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The Anti-Dictionary: Ferreira Gullar’s Non-Object Poems

os artistas neoconcretos preferem mergulhar na natural ambigüidade do mundo para descobrir, nele, pela experiência direta, novas significações.

“the Neoconcrete artists prefer to plunge themselves into the world’s natural ambiguity to discover new meanings within it through direct experience.” —Ferreira Gullar 1

The words of Ferreira Gullar precede his reputation. As a writer, Gullar’s work emerges from the fields of poetry, theory, criticism, history, and journalism. A member of the Brazilian art and poetry movement Neoconcretism, Gullar served as its main theorist and champion, establishing the discursive frame of the group in two central texts, “The Neoconcrete Manifesto” and “Theory of the Non-Object,” both from 1959. These writings conceptualized the group as working in the interstices between disciplines and positioned their production in relation to the history of European avant-garde art. The Neoconcrete group included originally three poets, Gullar, Reynaldo Jardim, and Theon Spanúdis; two sculptors, Amilcar de Castro and Franz Weissmann; a painter, Lygia Clark; and an engraver, Lygia Pape.2  Connected by an “affinity” of interests and ideas rather than a single medium, all the Neoconcretists experimented radically to overturn traditional categories of art and collaborated to challenge existing divides between high and low culture, or between fields such as fine art and dance. Gullar’s own work in particular played with the limits of image and text. In this essay I examine Gullar’s hybrid artistic production, specifically his poem-sculptures, Poemas espaciais (Spatial Poems) from 1959 and Poema enterrado (Buried Poem) from 1960. Given Gullar’s diverse interests, disciplinary limits have divided the reception of his work, and within the literature on Neoconcretism he is most often situated only as a critic rather than a poet, artist, and critic. As a result, this period when he worked at the intersection of poetry and art remains unexamined. With this consideration of Gullar as a poet and an artist, I draw attention to the fact that Neoconcretism emerged from a debate about Brazilian poetry, and therefore to the significance of poetry to any understanding of the movement.3

Gullar pointed to the fact that his theoretical writings and conception of Neoconcretism as an interdisciplinary movement responded to the activities of the group rather than vice versa when he wrote, “My theories would never have hatched had it not been for the work produced by my fellow group members.”4  In other words, theory followed practice. For example, it is well known that “Theory of the Non-Object” was composed after his encounter with a work by Lygia Clark, and as a response to the trajectory of her art as it shifted from painting to sculpture, or more accurately to a category no longer described by those mediums—the non-object. Scholars agree that Gullar’s preoccupation in “Theory of the Non-Object” was with the historical evolution of modern art to overcome the function and inherent meanings of the frame for painting and the base for sculpture.5  I argue in this essay how Gullar also defined Neoconcretism through the text-based non-object, or Neoconcretism as a plastic art and poetry movement. Moreover I point to how Spatial Poems and Buried Poem engaged with a philosophy of language, drawing from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of phenomenology, and thus how our notion of the non-object includes the “verbal.”6

In “Theory of the Non-Object,” published in the Sunday Supplement of the Jornal do Brasil on December 19-20, 1959, Gullar wove together his version of the history of European avant-garde art, with references to Cubism and Russian constructivism, and his views on contemporary art, like Tachisme and Neoconcretism.7  The Rio de Janeiro-based newspaper and supplement served as the main vehicles for publishing and publicizing Neoconcrete works and texts. In the simplest terms, according to Gullar, the non-object is “not an anti-object”; rather, it names artworks “for which the designations painting or sculpture perhaps no longer fit” and it lies outside “the realm of use or verbal designation.”8

Modern art, exemplified by Neoconcretism, had developed beyond traditional fixed categories and, as a result, encroached on the divisions between mediums. Gullar’s conceptualization of this historical shift argued for Neoconcrete art as leading a revolution in modern art begun by the European avant-garde, and significantly, positioned Brazilian art as the rightful inheritor of the mantle of “Modern Art.” Consequently he excised the art of the New York School from that historical narrative, especially the theories of Clement Greenberg who called for medium-specificity. He also separated the non-object from the legacy of the Duchampian readymade, wherein the artist took an object from its former context and reinserted it into an art context. Gullar believed the readymade derived “its meaning and relations” from “use and routine.” He went on to write, “Soon that obscurity so characteristic of the thing would snatch the artwork back into the world of common things.” The non-object, in contrast to “common things,” achieves transcendence through its form. Meaning and form synthesize together whereas the readymade or artworks, which bring the found object into the frame of art, as in Tachist paintings, cannot escape the meaning ascribed a priori to the found object or form in the world. The non-object, on the other hand, creates meaning from within its form; “it bursts from the inside out, from non-meaning toward meaning.” The non-object, released from a name—a non-, a no-thing—and thus a designated function, “is pure appearance.” The spectator apprehends the non-object as pure phenomenon, without pre-conceptions of artistic categories, without reflected consciousness, but rather with the senses.

