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Falling in Love with an Empty Man: The Work of José Leonilson

January 19, 2018

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....

...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....

Read the full review here.