Schendel’s legacy is powerful, but her art was utterly, achingly fragile. In the series of works titled Droguinhas—literally “little drugs,” a slang expression in Brazil for inconsequential things, throwaways—she twisted, knotted, and braided delicate rice paper into elaborate, tangled accumulations that hang from the ceiling or are piled on the floor. These works were not intended to last: sculpture, for Schendel, was not a stable thing but impermanent, fleeting—a catalyst, infusing the experience of the viewer like an intoxicating substance.
The artist was born in Zurich, studied in Milan, and then fled to Yugoslavia during World War II; in 1946 she moved to São Paulo, where she became a major figure in Brazilian art, upending traditional Western orthodoxies about making, composing, and meaning. Throughout her experiments in different mediums, whether drawing or painting or poetry, Schendel surrendered the artist’s control over an artwork, abdicating her own decision-making to other factors: the shape of a support, the passage of time, the inclinations of a material. Perhaps this is why the Droguinhas look almost as if they were grown, rather than made. Like many of her Brazilian and European contemporaries, Schendel believed that meaning lies not in the artist’s intention but in the hands of the viewer, and in the world beyond the work.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
In the mid-1960s, Schendel produced a series of three-dimensional works made of knotted rice paper she had intertwined by hand. She thought of them as ephemeral sculpturesnot meant to lastand called them Droguinhas (literally "little drugs"), a Brazilian slang expression that means "nothing"or indicates something worthless. Schendel, one of the major figures of postwar Brazilian art, was also a trained philosopher and poet. She used her art to address existential questions and to subvert the traditional hierarchies between artistic mediums.
Gallery label from Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction, April 19 - August 13, 2017.