Tunga in the permanent pavilion of his work at Instituto Inhotim, 2012. Photo Daniela Paoliello. Courtesy Instituto Inhotim, Brumadinho, Brazil.

Inspired by Hellenistic poetry and medieval alchemy, Brazilian artist Tunga created sculptures, installations, and performances over the past three decades that made him one of Brazil’s best known and most influential artists. Acclaimed for his imaginative and sensuous works using unorthodox materials and novel means of display, plus erotically charged performances that sometimes featured dozens of nude performers, Tunga was a pioneer. He remained conscious, however, of his work’s position among the traditions of Western art, and of his place within Latin America’s avant-garde. He showed all over the world, and was, notably, the first contemporary artist invited to create an exhibition for the Louvre in Paris—“The Meeting of Two Worlds,” 2005. He had been ill for the last year, but his death from cancer on June 6 at age 64, in Rio de Janeiro, seemed sudden and shocking to many.  

Since his passing, a myriad of art-world tributes have appeared in the international press as well as on social media. Many regard Tunga, born Antônio José de Barros Carvalho e Mello Mourão, as an “artist’s artist.” Proof of that assessment came in the form of recent emails to A.i.A. from a number of his art-world friends following a memorial service they attended June 15 at the Centro de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim, a contemporary art museum and vast sculpture park located in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. A large pavilion devoted to Tunga’s work opened there in September 2012.

“Tunga was essential to the development of contemporary Brazilian art,” artist Beatriz Milhazes wrote. “His work influenced a generation, including artists such as Jac Leirner and Ernesto Neto. Tunga was an alchemist, an eternal inventor. His ever-changing process was organic. He made his life his work, and his work his life. He was a performer, a character without limits, always ‘acting.’ It feels strange to consider that we will no longer see him circulating in the art world.”  

Representative of a younger generation of Brazilian artists, Nuno Ramos added, “Tunga brought lots of fresh air to Brazilian art. I’d describe his legacy as a unique mix of Brazilian constructivism and pure imagination. He brought forth images in a way that no one before him did. To my mind, he used two main forces as organizing principals in his work: a kind of recycled entropic energy—the sense of Mobius movement that he learned from [leading Brazilian Constructivist and Tropicália artist] Lygia Clark—and a centrifugal force that his imagination allowed him to access. This was something absolutely original."

Adding to the tributes, Tunga’s longtime New York representative and dealer, Roland Augustine of Luhring Augustine gallery in Chelsea, wrote from Basel, Switzerland, where Tunga’s massive 2014 installation Eu, você e a lua (Me, you and the moon), made of iron, steel, petrified wood, bronze, plaster, ceramics, glass, and quartz crystal, was featured at this year’s edition of Art Basel. 

“My first encounter with Tunga's work,” Augustine said, “was when I saw his celebratory yet solemn bronze bells lying in the weeds in a São Paulo park, left adrift for months following the São Paulo Bienal of 1994... What separated Tunga from his contemporaries was his singular and ferocious investigation into the mythological, the alchemical, and the poetical springs that foreground our histories. The man was a true artist in every sense—unimpeachable and uncompromising, thoughtful and generous of spirit. He veered into realms that are so vital to our understanding of humankind.”

Still struggling to come to terms with Tunga’s death, his longtime friend and colleague, Rio-based artist José Damasceno remarked, “I met Tunga twenty-four years ago, precisely when I was beginning my own investigations into art. Tunga was an extraordinary personality and someone who had at his disposal wisdom and erudition that was unusual, always coupled with wit and brilliant critical thinking. From Tunga I learned to consider space differently–its limits, continuities, and qualities. I learned that the unknown is essential for structuring thought–a factor that conducts and transforms the spirit. Tunga showed by example that an artist must embody a unique synthesis of the theoretical and the practical. Above all, poetry must always prevail in one’s work as a vital parameter. And none of this can be contemplated or realized without a sense of unrestricted humor.” 

Humor was always central to my own interactions with Tunga, and we laughed a lot. He was charming and eloquent, and, even with limited skills in English, nonchalantly charismatic. But he could be shy in certain social situations. When I accompanied him and his then-wife Cordelia to Pace Gallery’s fiftieth anniversary bash in 2010, in Chelsea, he was interested in meeting some of his heroes who were there, such as John Chamberlain and Claes Oldenburg; but he felt rather diffident at the event, and became anxious to leave after a short time.

He was most comfortable when focused on his work. Tunga was a voracious reader—favoring history, philosophy, and psychoanalysis—and he had great respect for writers. One of the most rewarding experiences I had with him was when we collaborated on a 2012 article for A.i.A., “Poetic Glue.” During visits with him in Rio and in New York, he patiently showed and discussed his new projects—large-scale sculptures being produced in his studio on the outskirts of Rio, or intimate and ethereal watercolors he created in his spacious and airy house nearby, with its meandering terraces overlooking a luxuriant, verdant garden. He was, however, equally generous with his time and attention to younger artists, and being with him usually included visits to exhibitions or studios to see works by young or emerging artists that he felt were strong and significant. To those artists, Tunga’s formidable legacy will certainly be felt for many years to come.