An Interview with Artist Gonçalo Ivo

February, 2010

 JK: Your introduction to art came at an early age.

GI: My artistic education began in my family’s apartment in Rio de Janeiro. When I was growing up, my father, poet and writer Lêdo Ivo, worked as a journalist. He told me that every month he would set aside some of his salary to buy art. At this time, there weren’t many galleries in Brazil, and an art market hadn’t yet developed. But I grew up in a house full of paintings. My parents’ tastes were very eclectic, and their collection was like a small museum. They collected both Latin American and international artists.

I always wanted to be an artist. I began painting when I was six or seven years old, first with gouache and watercolor and, when I was 13 or 14, with oils. I asked my father to introduce me to his painter friends. Almost every week we would visit an artist’s studio. Also by age 10, I was addicted to music—to Bach, Vivaldi, Brahms, Mahler.

JK: What types of art did you respond to?

GI: From a young age, I was interested in economical and subtle styles of represenation. Sometimes my father would drop me off at the studio of his friend, Iberê Camargo, an important expressionist artist. I loved his still lifes that contained only two or three elements. And I think the thick textures of his oil paintings would exert a lifelong influence on me.

One day my father acquired a painting by an important Brazilian modernist, Alfredo Volpi. Seeing his work was a very powerful experience for me. Volpi had such a strong sense of color. He also had an abstract and spare plastic language. I took a wooden board and made my own Volpian piece. It had an almost vertical line from top to bottom with several converging lines, making the shape of a fish’s bones, all in red and cerulean blue.

JK: In 1970 your parents bought a small farm high in the mountains, about 15 miles from the city of Teresópolis and some 80 miles from Rio.

GI: The main house was built by a German immigrant in the late 40s. Half the property was covered by high altitude tropical forest and half he had planted as a large eucalyptus forest. At that time, I was 11 years old.

There was a small storage shed on the property that became my first studio. During high school, I would spend weekends and summer vacations there.

Of course over the years, my studio in Teresópolis would undergo many transformations. Below is a photo of a newly added studio space with its view of the mountains in the distance.

studio view
Teresópolis studio space

JK: When did you begin your formal art studies?

GI: At 16 I entered the Museum of Modern Art in Rio to study painting with Sérgio Campos Mello and drawing with Aluísio Carvão. Sérgio, a great Dionysian, was experimenting with conceptual art. We discussed modern and contemporary work— Hopper, Sheeler, Stael, Pollock, Rothko, the Pop artists, and many others. Carvão, a seminal concrete and Grupo Frente artist, told me that I “knew how to draw.” I was his youngest pupil, and he always showed my work as an example.

As I said, there was barely an art market in Brazil at that time. My father saw that many of his artist friends were suffering economically. He insisted that I attend university and study architecture. However, I still continued to paint and draw, and soon I became known as an artist—primarily a watercolorist.

At 19 I took part in my first important exhibition. Leading artists from Brazil sent work to this show. For me—a young and unknown artist—to have been accepted as I was, was very important. Two years later, I had my first solo exhibition. The work I showed was all figurative. I explored shadow and light in realistic paintings of windows—sort of minimalist interpretations of Hopper and watercolor landscapes of the countryside, urban and suburban settings.

The following year, I took my first trip to Europe. I would sightsee during the day and return to my hotel at night to compulsively make drawings and watercolors. When I returned to Brazil, I decided to wait until the following semester to return to architecture school. I spent five months in Teresópolis painting, dedicating myself to watercolor. One series focused on landscape and a second on the painter’s table.

Intimate LandscapeFrom Madrid to Joseph Cornell
Intimate Landscape, watercolor, 50 x 70 cm, (20 x 28 in), 1981From Madrid to Joseph Cornell, watercolor,
50 x 70 cm 
(20 x 28 in) 1981

In 1983 I received a Diploma in Architecture from the Fluminense Federal University in Rio de Janeiro. At this time, I was frequently exhibiting my paintings and was receiving attention from critics and collectors. I began teaching watercolor at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio. I taught on Monday and Friday afternoons, so I had the rest of the week to work—for the first time as a professional artist. I also had time to study and experiment.

