Gagosian Quarterly

September 27, 2016

Adriana Varejão: Azulejão

One of Brazil’s most renowned living artists, Adriana Varejão is perhaps best known for her Azulejão or “big tile” paintings, ongoing since 1988. These highly inventive paintings, in plaster and oil paint on canvas, refer to azulejos, the square, painted terracotta tiles whose complex provenance connects Brazil with Portugal through trade and colonization. Gagosian director Louise Neri discusses the evolution of the series with Adriana Varejão.

Adriana Varejão, Azulejão (Doric), 2016, oil on plaster on canvas, 70 ⅞ × 70 ⅞ inches (180 × 180 cm)

Adriana Varejão, Azulejão (Doric), 2016, oil on plaster on canvas, 70 ⅞ × 70 ⅞ inches (180 × 180 cm)

Louise Neri

Louise Neri has been a director at Gagosian since 2006, working with artists and on exhibitions, editorial projects, and communications across the global platform.

See all Articles

LOUISE NERIYour Azulejão or “big tile” paintings are unique in the history of contemporary art. How did they evolve?

ADRIANA VAREJÃOFor many years, I have been deeply fascinated by the traditional blue and white tiles that decorate religious and secular historical buildings all over Portugal and Brazil. I wanted to reflect on this in my work as an artist. The tiles themselves prompted me to think about how to give my paintings an extreme physicality. I began by using thick layers of oil paint, then adding mass to the surface to simulate the quality of a ceramic tile.

LNAre there other inspirations beyond the azulejos?

AVIn studying Chinese Song pottery of the eleventh century, I became fascinated by its characteristic surface cracks and the related philosophy. It is in these cracks that Chinese writing actually originates. It was oracular; at first people tried to codify the cracks in turtle shells. This is how the first Chinese pictograms came about. An entire aesthetic evolved from reading meaning into cracks, slowly becoming its own culture.

Inspired by this, I began by using thick layers of oil paint, then I started adding mass to simulate the quality of a cracked tile, working with slow-drying plaster and experimenting over time to achieve a cracked surface.

LNIn your paintings, the cracks in a tile become something very physical, almost geological.

AVYes, I developed this elaborate process of construction to provoke incidents, mapping the passage of time.

LNHow long does it take for the surface to dry?

AVUp to one month. And I never know exactly how the surface will crack. It is fascinating, like the hand of an invisible artist at work—the same hand that makes the lines in your hand, the roots of the trees, lightning in the sky.

LNAnd then what?

AVWhen I achieve a very good cracked surface, I need to find the right image to use with it. It is in the empty spaces between these cracks where I can work with images or figures.

Adriana Varejão: Azulejão

Installation view, Adriana Varejão: Azulejão, Gagosian Rome, October 1–December 10, 2016

LNSo it’s a bit like film montage?

AVIt’s a natural order (process) in dialogue with a cultural or an artificial order (images). Two different “bodies” occupying the same space—the internal surfaces in ochre with the blue-and-white painted surface; or, in the case of my sculptures, the gridded surface that simulates tiles with the inner “flesh.”

LNAnd so once you have the ground of the painting prepared, what is the next step?

AVI have to choose the image. In my constant and ongoing research in Portugal and Brazil on azulejos, working with the same photographer over many years, Vicente de Mello, I visit churches and architectural sites, or consult repertories of tile fragments. Over fifteen years, I have amassed a vast archive of tile images. In the case of this exhibition, I chose each image for its abstract qualities. It is important to remember that, originally, each tile is a small fragment of a much larger representational scene.

LNAre the visual references of tile details that you worked from for the Rome paintings all from the same historical period and place?

AVThey range from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century, and all of them are Portuguese.

LNPreviously, you made an analogy to music in saying that you can never interpret a single visual reference the same way twice. What did you mean by that?

AVI was speaking specifically about João Gilberto, one of Brazil’s greatest musicians and composers who almost never made any original songs; instead he recomposed existing songs in his own way, in a sort of lapidary process. In this case, the act of interpretation is also an act of composing.

From Gilberto’s example, I asked myself why should I invent new images when there are so many in the world? I don’t have to create more. My strategy is to select existing images and recreate them. And I prefer this as a way of engaging history, of finding images and picking up fragments.

LNSo there is a constant editing process at work. . .

AVYes, it’s all about the fragment.

Adriana Varejão: Azulejão

Adriana Varejão, Monocromo Roma II, 2016, oil on plaster on canvas, 70 ⅞ × 70 ⅞ inches (180 × 180 cm)

LNMost ancient Greek philosophy survives only in fragments, as phrases or sentences. An entire philosophical universe can be generated from a single phrase.

