Given the contemporary emphasis on integrating post-studio art projects and social praxis, it is not surprising that the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica (1937-1980) is best known for his “Parangolés” (1964-79). These multicolored, mixed-medium constructions were designed to be worn by the samba dancers of Mangueira Hill, a Rio de Janeiro favela, and exemplify the 1960s-era utopian drive to integrate art into everyday life. But 10 years before he created his first Parangolé, Oiticica had begun exploring the kind of two-dimensional geometric abstraction pioneered by earlier utopian-minded artists, principally those associated with Suprematism, the Bauhaus and de Stijl. A recent exhibition of his gouaches on cardboard dating from 1954 to 1958 presented works that are both foundational to Oiticica’s later output and valuable in their own right.

Chronologically, the show began with a set of six “Grupo Frentes” (1954-56). Mostly untitled and ranging in size from approximately 7 by 8 to 17 by 20 inches, these colorful gouaches suggest the influence of Paul Klee’s abstractions, which the artist saw for the first time at the 1953 São Paulo Bienal. Early in the series, the irregular ebb and flow of Oiticica’s brushwork yields loose, painterly geometric figures. Shortly thereafter, well-defined rectangles, squares and triangles emerge, along with circles drawn by a compass. The artist’s palette narrows toward more elementary hues, and color is continuous rather than modulated. In addition, the figure-ground relationship is deemphasized in favor of an allover compositional structure.

Oiticica’s subsequent series, the “Sêcos”(1956-57) and “Metaesquemas”(1957-58), are similar in size to the “Grupo Frentes” yet represent a clear change of direction: allover composition is replaced by spatial interaction between the background and smaller figures. In Sêco 14,three trapezoids are rendered in black or near-black and positioned on an airy, partial grid. Metaesquema 519 and 526 conjure Op art with stacked black bands that shift up and down like contour lines tracing embedded three-dimensional figures. In other examples of the “Metaesquemas,” mirroring takes center stage, with rectilinear shapes placed side by side or in rows. While the patterns appear whimsical and even simplistic, close inspection reveals masterful rhythm and balance.

Throughout all three series, Oiticica’s geometry and mirror-play recall Malevich and Mondrian while anticipating 1980s-era Neo-Geo painting. In this respect, Oiticica’s abstractions may be regarded as a fulcrum between formalist approaches associated with utopian idealism and those meant to schematize top-down
systems of social control.

Photo: Hélio Oiticica: Metaesquema 519, 1958, gouache on board, 12 by 16 inches; at Lelong.