Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
October 1, 2016 – January 2, 2017
Inspired by Nietzsche and Malevich in his precocious development as a geometric abstractionist, Hélio Oiticica also absorbed some of his entomologist father’s scientific precision. There’s a taxonomist’s eye at work in the subtly varied colors of his early origami-like constructions—as suggested in the catalogue for the artist’s first comprehensive retrospective in the U.S.—a systematic intelligence to his naming and categorizing of his works, and, above all, an ethical rigor: a lifelong commitment to his early ideals, wherever they might lead him artistically (from the samba schools where he took refuge from his privileged upbringing, through the ecstasy and misery of New York’s East Village in the 1970s, and back to Brazil just before his
In this show, co-organized with and which travels to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Whitney Museum, a distinguished curatorial team (Lynn Zelevansky, Elisabeth Sussman, James Rondeau, and Donna De Salvo, with Anna Katherine Brodbeck) has recreated major installations, enabling viewers to chart the continuities and contradictions in Oiticica’s trajectory, with special attention to links between his work in New York and Brazil. Along with his fierce modernist discipline, Oiticica maintained a commitment to the more organic, intuitive paintings of Paul Klee, with their connection to nature and children’s art—a subjective experience he discovered in the sensory immersion of Carnival, which he recreated in the more contemplative spaces of his installations—labyrinths suggesting dream landscapes and small compartments in which participants recapture personal time
Opening his work to viewer participation, connecting to earth and sky, Oiticica garnered international attention for Tropicália (1967), a collaborative installation that embraces kitsch, with parrots, potted palms, and sand to evoke Brazil’s tourist image, while a favela-like shanty with a TV in its dark, claustrophobic interior ironically comments on the “creleisure” of the poor. It breaks with the narrow, modernist purity of his early work, now identified with the bourgeoisie, and adopts a cosmopolitan stance, including music, poetry, and embracing all of culture so as to move it forward rather than root it in a nationalistic past.
The increasing repression of Brazil’s military régime forced Oiticica to seek refuge abroad in 1969. While the curators emphasize continuities in his work, the break in his development occasioned by dictatorship and exile seems significant. He first took advantage of an offer that year from the Whitechapel Gallery in London, where he created Eden (1969), his largest project ever. Nearly fifty years later, the immersive installation of sand, water, stone, and straw is installed in the Carnegie Museum’s Sculpture Court, outside of the linear progression of his other works. The marginal location, connected to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, would have pleased him; the installation’s huts and tents—vernacular structures from the favela—maintain a dignified simplicity within the court’s classical colonnade, with the gallery of Roman sculptures looking on from the balcony above. Reversing the airborne optical brilliance of his early works, Eden features subdued colors and focuses on sensory engagement through the feet, as visitors remove their shoes and wander over sand, stones, and straw, and through a pool of water that evokes childhood memories. Lying down in padded boxes, they can browse through books and magazines, listen to music, or even play pool in a reconstruction of the billiard room from van Gogh’s famous painting of subterranean life, The Night Café.
With Oiticica’s move to New York in 1970, art and life increasingly merge. The “nests” he constructs that year for Kynaston McShine’s Information show at the Museum of Modern Art migrate to his loft on Second Avenue, open to friends and visitors, with the sexuality implicit in their earlier manifestations enhanced by cocaine, which Oiticica embraced as a native South American intoxicant. As in Brazil, he assumes marginality as an ethical stance and rediscovers the immersion of Carnival in the communal ecstasy of the rock concert. Critical of Warhol’s Factory for exploiting its artists, Oiticica rather writes a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, whose immolation of his guitar takes on Nietzschean implications—a sacrifice of bourgeois identity as participants become the tragic chorus.
Thwarted by New York’s bureaucracy, Oiticica takes on writing projects, embodied in the exhibition by multi-layered arrays of hand- and type-written documents spanning the gallery walls. Their conceptual complexity recalls the nested labyrinths of his installations: multilingual wordplay and concrete poetry draw on Mallarmé and Rimbaud, while a catalogue of the varieties of cocaine recalls William Burroughs—a “continuous conversation speech” ultimately resistant to the process of publication.
Working long-distance, Oiticica’s Filter Project—for Vergara (1972), a more conceptual version of Tropicália, is installed in Brazil. It features corridors made with sheets of colored plastic, is animated by radios and a TV, and contains an automatic orange juice dispenser delivering corporeal doses of color. If influenced, as the curators suggest, by the technology-infused global village proposed by Marshall McLuhan, Filter Project’s alienation from the body is counter-balanced by Oiticica’s films and slide projections, which reflect Herbert Marcuse’s insistence on the body as an instrument for revolution. Neyrotika, a 1973 slide projection, celebrates gay sexuality, while CC5 Hendrixwar, also from 1973—one of a series of immersive installations titled “Cosmococas” never presented in his lifetime—is recreated, where visitors suspended in hammocks listen to tapes of Jimi Hendrix as slides of his cocaine-outlined faced are projected on all walls.
Coming full circle, Oiticica adopts an Apollonian serenity upon his return to Brazil in 1978, where he re-establishes contact with Rio in PN27 Penetrable, Rijanviera (1979), a labyrinth with flowing water and soft, translucent colors. He makes models for “Magic Squares,” open rooms with moveable, colored walls set in the landscape, which he doesn’t expect to be built. Just as Carnival offers only a transient experience of society turned upside down, art seems now to offer visionary pleasures and conceptual play, but no substantial transformation of daily life. Yet Oiticica, as one of his last works, makes a moving tribute to Paul Klee—his long-term influence—on the artist’s 100th birthday: Counter-Bolide: To Return Earth to the Earth (1978), which was re-enacted for this exhibition by a group of students, performed for the first time in the U.S. since 1993. Just as Oiticica did in a forlorn site in Rio’s Caju, three-foot squares of fresh dirt were placed in an urban lot, reaffirming cultural vitality in the earth as its precise geometry dissolved and “naturalized” a new landscape.
HEARNE PARDEE is a painter based in New York and Northern California.