Gullar’s theorization of the non-object makes visible the appeal of phenomenology to his thinking, especially the enfolding relationship of the subject and object, and the development of participation as a central contribution of Neoconcretism. With references to philosophers Merleau-Ponty, Ernst Cassirer and Susanne Langer in “The Neoconcrete Manifesto,” Gullar established phenomenology as a constitutive element of the movement specifically as a way to combat against the extreme rationalism of other art movements, i.e. Concrete art, and conversely to privilege the aims of Neoconcretism as “expressive.”9  Phenomenology as a philosophical practice describes phenomena and centers the human subject’s experience of the lived world. Concerned with the concrete and consciousness as experiential, phenomenology broke with past traditions of philosophy that defined knowledge of the world as a priori or strictly intellectual. Of interest to Gullar was this emphasis on the experiential and phenomenology’s attention to the appearance of things, as we shall see below. By the time of the manifesto, Gullar had read the works of Merleau-Ponty, including The Structure of Behavior (1942), Phenomenology of Perception (1945), and “Cézanne’s Doubt” (1945).10  Merleau-Ponty, with his attention to the body, pushed further than previous philosophers the entanglement of the human subject and the lived world, and defined consciousness as always and immediately imbricated in the world or, as he wrote, “man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself.”11 Consciousness could not be detached from the body. The embodied subject experienced the world with his sense organs and translated perceived phenomena into ideas. Merleau-Ponty marked the body as a “vehicle of being in the world” and the site of intersubjective knowledge, therefore, the body is incapable of occupying the object position. These texts offered Gullar a vocabulary to make an argument against the mechanization of art and the artist, and to develop the non-object as open simultaneously and irrevocably to the mind and body, the intellectual and the sensory—to pure perception.

Meaning in art and the ability of art to address “the problem of meaning” preoccupied Gullar throughout his writings and attracted him to the projects of artists such as Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian, and philosophers like Merleau-Ponty.12  In the manifesto he credited the latter with the idea that a work of art “creates its own tacit meaning (Merleau-Ponty), which emerges within it for the first time.”13  Moreover the artwork as a phenomenological body models the relationship between subject and object in the world; or in other words, meaning is found in the enfolding interaction between the spectator and the work. This model of participation in Neoconcretism has radically redefined the field of modern and contemporary art. The non-object often required the spectator’s interaction, whether through moving parts or traversing a space. The work came into being via its activation and the transformation of the spectator into a participant. Gullar wrote, “Most of the existing non-objects imply, in some form or other, the viewer or reader’s movement in relation to it. The viewer/reader is invited to use the non-object. Mere contemplation is not enough to reveal the sense of the work—the reader/viewer must move from contemplation to action…The contemplation leads to action, which in turn leads to further contemplation.”14 Gullar in his own work arrived at the notion of participation through the act of reading. The non-object like a book does not remain a divided object from the subject, neither the artist/author nor the spectator/participant/reader. New meanings continually present themselves in the direct experience with the non-object.

As already stated, the theory of the non-object described works of art, yet it also included the world of words. Three months after the publication of “Theory of the Non-Object,” Gullar performed a solo question and answer session published as “A Dialogue on the Non-Object” in the Sunday Supplement of the Jornal do Brasil on March 23, 1960.15 In order to dispel misunderstandings about the non-object, Gullar both posed and answered a series of pointed questions to acknowledge counter-criticisms and to explain clearly his ideas. He concluded this “interview” by addressing poetry. He wrote that the poet like the plastic artist “strives for a primary experience of the world.” For the visual artist access to this experience is through form, for the poet it is the word, or as he described it, the “job” of the poet was “to reveal how much of the world is deposited in the word.” The interview then continued, “You have written that, when it comes to poetry, the non-object is the search for a place for the word. What do you mean by that?” And Gullar responded, “The word is either in a sentence—where it loses its individuality—or in the dictionary, where it is alone and mutilated, given as mere denotation. The verbal non-object is the anti-dictionary: it is the place where the isolated word irradiates its entire charge. The visual element married to it there serves the function of rendering explicit, of intensifying and concretising the multivocality the word contains.” With this explanation, Gullar gave primacy to the word as the locus of meaning of the non-object poem, and the visual, whether the materiality of language or the sculptural turn of his Neoconcrete art, opened up additional meanings contained in the word. According to Gullar the non-object as anti-dictionary cannot be reduced to one meaning or limited to only an arbitrary sign. Like the visual non-object, the verbal non-object avoids sameness or commonness and rejects the ability of language to only designate. And yet paradoxically, are not all words readymades themselves? Let us turn to Gullar’s poetry to consider how the word took on crucial importance for his theory, and how Merleau-Ponty’s ideas argue against speech as a readymade.  

The word already occupied a central place in Gullar’s poetry practice, since he began working in 1957 within the genre called poesia concreta or concrete poetry.16  Poets in Brazil, along with Eugen Gomringer in Switzerland, invented concrete poetry, which depends on minimal language and an attention to the materiality of language as a structuring principle of the poem.17  In 1952 three poets in São Paulo—Décio Pignatari and the brothers Augusto and Haroldo de Campos—formed the Noigandres group and published a magazine of the same name that featured their concrete inventions. In the many theoretical texts written by the Noigandres members they defined their poems as “words that act as autonomous objects,” characterized them as “optical-sound structures, irreversible and functional,” and most definitively claimed them as, “concrete poetry: tension of word-things in space-time.”18  For example, an early poem from Augusto de Campos’ poetamenos series “eis os amantes” (“here are the lovers”), 1953, demonstrates how Augusto worked with the spatialization of language and polychromatic word design to give meaning to the poem (Figure 1). He alternated between the use of complete words and fractured words as well as an emphasis on syllables. Charles A. Perrone in his book on Brazilian poetry points to how the poetamenos series “was already a type of writing that acted in space and welcomed visible form, valuing alphabetic and phonetic patterns.”19 Throughout the 1950s and 1960s poesia concreta would continue to explore the objectification of language, avoiding metaphor or romanticism, especially through the use of a reduced number of words as a way to break with the tradition and structure of lyric poetry.

