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.