Helio Oiticica

New York

at Lelong

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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

Helio Oiticica

New York

at Lelong

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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.