Antonio Dias, a Brazilian artist whose early, hot-colored paintings needled his country’s military dictatorship and who later turned to subtly political conceptual art while in self-imposed European exile, died on Wednesday in Rio de Janeiro. He was 74.
The cause was a brain tumor, according to Galeria Nara Roesler in Rio, which represents Mr. Dias. He was also being treated for lung cancer at the Clínica São Vicente, a hospital in Rio.
In the mid-1960s Mr. Dias emerged as the leading figure of Nova Figuração, or “New Figuration,” a movement in Brazilian painting that used bold, graphic imagery to contest Brazil’s junta, which took power in 1964.
Within thickly outlined frames of black, he painted comic-like tableaux of soldiers scuffling with bearded hippies, of looming mushroom clouds, and of a skeleton wearing a military uniform and beating a cartoonish red heart with a truncheon.
In many of his canvases, Mr. Dias made use principally of red, white and black, which gave them a violent graphic immediacy. Others mocked the United States’ backing of Brazil’s military regime. Soft protuberances affixed to the surfaces, shaped like bones or phalluses, gave his early paintings an erotic dimension.
In recent years, curators working on a more global history of art of the 1960s have placed these early works by Mr. Dias in a world-spanning network of Pop art. In 2015, his art appeared in the substantial exhibition “International Pop,” which opened at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and later traveled to Philadelphia and Dallas, as well as in “The World Goes Pop,” at Tate Modern in London.
Yet Mr. Dias’s hard-hitting, world-weary, often savage art of the 1960s sat uneasily alongside Andy Warhol’s soup cans or Roy Lichtenstein’s comic-book recapitulations, and he never embraced the American term as his own.
“I always protest when I’m accused of being Pop — it’s not my party,” Mr. Dias told The New York Times in 2015, on the occasion of “International Pop.” He only acceded to the curators’ invitations, he said, because the shows promised to look again at the early 1960s, “when the way you could use images started to come from totally outside the fine-art world.”
He and the others artists grouped under the umbrella of Nova Figuração, among them the husband and wife Rubens Gerchman and Anna Maria Maiolino, had none of American Pop’s cool detachment. Mr. Dias’s art drew more on the examples of an earlier generation of engaged Brazilian abstract painters in Rio and São Paulo, of the Narrative Figuration movement then favored in left-wing Paris, and of the political and psychedelic inflections of tropicália, Brazil’s musical avant-garde.
Antonio Dias was born on Feb. 22, 1944, in Campina Grande, a city in the northeastern Brazilian state of Paraíba. He moved to Rio in 1958, when Brazil was rocketing into a new future, encapsulated by President Juscelino Kubitschek’s ambition to accomplish “fifty years in five,” as the slogan went, and symbolized by the construction of Brasília, the new capital in the country’s interior.
In Rio, the teenage Mr. Dias encountered avant-garde art that was in tune with this movement to modernize, including Hélio Oiticica’s colorful hanging constructions and the geometric abstractions of the Grupo Frente.
Mr. Dias exhibited his pugnacious paintings in such Brazilian exhibitions as “Opinião 65,” a landmark show at Rio’s Museu de Arte Moderna, and in such international such as the 1965 Biennale de Paris, where he won a prize for painting. He stayed in Europe after that exhibition — one of many Brazilian artists to leave the country as the military dictatorship hardened its stance on free expression.
In Paris, Mr. Dias participated in the student protests of May 1968. Soon after, he moved to Milan, where he abandoned his graphic and immediate paintings for an art of cool conceptualism, though his political engagement never wavered.
He befriended Luciano Fabro, Giulio Paolini and other leading figures of Italy’s vanguard Arte Povera movement, and he began to make Super-8 films, like “The Illustration of Art I” (1971), in which two bandages crisscross a model’s skin, uniting geometric abstraction and body art.
In “The Invented Country (God-Will-Give-Days),” a 1976 work now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a red flag with one corner shorn off dangles from a brass fishing rod. The work was a mournful, ironic exercise in flag-planting from a Brazilian in self-imposed exile.
Yet its drooping also cast doubt on the left-wing ideology that he and his colleagues believed in so thoroughly in the 1960s — as if to imply that any solid commitment to a political cause could only be a museum piece.
Travels to Nepal and India in 1977 inspired more delicate works on paper, while in the 1980s and 1990s, when he taught at art schools in Germany and Austria, Mr. Dias painted more abstract compositions that made use of gold, copper and other metallic pigments.
Mr. Dias’s survivors include his wife, Paula Chieregato; two daughters from two previous marriages, Nina Dias and Rara Dias; and a grandchild.
A retrospective of his work will open on Nov. 3 at the Sharjah Art Foundation, a museum in the United Arab Emirates.