A sense of chaos pervades the domestic landscapes glimpsed in Wanda Pimentel’s works. Clothes flung on the floor, smoke rising sinuously from abandoned cigarettes, and cosmetics spilling out of open handbags are some of the haphazard images that fill the late Brazilian artist’s best-known series, Envolvimento (Involvement) (1968-84). Disembodied legs—implicitly feminine—emerge at odd angles, hinting at a human presence while simultaneously objectifying it. Pimentel’s compositions consider our relationship with the objects that we so often consume without thought, begging the question: How do we resist—or submit to—the consumerist nature of modern life?
Born to upper-middle-class parents in Rio de Janeiro in 1943, Pimentel was part of a generation who came of age during the rise of consumer capitalism in Brazil. With artistic movements like Neo-Concretism taking hold in Rio, she enrolled in 1964 in painting classes at the city’s Museum of Modern Art under the abstract artist Ivan Serpa, who had founded the influential Grupo Frente with Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape, among others, in the mid-1950s. Unlike her mentor, Pimentel took a representational approach, painting her subjects in Pop Art contours from unexpected perspectives.
These early works—from a series titled Caminho ao elo sobre-humano (Path to the Superhuman Tie) (1965-66)—portray everyday objects with an animistic quality. Televisions, mid-century furniture, and rows of well-pressed dresses and blouses appear to dominate the lives of the fragmented figures who hover on the edges of the composition, accentuating the mood of entrapment.
Aligned with second-wave feminism, Pimentel invested the objects in her paintings with an additional oppressive charge: as metaphors for patriarchal society. The works’ subversive politics did not stop them receiving early critical acclaim, with inclusion in major exhibitions such as the National Salon of Modern Art and the Bahia Biennial.
The Envolvimento paintings followed (the series largely dates from 1968-69, though Pimentel revisited it intermittently until 1984), taking up similar themes and motifs in a brighter palette. The series offers a more pointed portrayal of women as victims of consumer culture, their bodies literally entangled with household objects. It has also been widely interpreted as a response to the confinements of Brazil’s military dictatorship, during which the arts sector was aggressively censored. Works from Envolvimento were accepted into the 1969 São Paulo Biennial, which went down in history as the “Boycott Biennial” when many artists, including Pimentel, withdrew their participation in protest against the increasingly repressive regime.
“All the members of this [generation] began their careers under the oppressive force of the dictatorship, so of course this feeling is underscored in Wanda’s work,” said Alexandre Gabriel of the São Paulo-based gallery Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, which began representing Pimentel’s estate in 2021. “But there’s also an overarching feminist aspect in the work, and a lot of autobiographical notes in the images, too. These aren’t self-portraits but portraits of women.”
For its solo presentation of Pimentel’s work at Independent 20th Century this year, Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel will show one painting from the 1990s and several pieces from her two earliest series. While Envolvimento remains her most extensively researched body of work, it represents only a small part of her production, with fewer than 30 paintings. Much less well known are the minimalist sculptures Pimentel created in the 1970s or the darker imagery of the 1990s paintings, which similarly play on themes of sexism and domestic claustrophobia.
“Around the 1980s, Wanda began exhibiting with more local galleries who didn’t have an international presence so most of the work after that period has never been shown outside of Brazil or given due attention,” Gabriel explained. “There’s a scarce amount of Wanda’s earlier work in the market but virtually no market yet for the other, equally compelling, eras of her career, and that’s what we’re working to build now.”
Most of Pimentel’s output is held at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, or in private collections. Shortly after the São Paulo Museum of Art exhibited a set of 27 Envolvimento paintings in 2017, Pimentel’s daughter initiated talks with Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel over the future of her estate. The gallery’s vision is to expand the artist’s legacy beyond Envolvimento and to contextualize her works within areas of Brazilian art history that remain understudied.
“People are surprised to learn how little academic work has been done in the United States on that whole generation of Brazilian artists, and it’s because Brazil was still very isolated at the time, even from other art scenes in Latin America,” Gabriel said. “The response to Pop Art in Brazil and South America as a whole was so strong—and many of its key figures were women—but there still hasn’t been a major exhibition specifically focused on that.”
Pimentel emerged as a prominent figure of the Pop-inflected New Figuration movement alongside her classmates Raymundo Colares and Cildo Meireles. This loosely associated group of Brazilian artists moved away from abstraction and toward representational painting in the 1960s. In stark contrast with 20th-century movements that sought to promote a purely Brazilian visual expression, Brazilian Pop was long viewed as a derivative appropriation of American culture.
Yet works by Pimentel and her peers were imbued with uniquely Brazilian sociopolitical concerns. In a 1970 interview with the Jornal do Brasil, Pimentel stated: “The theme of my work is one that directly impacts me as a person who lives in a society based on compulsively consuming. The woman, above all, occupies a very prominent place in consumer society because she is used as an instrument and remains at the margin of a freedom she thinks she possesses. The Brazilian woman finds herself in the situation of being a woman within an underdeveloped country and, therefore, is surrounded by prejudice.”
It was one of the few interviews in which Pimentel discussed the ideas behind her art in depth. Uncomfortable with public speaking throughout her life, she believed the work should speak for itself. “Despite being a very precise artist and person, Wanda does not express herself well in words,” wrote the interviewer. “Her paintings better convey her principal concerns: the relationship between man (or woman) and object.”
Perhaps that reticence also explains why Pimentel’s achievements only became better known outside of Brazil in the years before her death in 2019. She was featured in the groundbreaking 2017-18 survey exhibition Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985, an examination of feminist art practices in Latin America and its diaspora, which toured from the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles to the Brooklyn Museum in New York and the Pinacoteca de São Paulo. The presentation at Independent 20th Century, made up of eight works, will mark the artist’s first-ever solo show in the United States.
In a rare late interview with O Globo in 2012, when her health was sadly deteriorating, Pimentel described how feelings of isolation, discrimination, and oppression nevertheless provided valuable fuel for her work. “I never painted with joy—everything I did was painful,” she said, reiterating her distaste for theorizing. “Shy as I am, I compensate for my quiet with a slow, attentive gaze. I tire of looking at the objects surrounding me—as if they were my tormentors. And only then, after observing a lot and already having it all in my head, even the title, I start to paint.”
Gabriella Angeleti is an arts and culture writer born in Rio de Janeiro and based in Brooklyn.