston Bachelard’s phrase, an “intimate immensity.” We begin to notice subtle disturbances in the field of forces that allow us to detect hints of objects and personages or their absence; we are in a chrysalis of the shifting self.
Her use of projective geometry, specifically linear perspective, takes on any number of variations melded into one another. Often there may be a grid running parallel to the picture surface that opens up as a relief space, by shifts in scale and multiple overlapping planes. Many web-like grids are articulated with a chessboard’s alternation in white, blue, grey or umber tones. Some spatial constructs emphasize a discontinuous space, where through curving forces, we become disoriented and find our eyes swimming into a whirlpool.
Often Vieira da Silva’s works are modestly scaled for intimate contemplation. A superb exception is The Monorail, 1955, a 63” x 86.6” mural in the Nordrhein-Westfalen Art Museum where it easily holds its own in a room of masterpieces. In the show at Di Donna, the most complexly polyphonic work and the largest is Memoire, 1966-67, 44 7/8” x 57 ½”, an elaborate ‘memory palace’. Such a mnemonic system relies on spatial relationships to establish order and recollect information and experiences. Here the cubist grid multiplies into an ever-expanding map defined by delicate lines and touches: melodious, delicate but hesitant. Gradually, I felt a subtle feeling of anguish, as I sensed the signs of remembered experiences retreating in all directions. I only began to absorb the complex music of this work after long viewing.
More easily comprehensible and seductive is La Ville nocturne ou les Luminières de la ville, 1950. On a cobalt blue-grey field of space floats a constellation of glowing, colored lights, with yellow, red-orange, and cerulean punctured with discrete passages of black. Here is a rainy night vision of a truly disembodied city, where the lights hold spatial positions, opening corridors—passageways for our eyes to flow through—returning on the gyre of a swooping black or red-orange curve. The whole is a rare performance of sure, adroit touches of paint, emphasizing its materiality. By their seeming formlessness, each spot, daub, or spindly streak half conceals an intricate architectural network. I see this as a work in conversation with Vieira da Silva’s contemporary, Wols., 1952, is an unusually luminous work for Vieira da Silva, who is essentially a tonalist. The painting is a fugue in oranges, modulated by red-violet, chrome-yellow, yellow-ochres, pink-purple and ultramarine. It glows with an anti-materialist essence, like that of a stained-glass window, which gives it a close rapport with the spiritual qualities of fellow painters Alfred Manessier and Roger Bissière. Fully in the morphology of cubism, this picture is filled with a shifting grid of shelf-like units that recede on a central vertical axis, as if to suggest the corner of a room, or the opposing pages of a medieval codex.
This is the sort of spiritually evocative work that may have influenced Loren MacIver in works like Votive Lights. Similarly, another unusual picture on an airy field of white, Untitled, 1955, parallels an oceanic figural processional space explored by Norman Lewis.
In an essay in the show’s catalogue, Kent Mitchell Minturn dislodges her from the nationalistic ‘jeune’ École de Paris, and the gestural, anti-geometric Tachism, re-labelling her a late cubist. While this does make some sense, it does her no historical favors to cut her off from interaction with her contemporaries in this bid for uniqueness. Indeed, a number of works in the exhibition contradict this volte-face, as I have shown above.
While I have doted on several of the works that employ color as a pictorial dynamic, much of the other two dozen works in this exhibition function with a cubist tonality, even when a single strong color or two are employed. It worked for Picasso and it works for Vieira da Silva too. Her “Teatrum mundi” was also a way to create a unity between tradition and modernity—not exactly “the tradition” but a personal one that follows partially unconscious emotions. In a Vieira da Silva, there is no certainty.