Very important in the early 80s was my growing interest in African art. I frequented the best bookstore in Rio that carried imported books and catalogs. I also began to listen to African and ethnic music. I remember I bought a beautiful book about the South African Ndebele people. The women paint their houses with geometric patterns. At this time, I was also touched by Amish quilts, African textiles, and Nepalese paper craft.

JK: We can see new directions your work was taking by examining some small watercolors and sketchbook images from 1984.

GI: The three small watercolors below represent a period of transition toward something new, something that would develop over the course of many years. There is clearly a geometric organization of space in these watercolors. Charibdes is very close to the Oratório series I do today. Actually, my more purely geometric watercolors came from this early period.

I still have these small books of watercolors. For me they are extremely important—they are my psalms, my books of prayers.

CharibdesPreparation for MusicWednesday Flag
Charibdes (Charibdes), watercolor,
23.5 x 17 cm (9 x 7 in), 1984
Preparo para a Música (Preparation for
watercolor, 23.5 x 17 cm
(9 x 7 in), 1984
Bandeira da Quarta-feira no Sitio S.
Wednesday Flag at the Sitio S. João),
watercolor, 23.5 x 17 cm (9 x 7 in), 1984

The images from the spiral watercolor sketchbook below were done at the same time. I used to paint some 10 to 15 watercolors a day in addition to working on larger paintings in acrylics. In 1983 I had seen a beautiful exhibition of Turner’s watercolors and travel sketchbooks at the Prado in Madrid. I was finding that watercolor gave me great freedom to express myself.

Sketchbook 1984
Watercolors from a sketchbook from 1984

The images below are examples of a large series I began in tempera and collage on small cigar boxes. They show a clear simplification of form and space.

JK: And the early use of the grid in your paintings.

Untitled, tempera on cigar box lid,
18 x 18 cm (7 x 7 in), 1985
Untitledtempera and collage on cigar box lid,
16 x 26 cm (6 x 10 in), 1985

GI: Yes. Perhaps these images and those below reflect the colors of the night and the complex grid of city lights.

To José EscadaA Sleepless NIght on the Edge of the Wharf
A José Escada (To José Escada)watercolor,
23.5 x 17 cm (9 x 7 in), 1985
Uma Nolte de Insônia na Beira do Cais (A Sleepless
Night on 
the Edge of the Wharf), watercolor,
23.5 x 17 cm (9 x 7 in), 1985

JK: In 1986 you married biologist Denise Esquenazi.

GI: Yes, and I began working full-time as a painter. In the following years we began living at the farm, and I added more rooms to it, as I have continued to do over time.

JK: Looking at two watercolors from that late 80s, we see the complex gridded arrangements of triangles and rectangles evident in more recent work.

MeridianWatercolor Nocturne
Meridiano (Meridian)watercolor,
23.5 x 17 cm (9 x 7 in), 1987
Aquarela Noturna (Watercolor Nocturne),
watercolor, 23.5 x 17 cm (9 x 7 in), 1988

GI: Yes. I was also making large monochromatic oil paintings at this time. I was gradually becoming deeply affected by the Teresópolis landscape, by the eucalypus forest adjoining the farm.

Teresópolis forest
Forest around Teresópolis

I began making a series called Forests in the early 80s. The Forests work below also reflects my study of Cézanne and, in this case, his painting, Les Baigneuses.

Floresta (Forest), oil on canvas, 175 x 175 cm (69 x 69 in), 1989

GIUnder contract to a commercial gallery, it was only after four years that I felt my work was mature enough to warrant a solo show. I think this was a good decision. Daily work in the studio helped me to more deeply explore color, form, and construction and how to express them pictorially.

Despite all the small squares and triangles in the works below, I still see an overall simplification of space, an important kinship to the work I’ve done more recently.

Cloth from the CoastAfrican Painting
Pano da Costa (Cloth from the
oil on canvas, 100 x 40 cm
(39 x 16 in), 1993
Pintura Africana (African Painting),
oil on canvas, 100 x 40 cm
(39 x 16 in), 1993

JK: It’s interesting that in the 1990s, you resumed figurative painting.

