Beatriz Milhazes was born in Rio de Janeiro and lives and works there. Her father was a lawyer, and her mother was an art historian who encouraged her daughter’s artistic talent. Growing up in a repressive Brazilian regime where access to contemporary art was rare, her mother was able to get access to some contemporary art. Mihazes studied journalism at school and took art classes at night. From 1978 until 1981, she studied Social Communication at Helio Alonso University and completed a two year course at Paque Lage School of Visual Arts from 1980 until 1982. While making art and getting her career started, she taught and coordinated art activities at the School of Visual Art from 1986 until 1996. Her schooling, current home, and two studios, are in the neighborhood of the Botanical Garden and the Tijuca Forest in Rio. Early in her career she found her direction. “I am an abstract painter and I speak an international language, but my interest is in things and behaviors that can only be found in Brazil.”
An example of her early work is “The Year We Lived Dangerously” (1995) (77’’x77’’). Her work draws on Brazilian, Latin American, American, and European influences combined with her interest in the decorative arts, ceramics, Rio Carnival decorations, laces, ruffles, colonial architectural details, opera, classical and Brazilian music, specifically Bossanova, and the richly colored flowers and foliage of Brazil. Her use of vibrant colors is an antithesis to traditional and contemporary Brazilian art favoring dull colors that are considered the colors of the upper class and therefore “high art.” Bright colors found in Carnival and the pleasures of common people are associated with “low art.” Milhazes explains, “There is no special interest in color. Brazil is a colorful country, but its art isn’t. That is why people get confused. I use elements from my culture, and color is one of them, but I’m the only one to do this.”
[“My paintings are never improvised, but about a process. Nothing is there by chance – my work is very rational.” Milhazes developed her process early in the 1980’s when she intensively studied printmaking processes. First she paints with acrylics on a shaped plastic sheet which then she glues, paint side down, to the canvas. When the paint has dried she peels the plastic from the canvas leaving the paint attached. The shaped plastic sheets can be used again. Her working process allows her to use colors with a variety of sheens, and she is careful to leave no visible brushstrokes. However, since 1989, when small parts of the color design flake and look like decay, she has decided to keep them. Above all, the structure of her work was influenced by geometry: “I am seeking geometrical structures, but with freedom of form and imagery taken from different worlds. My challenge has always been the same. I’m interested in life and my surroundings, but to make it work as a painting, I do need to think as a geometric and conceptual artist in my studio.”
Milhazes has a large output of work including both large and small acrylic works and silkscreen prints, and she has been commissioned to create a number of large installations. In 2005, the Circle Line of the British Metro commissioned her to paint 19 vaulted arches in the Gloucester Road Tube Station. The theme of the paintings was “Peace and Love”, intended to generate a peaceful and happy environment for the thousands of passing commuters. It is a time when people can be rushed and harried, contented or frustrated, whether waiting for the next train patiently or anxiously. In all instances the brilliant colors and exuberant forms should help them pass the time. Approximately 13 million persons get to enjoy these murals each year. In 2008, Milhazes was back in London and installed a mural, Guanabara Bay, on the wall of the Tate Modern Museum’s cafeteria wall. It is joyful to behold and is a bright and happy place for lunch, if the beer is warm.
Her process of gluing colored sheets and other items onto canvas is a form of collage. “Collages have a kind of dialogue with an imaginary journal. Collected papers come from a variety of interests: sometimes it’s an aesthetic attraction, but other times they’re part of a routine, such as with chocolate wrapping paper or cuttings remaining from existing impressions. That’s why composition in collage creates a dialogue that’s exclusive to collages.” Collage is also a response to the repressive Brazilian government (1964-1985), when Carnival was a quiet revolt against oppression. Artists of all sorts used paper, plastic and other recycled and cheap materials to make their art. For example Milhazes Gamboa I, (2009), was hung from the ceiling of the Old Mint Building in New Orleans. “So I link the carnival in New Orleans with the Carnival in Rio. It will make this kind of dialogues between two cities.” Gamboa II, (2013-15), displayed in the Jewish Museum in New York City in 2016, is a “composition of shiny, candy-colored paper and plastic (which) recall this history with forms that seem playful, but are rooted in Brazil’s recent political history.”
Milhazes has work is in museums and private collections world wide. She makes eleven to twelve paintings a year, and collectors wait for eighteen months or more for one of her works. She made a site-specific work called “Moon Love Dreaming” (2016)(1311×102’’) in collaboration with Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima. Kazujo’s pavilion is at Grace Farms in New Canaan, Connecticut. Her 108 foot-long installation, extends the entire inner length of the west wall of the West barn. Influences for the work were the river and hills on the site and the title references Australian Aborigine paintings known as “dreamings.” “I want your eyes to move, and of course, circles don’t have an end. I don’t want your eyes to stop anywhere. I want to use my surroundings. I don’t want to forget them. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t.” The new design influences in her works are never ending, but always include her original reference, Brazil.
Milhazes’s work has taken several forms over the years. Her sister Marcia Mihazes runs the Contemporary Dance Company for which Milhazes has designed several sets. She has made prints with the Durham Press in Eastern Pennsylvania for over twenty years, frequently as an artist in residence. For the Pinton Mill in France, she has worked with master weavers to design tapestries, as have other famous artists such as Alexander Calder and Sonia Delaunay. She has two studios on the same street, one for acrylic painting and one for collage. She feels the paintings and collages “start exchanging language between them.”
In 2016, Jane Morris wrote in “The Economist” that Beatriz Milhazes was “Brazil’s most successful contemporary painter.” In January 2020, Milhazes joined the Pace Gallery in New York: “It is with great enthusiasm that I join Pace Gallery, particularly in this special moment of renewal. The journey has been long and exciting from the moment I first showed my work in North America, at The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC, in 1993, to now. Pace’s impact on art history, with their strong program in abstract art, is well established and their aim to continue its legacy with a new concept of global contemporaneity attests to their commitment to artists such as myself. It is fascinating, and I am excited to be a part of it!”
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.