This exhibition consisted of three walk-in environments by Hélio Oiticica (1937–1980), one of the major figures of Brazil’s Neoconcrete movement of the 1960s. Spanning nearly 20 years, the pieces (which the artist called Penetrables) trace the development of Oiticica’s vision, radical for its day, of artworks that would be completed only upon the active participation of the spectator.

The Neoconcrete artists took their cues from European nonobjective work by Malevich, Mondrian and others but filtered its rationalism through Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s writings on phenomenology. Over time, Oiticica and compatriots such as Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape developed a peculiarly sensual and interactive variety of abstraction that extends into both environmental and social space.

For Oiticica, this initially meant paintings that could be physically entered and explored. The show opened with Penetrable PN1 (1960)—a plywood cubicle divided into four quadrants by vertical panels, some fixed and others movable.

The exterior and interior walls are variously painted orange and yellow; after stepping inside, visitors can manipulate the panels to change the color and shape of the space in which they are standing.
In 1964 Oiticica began attending samba school in Mangueira, one of Rio’s oldest favelas. Immersing himself in the life of the shantytown, Oiticica started to make artworks that simultaneously engaged avant-garde developments, such as Happenings, and Brazilian popular culture, designating billiard rooms and street repairs as art and creating cape-like costumes (Parangolés) to be worn by Mangueira’s inhabitants.

Oiticica’s work of this time provided much of the visual identity for Brazil’s Tropicalism movement—a primarily musical phenomenon of the late 1960s that likewise fused local and global influences. (It even took its name from Oiticica’s 1967 environment Tropicália, a Penetrable featuring plants and live parrots.)
Tropicalism’s ecstatic, emancipatory message was anathema to Brazil’s military regime, which quickly suppressed it. Musicians were forced into exile; by 1970 Oiticica had, as he put it, jumped ship. But even before then, he fretted that Tropicalism had commodified the culture of Brazil’s marginalized, overwhelmingly nonwhite poor.

In self-imposed exile in New York, Oiticica came up with the less culturally specific (while still tropically flavored) Filter Penetrable (1972). This mazelike structure of unpainted plywood and colored Plexiglas was included in the show. Traversing corridors sporadically hung with curtains made of dark fabric, clear colored vinyl and white netting, viewers encounter a TV and transistor radios tuned to local stations, speakers broadcasting readings by Gertrude Stein and Haroldo de Campos, and, finally, an old-fashioned dispenser where they may help themselves to a drink of orange juice.

The third work on view, made after Oiticica’s return to Brazil in 1978, is an abstracted slice of favela architecture. If you signed a waiver, you could climb up a short gravel path, through a bowerlike construction of corrugated aluminum, chicken wire, sheet metal and sacking, and slither down the gravel slope on the other side. Perhaps a memorial to Oiticica’s beloved favela community, it is also, like its companions, an infinitely variable work of art, newly made by each viewer who passes through it.

Photo: View of Hélio Oiticica’s installation Filter Penetrable, 1972, mixed mediums, 26 1/2 feet long; at Lelong