Figure 1. Augusto de Campos, “eis os amantes,” 1953

By 1954 Gullar had come in contact with the Noigandres group and within a few years his poetry reflected the tenets of concrete poetry, yet unlike the Noigandres’ work, Gullar’s poems consistently preserved the integrity of the word. I argue that Gullar’s emphasis on the word in “A Dialogue on the Non-Object” was informed by his earlier work, therefore blurring the dividing line between Concrete/Neoconcrete. Perrone questions whether there even existed a marked difference between Gullar’s Concrete and Neoconcrete poetry given that in his collected book of poems the two are organized indiscernibly together.20  But what proves even more interesting is that the section “Concrete/Neoconcrete poems” in this collection comprises the years 1957-1958—before the emergence of the Neoconcrete group in 1959. We find here an example of the elasticity of Gullar’s concept of “Neoconcretism.” Given Gullar’s privileged position as the generator of the term “Neoconcrete,” and as the Apollinaire-like spokesman of the group, I argue that the name “Neoconcretism” designates both a retrospective and an anticipatory quality. When Gullar conceived of the name, he was thinking of the artists and poets’ production leading up to 1959, so it collected and pointed to past and present works. Moreover the energy that created the group continued to influence their practices long after the dissolution of what was in fact a short-lived two-year Neoconcrete period. Though the group was active only from 1959 to 1961, “Neoconcretism” embraces works and ideas before and after those years.  With Gullar, his Neoconcrete practice did not constitute a complete rupture from his previous poetry practice; rather it marked an intensification and a spatialization of his work. Perhaps to begin with his poems were never purely poesia concreta. (In an interview from 1998, when asked to give an example of a Neoconcrete poem, Gullar suggested a poem of his from 1955!21To illustrate my point, I turn to examples of Gullar’s “early” poems, now categorized as both and neither Concrete/Neoconcrete.

In a 1957-58 poem, “verde” (“green”), Gullar structured the poem around only two words, verde (“green”) and erva (“grass”) (Figure 2). This work and Gullar’s other concrete poems were often short in length and utilized few words. The word “verde” repeats twelve times in a square grid made of three columns and four rows with the word “erva” appearing once at the right of the field of “green.” Overall Gullar’s poems relied on images of nature and color, appealing to the visual and the tactile, and the repetition of single words or syllables that were in and of themselves meaningful. For example, the poem “vermelho” (“red”) includes only two words, “vermelho,” repeated three times across the page in a single line, and “ver” (“to see”) as the last final word. The poem operates in the relationship between the two words: “ver” acts as both the first syllable of “vermelho” and as a word in itself. Together the words invite the reader “to see red.” For Gullar the word and its significance were the primary elements of concrete poetry, whereas for the Noigandres, a much more playful system of organization did not bar them from breaking up the word, playing with the phonemes, opening up language to a nonsense of meaning but a materiality of form and language as sound. Gullar was unable to divide the word from its meaning, while simultaneously, he presented words as able to contain a “multivocality” or the potentiality for supplementary meanings. Words acted as carriers of meanings; the relationship between the two was not fixed or stable.

Figure 2. Ferreira Gullar, “verde,” 1957-1958. Experiência neoconcreta: Momento-limite da arte, de Ferreira Gullar. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007

By 1957 Gullar along with Rio de Janeiro-based poets Oliveira Bastos and Reynaldo Jardim broke with the São Paulo Concrete poets, which caused a larger rupture of the national Concrete project gathered the previous year at the First National Concrete Art Exhibition. With this 1956 exhibition Brazil announced its commitment to Concrete art and poetry with both forms on display at museums in São Paulo and Rio.22  The debate amongst the poets from Brazil’s major urban centers eventually gave birth to Neoconcretism, as mentioned above. The break resulted in part from an essay written by Haroldo de Campos in 1957 titled “Da Fenomenologia da Composição à Matemática da Composição” (“From the Phenomenology of Composition to the Mathematics of Composition”), which argued for a pragmatic and objective poetry based in formal methods of construction. As a counter-argument the carioca poets (carioca refers to someone from Rio de Janeiro) wrote “Poesia Concreta: Experiência Intuitiva” (“Concrete Poetry: An Intuitive Experience”). Both essays were published in the Sunday Supplement of the Jornal do Brasil in June 1957.  Though Augusto de Campos believed the split had less to do with aesthetics than with personal idiosyncrasies, the carioca poets underscored their belief in the significance of intuition to any artistic practice, especially against a mathematical approach suggested by the title of the Noigandres text.23  Haroldo in his essay, “From the Phenomenology of Composition to the Mathematics of Composition,” called for the construction of the poem beforehand through a mathematical or quasi-mathematical process.24  He wrote in the manifesto, “Concrete poetry instead seeks a mathematical structure planned before the word…The definition of structure which fits the poem will be the exact moment of the creative option.”25  The Noigandres poets sought to evacuate the expressive subjectivity of the author, and as result release poetry from a hermeneutics based in Romanticism. Instead the poem would exist for itself as a concrete object and meaning would be generated through the formal structure of the poem or as Haroldo stated, “the content of the poem will always be its structure.”26  The carioca poets, on the other hand, rejected the Noigandres’ call for rigorous objectivity. They wrote, “Only a scientistic error could lead one to suppose that the being of language is in its formalisation [sic]. The proposed submission of poetry to mathematical structures is proof of this error.”27  Gullar and his fellow poets interpreted a shift to a poetry of mathematics as a formalization of language, and therefore an end to language as mutable, affective and expressive. The poet according to the cariocas should “concretize expression.” The essay “Concrete Poetry: An Intuitive Experience” most strongly criticized the Noigandres idea of poetic apriorism, instead privileging the intrinsic time of the poem—the creative process as its inception and the reader as its culmination, or “the poem begins when the reading ends.”28 The carioca artists emphasized the defining roles of the subject and object or the reader and the poem, whereas Haroldo and the Noigandres focused on the production of the poem in their essay.