GI: In addition to working abstractly, I was developing a large series based on trees, the majority of which I made between 1996 and 2001, an especially prolific time for me.

The Trees series really began with the painting below. I had been working on a large grid-based work that I was not pleased with. In the orchard next to my studio, there was a dead pear tree that I refused to have cut down. Its trunk and twisted branches were a haven for birds, parasites and fungi. Its branches were dry and white like bones. During the night, its flickering outline came like a large wave sliding over the blue sea bed.

The Orchard
Le Verger (The Orchard), oil on canvas,
200 x 180 cm (79 x 71 in), 1995

During the period when I worked on the Trees series, I was also looking at a lot of figurative work. I think that with this series I was asserting my right to paint in any style I wished, to be diverse in my work.

The Road, tempera and collage on canvas,
35 x 24 cm, (14 x 9 in), 2001
Night, tempera and collage on canvas,
35 x 24 cm (14 x 9 in), 2001

To me, the two small temperas with gold leaf below evoke the Italian landscape. And I have a strong interest in medieval art. In many paintings from the MIddle Ages and even the Renaissance, you’ll see images of an apostle carrying a miniature of a church in his hand. These paintings also loosely allude to this scene.

IluminuraThe Italian Painter's House
Iluminura, tempera, collage and gold leaf on
canvas, 35 x 24 cm (14 x 9 in), 1999
Iluminura, oil, tempera, collage and gold leaf on
canvas, 35 x 24 in (14 x 9 in), 1999

JK: And, as with so many of your series, your works range from very intimate temperas and watercolors to very large oils on canvas.

GI: Yes. One strange thing about the Trees series was that the paintings only worked well either in very small formats or at a large scale, as in the case with The Lake. This painting evokes a small lake near my studio, the pear tree and eucalyptus. If you turn the painting on end, you see the same structure as the Oratories works in the intervals between the trees.

The Lake
O Lago (The Lake), oil on canvas, 200 x 480 cm (79 x 189 in), 2000

: Your Forests paintings are generally more abstract.

Forest, Vargem GrandeArcade for Maria Leontina
Floresta, Vargem Grande
(Forest, Vargem Grande)
oil on canvas, 100 x 40 cm
(39 x 16 in), 1993
Arcade pour Maria Leontina, (Arcade for Maria
oil on canvas, 65 x 40 cm
(26 x 16 in), 1995

GI: I’m often inspired to translate the sights that move me into my own pictorial language. Just as I’ve done with the the fish traps I saw along the northern coast of Brazil, I try to capture my experience of the forests around the Teresópolis farm in a personal and poetic way.

The ForestForest of Oblivion
La Forêt (The Forest), tempera and collage on
35 x 24 cm (14 x 9 in), 1999
La Forêt de L’Oubli (Forest of Oblivion), watercolor,
38 x 30 cm (15 x 12 in), 2003

JK: In these two watercolors below from 2001, their complex structures remind me of the Panos works and others.

GII think my work travels a circular path—I always return to earlier subjects.

Painting for Thomas TonkinsUntitled
Pintura para Thomas Tonkins (Painting for Thomas Tonkins),
watercolor, 37 x 31.5 cm (15 x 12 in), 2001
Untitled, watercolor, 37 x 31.5 cm (15 x 12 in), 2001

JK: Returning to an examination of some of your ongoing series or themes, you’ve done many paintings that deal with various aspects of architecture.

GI: Many sources influence this work. When I was a child, my father gave me a set of wooden blocks, some with colored drawings on their faces—like windows, doors, church towers. You could build a town with these blocks. I loved this toy. When I studied architecture at the university, I was mainly interested in low cost architecture. I began to visit the poorer areas outside Rio where many houses had striking geometric features or painted facades. I’m also attracted to simple, clean buildings adorned by a plain geometry—like chapels at the side of road.

In this painting, Cidade or City, I was thinking of the buildings of the Dogon people of Mali. The small white areas might be windows or empty spaces and create a rhythm like Mondrian used in the Boogie Woogie paintings.

