The Brazilian artist Vik Muniz had his “Aha!” moment in 1985, during a time of seismic shifts in the art world. Attending shows at the International With Monument gallery in New York’s East Village, he encountered the work of Ashley Bickerton, Meyer Vaisman and Jeff Koons. “No one had to explain anything,” says Muniz, who was particularly struck by “Equilibrium,” Koons’ first solo exhibit, in which basketballs were suspended in glass vitrines filled with water. “These people were like me.” Until then, he recalls, he had never imagined that he was cut out to be a contemporary artist. “There’s a moment in life when there’s a tide reversal, when you start seeing a manifestation of art around you that reflects how you live,” Muniz says. “It’s your time to go from a passive receiver, a consumer, to making art that reflects your own culture, your own history.” Ultimately, the work of Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol, as well as the concepts of land art, Fluxus, Arte Povera and minimalism, all contributed to shaping Muniz’s conceptual vision. “This is the generation that inspired me to become an artist,” he explains. “The work from the ’60s and ’70s helped inform my thinking as an intellectual. This is stuff I really like—political painting, commercial art, typography.”
On February 28, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta will open its mid-career retrospective of Muniz’s work (through May 29). Co-organized by the Minneapolis-based Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, the 150 works will include composites—Muniz has been known to use chocolate syrup, tomato sauce, diamonds, dust and magazine clippings to enhance his images—and other items from his collection of 250,000 found photographs, prints from his Pictures of Garbage, and images from the Colonies series, which resulted from collaborations with scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Muniz is simultaneously working on Perfect Strangers, a series of photographs of New Yorkers who were invited into Muniz’s studio to pose.
The life-sized images are being transferred onto tiles for the walls of one of the new Second Avenue subway stations on Manhattan’s East Side, at 72nd Street. The installation, commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is to be completed by the end of 2016. “When you go to a museum you know what you’re going to see,” he says. “Having work displayed at a train station comes as a surprise.”
With studios in Brooklyn and Rio de Janeiro, the 54-year-old artist has come far from his childhood in a poor suburb of São Paulo, where he struggled to overcome a reading disability at a young age and “started drawing compulsively out of frustration,” as he recalls. But when he was 14, his fate as an artist was sealed: He won an art competition and a two-year scholarship to a private school that taught academic drawing. At 22, he headed to Chicago, eventually moving to New York in the early 1980s.
After years of experimentation, his breakout moment arrived in 1997, when a photographic series he called Sugar Children was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and greeted with critical success. He had used a Polaroid camera to photograph the children of sugar plantation workers on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, and, using those images as reference, drew the subjects in chocolate syrup, dirt, black pepper and sugar. He then photographed the result.
Muniz was a principal subject of Waste Land, a documentary by the director Lucy Walker that showcased the artist’s interactions with a group of catadores, or garbage pickers, in Jardim Gramacho, a huge landfill on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. The film was nominated for an Academy Award in 2010 and won honors at the Sundance Film Festival and from Amnesty International, among others. In its review, the Los Angeles Times described Muniz photographing the catadores “and then collaborating with them in transforming these photos into portraits created with recyclable materials.” The review went on to say that Muniz’s purpose was “to inspire his pickers to see themselves in a new way and even to reimagine their lives.”
Muniz’s dedication to social art landed him a two-year stint as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in 2011. For this year’s Venice Biennale, he created Lampedusa, a 45-foot floating installation made to look like a paper boat assembled from newspaper pages reporting the deaths of migrants off the Italian coast. “The greatest thing is that we are alive and we are conscious,” says Muniz, who feels as comfortable at a samba party in a landfill as he does at dinner in Moscow with an oligarch art collector. “This is an amazing gift.”