The Adolpho Leirner Collection of Brazilian Constructive Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Comprised of nearly 100 art objects, the Adolpho Leirner Collection was formed by the São Paulo-based art patron Adolpho Leirner and acquired by the Museum between 2005 and 2007. The collection represents a brilliant window into the seminal decades of the 1950s and 1960s when, stimulated by an economic boom and a surge in modernization, Brazil emerged at the vanguard of the region’s social and cultural development. Two paramount events defined the utopian spirit of this time: the establishment of the São Paulo Biennial in 1951, and the inauguration of Brasília, the futuristic new capital, in 1960. Energized by these unprecedented achievements, artists from the São Paulo–Rio de Janeiro axis embraced the legacies of Russian Constructivism, Dutch Neo-Plasticism, and, above all, the School of Design in Ulm, Germany, to create the unique yet highly modulated voice of Brazilian Constructivism.
The son of Polish Jewish immigrants who arrived in Brazil in the 1930s, Adolpho Leirner was born in 1935 in São Paulo. In 1953 he went to England to study textile engineering and design. During his four-year stay, he became acquainted with the legacy of the international Constructivist movements of the first half of the 20th century. At the same time, he developed a passion for architecture and design. Upon his return to Brazil in the late 1950s, Leirner focused his attention on Brazilian decorative arts and contemporary art. In 1961 he bought the first work of what would later constitute his unique collection: the 1958 painting Em vermelho (In Red) by artist Milton Dacosta (1915–88). Naturally drawn to Brazilian Constructivism, Leirner noticed the movement’s disappearance from the public’s attention in the 1960s, as the emergence of figure-based trends such as Pop art flourished. At that point, Leirner decided to concentrate his collecting efforts on Brazilian geometric abstraction. Largely through his direct contact with living artists and influential dealers, he was able to systematically gather exemplary works of these key movements in his country.
Details about each of the collection’s 97 artworks can be found in the Museum’s online collections. Additionally, information related to the exhibition and publishing history of each object in the collection can be found here. There is also an extensive Google Art Project featuring the Adolpho Leirner Collection.
As an art collector, Leirner combines both a passion for art as well as a sense of social responsibility. In a well-publicized statement about the meaning and purpose of collecting taken from his superb book, Constructive Art in Brazil: The Adolpho Leirner Collection, he describes his motto: “To collect is to nurture a love affair, a passion; it is to uncover findings in a game of search and find, all of which are part of my life.” At the same time, he underscored the ethical responsibility that comes with collecting: “. . .collectors understand they gather their collections not only for private fruition but for the benefit of society, and for this reason they keep and preserve them.”
Leirner generously gifted his personal archive and library to the Museum. These holdings complement the artworks and jointly comprise The Adolpho Leirner Collection of Brazilian Constructive Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Access to these materials can be made via the ICAA Documents Project and the Museum’s Hirsch Library.
Watch this video to see former director Peter Marzio's remarks on the Museum's acquisition of this collection.