Hélio Oiticica’s Place for People

Hélio Oiticica’s Place for People

The Brazilian artist’s manipulations of color and space became a way for him to challenge society’s inequalities.


Walk barefoot along the gravel and sand toward a cage of cawing parrots; plop down into a tent and listen to some bossa nova through stereo headphones; or, if you prefer, cozy up in a hammock as the sounds of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar blast through your body. “To Organize Delirium,” Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica’s first full US retrospective—on display at the Whitney through October 1—is an immersive experience of indulgence for almost all your senses. A friend recently described the installation as “a great place to bring your kids”—a sort of playground filled with sand, samba, even a snooker table. It’s not what you’d expect to find at the Whitney, but Oiticica’s desire to create inclusive artwork provides enough fodder to occupy art enthusiasts and their children all the same.

The retrospective opens by examining Oiticica’s initial explorations of color and space through a brief collection of paintings that follow in the tradition of South American geometric abstraction, a movement spearheaded by Joaquín Torres-García and others and which lasted from the 1930s through the ’70s. Oiticica’s shapes eventually unfolded off the two-dimensional plane to form large, abstract structures that paved the way for more expansive projects. “Color itself must live,” Oiticica wrote in 1960, fascinated by how pigment—particularly orange, which he considered to be a “median color par excellence”—could be freed from the canvas. Over time, he constructed grander works, shaping an experimental style that would influence conceptual artists like Gordon Matta-Clark and Vito Acconci.

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1937, Oiticica lived in both Brazil and the United States as a child; his father, José—a mathematician, entomologist, and photographer—worked at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, in the late 1940s. Oiticica’s exposure to Paul Klee, whose work he saw at the National Gallery of Art, sparked an early curiosity about color and space. European modernists like Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian profoundly influenced him as well. One of Oiticica’s earlier works, titled Malekledrian—in reference to Malevich, Klee, and Mondrian—is part of a series of buzzing, grid-like paintings on cardboard from 1958, and depicts a set of tilted red, orange, and blue rectangles suspended against a white backdrop.

Oiticica was also deeply influenced by his readings in philosophy, especially the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who distinguished between physical participation and cognition as two exclusive approaches to a single dimension of experience. One of the curators of “To Organize Delirium,” Lynn Zelevansky, described Merleau-Ponty’s idea of “pre-cognitive” perception—physically experiencing something before you intellectualize it—as instrumental to Oiticica’s departure from the canvas and toward creating experiences requiring physical participation by way of touching and/or moving through a work.

Oiticica took this line of inquiry further, in 1960, with the creation of his first Penetrable—PN1, a labyrinth-like architectural structure with yellow and blood-orange walls that could be entered, or “penetrated,” and manipulated by the participator. (Oiticica preferred the term “participator” to “viewer.”) While one can trace the development of his ideas and practice, Oiticica considered the Penetrable to be distinct from his previous works; it was no longer an isolated and static work of art. The Penetrable, he wrote, would be “simultaneously penetrated and enveloped by environmental space.” As the structure unfolded, he asserted, the notion of a shared space between the work and the participator would also grow.

In 1961, Oiticica further synthesized his ideas in the conception of his Hunting Dogs Project, a brightly colored blueprint for an interactive public garden that foreshadowed the grander installations he would create later in his career. It was replete with interactive experiences, housing Penetrables, labyrinths, a theater to be fully controlled by the participator, and, in a hidden black chamber, a set of stacked, colored boxes with a poem by Ferreira Gullar (composed of the single word rejuvenesça, or “rejuvenate”) written on the smallest one.

Oiticica’s ambition to understand and transform space and environment would soon eclipse color as the main object of his concerns, a process accelerated by a series of events in 1964. His father passed away in July of that year, only months after a military dictatorship took control of Brazil. Over the course of 1964, Oiticica also became obsessed with samba—a musical fusion of Afro-Brazilian and Latin American rhythms—and began to frequent the Mangueira favela, a shantytown neighborhood in Rio, for dancing classes.

In Oiticica’s notes from that time, he wrote that he wanted to learn to dance out of a need for “de-intellectualization” and “intellectual dis-inhibition.” Samba, like Rio’s favelas, was (and, to an extent, still is) stigmatized by the higher Brazilian society; it was relegated to the country’s lower classes. He was nevertheless fascinated by Mangueira’s culture, fashion, and architecture. The favela triggered a cultural awakening in Oiticica—it had a liberating effect on his schematic style.

The time he spent in Mangueira sparked a change in his notion of the use of space, which led to a series of much bolder works. Chief among them were his Parangolés, multilayered garments and capes, which often displayed political messages and were designed to be worn rather than hung in galleries. To Oiticica, the Parangolé alone was not art; the purpose for it, he would later say, was unity between art and participator: “It is the incorporation of the body in the work, and the work in the body.” In other words, by wearing and dancing with the Parangolé, the participator would animate the artwork.

