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 sparked fear, confusion, and panic.

Americas Society (AS) presents José Leonilson: Empty Man, the first solo exhibition in the United States of one of Brazil’s leading figures of contemporary art. The show is organized by independent curator Cecilia Brunson, AS Visual Arts Director and Chief Curator Gabriela Rangel, and AS Assistant Curator Susanna V. Temkin, with the cooperation of the São Paulo-based Projeto Leonilson.

José Leonilson’s mythical universe constructs an existential narrative around his own predicament, and this timeless intimacy resonates in the context of a disease characterized so often by losses. “José Leonilson’s practice tackled the question of art as an exercise of introspection. It is mesmeric,” describes Cecilia Brunson. “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.”

The show features around 50 works, including drawings, paintings, and embroideries, and documents borrowed from public institutions and private collections in Brazil and the U.S. Focusing on the artist’s production dating from the mid-1980s until his death in 1993, the exhibition will showcase his idiosyncratic language in which he combined a distinct iconographic lexicon with intimate text. The exhibition will be accompanied by an illustrated publication.

Born in Fortaleza in 1957, José Leonilson Bezerra Dias emerged as a seminal figure of the Brazilian contemporary art world during the 1980s. Over the course of his career, he 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.

The Exhibition will be on view through February 3, 2018.

For more information: www.as-coa.org/ josé-leonilson-emptyman#overview