I purposely juxtapose Gullar’s poetic and theoretical production of 1957-1958 alongside his theoretical text from 1959 to demonstrate that his conceptualization of Neoconcretism and the non-object drew from his earlier work, and also described and anticipated work under development, his series, Spatial Poems. With these hybrid works, the already short length of his concrete poems was reduced even further to the presentation of only one word. In addition to the word, the Neoconcrete poet/artist invited “forms, colours and movements, on a level at which the verbal and plastic languages interpenetrate.”29 Spatial Poems construct a space beyond the page for the word. An example from the series includes “Ara” (“Altar”) from 1959, constructed of wood and painted white (Figure 3). It consists of a shallow square box with a triangular flap, when opened the interior reveals the word “Ara” printed in small black lettering in the center of the square. When closed, the triangle pierces the square and the work presents a classic geometric object reduced further by the pure white color. Significant for the practice of Neoconcretism, the object asks the spectator to interact with it, to seek an additional expression of the object. The spectator turned participant lifts the triangle upwards and finds the word, “Ara.” The object is now transformed by the word and its meaning. Gullar, with this work, underscored the primacy of the word, indivisible from its material, graphic element, and strengthened by the context given the single word—white geometry.

Figure 3. Ferreira Gullar, “Ara,” 1959. Experiência neoconcreta: Momento-limite da arte, de Ferreira Gullar. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007

Spatial Poems marked the most radical leap of Gullar’s practice, and actually developed out of a transitional period of work, Livros-poemas (Book-poems), produced in the same year that he continued to work with the traditional word and page, but in a book form. Exhibited in the first Neoconcrete exhibition in March 1959, Book-poems experimented with the page design of poetry, and as a result the experience of reading. For example, Gullar placed a single word alone on a page, and the poem unfolded as the reader turned the pages and collected the words into the fuller meaning of the poem. The words were printed on the reverse side of pages with the pages cut at an angle to avoid obscuring the previous word. According to Gullar his intention was “obliging the reader to read the poem word by word” and “to make them emerge before his eyes one by one.”30  Inherent in this project was not only controlling the act of reading but also an antipathy to the surface quality of concrete poetry, which by definition “is concerned with making an object to be perceived rather than read.”31  Like Ezra Pound’s ideograms, an original source of reference for the Noigandres poets, Concrete poetry shows its meaning through the structure of the poem rather than communicating it through a linear-discursive drift. Imagined as a gestaltic whole, the poem as a visual sign engages the reader like a street sign or an advertisement (both of which were influential on the Noigandres)—an active, graphic object.32  Meaning lies on the surface. A concrete poem asks the reader to look at it rather than through it.33  And yet this was exactly Gullar’s objection to the Noigandres’ work: the persistence of the surface as the site of meaning production. Gullar rejected the object as surface because he interpreted it as empty, flat, bereft of durational time, therefore, machine-like, and ultimately then, non-human and non-expressive.

In this difference over how the poem should operate lay the central argument between Gullar and the Noigandres. Gullar resisted the fundamental characteristics of poesia concreta, and through this rejection of the surface emerged the theory of Neoconcretism. As a poetic experience, Gullar wanted the reader to be a full participant in the act of reading, or involved in the durational unfolding of the object itself, outside of linear time or time as instantaneous. Gullar conceived of Book-poems as objects, in which “word and page constituted an indissoluble unity.”34  Durational time was organic time, associated with the body, the human, the lived world or as he stated elsewhere “to eliminate ‘time’ in language would mean a descent into chaos.”35  Instead Gullar focused on the durational experience of reading, as something happening in and over time, through the unfolding of words in space. Therefore instead of the grid formation of words on one page—one surface—like with his own “verde,” his Book-poems introduced the long experience of reading across many pages. Like a painting becoming sculpture, the words enfold the space, and according to Gullar in “A Dialogue on the Non-Object,” “This spatial transformation is the very condition of the birth of the non-object.”36 In this way, the verbal non-object emphasizes space and time as intrinsic elements in the experience of language and meaning.

The works in the Spatial Poems series epitomize the non-object, embodied through their form and the visual and tactile engagement with the spectator/reader. Gullar made seven works in the series and they all resemble each other in that they represent geometric shapes with moveable parts painted either monochromatically or with one or two additional primary colors and include a single centrally placed word. Initially Gullar made the boxes out of cardboard, and subsequently he sent them to be fabricated in wood.37 Neither purely poems nor sculptures, they defy clear categorization. To return to “Ara,” as a poem, it depends on one word, perhaps chosen for being a palindrome, yet unlike other examples within concrete poetry wherein the word gives itself over to the repetition of letters or sounds of letters, “ara” sits isolated on a field of white space. “Ara” defines Neoconcrete non-object poetry as beyond syntax and both a spatial and temporal experience. As a sculpture, the work eschews a base, and instead relies on mobility, whether moving from place to place or handling by the spectator. The non-object sculpture invites interaction and begins when the participation ends, to adapt the carioca poets’ statement on poetry “the poem begins when the reading ends,” also applicable here. Moreover “Ara” as an “anti-dictionary” escapes usefulness and achieves transcendence by synthesizing word and form as expression. It does not ask us to re-view a found object within a new set of relations, instead the meaning and the spatialization of the word transforms the object and our experience of it.