As Oiticica became more exposed to Brazil’s complex social landscape, his Parangolés took on increasingly provocative messages. One contains a painted image of Che Guevara’s face, while another, from 1966, reads, in Portuguese, “Sex and violence, that’s what I like.” Along with his Bólides (“Fireballs”)—another set of smaller objects crafted in wood or glass and designed for manipulation—Oiticica’s Parangolés were an extension of his “social environment,” an integration of art with the world. A 2009 fire destroyed or damaged many of his original works, but to see his remaining Bólides sitting beyond the reach of spectators at the Whitney would likely have irked Oiticica to no end.

In his efforts to create more inclusive art with the Bólides and Parangolés, the art museum became a repressive venue for Oiticica, prohibiting Brazilians at the margins of society from participating in his work. During the inauguration of his Parangolés at the “Opinião 65” exhibition in the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio, museum authorities forbade the artist from entering with his Parangolé-clad friends and samba dancers from Mangueira. In response, Oiticica took his exhibits outside, to a park surrounding the museum, where they danced and celebrated.

What pulled the entirety of Oiticica’s work together was a common thread of revolt throughout his career—first, against the constraints of the canvas, and later on, in defiance of the art museum’s isolationism. In 1967, Oiticica’s politically inspired art reached its climax with Tropicália, a watershed work that has served as a manifesto of sorts for Brazil’s avant-garde. It’s an ironic portrait of Rio de Janeiro, intentionally embodying Brazil’s most visible clichés: sand, luscious plants, and tropical birds. During this period, Oiticica grew more focused on delivering a political message. Tropicália contains a gravel path that surrounds two Penetrables—one of which, in its bright, tomato-red interior, reads “A pureza é um mito” (“Purity is a myth”). Drawing on Rio’s favelas, the two Penetrables and the gravel spread along the sand—as well as ominous poems by Roberta Salgado, which are painted on tiles—provide a rough contrast to the tropical image that is conjured in the rest of the installation.

Tropicália’s critical commentary inspired the Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso to name a song on his debut studio album after the installation. Released in 1968, Caetano’s self-titled album served as a launching pad for what would become Brazil’s counterculture movement, which was also called “Tropicália.” Taking its cues from Oiticica’s work, the Tropicália musical movement was characterized by eccentric, colorful melodies contrasted with cutting, politically charged lyrics.

After sparking the Tropicália movement, Oiticica began searching again for something new, an even further refinement to his disruption of form. “The only way is to go forward, or, in other words, to experiment,” he said in a 1979 documentary made about his life and work. Many of his contemporaries, including Lygia Pape and Lygia Clark, Oiticica’s lifelong friend, followed a similar dive into abstract, participatory art during the 1960s, often incorporating political undertones into large-scale works. By the late ’60s, however, Oiticica viewed both the conservative and liberal sectors of Brazilian society as culturally repressive and, out of frustration, began to shy away from overt political references in his art.

During his next phase, Oiticica applied pressure on society from a different angle: His 1969 project Éden was an immersive structure designed to encourage what he called “creleisure,” or “creative leisure”—his idea that relaxation is essential for stimulating true creativity. Éden is an enormous multisensorial stimulation—the installation is even larger than Tropicália—and houses multiple Penetrables containing mattresses, water, and rocks or leaves. Wooden pits, crafted in the shape of beds, are filled with books, hay, and chunks of foam rubber. After removing their shoes, participators at the Whitney can come in, relax, and open themselves to new potentialities.

Éden was a synthesis of Oiticica’s long-standing ideas. His notion of “creleisure” served a dual role: as an artistic stimulant, but also as a departure from the passive nature of mass media and the museum. “People are able to create things themselves instead of submitting to models,” he once wrote. “So the artist has to propose things which people themselves can create.” It was a reckoning of sorts with a question that likely occupied Oiticica in the late ’60s: What is the social responsibility of art in society? The answer, it seemed, was to promote progress through everyday creativity. The participator remained Oiticica’s focus, but his politics became internalized in his work. Éden was a manifestation, rather than a simple representation, of these ideas.

Oiticica would never go on to create anything on a par with Éden during the remainder of his career. His crusade to free art from the confines of the museum led him to nearly a decade of inconsistent, cocaine-fueled productivity in New York City during the 1970s, after which he returned to Rio, where he died of a stroke in 1980. He was only 42 years old.

And yet, Oiticica’s outward questioning of how to create immersive and accessible art would go on to inspire others for decades. At the Whitney, next to the samba-bumping tent in Éden sits one of his Nests, a raised, wooden, bed-like structure covered in a burlap sheath. A version of it was featured prominently in “Information,” the landmark 1970 show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The conceptual-art movement was only just taking shape, and it was there, at MoMA, that a young Vito Acconci first saw Oiticica’s work. “In the middle of the museum,” the artist later recalled, “there was a place—a place for people.”

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