In a pale lavender blouse under a gray blazer, Beatriz Milhazes is a portrait in understatement. Soft-spoken and with a bonnet of brown curls, she might be a docent or an art teacher on a class tour. But the bustle of museum handlers orbiting around her today and the scrum of reporters and television crews stalking the corridors of the Rio de Janeiro gallery quickly shatter the idyll.
"As a plastic artist you never think you're going to be in the spotlight," Milhazes tells The Daily Beast on a recent morning in Rio de Janeiro. We have fled the crowded gallery showcasing her career to a quiet room on the top floor of the Paço Imperial, a 18th century palace converted to a museum in downtown Rio. This is the last in a series of interviews for the week, and Milhazes is savoring the rare moment of quiet. "Now I guess it's part of my life."
Judging from the reception in Rio, and beyond, that is unlikely to change anytime soon. For the last two decades, Milhazes has been quietly raising the bar for the Latin American art world. More recently, her paintings have shattered auction records, floored critics, and mobilized dealers and curators from Tokyo to Chicago. In 2009, the Paris based Fondation Cartier dedicated an exhibit to Milhazes. She represented Brazil at the 2003 Venice Biennalle. She designed a wall mural for the restaurant at the Tate Modern and was commissioned to create 19 separate vaulted panels for the Gloucester Road station of the London Underground.
Fortune has followed fame. Her 2001 canvas O Mágico (The Magician), a bold work of deep blues and flying geometric shards, was an art house sleeper for years until Southeby's sold it in 2008 for $1,049,000, at three times the floor price. In June of last year, O Elefante Azul (The Blue Elephant) auctioned for $1.5 million at Christies and in November, her picture Meu Limão (My Lemon), fetched $2.1 million at Southeby's, a record for a living artist from Latin America. "She is a leading talent, and a huge influence," says art dealer Ivor Braka. "There can't be many examples Latin American artists who have impacted people's minds and on markets that the way she has."
The money trail is only one way to plot Milhazes' career. Working from the same modest studio in Rio's arbored Botanical Gardens neighborhood, she has spent the last three decades honing her craft. Fiercely single minded, she has painted through the market hype and the stream of visitors who have turned her atelier into a tourist shrine, turning out 11 or 12 pictures a year. Collectors are willing to wait 18 months or more for a new canvas.
Her rise has been described as meteoric, but that is hardly the case. "My overnight success took 30 years," she likes to say, in a gentle takedown of the hyperventilating art market. "I used to have to go abroad to find collectors and curators. Now they come to the studio. My isolation is gone!"
For those interested in looking at the pictures behind the buzz, the sweep of her work is in full force in the Rio exhibit, a rare homecoming for the wandering artist. The show, Meu Bem (My Dear), which runs through October 27, is a retrospective of her career since 1989, featuring 60 paintings and collages, created out of crochet, lace and silk screens and acrylic paint. Displayed chronologically, each canvas is a starburst of shapes and colors, gathering intensity over the years.
The visual vortex begins even before you reach the main exhibition, as visitors are drawn into the museum rotunda to her giant mobile titled Gamboa 1—a cataract of baubles, orbs, stars, mandalas and cubes tumbling 30 feet from the skylight. Milhazes conceived the piece years ago as a stage prop for her sister, a noted Rio choroegrapher, dangling the sparkling ornaments just above the dancers' heads. Later, with the help of a famous designer of Carnival floats, she rescaled it as ceiling-to-floor museum installation, transposing the sequined cadences of samba to sculpture.
Inside the gallery, each of the paintings on display has a fissile power of its own. Modinha (Little way) is a storm of arabesques, circles overlapping circles, and horizontal stripes, rendered in a brilliant tropical palette. Tempo de verão (Summer weather) is an eruption of Pop Art-styled stars, hearts and flowers gushing from glowing red and orange beams. The fashion designer Christian Lacroix once called her work a visual Big Bang. Milhazes herself celebrates in the chaos and "claustrophobia" of her works, many of which occupy entire walls.
