Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 5, 2018
Lynne Zelevansky, Elizabeth Sussman, James Rondeau, Donna De Salvo, and Anna Katherine Brodbeck Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium Exh. cat. New York: Prestel, 2016. 320 pp.; 291 color ills. Hardcover $75.00 (9783791355221)
Carnegie Museum of Art, October 1, 2016–January 2, 2017; Art Institute of Chicago, February 18–May 7, 2017; Whitney Museum of American Art, July 14–October 1, 2017
Thumbnail
Large
Installation view. Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium, Carnegie Museum of Art, October 1, 2016–January 2, 2017, (photograph © Bryan Conley; provided by Carnegie Museum of Art)

As installed at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium provided a salient comment on the artist who perhaps best represents the new canon of twentieth-century Latin American art. This canon is grounded in three pillars of Oiticica’s work: abstraction, participation, and conceptualism. I have previously argued that in the Global North this canon was first consolidated by Héctor Olea and Mari Carmen Ramírez’s seminal exhibition Heterotopías / Inverted Utopias, which opened at the Reina Sofía in 2000 (see Daniel R. Quiles, “Exhibition as Network, Network as Curator: Canonizing Art from ‘Latin America,’” Artl@s Bulletin 3, no. 1 [Spring 2014]: 62–78; and Camila Maroja and Abigail Winogad, “Vectors or Constellations? Curatorial Narratives of Latin American Art,” Artl@s Bulletin 3, no. 2 [Fall 2014]: 83–96). While To Organize Delirium is not the first major exhibition of the Brazilian artist in the United States, three major institutions previously unassociated with Latin American art were involved this time around. As such, it represented something of a transcendence of the label, and limits, of “Latin American art” as a distinct field altogether—one that was not without its complications.

At the Carnegie, the first experience was one of chromatic overload: an array of luminous whites, reds, oranges, yellows, and blues, suffusing the visual field. At the entrance to the Heinz Galleries, three of Oiticica’s early gouaches on cardboard (the abstract Grupo Frente, Sêcos, and Metaesquemas of the late 1950s) hung on the walls around bright orange, coral, and yellow mobiles of his subsequent “Neo-Concrete” turn: the Relevos especiales (Spatial Reliefs; 1960) and Núclei (1960–63). These examples of “painting in space” were designed to produce a “lived experience” of color for a viewer moving around them, in an ever-shifting encounter (Hélio Oiticica, “Color, Time, and Structure (1960),” in Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Color, ed. Mari Carmen Ramírez, exh. cat. [Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, 2007], 207). Behind them, positioned on the floor, were red Bólides, containers for earth or raw pigment, and PN1 Penetrável (Penetrable PN1; 1960), a shack-like wooden structure with yellow and orange walls. These “trans-objects,” as Oiticica called them, were originally designed for touch and navigation, respectively, but at the Carnegie visitors were not allowed either, leaving their effect fundamentally optical. Beyond them, on the far side of the gallery, was Tropicália (1967), Oiticica’s first environment: paths winding through sand, potted palms, live parrots, and two more Penetrávels that, in this case, viewers could enter. One of the original goals of this work was to problematize essentialist images of Brazil as a tropical paradise. By installing this “environment” within a larger one, however, To Organize Delirium undid its immersive aspect, while conflating three distinct stages of the artist’s career via luxuriant color. This spectacular curatorial choice was guaranteed to win new converts to Oiticica’s cause, but English speakers among them might have easily missed the eponymous declaration stenciled on Tropicália’s PN2 Penetrável: A pureza é um mito (Purity Is a Myth, 1966).

The next six galleries of the exhibition were devoted to the final decade of Oiticica’s career, in which he concentrated on experimental writing, films, and additional environments while living mostly abroad, first in London and then in New York City (a 1970 Guggenheim grantee, he was not, as is often claimed, in exile). Bolstered by copious new research in the catalogue, this focus on the 1970s yielded a welcome reconsideration of an often-neglected period. Oiticica’s time in New York provided many generative encounters (to name a few, Quentin Fiore, the Theater of the Ridiculous, Jack Smith, Mario Montez, and Vito Acconci), but it was also a time of professional difficulty (his work was exhibited in public only twice in eight years) and physical decline (he became addicted to cocaine). Undocumented following his Guggenheim year, he was deported to Brazil in 1978, where he received a warm welcome and new opportunities amid the country’s slow transition to democracy. While in New York, Oiticica reoriented his practice around the idea of a “subterranean” marginality, constructing a set of modular sensorial environments in his apartment, the Babylonests (1971), to be experienced by guests. He wrote around the clock, filling dozens of notebooks with notes and concrete poetry, alternating between English and Portuguese. Digitized examples of this prolific output were on view at the Carnegie, but no effort was made to decipher their dense references to philosophy, literature, and popular music, speaking to a perhaps inevitable loss when broad audiences confront private experiments. Super-8 films including Agrippina é Roma-Manhattan (1972), the results of Oiticica’s many collaborations, were projected in the Carnegie Museum’s galleries, their gritty views of downtown lending the ephemera some semblance of atmosphere.

