Regardless of having completed a university degree in chemistry, Willys de Castro worked as a painter, printmaker, theatre designer, graphic designer, concrete poet and composer. In 1953 he began producing his first works in a constructivist orientation. It was also during the mid-1950s that he began producing visual poetry. Around this time, fellow artist Hércules Barsotti opened a graphic design studio, and these activities would have brought de Castro within the realm of the Sao Paulo concrete art (and
In 1958 he went on an educational trip to Europe. The following year, on his return, de Castro became a founding signatory of the 1959 Neoconcrete Manifesto in Rio de Janeiro with fellow artists Hércules Barsotti, Ferreira Gullar, Franz Weissmann and Lygia Clark. The group formed as a reaction to the perceived orthodoxy of Sao Paulo concrete art and poetry. His involvement in the movement would substantially further its theoretical engagement with phenomenology, being both highly significant and original.
From 1959 onwards, de Castro developed the notion of the Active Object, which questioned the two-dimensional nature of the traditional canvas as the only possible support for painting. Composed of rectangular pieces of painted wood, like wooden reliefs, they were painted in an abstract geometric manner. These objects are fixed on the wall, creating a situation that is both a painting and a sculpture. The viewer must move around the work in order to grasp the piece frontally as well as laterally. This aspect of the piece becomes evident by the fact that it cannot be photographed from one single angle. It requires documentation from several points to fully grasp the work. The Active Object is one of the most philosophically resonant and aesthetically seductive artworks of this period. Willys de Castro reduced the frontal plane of the work to merely a thread, that is to say, its own thickness.
In 1960 Willys de Castro was invited by Max Bill to exhibit together with other Brazilian concrete and neoconcrete artists at the exhibition Konkrete Kunst in Zurich. The exhibition sought to present a worldwide survey of Concrete Art, therefore the artists included should be understood as having represented for Bill significant contributors to his overall premise. Many other important surveys displayed works by Willys de Castro, including the 2nd Paris Biennial at the Musée d’Art Moderne de La Ville de Paris, and Brazilian Art Today, at the Royal Academy in London in 1965. In 1977, he participated on the Projeto Construtivo Brasileiro na Arte: 1950-1962 at the Pinacoteca do Estado de Sao Paulo and at the Museu de Arte Moderna of Rio de Janeiro, which was the first national survey of the constructivist tendencies in Brazil. Most recent posthumous exhibitions of note were his participation in Tradição e Ruptura in 1984, Bienal Brasil Século 20 in 1994 and Arte Construtiva no Brasil in 1998, all in Sao Paulo. And most recently Willys de Castro: lado a lado, his solo exhibition at the Instituto de Arte Contemporânea [IAC] curated by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro in 2016
in Sao Paulo.
The admiration for Willys de Castro’s oeuvre cannot be overstated. He has been highly influential not only in Brazil but on an international scale. An exhibition of this calibre could only be possible with the help of our collaborators Almeida e Dale for making it a reality, and helping us secure loans.
Equally important, our thanks go to Raquel Arnaud and Walter de Castro for allowing access to Willys de Castro’s archive and permission to re-print the artists’ text Objeto Ativo. We are grateful to Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro’s thoughtful insights to this publication.
Finally, we would like to thank Rodrigo Naves for allowing the reprint of Willys de Castro: Art by Subtraction originally published in the Folha de Sao Paulo Newspaper following Willys de Castro’s death. This brief and delicate account gives the reader a sense of the artists’ personal and artistic disposition. We extend our heartfelt thanks to the generous lenders André Nobrega, Cacá Nobrega, Jones Bergamin, Myra Arnaud, Paula Marques da Costa, Renata Secchi and Sylvio Nery who have made this exhibition possible.