The elements of the works—words and colors and shapes and parts—operate in concert and the spectator performs the work. Let us look at another example to see how this works. “Não” is a thin black box whose top includes two panels, which when opened unfolds out into a white interior with a black diamond shape in the center (Figure 4). The black diamond once removed exposes yet another diamond but painted red and including the word “Não” (“No”).

Figure 4. Ferreira Gullar, “Não,” 1959. Experiência neoconcreta: Momento-limite da arte, de Ferreira Gullar. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007

This work emphasizes the play of contrary forces at the heart of the non-object, in this case, yes and no, black and white (and red), and more generally, presence and absence, interior and exterior, concrete and abstract, sensory and mental, action and reflection, and object and non-object.38  What is the non-object but an assertion of negation in order to distance art and poetry from common things? And yet this absence happens through the presence of a physical object intent on its sensual materiality, whether colors, the form of a word, or interactive action. In fact Gullar made clear, “The non-object is not an anti-object, rather it is a special object in which one intends the synthesis of sensory and mental experiences: a body that is transparent to phenomenological knowledge, integrally perceivable, that gives itself to perception without surplus. It is pure appearance.”39

Here Gullar found echoes of his ideas in the writings of Merleau-Ponty about how science teaches us to distinguish between our senses and to divide sensation and thought. Neoconcrete art sought to overcome the knowledge of the body gained through scientific analysis; art instead acts as “a primary experience of the world.” I argue that this primary experience is one understood directly through phenomenology, which reminds us that the human body must be understood as already in the world and thus cannot be conceived as semi-independent of thought at any point, or for that matter, one bodily sense from the other. The synthesis of sensory and mental experiences in art was central to the theorization of Neoconcretism and the non-object.

Merleau-Ponty’s consideration of language, or more specifically of la parole—the French translation of word and speech—allowed him to propose how meaning adheres to words. In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty turned to speech as another mode of being in the body and world. His main focus was to reject the possibility that either thought or speech could precede each other. Instead “they are intervolved, the sense being held within the word, and the word being the external existence of the sense.”40  Given the centrality of the subject for Merleau-Ponty, words are positioned as part of the “equipment” of the body and the body’s experience of the world. “It [Language] presents or rather it is the subject’s taking up of a position in the world of his meanings.”41  Neither speech nor thought can be understood as external to the subject. They are the means by which the subject comes into being in the world. With Gullar’s presentation of words in his Spatial Poems, he asks us to consider this exact role of language to mark us as in the world. Through the invitation to interact with the objects, colors, forms, speech, thought, and the body become “intervolved,” and the non-object presents itself to be perceived. Significant for Neoconcretism, the Spatial Poems as non-objects construct an expressive experience of the word and the poetic word takes on new, emotive expression, not only literal meaning. Merleau-Ponty isolated poetry as able to reveal “the emotional content of the word,” or what he terms the “gestural.”42  The poem boxes indicate the transformation of the word and its sense central to the phenomenology of language. Gullar abandoned the project of poesia concreta so as to leave behind the dissection of speech as a diagrammatic play of rules and apriorism. Neoconcretism put “thought back among the phenomena of expression.”43

With what would become his final Neoconcrete work, Buried Poem, Gullar devised a living habitat for the word. Published first in the Sunday Supplement of the Jornal do Brasil as a conceptual list of instructions, the installation was materialized in the garden of fellow Neoconcretist Hélio Oiticica’s parents’ house in 1960 (Figure 5).44  Gullar sought to fully transform poetry into an object experienced off the page and instead penetrated by the body. Buried Poem invites a single person to descend a staircase into an underground square chamber of over eight feet in length and width. Once inside, enshrouded in near darkness except for a single light source, the spectator stands above a red cube. Instructed to lift the geometric form, he finds yet another green cube and within that a white cube. Below the white square the spectator now participant now reader reads the word “rejuvenesça” or “rejuvenate.” Finally, “The ‘reader’ will then put the three cubes back exactly as he found them and linger a while observing the red cube, which is irreparably changed, as he knows what it conceals and stores. The reading is thus complete. In order to heighten the experience, only one ‘reader’ should enter the poem at a time. Throughout the whole experience the ‘reader’ will feel the scent of jasmine that hangs in the air.”45

The work was made to be experienced by only one “reader”—a singularly intimate experience that placed the emphasis on a personal “reading” and the act of reading (now reduced to one word) as a phenomenological practice. Asked to enter a ritualistic space, affected by the darkness and jasmine scent, the spectator discovered the word like a secret knowledge.46 With intentionality, Gullar chose the verb “rejuvenesça” and used the imperative tense of the verb, thus asking the spectator to do something—to perform the word. The word “rejuvenesça” functions as a sign, and yet exactly how the reader experienced rejuvenation was left undetermined. In contrast to the selection of the nouns “ara” or “pássaro” (the titles and words of other Spatial Poems, translated as “altar” and “bird” respectively) Gullar’s verb choice depended on the individual to enact the meaning and therefore allowed for many possible variations of “rejuvenation.”