AVThe fragment is an open structure. With the works for the Rome exhibition, the images are vital precisely because they are not complete; movement continues. In the beginning, I used to choose the fragment to build a different structure. In Celacanto Provoca Maremoto, a huge immersive installation comprising 184 paintings, I deconstructed and dislocated images in order to construct again, within the formal structure of the grid, to give rhythm to the composition.

LNThe latest Azulejão paintings are 180 centimeters squared, the largest single tile paintings that you have ever made.

AVYes, I always have to create a relation between body and space. It is clear that the viewer has to construct much more for him or herself in the empty space that surrounds these paintings.

LNWhat does this increase in scale mean for you?

AVAs in the original source—the small tile—my brushstroke has to appear spontaneous, as if I were painting quickly, with very few brushstrokes.

LNCan’t you just use bigger brushes?

AVI have tried, but it doesn’t achieve the necessary effect. Even when I appear to be working freely and gesturally, I am not. The apparent spontaneity is simulated. So my whole process and its effects are totally controlled and totally artificial.

Artwork © Adriana Varejão. Adriana Varejão: Azulejão will be on view at Gagosian Rome from October 1–December 10, 2016.

Adriana Varejão: Transbarroco

Adriana Varejão: Transbarroco

From October 19–21, 2017, Adriana Varejão’s video installation Transbarroco (2014) played across the façade and in the central courtyard of the historic John Sowden House, designed by Lloyd Wright in 1926.

Adriana Varejão: Interiors

Adriana Varejão: Interiors

Lilia Moritz Schwarcz explores themes that are central to the artist’s oeuvre.

Albert Oehlen, Untitled, 2019, watercolor on canvas, 83 ⅞ × 72 ⅛ inches (213 × 183 cm).

Albert Oehlen: Maximum Chance Maximum Control

The artist met with art historian Christian Malycha to discuss his newest paintings.

Cover of the Winter 2019 Gagosian Quarterly, featuring a selection from a black-and-white Christopher Wool photograph

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Winter 2019

The Winter 2019 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring a selection from Christopher Wool’s Westtexaspsychosculpture series on its cover.

Sally Mann and Edmund de Waal at the Frick Collection, New York, November 8, 2019.

In Conversation
Edmund de Waal and Sally Mann

Sally Mann joins Edmund de Waal onstage at the Frick Collection in New York to converse about art, writing, and the importance of place in their respective bodies of work. 

A photograph of the Casa Malaparte house in Capri, Italy.

Casa Malaparte: A House Like Ourselves

Wyatt Allgeier explores the legacy of Curzio Malaparte and corresponds with the avant-garde author’s youngest descendant, Tommaso Rositani Suckert, on the subject of his decision to reproduce select pieces of furniture from the iconic Casa Malaparte in Capri, Italy.

Rachel Feinstein in her West 15th Street studio, New York, 2002.

Rachel Feinstein

The artist discusses her life and work with Alan Yentob.

Huma Bhabha during the installation of Huma Bhabha: The Company at Gagosian, Rome, September 2019.

Work in Progress
Huma Bhabha

The artist tells Negar Azimi about her interest in the monstrous, the influence of science fiction on her practice, and her recent rooftop commission at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Edmund de Waal and Jan Dalley, FT Weekend Festival, London, September 7, 2019

In Conversation
Edmund de Waal and Jan Dalley

At the FT Weekend Festival 2019 in London, Edmund de Waal sat down for a conversation with Financial Times arts editor Jan Dalley. They spoke about the relationship between words and sculpture in his practice, and about two recent projects: the two-part exhibition psalm, in Venice, and Elective Affinities, at the Frick Collection, New York.

A painting with gold frame by Louis Michel Eilshemius. Landscape with single figure.

Eilshemius and Me: An Interview with Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha tells Viet-Nu Nguyen and Leta Grzan how he first encountered Louis Michel Eilshemius’s paintings, which of the artist’s aesthetic innovations captured his imagination, and how his own work relates to and differs from that “Neglected Marvel,” Eilshemius.

Helen Frankenthaler in her studio in Provincetown. Black and white image.

Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown

Lise Motherwell, a stepdaughter of Helen Frankenthaler and vice president of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, and Elizabeth Smith, executive director of the Foundation, recently cocurated an exhibition of the artist’s work entitled Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown. Here they discuss the origin of the exhibition, the relationship between the artist’s work and her summers spent in Provincetown, and the presentations at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, in 2018, and the Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York, in 2019.

Helen Frankenthaler, Riverhead, 1963 (detail).


On the occasion of the exhibition Pittura/Panorama: Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952–1992, at the Museo di Palazzo Grimani in Venice, Italy, art historians John Elderfield and Pepe Karmel discuss the concept of the panorama in relation to the artist’s work. Their conversation traces developments in Frankenthaler’s approach to composition, the boundaries and conventions of abstraction, and how, in many ways, her career continually challenged established theories of art history.