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José Leonilson: Empty Man Opens September 26

August 28, 2017

On view at Americas Society September 27, 2017 through February 3, 2018
Curated by Cecilia Brunson, Gabriela Rangel, and Susanna V. Temkin

Symposium and Catalogue Raisonné Launch: September 25, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m.

Press Preview: September 26, 5:00 – 7:00 p.m.

General Opening: September 26, 7:00 – 9:00 p.m.

New York, August 28, 2017—In the 1980s, when the world was reverberating from the shockwaves sent by AIDS,  Brazilian artist José Leonilson (1957–1993) adapted the political discourse of the epidemic into a metaphysical rumination. His work offers a pantheon of symbols, poetics, and patterns, charting in personal terms the odyssey of a disease, which simultaneously sparked fear, confusion, and panic. 

Americas Society is pleased to present José Leonilson: Empty Man, the first solo exhibition in the United States of one of Brazil’s leading figures of contemporary art. Curated by Cecilia Brunson, Gabriela Rangel, and Susanna V. Temkin, José Leonilson: Empty Man will be on view at the Society’s Art Gallery September 27, 2017 through February 3, 2018. A press preview and reception will be held on September 26, 2017 at 5:00 p.m. RSVP:

Leonilson’s mythical universe constructs an existential narrative around his own predicament, and this timeless intimacy doubly resonates in the context of a disease characterized so often by losses. “Leonilson’s practice tackled the question of art as an exercise of introspection. It is mesmeric. Whether sketched, painted, illustrated, or embroidered, his symbols evolve into a vocabulary that can articulate his love, isolation, gender, sexuality—ultimately, a reconciliation with the idea of his death,” describes independent curator Cecilia Brunson. “Perhaps because of this personal journey—his own DNA at the core of his ‘diary’—he resisted being grouped with the so-called 80s Generation in Brazil, despite having been associated closely with its meteoric success.”

The exhibition opens with Leonilson’s most mature works from the last three years of his life and presents the trajectory of his interior world backwards. As the poet T.S. Eliot, wrote: “In my beginning is my end, and in my end is my beginning.” By following this path, the viewer can recapitulate Leonilson’s beginnings through the lens of the mature lexicon that developed over the course of his life.  “José Leonilson’s raw, self-exposed subjectivity constructed an enduring artistic myth that transcended a mere chronicle of the AIDS epidemic,” says Americas Society Visual Arts Director and Chief Curator Gabriela Rangel. “His work expanded the language of painting to become decentered without gender and inviting the viewer to share his transgressive intimacy.”

During his lifetime, Leonilson’s work was frequently exhibited abroad and he traveled numerous times to Amsterdam, Madrid, New York, and Paris. His savvy taste for global culture is reflected in the diversity of his sources, which range from Arthur Bispo de Rosario to Shaker aesthetics, as well as in his knowledge and proficiency for languages. “One of the earlier paintings in our show is José Leonilson’s Pescador de Palavras (Fisher of Words), a surrogate for his own persona as a connoisseur of language. Like a collector, José Leonilson gathered words, song lyrics, and aphorisms, often combining languages, breaking grammar rules, and experimenting with sounds,” said Americas Society’s Assistant Curator Susanna Temkin. “Today, these puns and highly affective phrases continue to allow his voice to speak from his canvases and embroideries, revealing his wry humor and the stoic pathos of his final years.”

José Leonilson: Empty Man features around 50 works, including drawings, paintings, and embroideries, as well as documents borrowed from public institutions and private collections in Brazil and the United States. Focusing on the artist’s production dating from the mid-1980s until his death in 1993, the exhibition will showcase his fully developed idiosyncratic language in which he combined a distinct iconographic lexicon with intimate text. The show is organized by independent curator Cecilia Brunson, Americas Society’s Visual Arts Director and Chief Curator Gabriela Rangel, and Americas Society’s Assistant Curator Susanna V. Temkin, with the cooperation of the São Paulo-based Projeto Leonilson.

José Leonilson: Empty Man, will be accompanied by a forthcoming illustrated publication edited by Karen Marta and Gabriela Rangel. The book, designed by Garrick Gott, will feature essays by the show’s curators, as well as texts by invited scholars Jenni Sorkin (University of California at Santa Barbara), Luis Enrique Pérez Oramas (writer and art historian), and Yuji Kawasima (Universidad Complutense, Madrid, Spain). The publication will include archival documents and an exhibition history and bibliography.