Figure 5. Ferreira Gullar, Buried Poem, 1959-60. Experiência neoconcreta: Momento-limite da arte, de Ferreira Gullar. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007

With this work, the birth of the reader, though not yet formulated by Roland Barthes, appeared in Brazil in the 1950s. Recall in the essay discussed above “Concrete Poetry: An Intuitive Experience” by Gullar, Bastos, and Jardim a work of art is not ruled by laws determined a priori, such as mathematical formulas, instead it comes into being with its making. In addition the poem relies on the reader—“the poem begins when the reading ends.”47  Interestingly the essay makes clear a fragile balance between the creative energy of the producer of art and the spectator/reader who completes the meaning of art. Gullar desired art to create an experience for the spectator, but a controlled experience, like with his Book-poems, or Buried Poem, in which specific instructions were provided for the spectator before entering the work.48  The birth of the reader did not necessitate the death of the author in Neoconcrete art, or as with the Noigandres, the evacuation of the Romantic artist. Boris Groys in his writings on the history of the art of participation comments on this paradox, “One might also claim that the enactment of this self-abdication, this dissolution of the self into the masses, grants the author the possibility of controlling the audience—whereby the viewer forfeits his secure external position, his aesthetic distance from the artwork, and thus becomes not just a participant but also an integral part of the artwork. In this way then participatory art can be understood not only as a reduction, but also as an extension, of authorial power.”49 Buried Poem depends on participation and the performative to fully realize the meaning of the work, but Gullar’s selection of the word points to the “intervolved” relationship between the author and reader or the speaking subject and the listener. Gullar did not forfeit his control as the author and yet he also understood speech as multivocal.

With this language-art installation, a non-object that fits no traditional fine art category, instead a living habitat for the word, Gullar essentially demonstrated the way meaning dwells in language itself. As discussed in Phenomenology of Perception, meaning is not external to words just as thought and speech cannot be external to each other. Merleau-Ponty very eloquently and beautifully explained, “The process of expression, when it is successful, does not merely leave for the reader and the writer himself a kind of reminder, it brings the meaning into existence as a thing at the very heart of the text, it brings it to life in an organism of words, establishing it in the writer or the reader as a new sense organ, opening a new field or a new dimension to our experience.”50 Buried Poem and “rejuvenation” through language and art act as this “new sense organ” to plunge the artist, poet and reader/participant into meaning. The object “radiates” its existence and meaning; we see and read and feel and smell and think. It presents itself to the reader/participant. Gullar’s construction of an “anti-dictionary,” or “the place where the isolated word irradiates its entire charge” models the crossing of perception between subjects and objects, consciousness and (non)things. Gullar explored together the philosophy of language and the problem of meaning in the verbal and visual arts to show the interrelationship of the body, speech and consciousness.

The Neoconcrete group dissolved shortly after Buried Poem. Gullar’s move into art production left him uncertain about his future as a poet, and the direction of his poetry with only single word compositions. He left Rio de Janeiro for Brasília, the new capital of Brazil, to work as the director of the Fundação Cultural de Brasília (Brasília Cultural Foundation) and his departure added to the reasons for the separation of the group. By 1962 Gullar became involved with Centro Popular de Cultura (CPC or Center for Popular Culture), part of the National Union of Students (UNE), which aligned itself with “popular revolutionary art” rather than European avant-garde practices.51  Gullar renounced his associations with vanguard theory and its usefulness in favor of art and poetry directly engaged with the Brazilian people, articulated in his 1964 book, Culture in Question.52  The historical period had dramatically shifted from a democratic government intent on development to a military dictatorship ruling through oppression and the dismantling of civil liberties.53  The lofty pursuits of Neoconcretism and the non-object appeared to Gullar by 1964 as outmoded and “out of place” tools to transform Brazilian society. And yet today with the increasing popularity of Neoconcretism, and especially the work of Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica in museums, collections and academic study, Gullar’s role as theorist and critic of the group has emerged as the explanatory frame of this Brazilian avant-garde. This article argues for the immense significance of Gullar’s poetic and artistic production as a site not only for understanding Neoconcretism as an inherently interdisciplinary movement but also as an origin place for his theoretical thinking, especially as a vehicle for the influence of phenomenology on Brazilian art and poetry. Though heavily dependent on philosophy and discourse to understand and explain art, Gullar’s work, and Neoconcretism by extension, reminds us to place the aesthetic object at the center of perception, as the source that radiates, and from which we begin to experience new meanings.