Cidade (City), oil on canvas, 97 x 130 cm (38 x 54 in), 2004

In The City and the Sun below, I was interesed in how the light of the sun spreads across the geometric shapes.

The City and the Sun
La Ville et le Soleil (The City and the Sun), tempera and collage on canvas,
90 x 180 cm (35 x 71 in), 2005

It took me four years to finish African Cathedral. I have many paintings that I leave unfinished in a corner of my studio. One day I may decide to work on one. If I like the result, it’s done. If not, it goes back to the same place.

African Cathedral
Cathédrale Africana (African Cathedral), oil on canvas, 130 x 240 cm (51 x 94 in), 2004-2009

The Cathedral painting below suggests a fragile structure.

Cathédrale (Cathedral)oil on canvas,
195 x 114 cm (77 x 45 in), 2008

JK: You have an entire series in part inspired by the color and geometry of building facades.

GI: In these paintings I’m interested in geometry and also frontality. These works also speak to an extensive series of facade paintings by Brazilian modernist, Alfredo Volpi, whose work so impressed me as a child.

Façade (Facade), tempera and collage on canvas,
46 x 33 cm (18 x 13 in), 2004

JK: In these two Facade paintings, we see this very strong frontality as well as intense colors.

GI: These paintings present a relatively flat plane and in part reflect my fascination with work from the Middle Ages—all the shiny gold and strong contrasts of color.

Facade of São FelixFacade
Fachada de São Felix (Facade of São Felix),
tempera and gold leaf on canvas, 46 x 33 cm
(18 x 13 in), 2004
Façade (Facade), tempera and gold leaf on canvas,
46 x 33 cm (18 x 13 in), 2004

The Facades below suggest both African Dogon constructions and fish trap imagery.

Façade (Facade), tempera on linen,
73 x 50 cm (29 x 20 in), 2003
Façade (Facade), tempera on linen,
46 x 33 cm (18 x 13 in), 2003

JK: We’ve already seen images from two of your very large series—Panos da Costa and Tissu d’Afrique— that reflect your love for textiles from Africa and South America.

GI: I’ve admired patterns and fabrics for a long time, I believe since the 80s. I remember that as a child, a poet friend of my father’s gave me two boubous—traditional garments from the northwest coast of Africa. They had geometric shapes and intense colors. To everyone’s surprise, I would dress in them. Today I have a very large collection of books about patterns, textiles, rugs, and so on.

Cloth from the Coast
Pano da Costa (Cloth from the Coast), tempera on canvas,
100 x 100 cm ( 39 x 39 in), 2001

The first time I saw the term “pano da costa” was as the title of on a piece by trumpeter John Hassel on a CD by the Kronos Quartet, an American string quartet. Music is always present as a source of inspiration in my life.

Cloth from the Coast
Pano da Costa (Cloth from the Coast), oil on canvas, 97 x 195 cm (38 x 76 in), 2007

Years ago, I had visited Cachoeira, a small city in Bahai, the state in Brazil that has had the most African immigration. There is a procession there that celebrates the beautiful pano da costa textiles brought to Brazil from the west coast of Africa. In Portuguese “costa” also means “back,” and these textiles were worn on women’s backs for magical protection.

Cloth from the Coast
Pano da Costa (Cloth from the Coast), tempera and collage on canvas,
90 x 180 cm (35 x 71 in), 2007

To me, the Pano da Costa paintings are like polyphonic music.

Cloth from the Coast
Pano da Costa (Cloth from the Coast), oil on canvas, 97 x 195 cm (38 x 77 in), 2009

JK: Your large series, Tissu d’Afrique or African Fabric, is also inspired by bold and frequently geometrically patterned textiles.

African Textile
Tissu d’Afrique (African Textile), tempra and collage on canvas,
97 x 130 cm (38 x 51 in), 2005

GI: I began this series in 2003 or 2004. These paintings are further ways for me to explore color—its possibilities and limits.

African Textile
Tissu d’Afrique (African Textile), tempera and collage on canvas,
97 x 130 cm (38 x 51 in), 2005

JK: It’s interesting how you sometimes add thin bands of contrasting stripes that run up and down the vertical edges of these paintings.

