Antonio Dias (Campina Grande 1944 – Rio de Janeiro 2018)

All his life, Antonio Dias remained utterly unpredictable in terms of artistic expression; he was always good for a surprise and ready to thoroughly challenge habitual expectations. Full of subversive and abysmal humor, he released his creations into the world of art, where they often enough met with incomprehension and produced scandals. His multilayered and plurivalent works consistently defied a conclusive interpretation; he would never be pinned down in his artistic creation, which, in its playful character, invariably also deals with the absurdity and futility of our human condition. His attitude remains elegantly poised; each potential statement at the same time implies its opposite. In this respect, his art has only little in common with the rather one-dimensional messages from his US American colleagues.

Gradual familiarization

I first met Antonio in the mid-1990s in Germany, when he still had a home in Cologne. It took me a while before I was able to recognize the full extent of his artistic activity. This was in part due to his notorious taciturnity when it came to his own works. Never would it have entered his mind to explain, let alone praise, himself or his works. It was consequently a lengthy process to gradually come to know and grasp the content of his extensive oeuvre, which, moreover, by no means had been in toto published.

Elegant understatement

The Illustration of Art/One & Three/Strechers, 1971, Laquered wood and lettering, approx. 110 x 700 x 1,9 cm, Photography: Dominique Uldry, Bern, Courtesy: Daros Latinamerica Collection, Zürich

Antonio never interfered in ongoing purchasing procedures or selection processes for exhibitions; he rather granted absolute freedom and only smiled now and then in his unmistakable way and grinned in this telling manner; that was it. Years later, he would offer sparse comments ex posteriori: he was the incarnation of understatement. He was an elegant cosmopolitan in a very profound manner, but this was nothing he would rub your nose in. He generally betrayed nothing and often seemed aloof, sphinx-like watching the colorful hustle and bustle of the art circus from the distance. Inwardly, however, he drew his conclusions from the occurrences around him. Over all those years, he not only became a dear friend to me, but also a steady and sincere, extremely discreet, helpful, correct, and selfless advisor on Rio de Janeiro and Brazil, and he moreover even thoughtfully promoted other colleagues as well.

Playful seriousness—serious playfulness

Antonio Dias invariably carried out all his works in an impeccable and diligent manner, never missing any detail. He was, of course, a child of his time, of comics, pop art, minimalism, and conceptual art, but he never demeaned himself to prevailing trends—he was above that. He availed himself of both figuration and abstraction simply in order to master a more fluent expression. But he never committed himself permanently to any of these styles—he rather played with them in the manner of a potential artistic reservoir, by all means comparable to his ingenious artist colleague Picabia, with whom he had a subtle elegance and irony in common.

Do it Yourself: Freedom Territory, 1968/2002, Titanium, approx. 400 x 600 cm, Photography: Dominique Uldry, Bern, Courtesy: Daros Latinamerica Collection, Zürich

Antonio was a deeply politically and humanistically minded artist and person, who was nevertheless equally concerned with the aesthetic value of his art. He would integrate his political attitude into his works implicitly or explicitly, according to current requirements. To me, his most «beautiful» works, however, are those where he defies determination, where he poses questions rather than give answers, where he braves the absurd and the paradox of life with an existentialist, agnostic skepticism and yet with a cheerful and life-affirming cheeky boldness. Antonio categorically rejected established «truths» and left free rein to what is unexact, uncertain, unknown, undefined—and probably defines all our lives far more than what is supposedly rational.

Political and poetic freshness

Antonio Dias’s oeuvre outfaces a one-size-fits-all approach. It is never hermetic, but always sensuous and marked by a love for experiments. With exceedingly diverse techniques and materials, it successfully eludes categorization. Eye-winkingly and full of subversive power, Antonio manages to hold his work in a poise of ambiguity. Simultaneously originating from what is concretely socio-political and at the same time subconsciously poetic, his works unfold an immense, lyrical power, which makes the engagement with them and their numerous levels of meaning and references so rich. Embedded within the art of his generation, Antonio’s works go far beyond recording the zeitgeist. They evince astonishing freshness and currentness that never fail to surprise us over and again.

The Wall Painter, 1970, Acrylic and letraset on canvas, 130 x 162 x 3,3 cm, Photography: Vicente de Mello, Courtesy: Daros Latinamerica Collection, Zürich

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