In general, I do not want to meet the artists I fall in love with. I’m keen to preserve the relationship between the art and myself. But that changed when I saw José Leonilson’s work in person for the first time, in the exhibition “Empty Man” at the Americas Society in New York.
In Brazil, Leonilson is considered one of the most important artists of his generation. Born in the northeastern city of Fortaleza, he came of age in the 1980s, in the years immediately following Brazil’s twenty-year dictatorship. Emerging from oppressive times, he and his peers embraced the pleasures of painting, and they made bright and figurative work. But Leonilson’s art was also uniquely personal and literary; words float alone or in poetic arrangements (“here comes your man / full of numbers and words”). His presence looms over almost everything he left behind.
Leonilson died in 1993, at the age of thirty-six, of AIDS. He had learned of his illness only two years prior. As his health rapidly deteriorated, he shifted from painting to making small embroideries on pockets, bags, and bits of canvas. The Americas Society exhibition begins with these later, quietly beautiful works, and is framed around a quote by T. S. Eliot: “In my beginning is my end … In my end is my beginning.” An early 1975 self-portrait, made from denim jeans and with buttons for eyes, presages the introspective works Leonilson made in the last years of his life.
“I don’t make impersonal things,” he once said. He liked to paint the body: the brain, the lungs, and the heart. One painting from 1988 delineates human organs, with words flowing through and around them, including the phrase “the streets of the city.” The names of cities he visited—Madrid, Basel, Bordeaux—often appear in his art; but he was more a wanderer than a traveler.
“I am searching for something,” he said, “but I don’t know what I’m looking for.” Leonilson recorded these thoughts in his audio diaries, which he kept on tape cassettes from 1990 until his death three years later. He talks about the time he watched the Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas, and how lost the main character appears as he aimlessly walks the desert. Leonilson breaks down into tears, recognizing himself.
His audiotapes weren’t discovered until after he died. In 2015, Carlos Nader, a friend of Leonilson’s, made them into a film titled The Passion of JL. The incredibly moving project, which screened this Thursday at the New School in New York, is narrated solely by Leonilson’s voice, while images of his art flash on the screen. The tapes reveal someone full of feeling and desperately in search of love. “Why am I so alone? Why don’t I have a boyfriend?” he asks. “I am needy.”The Passion of JL takes a troubling turn when Leonilson discovers he is HIV positive. “I feel empty … with no direction—I simply do not know what to do,” he softly says. He felt paralyzed; his Catholic family, and even some of his closest friends, did not know he was gay. His loneliness intensified as he realized no one he loved could tend to his wounds when he bled. “Now my works are all that I really have,” he said.
Leonilson’s friends remember him as warm and gregarious. Many people, including Carlos Nader, have said the voice of the audiotapes is not the one they knew, but one that, in retrospect, illuminates his art.
I went to the Americas Society exhibition after I saw The Passion of JL. As I walked through the galleries, I heard the disembodied voice of Leonilson’s tapes (“love is the best thing there is”; “I think I will live long”; “I’m not afraid of dying, but of suffering”). I imagined his wounds as I counted the thirty-four tallies that look like stitches in the piece 34 with scars. I wondered if he had cheated or been the one betrayed as I read the word “traitor,” sewn above a sea of crystals. I figured he had cobbled these works together in utter silence, and likely alone.
In 1991, the year Leonilson was diagnosed with HIV, he made the work Empty Man. He used a found piece of linen depicting the children’s tale of the tortoise and the hare racing in a field. Beneath the scene, he stitched the words “salt. blood. salive,” and below that, a man’s torso surrounded by the broken-up phrase, “empty man / lone / ready.” Echoes of this empty, lone man appear elsewhere: the name José stitched in the corner of a faded green rectangle, a single figure labeled as an “island,” and most poetically, the word nobody, sewn on the edge of a pink pillow.
The curators of “Empty Man,” Cecilia Brunson, Gabriela Rangel, and Susanna V. Temkin, have spoken about how Leonilson’s death has given rise to a kind of myth around his works. We feel them to be sincere, autobiographical expressions—we are convinced he is speaking directly and openly to us. But Brunson points out these works must be read as partly fictional. She cites the Brazilian critic Adriano Pedrosa, who compared Leonilson’s art to the mind games outlined in A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes. “It pierces you so deeply, the language, that you think you’re going straight to the person’s soul,” she said. “But it’s really constructed as language.”
“He was the lightest, most agreeable person, in high spirits … At the same time, he was introspective, spending hours and hours drawing and doodling, and writing in his diaries,” Ricardo Bezerra told me over email. The Bezerras were close friends of Leonilson’s and had him over to their house in Fortaleza regularly, where he would doodle in what the family called the “big book.” After Leonilson died, the Bezerras took the pages out from the book and hung them on their living room walls.
Bezerra told me Leonilson was always bringing their family presents. He was full of “solidarity,” and his soul was “light, so light.” “He was very open,” Bezerra wrote, “sufficiently talkative, but not redundant, very well humored, and always wore a delicious smile.”
The more I learned about Leonilson and looked at his art, the more I felt a sense of loss. I missed him. His absence haunted me. And, like any object of love, it did not matter if his actual person was faithful to my image of him.
The last work in “Empty Man” is a painting from 1991: What Can I Do Inside Myself. It depicts colorful, organ-like forms, and again there are words nestled around them: “golden interior”; “what there is of you in me”; “jewels.” “Inside” him, we find the precious stones, scraps of fabric, buttons, and fragmented words of his art. Leonilson once said, “I make things for those I love.” Looking at his portraits is like seeing them through the eyes of a lover: while they may be beautifully unreal, the emotions we feel are no less true.
“José Leonilson: Empty Man” is on view at the Americas Society through February 3, 2018.
Elisa Wouk Almino is a writer and translator from Portuguese. She is currently the associate editor at Hyperallergic.