The colors are rich and riotous, but the impact is complex and disorienting. I took my eight-year-old to the show, and she skipped through the five separate galleries as if on a sugar rush. Critics shoebox Milhazes as a decorative painter at their peril. "Sometimes people just don't get her. Or they like her work almost for the wrong reasons, because they see it as facile or pretty," says Braka. "In fact, her work is stunningly beautiful. And it's not a la mode to be beautiful."
One of the tropes about Milhazes style is that she is quintessentially Latin American. After all, her paintings at a glance are as big, as noisy and as over-the-top as Brazil itself. Her use of radiant primary colors and rudimentary looking shapes—circles, flowers, mandalas and stripes—flirts with tropical kitsch. "Sitting in gray, overcast London, you can perceive her work as delivering something we could hope for from Latin America," says Tanya Barston, a curator at the Tate Modern. "As soon as I went to Rio I felt I could understand her work. Her studio is in the botanical gardens. The city of Rio emerges from forest, with exquisite tropical flora and fauna. There is incredible visual pleasure there."
But that is partly an optical illusion. In Brazil, Milhazes says, serious contemporary artists steered clear of color, the use of which they associated with folk crafts and "low art." That's why so much of Brazilian modernism was done in drab, muted tones. Milhazes broke the rules, threw open the blinds and put color on steroids. Her canvases radiate shimmering gold and silver, burning orange, throbbing blues and even fluorescent green. "Color is frightening. Especially green, which has always been a stumbling block for painters. I love it," she says.
Milhazes eludes tidy stereotypes even as she toys with them. She took the elements of pattern and decoration, a movement once dismissed as frivolous by art critics, and set them on a deliberate collision course. "She's addressing you bodily," says Barston. "There is a joyfulness and positivity there, but it's wrongly interpreted as simplistic. She stands somewhere between tradition and carnival. There are a lot of other things going on in her painting," she adds.
What distances Milhazes from the Latino cartoon is her willingness to trample boundaries and help herself to what the world serves up. And that in itself is a sensibility rooted in Brazil, a New World culture cooked up—like the national dish, feijoada—from scraps and flavors taken from just about everywhere.
One of her most visible influences is the work of Matisse, from which she learned to appreciate painterly issues of scale and composition. Yet she also proclaims her debt to Tarsila Amaral, the Brazilian modernist, whose work borrows heavily from the brash colors and blunt figures of popular art. Yet another influence is Bridget Riley, the British abstract artist whose storm of shapes and stripes translate vertigo onto canvas.
Pop Art and symbols of commercial culture mingle freely with modernism on her canvases. In one section of the gallery in Rio is a series of her paintings composed of candy wrappers and retail brands emblazoned on shopping bags, a nod to modernism but also to the seductive power of extravagance and consumerism. "I like to draw on elements that shout for attention," Milhazes says. "They interest me chromatically and culturally, as emblems of exaggeration and extravagance."
To Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon Guggenheim museum, that makes Milhazes a rebel. "She's a visual omnivore, she celebrates color and is willing to embrace excess. That goes against the sensibilities of the mainstream, especially the chromophobes. But she's working with vocabulary we haven't seen since the early days of abstraction, which takes all the way back to [Wassily] Kandinsky."
But don't look to the Rio colorist for a soothing wall hanging. One of Milhazes’ "aha!" moments was when she read a statement by the famous French painter Yves Klein, who mastered painting in a single tone. "Klein said he painted in one color because once you add another, you have conflict," she says. "That's when I knew what I wanted and it was the exact opposite. I wanted the conflict."
Picking a fight on canvas poses its challenges, as Milhazes readily admits. "It's not easy to have one of my paintings at home, because it crowds out everything else," she says with a laugh. (Asked if she had any of her own works at home, she smiled. "One, I think. I spend all day surrounded by them.") At home, "most people, like to sit and gaze at something peaceful and serene, like the sea," she says. "That's not my work."