Arthur Bispo do Rosario, a former Marine Corps signalman, boxer, tram cleaner and domestic worker in Rio de Janeiro, had no interest in defining his extensive activities as art. His unusual embroidered garments and textiles, ingenious assemblages and use of language had a higher purpose: Bispo was Jesus Christ, according to angels who visited him the night of Dec. 22, 1938, and instructed him to record, or possibly replicate reality. Thus, the title of his first retrospective in the United States, at the Americas Society in Manhattan: “Bispo do Rosario: All Existing Materials on Earth.”
His claim of being Jesus led to a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and a life spent in and occasionally out of mental institutions, primarily the notorious Colônia Juliano Moreira. (In 1954 he escaped and remained free until 1963, getting by on odd jobs while also making his artwork. )
In 1964, he landed back at Juliano Moreira where he remained until his death in 1989 at age 80, working compulsively to prepare for Judgment Day. By 1967 he had managed to set himself up in the Moreira’s mostly empty solitary-confinement pavilion, commandeering 11 cells for studio and storage space. It was quieter, he said, and easier to hear the voices.
Bispo and his work gradually became known in Brazil, earning attention from art critics, curators and documentary filmmakers in the 1980s. Wider fame began when he was one of two artists whose work represented Brazil at the 1995 Venice Biennale (the other was Nuno Ramos). Bispo’s efforts were then seen in important surveys like the 2013 Venice Biennale, and a 2003 retrospective in Paris.
A collaboration between Americas Society and the Museu Bispo do Rosario Arte Contemporânea in Rio de Janeiro, this exhibition provides immersion in Bispo’s greatness, which ranks with American and European self-taught geniuses, like Bill Traylor, Martín Ramírez, James Castle, Nellie Mae Rowe and the artist-writers Henry Darger and Adolf Wölfli.
Of course Bispo failed to account for “all existing materials on earth.” But he did convey much of his immediate world, especially his life in the Marines and at mental institutions — along with compelling signs of his skills, alertness, faith and generosity. This last is touchingly visible in the lists of names embroidered throughout his work, primarily people he knew, sometimes with their addresses and occupations. The lists include naval officers and fellow sailors as well as doctors and hospital workers who originally advocated his work’s preservation. But the story of his life is also told; giving his writing an almost epic scale.
Bispo’s “Annunciation Garment” stands at the center of the show’s first gallery. It is considered his masterpiece, intended especially to be worn when he would meet God. This short poncho-like mantle, made from a blanket the color of faded terra cotta, whose embroideries form a veritable encyclopedia of the stuff of everyday living. A grand piano and billiards table can be spotted near train tracks. A chessboard dwarfs a Ping-Pong table and paddle. On the left shoulder, front, a cluster of schematic semaphore signals evokes his years in the Marines. In blue thread on white, the robe’s lining lists scores of names of women he knew.
A large gallery is filled with Bispo’s extraordinary assemblages, made from whatever he could salvage. Mounted in rows on worn wood frames are numerous examples of the slippers, spoons or metal drinking cups dispensed to the patients, as well as soda bottles filled with colorful confetti. Also present: an elaborate toy sailing ship, a carousel and sashes and scepters for Miss Universe contestants, each embellished with information about their respective countries.
Among the most intriguing are familiar tools and other objects wrapped in thread unraveled from patients’ uniforms. All are actually made from scratch and stitched with their names. They include grass clippers, a drawing compass, and a toy bow and arrow. All told, these uncanny objects, treated as relics, connect Bispo with a lot of the so-called insider art: Surrealism, Fluxus, Conceptual and Arte Povera as well as postwar Brazilian art.
Perhaps the most remarkable gallery displays five of Bispo’s two-sided textiles using old beautifully yellowed bedsheets. Some present lists of names; another outlines the shape of Brazil surrounded by its states’ names and little geometric diagrams. Most riveting are those detailing Navy life, starting with fleets of warships. They travel deep into Bispo’s memory, revealing his brilliance, knowledge and worldliness.
There are barracks, warehouses and instruments of recreation, including another chessboard and billiard table, but also scenes of what seem like military training. Embassy Rows are evoked with substantial buildings in dark yellow thread that bear the names and flags of foreign countries. Groups of men extract from the earth and cart away clumps of this same yellow thread — possibly natural resources like gold or oil. It seems that Bispo noticed everything.
If he saw himself more as savior than artist, Bispo certainly deserves an extended hyphenate: artist-historian-autobiographer-cartographer-documentarian and illuminator of his own idiosyncratic manuscripts.
Bispo do Rosario: All Existing Materials on Earth
Through May 20 at Americas Society, 680 Park Avenue, Manhattan, (212) 249-8950; as-coa.org.