Seven angels visited Rio de Janeiro on the night of December 22, 1938, to announce the second coming of Jesus Christ. The angels claimed that Jesus had returned as Arthur Bispo do Rosario, an Afro-Brazilian handyman who received their message in a vision. Armed with this information, Bispo made his way to a monastery downtown, where he was arrested and delivered to a psychiatric hospital. On Christmas Eve, Bispo was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
In the new year, Bispo entered the Colônia Juliano Moreira, an asylum just outside the city, where he spent the better part of 50 years. He soon oriented his life around answering auditory hallucinations that compelled him to create compulsively. He worked with every material available to him: he’d unravel hospital uniforms, then use the thread to embroider bedsheets, or gather scrap wood and other detritus for small constructions. He even made wagons to transport the refuse he collected, and the new creations he made from it. Bispo received what he believed to be a second divine mandate in 1967, while in solitary confinement. He began furiously preparing to represent the world on Judgment Day. By the time of his death in 1989, Bispo had filled 11 rooms with hundreds of garments, banners, miniatures, constructions, and other uncategorizable things, none of which he dated or signed. He lived and died on the margins of society.
Not long after, in the 1990s, Bispo was reborn at the center of the Brazilian art world. His posthumous debut at Rio’s Museum of Modern Art (MAM) in 1993 broke attendance records, and two years later, his work represented Brazil at the Venice Biennale. “Bispo do Rosario: All Existing Materials on Earth,” on view at the Americas Society in New York through May 20, marks his first solo exhibition in the United States. The show sidesteps old debates over the ethics of framing his output as contemporary art, which Bispo himself resisted during his lifetime. That debate, as art historian Kaira Cabañas addressed in her 2018 book, is inflected by a history unique to Brazil, where key ideas about modern art emerged through deep engagement with the creativity of psychiatric patients. In New York, the curatorial texts treat Bispo’s status as an artist and his life’s work as artwork as a fait accompli. This move participates in broader art world efforts to deconstruct the category of “outsider art,” towards a more inclusive art history. However, it also overrides the way Bispo understood himself and his own work.
The show opens with Bispo’s most important possession: his Annunciation Garment, an ornate cloak he intended to wear on Judgment Day, and in which he intended to be buried. On the cloak’s exterior, Bispo embroidered small pictographs of the world’s contents as well as reference numbers corresponding to the system he devised to keep track of his production. On the inside, he embroidered the names of women who would accompany his ascension in neat concentric rows. Festooned with tasseled cords and epaulets, this and other garments on view are influenced by carnival regalia and Bispo’s stint as a signalman in the Brazilian navy. It makes sense that the Annunciation Garment is hismost richly decorated: it is a synthesis of his life’s project.
Bispo’s fifteen estandartes, or banners, line the walls of the second gallery, hanging vertically from wooden poles. They are made from yellowed asylum linens and embroidered with pictures, diagrams, words, maps, national and semaphore flags—a variety of sign systems that work as shortcuts in his quest to represent totality. Certain biographical details surface through needlepoint text: on Untitled [I need these words written] Bispo narrates his 1938 vision. On Untitled [Dictionary of Names that Begin with the Letter A], he listed the names of people he knew personally and of people he learned of in the media.
The third gallery contains Bispo’s objects, including groups of like items mounted on rectangular boards; one gathers tin cups, another flip flops, and so on. Charming miniatures— fantastic reconstructions of a carousel and a ship—share a table at the center of the gallery with an assortment of small items wrapped in the faded blue thread of unraveled hospital uniforms. Though these mummified objects remain identifiable, Bispo labeled and numbered them in contrasting thread to secure against misrecognition.
Despite his repeated efforts at absolute clarity, certain objects still tempt multiple interpretations. Wheel of Fortune, a working miniature carnival game, is constructed out of a bicycle wheel affixed to an upturned crate. Many commentators have remarked on the object’s resemblance to Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913), as though this confirms the work’s rightful place in a gallery. Frederico Morais, the Brazilian critic and curator who organized his posthumous museum debut, and who “invented Bispo the artist,” as he puts it, was first to recognize this. While it was clear to Morais that any relationship between Bicycle Wheel and Wheel of Fortune is coincidental, as Bispo was not familiar with Duchamp’s readymades, the curator was enthusiastic about the dialogue it generated. In fact, Morais’s influence permeates the Americas Society exhibition. Works are distributed across the three galleries according to the taxonomies Morais helped establish, and the texts use nomenclature his team developed while inventorying Bispo’s estate.
Other curatorial choices prevent a visitor from forgetting the specific, brutal context in which Bispo lived and created. The walls are half white cube, half painted in the same purplish hue of the hospital uniforms he repurposed. A miniature wall is isolated to poignant effect in the sill of a barred window overlooking East 68th Street. The aspirational tense of its graphite inscription—“How I Shall Build a Wall in the Back of my House”—alludes to the privacy Bispo was denied, both in his life and, arguably, by the posthumous exhibition of his output. Bispo has the last word, too: the show concludes with an extended video interview he gave around 1982, while dressed in his Annunciation Garment. When someone off-camera compliments his creative capacity, Bispo set the record straight, insisting, “I do it because I am obliged.”