Sérgio Sister: Images of a Pop Youth
9 August 2019
The 9th Bienal de São Paulo, which opened to the public on 22 September 1967, is arguably best remembered as 'the Pop Art Bienal'—dubbed so for its presentation of exemplary American Pop art that included works by Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and, of course, Andy Warhol.
Sérgio Sister, Untitled (1967). Spray, collage, seam and acrylic paint on canvas. 89 x 116 cm; 35 1/16 x 45 11/16 inches. Courtesy Galeria Nara Roesler.
The same Bienal also featured Brazilian artists who had developed their own aesthetic of Pop art, drawing inspiration from not only popular culture but also the socio-political issues of their context. One such artist was São Paulo native Sérgio Sister, then 19 years of age, whose paintings Os mitos e as massas (The Myths and the Masses) (1967) and Real e fantástico (Real and Fantastic) (1967) were included in the show. While both works have since been lost, a description of the latter survives on the artist's website as '"a Pop work, with flat, leveled figures," informed by the look of comic strips and the psychedelic strain of British and North American graphic arts of the mid-1960s.'
An idea of what Real e fantástico might have looked like can be glimpsed in Images of a Pop Youth — Political Paintings and Prison Drawings, Sister's upcoming solo exhibition at Galeria Nara Roesler in São Paulo (10 August–5 September 2019). Centring on his early years as an artist, Images of a Pop Youth will exhibit 15 paintings from between 1966 and 1967, which show the touch of Pop art on Sister's practice, alongside drawings produced during his incarceration at the Tiradentes prison between 1970 and 1971.
Sister, who was born in São Paulo in 1948, began painting in Ernestina Karmen's studios and the open courses offered at the Fundação Armando Alvares Penteado in 1964; his day job was as a reporter for the Última Hora newspaper from 1966. By 1968, he had enrolled to study Social Sciences at the University of São Paulo and joined the Brazilian Revolutionary Communist Party, which advocated for action against the military regime in Brazil that had overthrown the democratically elected government of President João Goulart in 1964. Sister's political activism was influenced by the increasing government censorship of the arts since it came to power—in the 9th Bienal de São Paulo, for example, the Federal Police confiscated and later destroyed several artworks on the grounds of disrespecting the nation.
Sister's Pop paintings in Images of a Pop Youth are characterised by his use of speech balloons and figures with tadpole-like faces and white, blank eyes, often rendered flat and textured in limited colour palettes. In an untitled acrylic painting from 1967, thick black lines divide a portrait-format canvas into rectangular spaces that recall comic strips, with figures populating these spaces extending hearts to each other and gazing at circles. Many of Sister's canvases resemble comic strips, such as in another untitled 1967 work in which a character, coloured in with yellow, shouts 'Eu!'—or, 'I!' in Portuguese—with a mass of other figures in white coming into view as the comic progresses.
Compared to the passionate young women who inhabit Lichtenstein's comic-paintings—known for borrowing devices like Ben-Day dots and black contours—Sister's figures are often engulfed in violence. In one untitled work from 1966, signed 'Sister-66-boutique', a female figure with bloodied genitalia poses before heads, their eyes red and bleeding. In another unnamed painting from the same year, a canvas is divided into two sides—a black figure sits on the left studying a piece of paper composed of black-and-white photographs, its body filled with red circles, and on the right a figure shouts 'Fogo! (Fire!)' as it faces two bodies seemingly hanging by their necks, their bodies ensnared by red and white spray paint. The word 'USA' appears twice in the work, possibly referring to the U.S. support for the military coup in Brazil.
The close relationship between violence and politics in Sister's early paintings is exemplary of what distinguishes Brazilian Pop art from its American counterpart. Antonio Dias, who was Sister's senior by four years, produced paintings featuring graphic imagery in the 1960s, notably Querida, você está bem? (Darling, are you Alright?) (1964), in which anthropomorphic figures in black contours and colours of white, yellow, and red, spill blood or smoke. The work recalls Brazilian cordel literature—pamphlets containing popular songs, poems, and folk novels with woodblock-printed illustrations.
Sister's untitled paintings from 1966 and 1967 share stylistic parallels with his contemporaries' works. By adopting techniques and subject matter from popular culture—notably Warhol's mass-produced Campbell soup can prints and Oldenburg's transformation of small commercial items into massive outdoor sculptures—American Pop artists responded to the prevalent commercialism that had begun to define their culture. For Brazilian artists, by contrast, Pop art became a means of resistance against the military regime and U.S. hegemony in Brazil. Antônio Henrique Amaral's Homenagem ao Século 20/21 (Homage to XX/XXI Centuries) (1967), for example, depicts a Brazilian general with four mouths that vomit the stars and red-and-white stripes of the American flag.
From afar, Sister's Pop-influenced paintings represent a fleeting moment in his life. When he was imprisoned in 1970, the artist encountered many architects and artists—Julio Barone, Sérgio Ferro, Rodrigo Lefèvre, and Carlos Takaoka, among others, for instance—with whom he expanded his knowledge of art history and produced drawings that constitute the remainder of Images of a Pop Youth. These drawings still exhibit traces of Pop art, such as the use of text and comic strip panels and reference to popular culture. One untitled drawing from 1970 is fashioned like a board game, with a figure that says, 'Advance ao paraiso' (Advance to paradise). Compared to Sister's earlier paintings, however, these drawings exhibit more saturated colours as a result of the limited materials—oil pastels and hydrographic pens—he had at hand.
Since prison, Sister has focused on the possibilities of the medium of painting. Today, he is better known for his work with fruit crates, begun in 1996, which involves painting the slates of crates and assembling them into a myriad of different combinations to interrogate space beyond the two-dimensional canvas. Yet despite constituting a specific moment in the artist's trajectory, Sister's early Pop paintings, many of which have not been exhibited in public before, provide an invaluable insight into both the artist's evolution and that of Pop art in Brazil.—[O]