Because of their scale and engrossing particularities, Oiticica’s environments dominated the exhibition, with one room each for Eden (1969), Projeto Filtro—Para Vergara (Filter Project—For Vergara; 1972), CC5 Hendrix-War (1973), and PN27 Penetrable, Rijanviera (1979). Originally shown in London as part of a 1969 show at Whitechapel, at the Carnegie, Eden was situated in the Hall of Sculpture downstairs along with exhibition copies of the Parangolés (1964–79)“capes” that can be understood as wearable paintings—and other participatory works. Trained attendants were on hand, in bright yellow T-shirts, to encourage viewers to adorn the Parangolés and dance (despite the lack of audible music). Eden was designed to facilitate crelazer, a neologism combining words for “creativity,” “belief,” and “leisure” that connoted liberation through new sensorial experiences (Irene V. Small, “Toward a Deliterate Cinema,” Walker Living Collections Catalogue (2014), http://www.walkerart.org/collections/publications/performativity/deliterate-cinema/). As with the later Cosmococas series (a collaboration with Neville d’Almeida) that includes Hendrix-War, such environments oscillate between Apollonian and Dionysian modalities. If viewers were provided with a safe space in which to follow curiosity or desire, their experience was often delimited or calibrated via narrow passageways, small compartments, specific sensorial stimuli, and precisely edited bursts of information in different media (pop songs, radio broadcasts, magazines, book covers, and so on). This latter tendency toward control was explicit in Filter Project and Rijanviera, in which the viewer moved in one vector through a series of specific colors, textures, or content.

Since the fire that destroyed the majority of the artist’s oeuvre in 2009, Projeto Hélio Oiticica has been remaking lost works and producing exhibition copies of survivors so that museum visitors can use them as they were originally intended. Irene V. Small has addressed the possibility that the fire liberated Oiticica’s work from the burden of the auratic original and restored his original emphasis on experience (Irene V. Small, “Material Remains,” Artforum [February 2010]: 95–6). To Organize Delirium did not draw great attention to whether the objects on display were originals, remakes, or exhibition copies (the catalogue is more explicit). The Projeto has also been constructing environments for which Oiticica drew up detailed plans but which he was not able to produce during his lifetime, one of these being Filter Project. As fascinating as it was to experience a work that an artist only ever conceptualized, this move also unveiled the larger stakes of such exhibitions for an artistic legacy in transition. Would Oiticica, an adamant anti-capitalist in the 1970s, have wanted his work disseminated like this, with increasingly expensive originals and a workshop churning out cheaper versions into perpetuity? “There are those who would say that Oiticica had little regard for posterity,” write the curators in the catalogue preface, “and there is evidence to support that position. But Oiticica died young and never had the chance to consider his legacy with the perspective of time. And there is the question—perhaps a selfish one—of whether to let the work of a great and ambitious artist and his outsized contribution, a wholly unique humanistic achievement, simply recede. It doesn’t seem fair to him or to the generations that follow” (18). Certainly, with respect to posterity, this show’s heart was in the right place, and for the thousands in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and New York who had not yet experienced Oiticica’s work, it likely proved a revelation. Yet I am struck by the self-congratulatory tone of this passage—as if previous exhibitions have not already introduced audiences to Oiticica; as if the only places that his achievement can be disseminated and perpetuated are powerful US institutions; as if it is not problematic that these institutions are capitalizing on the tragic myth of a “global” artist who received such a cold welcome in this country.

To Organize Delirium should nonetheless be congratulated for a complex, even unsettling portrait of the artist as relentless searcher. Spending time in one of CC5 Hendrix-War’s hammocks, one saw photographs of Jimi Hendrix albums decorated with lines of cocaine, projected onto the surrounding walls and accompanied by his music (at frustratingly polite volume). One intuited, at great remove, Oiticica’s long-standing interest in marginality, which comprised his investigations of criminality and political resistance in Brazil as well as queer and drug subcultures in New York. Yet this is not a place for passivity or surrender; on the “suprasensorial” register Oiticica aspired to, critical thought was intertwined with phenomenological awareness. Writing in 2000, the Argentine artist Eduardo Costa anticipated the benefits of showing this work in a museum, arguing that Oiticica’s use of cocaine as a material was a heroic way of gaining control over a substance that had taken control of him. “[I]f these works were ever shown properly in a major museum, like the Guggenheim . . . it would be a major event in education through art, and in art history. This work is the triumph of the artist over the drug, and over his own addictive behavior” (“Hélio Oiticica’s Cocaine Works and Some Thoughts on Drugs, Sex, Career, and Death,” in Conceptualism and Other Fictions: The Collected Writings of Eduardo Costa, 19652015, ed. Patrick Greaney [Los Angeles: Les Figues Press, 2016], 111). Costa anticipated To Organize Delirium’s production of unexpected new readings of Oiticica’s work and legacy, unfolding in time in the hands of manifold viewers.

Daniel R. Quiles
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.