Nelson Leirner was born in the city of São Paulo, in 1932. He is an intermedia artist.
He lived in the United States from 1947 to 1952.
On his return to Brazil, he studied painting with Joan Ponç in 1956. From 1960 to 1965 he started to work with “appropriations”, culminating in an exhibition with Geraldo de Barros at the Atrium Galeria, which later travelled to the Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art.
He participated in Nova Objetividade Brasileira at the Rio de Janeiro Museum of Modern Art (MAM-Rio) and Opinião in São Paulo. These exhibitions launched the avant garde movement in Brazil.
In 1966, with Wesley Duke Lee and Geraldo de Barros, he founded the Grupo Rex. That same year he won a prize at the Tokyo Biennial for the “Homenagem à Fontana” [Tribute to Fontana] series, which set off production of multiples in Brazil. In 1967, he held the “Exposição-Não-Exposição” [Exhibition-Non-Exhibition], a happening to mark the end of the group’s activities, at which he offered the public his artworks for free. The same year, he sent a stuffed pig to the 4th Brasília Salon of Modern Art and, in an article in the Jornal da Tarde newspaper, publicly questioned the criteria that had led the jury to accept it. He was also one of the pioneers of using billboard hoardings as support. He was awarded the Itamaraty Prize at the 7th São Paulo Biennial.
In 1969 and 1971 he was invited to take part in the São Paulo Biennial, but turned down both invitations, in line with the international boycott of the military dictatorship.
In 1969, he opened the “Playground” exhibition of hands-on pieces in the free public space underneath the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP). At that time, Leirner began to engage with other languages, such as design, multiples and experimental film.
In the 1970s, he created a series of allegories of the contemporary political situation in a set of drawings and prints. In 1974, he exhibited “A Rebelião dos Animais” [The Animals’ Rebellion], a series of works criticising the military regime, for which he received the São Paulo Art Critics Association (Associação Paulista dos Críticos de Arte, APCA) prize for the best proposal of the year. In 1975 the APCA awarded him the “Best designer” prize and commissioned a work to be given to prize winners, which the association eventually rejected because it was produced by photocopying. In protest, the other artists refused to attend the event. From 1977 to 1997, he taught at the Fundação Armando Álvares Penteado (FAAP), in São Paulo, where he was a strong influence on the development of several generations of artists. Continuing with his output critical of the military regime, in 1978 he inaugurated the exhibition “Uma Linha dura… não dura” [A hard line… is not hardy], at the Galeria Luisa Strina.
In 1980 the exhibition “Pague para Ver” [Pay to See] was cancelled by the Múltipla Galeria de Arte, because of the invitation text written by Leirner, which characterised the ins and outs of the art market.
Elements of Brazilian popular culture have been a strong presence in his work ever since the 1960s, but increasingly so since the 1980s. In 1985, he produced the installation “O Grande Combate” [The Great Combat], in which he used images of saints, Afro-Brazilian divinities, children’s dolls and model animals. The intention was to make art of what is considered merely commonplace and banal. His work appropriated art trivialised by consumer society. Reproductions of Da Vinci’s “La Gioconda (Mona Lisa)” and Duchamp’s “Fountain” were treated with good humour as artistic themes. With the same irony, his series “Construtivismo Rural” (Rural Constructivism) replicated imagens from the Brazilian concrete tradition on cowhide.
In 1994 he received the APCA prize for the “Best Retrospective of the Year”. In 1997 he moved to Rio de Janeiro, where he coordinated the basic course of the Parque Lage School of Visual Arts (EAV/ Parque Lage). In 1998 he was awarded the Johnny Walker prize for contemporary art. In 1999 he represented Brazil at the Venice Biennial, which opened doors to an international career in both galleries and institutions. He participated in leading art fairs around the world, including Arco, Basel, Miami Basel and Dubai, and exhibited in Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Portugal, England, France and the United States. In 2007, in recognition for his lifetime achievement, the Brazilian Art Critics Association (ABCA) awarded him its “Trajetória de um artista” [Artist’s Trajectory] prize and in 2009 Itaú Cultural Institute honoured him as an “Artist of Reference“, with the exhibition “Ocupação”, at which the documentary “Assim é… se lhe parece” [That’s how it is… if you like] was released in his honour. From 2005 to 2007 he took part in the “Tropicália” exhibition, which opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, then moved to the Bronx Museum (New York), the House of World Cultures (Berlin), the Barbican Centre (London) and finally the MAM (Rio de Janeiro). In 2010 he participated in the “Dreamlands” exhibition at the Pompidou Centre (Paris) and, with a special room, in the 29th São Paulo Biennial. In 2011 he held the retrospective “Nelson Leirner 2011-1961 = 50 anos”, at FIESP/SESI-SP. The same year, the show “Who is Who” opened in Miami and he was honoured by the Tomie Ohtake Institute with a special room at the exhibition “Beuys e bem além – ensinar como arte” [Beuys and far beyond – teaching as art].
In 2014 his exhibition “Minha casa, minha vida” [My house, my life] opened at the Eva Klabin Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, followed, in April 2015, by the travelling exhibition “International Pop”, first at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and later, in 2016, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In 2017 he took part in the touring exhibition “Vastidão dos mapas – arte contemporânea em diálogos com mapas da Coleção Santander Brasil” [Vastness of maps – contemporary art in dialogue with maps from the Santander Brasil collection], curated by Agnaldo Farias, and the collectives “How to read El Pato Pascual: Disney’s Latin America and Latin America’s Disney” at the Mak Center for Art + Architecture, in California, and “Ready Made in Brasil”, at the FIESP/SESI-SP.
Already scheduled for 2019 is the travelling exhibition “Pop América, 1965-1975”, which will open at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, in North Carolina.