I would like to thank Rebecca Kinney, Sara Stevens, John Pluecker, and Maki Smith for their intelligent revision suggestions, and an anonymous reader for the useful feedback.
1.  Ferreira Gullar, “Arte neoconcreta,” Etapas da arte contemporânea: do cubismo à arte neoconcreta (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Revan, 1999), 246. This translation is mine.
2.  I include here the original members who signed the 1959 manifesto and exhibited together at the First Neoconcrete Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art Rio de Janeiro from March 19 to April 19, 1959. By the Second Neoconcrete Exhibition, at the Ministry of Education and Culture from November 21 to December 10, 1960, the number of Neoconcrete artists had ballooned from seven to twelve, including the loss of Spanúdis from the group and the addition of new members: Aluísio Carvão, Claudio Mello e Souza, Décio Vieira, Hélio Oiticica, Hércules Barsotti, Osmar Dillon, Roberto Pontual and Willys de Castro. This was not actually their second showing. The first exhibition travelled to Salvador da Bahia in November 1959, but was reconfigured and expanded to include the original artists and Carvão, Mello e Souza, Carlos Fernando Fortes de Almeida, Oiticica, and Castro. Though Spanúdis exhibited in Bahia, he no longer worked with the group thereafter. The third and last Neoconcrete Exhibition took place from April 27 to May 14, 1961 in São Paulo at the Museum of Modern Art. The Third Neoconcrete Exhibition did not present works by Vieira nor Mello e Souza, but did introduce the poet Albértus Marques.
3.  As Michael Asbury notes, “The first National Exhibition of Concrete Art had opened at São Paulo’s Museum of Modern Art in 1956 and travelled to Rio in 1957. Despite the disagreements that surrounded the exhibition, which clearly indicated a rift between the São Paulo and Rio-based group of artists, it was primarily through poetry that the neoconcrete rupture took place.” Michael Asbury, “Neoconcretism and Minimalism: Cosmopolitanism at Local Level and a Canonical Provincialism,” in Cosmopolitan Modernisms, ed. Kobena Mercer (London: Institute of International Visual Arts and Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005), 176.
4.  Gullar, Experiência neoconcreta: momento-limite da arte (São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007), 123. The book includes its own translations in English by Anthony Doyle, which I use throughout this essay.
5.  See Sérgio Bruno Martins, “Phenomenological Openness Historicist Closure: Revisiting the Theory of the Non-Object,” Third Text 26, 1 (January 2012): 79-90.
6.  I have decided to use the term “the verbal non-object” to indicate the text-based non-object, in comparison to the visual non-object. Gullar in his writings refers to this class of objects as “verbal non-objects,” and I have decided to use his term, even though I understand that verbal can also designate oral, rather than written. I use verbal to describe objects that include words and language as a semantic system. 
7.  Gullar, “Theory of the Non-Object,” Experiência neoconcreta: momento-limite da arte (São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007), 142-145. All quotes in this paragraph taken from this essay from the English translation by Doyle.
8.  The latter quote taken from Gullar, “A Dialogue on the Non-Object,” Experiência neoconcreta: momento-limite da arte (São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007), 145.
9.  Gullar, “The Neoconcrete Manifesto,” Experiência neoconcreta: momento-limite da arte (São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007), 157-160. For reasons of space I do not have the opportunity here to discuss the debate between the Concrete artists working in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. These artists first exhibited together in the 1956 National Exhibition of Concrete Art but by 1957 the two groups had split. Arguments about the process of making art and the ontology of the artwork were waged in print especially through the two main critics, Waldemar Cordeiro of São Paulo and Gullar of Rio.
10.  Gullar discussed reading Merleau-Ponty in his interview with Ariel Jiménez. Ferreira Gullar in Conversation with Ariel Jiménez (New York and Caracas: Fundación Cisneros/Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, 2012), 69-70.
11.  Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), xii.
12.  Gullar wrote, “Trata-se, portanto, de um problema de significação e não meramente de percepção.” (“Therefore, the work of art deals with the problem of meaning and not merely perception.”) Gullar, Etapas da arte contemporânea: do cubismo à arte neoconcreta (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Revan, 1999), 246. This translation is mine.
13.  Gullar, “The Neoconcrete Manifesto,” Experiência neoconcreta: momento-limite da arte (São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007), 159.
14.  Gullar, “A Dialogue on the Non-Object,” Experiência neoconcreta: momento-limite da arte (São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007),149-150.
15.  Gullar, “A Dialogue on the Non-Object,” Experiência neoconcreta: momento-limite da arte (São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007), 145-150. All quotes in this paragraph taken from this essay from the English translation by Doyle.
16.  I use the date 1957 because that is what is given in the collected poems of Gullar. Gullar, Toda poesia 1950-1980 (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1981). Gullar, Poesia completa, teatro e prosa (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Nova Aguilar, 2008). I find this date troubling because one could argue that Gullar’s concrete poetry began with the poem “O formigueiro” in 1955 since he worked with the visual arrangement of language and moreover it was exhibited in the first National Exhibition of Concrete Art in 1956. But I maintain here the more strict chronology put forth by Gullar in his poetry collections.
17.  See Mary Ellen Solt, Concrete Poetry: A World View (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1969) for the international emergence of concrete poetry.
18.  These words are taken from two manifestos, Augusto de Campos, “Poesia Concreta” (1955) and “poesia concreta” (1956) in Teoria da poesia concreta, ed. Augusto de Campos, Décio Pignatari, and Haroldo de Campos (São Paulo: Duas Cidades, 1975), 34-35, 44-45.
19.  Charles A. Perrone, Seven Faces: Brazilian Poetry Since Modernism (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 1996), 31.
20.  Ibid., 62
21. “A trégua – Entrevista com Ferreira Gullar,” Cadernos da Literature Brasileira – Ferreira Gullar, Instituto Moreira Salles (1998), 36. When asked to give an example of a Neoconcrete poem, Gullar suggested “O formigueiro” from 1955. He said, “Ele realmente não é um poema concreto. ‘O formigueiro’ tem essa duração de que falaria mais tarde o Manifesto Neoconcreto.”
22.  See Lorenzo Mammì, João Bandeira and André Stolarski, eds., Concreta ’56: a raiz de forma (São Paulo: Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, 2006).