About the artist
Born in Fortaleza in 1957, José Leonilson Bezerra Dias studied at the Escola Pan-Americana de Arte and the Fundação Armando Alvares Penteado (FAAP) in São Paulo. A participant in the generation-defining exhibition, Como vai você, Geração 80? (How Are You, Generation 80?), he emerged as a seminal figure of the Brazilian contemporary art world during the 1980s. Over the course of his career, Leonilson traveled extensively throughout Europe, and his paintings, drawings, and installations were featured in solo and group shows in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, in addition to many exhibitions held in Brazil. In 1991, the artist tested positive for HIV. This diagnosis compelled a decisive shift in his career, as Leonilson began to develop his intimate embroideries, a practice he continued until his death in 1993 at the age of 36. Artworks by Leonilson are today included in such major public and private collections as the Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou; the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Barcelona; the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate Modern, London; and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, among others.

José Leonilson: Empty Man is made possible by the generous support of Projeto Leonilson, Galeria de Arte Almeida e Dale, Diane & Bruce Halle, Fundación AMA, PHILLIPS, Genomma Lab Internacional, and Paul Boskind and Robbie McMillin-Boskind. This project is also supported, in part, by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

Image credit: José Leonilson Bezerra Dias, Empty Man, 1991, Thread on embroidered linen, 20 7/8 x 14 9/16 in (53 x 37 cm). Família Bezerra Dias/Projeto Leonilson. © Projeto Leonilson


September 27, 2017 – February 3, 2018

Americas Society
680 Park Avenue at 68th Street
New York, NY 10065
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Gallery hours:
Wednesday to Saturday
12:00 – 6:00 p.m.
Free admission

José Leonilson: Autobiography of a Brazilian artist
Speakers include co-curators Cecilia Brunson (independent curator), Gabriela Rangel (Americas Society Director and Visual Arts Chief Curator), Susanna V. Temkin (Americas Society Visual Arts Assistant Curator), Yuji Kawasima (PhD. candidate, Universidad Complutense de Madrid), Ana Lenice Dias Fonseca da Silva (President, Projeto Leonilson), and Professors Jenni Sorkin (University of California, Santa Barbara) and Edward Sullivan (New York University).
Monday, September 25, 2017
6:00 – 8:00 p.m.
The Institute of Fine Arts
New York University (1E 78th St)
Free admission

Tuesday, September 26, 2017
5:00 – 7:00 p.m.
Americas Society

Tuesday, September 26, 2017
7:00  9:00 p.m.
Americas Society
Free admission

Thursday, October 19, 2017
7:00 – 9:00 p.m.
Directed by Carlos Nader, A paixão de JL (2015) centers on the audio diary on tape cassettes that Leonilson began in 1990, recording his emotions, daily life, and events taking place in Brazil and around the world. Over time, the recordings came to hold a new urgency when Leonilson learned that he was HIV positive. In collaboration with Cinema Tropical.
Parsons School of Design
The New School (66 Fifth Ave)
Free admission

Wednesday, October 25, 2017
7:00 – 9:00 p.m.
Directed by Mon Ross, Feliciano Centurión: Abrazo íntimo al natural (2016) explores the life of the iconic Paraguayan artist who developed his career in Buenos Aires during the 1980s and 1990s. The film serves as an affective exercise with valuable archival material as Feliciano, his work, and his time are revisited through the memories of his friends. In collaboration with Cinema Tropical.
University Center
The New School (63 Fifth Ave)
Free admission

Visual AIDS and Americas Society will host a guided talk and tour engaging the artist's life and practice. The event features Tom Kalin, filmmaker (ACT UP/Gran Fury member and friend of Leonilson); the exhibition's co-curators from the Americas Society; and Alex Fialho, Visual AIDS Programs Director.
Saturday, October 28, 2017
3:00 – 4:30 p.m.
Americas Society
Free admission

New York-based Colombian artist Carlos Motta, whose work revolves on the politics of sexual orientation and gender identity, will engage in a conversation with curator Lia Gangitano. They will discuss Motta’s artistic practice and recent projects as well as the links between Motta’s and Leonilson’s art.
Thursday, November 2, 2017
7:00 – 9:00 p.m.
Americas Society
Free admission

Date and location to be determined
Edited by Karen Marta and Gabriela Rangel, a fully illustrated publication with newly commissioned texts is being produced in conjunction with the exhibition. The book will feature essays by the show’s curators, as well as texts by invited scholars Jenni Sorkin, Luis Enrique Pérez Oramas, and Yuji Kawasima. 

Visit for more details on all public programs.

Press inquiries: | 1-212-277-8384. 

Americas Society is the premier organization dedicated to education, debate, and dialogue in the Americas. Established by David Rockefeller in 1965, our mission is to foster an understanding of the contemporary political, social, and economic issues confronting Latin America, the Caribbean, and Canada, and to increase public awareness and appreciation of the diverse cultural heritage of the Americas and the importance of the inter-American relationship. Americas Society Visual Arts program boasts the longest-standing private space in the United States dedicated to exhibiting and promoting art from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Canada; it has achieved a unique and renowned leadership position in the field, producing both historical and contemporary exhibitions.