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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

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SEPT 2020 Issue
The Miraculous The Miraculous: New York

17. (The East Village, the Subway)

A Brazilian artist in his early 30s relocates to New York where he furnishes his East Village apartment with mattresses that he surrounds with sheer fabric hangings. Soon it becomes a haven for experiments in art-making, love-making, drug-taking and gender-fucking. In Rio, where his inspirations ranged from Malevich to the folk culture of the favelas, he had abandoned painting and sculpture for artworks that could be worn like clothing or entered into like rooms. He summed up his ethos with the phrase, “Be marginal, be a hero,” not exactly a recipe for success in a nation under repressive military rule. In New York, he feels incredibly liberated, as an artist and as a gay man.

While his efforts to interest random New Yorkers in his favela-inspired capes aren’t as successful as he has hoped (subway riders mostly decline to don the garments), he enthusiastically embraces photography and film. Often collaborating with a filmmaker friend, he shoots Super-8 films of acquaintances and lovers posing and striding around Manhattan. The photographs (made with his friend or alone) are presented as slideshows intended to be viewed from the comfort of mattresses or hammocks. He calls these films and slideshows, which are usually accompanied by rock music of the moment (Jimi Hendrix, the Stones, Jefferson Airplane), “quasi-cinemas.” Another group of works called “trashiscapes” involve using cocaine to make ephemeral drawings on album covers, book jackets and magazine covers and photographing the results, presumably before the white powder disappears up someone’s nose. Lines of coke, carefully laid out to follow the features in the underlying images, are “drawn” on a cover of the New York Times Magazine featuring Luis Buñuel, on the cover of Norman Mailer’s biography of Marilyn Monroe, on Frank Zappa’s LP Weasels Ripped My Flesh and, most frequently, Hendrix’s posthumous album War Heroes. The images are nearly always of faces in close-up.

As time goes on, cocaine assumes an ever-greater role in his life and art. He starts calling his slideshow installations “Cosmococas” and when he runs short of money (his art isn’t selling, or even being exhibited, and he can’t find a job) turns to dealing the drug himself. New York starts to close in on him, as does the immigration service (he has overstayed his visa) and the narcotics squad. “I feel as if I’m in a prison in this infernal island,” he writes to a friend back home. After eight years in the city he returns to Rio, where he quits drugs, begins jogging on the beach every day and feels, he tells a friend, “free free free.” Two years later, at the age of 43, he is dead from a stroke. “Because I saw him at different stages of his life,” an Argentine artist friend later observes, “I can say he was quite destroyed by New York City’s way of life or perhaps by the way he was not included in it.”

(Hélio Oiticica)

Contributor

Raphael Rubinstein

Raphael Rubinstein is the author of The Miraculous (Paper Monument, 2014) and A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015). He is currently writing a book about the Jewish-Egyptian writer Edmond Jabès. A Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art, he divides his time between Houston and New York.

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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

All Issues