23.  Augusto de Campos,, accessed July 28, 2008. “De fato, à distância, as divergências parecem mais verbais do que práticas. E as diferenças, mais fruto de idiossincrasias e percursos individuais, empatias e desempatias, do que de grandes desavenças estéticas.”
24.  Traditionally within the scholarship the first name of the brothers are used to identify them. In this essay then I will refer to them by their first names, Augusto and Haroldo. Haroldo de Campos, “Da Fenomenologia da Composição à Matemática da Composição,” in Teoria da poesia concreta, ed. Augusto de Campos, Décio Pignatari, and Haroldo de Campos (São Paulo: Duas Cidades, 1975), 93-94. Originally published in the Sunday Supplement of the Jornal do Brasil, June 23, 1957.
25.  Ibid., 93. “…uma estrutura matemática, planejada anterioramente à palavra…A definição da estrutura que redundará no poema será o momento exato da opção criativa.” I used Jon Tolman’s translation found in “The Context of a Vanguard: Toward a Definition of Concrete Poetry,” Poetics Today 3,3 (Summer 1982), 156.
26.  Ibid., 94. “…o conteúdo do poema será sempre sua estrutura.”
27.  Gullar, Oliveira Bastos and Reynaldo Jardim, “Concrete Poetry: An Intuitive Experience,” in Gullar, Experiência neoconcreta: momento-limite da arte (São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007), 137. Originally published in the Sunday Supplement of the Jornal do Brasil, June 23, 1957.
28.  Ibid., 136.
29.  Gullar, “A Dialogue on the Non-Object,” Experiência neoconcreta: momento-limite da arte (São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007), 149.
30.  Gullar, Experiência neoconcreta: momento-limite da arte (São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007), 122.
31.  Mary Ellen Solt, Concrete Poetry: a World View (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1969), 7. Theo van Doesburg, the founder of Art Concret in 1930, theorized his paintings similarly, writing, “There is nothing to be read in painting: there is only something to be seen.” Theo Van Doesburg, “Towards White Painting,” in Joost Baljeu, Theo van Doesburg (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1974), 183.
32.  Mary Ellen Solt recalls how Augusto had originally envisioned for the Poetamenos poems “luminous letters which could automatically switch on and off as in street advertisements,” Concrete Poetry: a World View (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1969), 12. Though pre-dating Jean-Luc Godard’s film Pierrot le Fou by 10 years, Augusto’s description and the reproduction of a poem from the Poetamenos series in Teoria da Poesia Concreta very much resemble the titles of the film with their creation of words through color and light. With Pierot le Fou the colors symbolized the tricolor of France with blue, white and red, whereas Augusto’s poem has been reproduced in several places with different color schemes. In Teoria the poem includes red and black.
33.  Claus Clüver, “Reflections on Verbivocovisual Ideograms,” Poetics Today 3, 3 (Summer 1982), 140.
34.  Ferreira Gullar, Experiência neoconcreta: momento-limite da arte (São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007), 122.
35.  Gullar, “Letter to Augusto de Campos, 1955,” Experiência neoconcreta: momento-limite da arte (São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007), 157.
36.  Gullar, “A Dialogue on the Non-Object,” Experiência neoconcreta: momento-limite da arte (São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007), 148.
37.  Gullar first made six Spatial Poems out of cardboard, including “Ara,” “Lembra,” “Era,” “Pássaro,” “Não,” and “Onde.” He later added to the group “Noite,” for a total of seven works in the series. He then sent them to be constructed out of wood. Personal email correspondence with the artist, December 14, 2012.
38.  My thanks to Marcia Brennan for taking the time to converse with me about my project.
39.  Gullar, “Theory of the Non-Object,” Experiência neoconcreta: momento-limite da arte (São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007), 142.
40.  Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), 211.
41.  Ibid., 225.
42.  Ibid., 217.
43.  Ibid., 221.
44.  Before anyone could experience the work, the space was flooded, and the work destroyed. It has never been re-constructed. A model of the work would also be included in Hélio Oiticica’s 1961 “Maqueta para Projeto Cães de Caça.”
45.  Gullar, “Buried Poem,” Experiência neoconcreta: momento-limite da arte (São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007), 151.
46.  Hans Robert Jauss writes of the Christian Romanesque taste for “The full and objective meaning of the text is initially hidden and only unfolds in the course of time through the new commentaries of later readers.” Hans Robert Jauss, “Modernity and Literary Tradition,” Critical Inquiry 31:2 (Winter 2005), 337.
47. Gullar, Oliveira Bastos and Reynaldo Jardim, “Concrete Poetry: An Intuitive Experience,” in Gullar, Experiência neoconcreta: momento-limite da arte (São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007), 136.
48.  Ibid., 136. The carioca writers of “Concrete Poetry” explicitly affirmed this when they wrote, “The Concrete poem is a means of entirely controlling an experience.”
49.  Boris Groys, “A Genealogy of Participatory Art,” in The Art of Participation 1950 to Now, ed. Rudolf Frieling (New York: Thames&Hudson, 2008), 23.
50.  Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), 212.
51.  For a more detailed discussion of the CPC see Charles A. Perrone, Seven Faces: Brazilian Poetry Since Modernism (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996), 72-74.
52.  Gullar, Cultura posta em questão (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1965). See Irene Small’s excellent essay for a lengthier discussion of the book and Gullar’s turn away from vanguard theory. Irene V. Small, “Exit and Impasse: Ferreira Gullar and the ‘New History’ of the Last Avant-Garde,” Third Text 26, 1 (January 2012): 91-101.
53.  On March 31, 1964 the Brazilian military overthrew the sitting President João Goulart and for the next 21 years ruled the country under a military dictatorship, which included restrictions on civil liberties, eradication of political parties, and pervasive repression and torture of the Brazilian people. See Thomas Skidmore, Politics in Brazil 1930-1964: An Experiment in Democracy (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967, 2007) for a discussion of the events leading to the coup. For a history of Brazil during the dictatorship, see Maria Helena Moreira Alves, State and Opposition in Military Brazil (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985), Thomas E. Skidmore, The Politics of Military Rule in Brazil, 1964-1985 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), and Torture in Brazil: A Shocking Report on the Pervasive Use of Torture by Brazilian Military Governments, 1964-1979, prepared by Archdiocese of São Paulo and trans. Jaime Wright (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998).
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