GI: These edges make the work more fluid and ambiguous. Their different colors and intensities add a strange tension as the eye has to constantly adjust as it moves toward these edges. They also provide a kind of entrance to and exit from the painting.

African Textile
Tissu d’Afrique (African Textile), oil on canvas, 260 x 580 cm (102 x 228 in), 2007

This series had its origins in my Rios paintings.

African Textile
Tissu d’Afrique (African Textile), oil on canvas,
130 x 97 cm (51 x 38 in), 2008

JK: The recent, more simplified Tissu d’Afrique paintings—like the one below—seem to lead directly into your Oratory series.

African Textile
Tissu d’Afrique (African Textile), oil on canvas, 114 x 195 cm (45 x 77 in), 2009

GI: I think that in the last few years, my work has become a synthesis of all I’ve done. Though I haven’t stopped making paintings with small rectangles and triangles, there’s a movement toward simplicity, toward a totality in which color and form are one, toward larger spaces and toward silence.

Oratório (Oratory), oil on canvas, 97 x 130 cm (38 x 51 in), 2009

As I’ve said, I want to create a place for the eye and the mind. This has led me to make very large paintings. I want to create the feeling of standing before a large wave or the walls of ancient churches, or produce the delightful sensation of looking into the immensity of a deep blue sky.

two large Oratory paintings
Two large Oratório (Oratory) paintings

JK: In addition to the Oratory series—an oratory being a place of prayer—you have another series called Prière or Prayer.

Prière (Prayer), tempera, collage and gold and silver leaves on canvas, 70 x 210 cm ( 28 x 83 in), 2006

GI: These are long horizontal works. When finished they remind me of musical scores, interminable litanies or fugues and variations. In each there is the search for color—or rather for a chromatic rhythm. They also bring a sensation of the mobility of form, plane and space within a shallow depth.

Prière (Prayer), tempera, collage and gold and copper leaf on canvas, 70 x 210 cm (28 x 83 in), 2006

They are painted in tempera with gold, silver and copper leaf and collaged with popular Chinese prayer papers. They are my visual psalms. When I began to really concentrate on watercolors in the early 80s, I was in love with the illuminated manuscripts made by monks and priests in the Middle Ages. If you look at the Prière series, you will find some similarities.

JK: You divide your time between Paris and Teresópolis.

GI: I’ve lived with my family in Paris since 2000, though Denise and I had lived there for shorter periods of time since 1993. For the past six years, we’ve lived in a lovely apartment that’s near Opéra Garnier, Place de la Concorde and Place Vendôme. I don’t believe there’s a connection between the Parisian cityscape and my current painting. What really affects me in Paris is its cultural environment.

View from Ivo's Paris apartment
View from Ivo’s Paris apartment

I work when my children are at school, perhaps from 8 am to 4 pm. I primarily work in small and medium formats or in sketchbooks.

Paaris studioParis studio
Paris studioParis studio

The situation in Teresópolis is completely different. Over the years, the landscape there has affected me profoundly.

Teresópolis studio building
Teresópolis studio building

I’m a pictorial animal. The studio is my space. There I feel that time does not exist. In Teresópolis I have several large studio spaces. I wake up very early, about 4 or 5 am. I have my coffee, talk to the dogs, look at the many birds in the sky. I work until about 6 pm and by 9 I’m in bed.

Teresópolis studio spaceTeresópolis studio space
Teresópolis studio space for painting small worksTeresópolis studio space for painting large works

Making art is a way out of the material world, out of everyday life. For me, the daily practice of making art is an act of devotion that has its own rituals and practices.

Installation view 2008
Installation view of Ivo’s solo exhibition, Museum of Fine Arts, Rio de Janeiro, 2008

Over the years, this practice has taught me much about life and its significance. Today we live in a pragmatic society where people are increasingly loosing the ability to think, see and reflect. In this scenario art is essential.

Gonçalo Ivo
Gonçalo Ivo in his Teresopólis studio
(Photo: Sérgio Guerini)

More information about Gonçalo Ivo at:

Interview images and text copyright © 2010 Julie Karabenick & Gonçalo Ivo. All Rights Reserved.

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