Guy Brett (1942–2021)
February 17th, 2021
AT A 2008 TATE MUSEUM TALK on Chilean artist Eugenio Dittborn, Guy Brett recalled a studio visit during which Dittborn kept fussing with unwieldy canvases, growing frustrated. “Fucking rigidity,” Dittborn had exclaimed, bashing the canvases to the wall. This aversion to the static, a trait endemic to the artists he championed, is just as applicable to Brett himself. The critic and curator had an abhorrence for the rigid, contempt for anything that refused to bend to the shape of the world. He was attracted to vitality, to art that marked, as he put it, “a new relationship with life.”
The British-born Brett discovered a vein of such artmaking in Rio de Janeiro, where he traveled in 1965 as an art critic for the London Times at the age of twenty-two. There, he encountered the rousing neo-Concretism of Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, among others, artists whose international reputations are owed in part to Brett’s rigorous, lifelong advocacy. In a 2013 Tate video, he remembers spending the whole day at Mira Schendel’s studio without eating or drinking, so enraptured was he by the artist’s suspended rice paper deconstructions of language, a nod to the idea of the void that still captivated Brett decades later.
My memories of Brett begin in childhood: a kindly, soft-spoken man content to sip tea and flip through art books for hours with my artist parents. My father had known Brett since the ’60s, frequenting the same London social circuit. Brett’s quiet curiosity registers in his writing—the way he glides through a phrase, description, or idea like a silversmith, working quickly and methodically before the material hardens. Whether considering the thorny allure of the ángeles arcabuceros or the sociocultural plurality of Lygia Pape’s sculptures, his essays approach art as an inquiry into how humans live, both past and present. They are largely devoid of jargon, letting the artists and their work speak for themselves.
Brett began his long writing career by copublishing the Signals Newsbulletin in 1964, later helping to found the short-lived but pivotal exhibition space of the same name in London. The gallery, although international in scope, became a stronghold for the Latin American vanguard, showcasing artists such as Jesús Rafael Soto, Carlos Cruz-Diez, and Sérgio de Camargo. For the Arts Council of Great Britain, Brett curated his first exhibition, “In Motion” (1966), dedicated to the growing field of kinetic art. The show brought together artists such as Jean Tinguely, Pol Bury, and David Medalla (the latter, a fellow Signals cofounder, died last December). In 1969, Brett organized Oiticia’s first and only major solo exhibition in his lifetime. Titled “The Whitechapel Experiment” and held at the eponymous East End gallery, the show featured an intricate set of “penetrable” installations, the most famous of which was Tropicália, 1966–67. A staged beach paradise abounding with a flurry of palms, sand, samba, and live parrots, the show nodded to both Brazilian stereotypes and the muzzling of quotidian joy by the recent military coup.
In his 2008 Tate talk, Brett emphasized how Eugenio Dittborn sent his “Airmail Paintings” to institutions and interlocutors around the world “in spite of” the restrictions of Pinochet’s dictatorship. This phrase crops up throughout, and perhaps even defines, Brett’s output as a critic and curator: in spite of. A philosophy of doing it anyway. He worked tirelessly to promote radical art from the margins despite the valuations of the market and the hegemony of the Global North. Brett’s 1986 book Through Our Own Eyes: Popular Art and Modern History challenged exclusionary and canonical accounts of contemporary art, treating diverse practices including Chilean arpilleras; the “peasant paintings” of Huxian, China; and artwork by survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings as cultural production of “great significance.” Such work, he wrote, “can often give a deeper insight into the contemporary world than the major established forms of art.” His 1990 exhibition “Transcontinental: Nine Latin American Artists” at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham highlighted his resistance to monolithic and exotified understandings of the Latin American “other” and continued his efforts to contextualize South America as a hotbed for experimentation and political engagement from which Europe could take cues. Brett’s much-cited 2000 exhibition “Force Fields: Phases of the Kinetic,” which showed at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona and at London’s Hayward Gallery, surveyed and reframed kinetic art, carving out space to include the likes of Schendel and Agnes Denes. Reviewing “Force Fields” in these pages, Yve-Alain Bois articulated how the show “reopened a chapter in the history of postwar art that was too promptly closed and forgotten.”
Brett distrusted the museum. In his 1991 essay “Unofficial Versions,” he expressed resentment at its compulsion to “remove objects from life,” even though he himself would enjoy curatorial forays in major institutions like the Camden Art Center and Tate Modern later in life. He was keenly aware of how the amnesia of Eurocentrism sterilized the relationship between history and art, and saw how art institutions are shaped by coloniality. But he never stopped looking at art, especially art from the Global South, for its potential to shift worldviews and flatten hierarchies.
Suffusing his acute institutional critique is a surprising hope, a belief in the ability of art to let us begin again. What drew Brett to the work of artists like Oiticica and Clark was faith in regeneration, in a creative practice that exceeds the body, that both reflects the conditions of the outside world and suggests that another world is possible. In the end, Guy Brett’s description of Oiticica applies just as easily to Guy Brett: “a radical in his adherence to a principle of renewal.”
Rosa Boshier is a Los Angeles–based writer whose work has appeared in Guernica, The Guardian, and Hyperallergic, among other publications.