Hélio Oiticica’s Journey From Art Visionary to Coke Dealer and Back Again

"Parangolé Cape 30 in the New York City Subway," 1972. Courtesy of César and Claudio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro.

Hélio Oiticica, one of the most famous figures of Brazil’s mid-century surge of experimental art, once said that his goal was to strike “a fatal blow to the concept of the museum, art gallery, etc., and even the concept itself of ‘exhibition.’” Organizing a show about someone like that without taming him is a very difficult challenge, even if his challenges are part of his disorienting charms.

It’s a worthy task, though, and Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium, the big touring retrospective that arrives this week at the Whitney Museum of American Art (after opening last year at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art, where I first saw it), is here to give it a try.

Oiticica (1937-80) had the good fortune to be born to a well-off, cosmopolitan family in Brazil. His father, a photographer and researcher, won a Guggenheim grant in 1947, moving the family to Washington, DC, for two years while he worked at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Young Oiticica drank up philosophy. He loved Friedrich Nietzsche, whose influence shows in his writing, with its extravagant declarations and ecstatic neologisms.

Returning to Brazil, the young artist studied with the most influential figures in Rio’s contemporary art scene, entering at the age of 18 into the hot-house environment of Grupo Frente, an abstract painting movement presided over by Ivan Serpa, who believed in art-making as a model for accessing an experience of free-thinking democratic liberation. Among this cadre, Oiticica would meet his lifelong artistic peers, including Lygia Clark, whose trajectory from geometric abstraction into wilder experiments with interactive sculpture he would mirror.

Installation view of To Organize Delirium at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Image: Ben Davis.

Oiticica moved deeper than Clark into interactive installation art, becoming known for free-standing environments where viewers were invited to navigate among loose mazes of multi-colored panels and symbolic props. Viewed at the time as part of the Conceptual art movement, these environments today feel prescient of a turn towards “relational aesthetics,” and tend to be presented through the lens of contemporary art museums’ notions of audience engagement (Did you hear? There’s a pool table at the museum! And a parrot!).

The truth is, though, that the Oiticica we meet in To Organize Delirium is weird and difficult to categorize. His art is too funky for people who like their art classical; too visceral for those who like their art to be theory-driven; but also too brainy for those who like their art to be all wide-eyed, interactive fun.

The specific ways that these threads tie together are what makes him interesting. To Organize Delirium surveys the full arc of Oiticica’s career, offering, importantly, the first look at Oiticia’s post-‘60s New York years. But the historical context of the work, and the mythos that the artist built up around it (much of it laid out in the exhibition’s fine catalogue), is very important to its magnetism – maybe as important as what you see or feel in the galleries.

Consequently, telling his story for beginners as an introduction might well be worthwhile, passing through a few of his most important installations.

Tropicália (1967)

A kind-of pop-up beach pavilion – an island of sand and rocks studded with plants, little plaques of Portuguese poetry, a cage of live parrots, and walk-in pavilions to explore – Tropicália is likely the most startling and memorable installation here. It was just as radical in its day when it debuted at the “New Brazilian Objectivity” show, at the Museu de Arte Moderna (Museum of Modern Art) in Rio in 1967, crowning a feverish period of experimentation.

Installation view of Helio Oitcica’s Tropicalia at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Image: Ben Davis.

The “dissolution of art into life” was one of the great themes of ‘60s art around the world, but in Brazil the theme had a particular charge. In 1964, alarmed by the fomentations of Brazil’s leftist government, the US put its stamp of approval on a military coup. The generals who took power imposed a hard line when it came to their Catholic conservatism and “traditional” Brazilian values – but initially concerned themselves with putting workers and peasants in their place, leaving the students and intellectuals free to stew in their radical rhetoric for an interregnum in the second half of the ’60s.

To Organize Delirium tracks Oiticica’s trajectory from crisp geometric painting towards increasingly interactive art in the mid-’60s: first his “Bólides,” painted boxes meant to be opened so that viewers could handle the secrets within (like clumps of raw earth); and then his “Parangolés,” flamboyant wearable artworks, including a red-and-white cape that declares “Sex and Violence Is What I Like.”

Oiticica’s emphasis on interactivity here is generally understood in the context of the dictatorship, with the artist searching for a vital popular audience in the face of a ruling-class culture grown increasingly arid and hostile. The “Parangolés” were conceived in the context of Oiticica’s turn to the culture of Brazil’s favelas. He crossed class and race lines to attend the Mangueira samba school, and his new-model wearable art would be inspired directly by the costumery of Carnival, the archetypal art of Brazil’s masses.

Hélio Oiticica, P15 Parangolé Cape 11, I Embody Revolt worn by Nildo of Mangueira, 1967. Courtesy of César and Claudio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro. © César and Claudio Oiticica. Photograph by Claudio Oiticica.

No doubt the results would, today, be pilloried as cultural appropriation. The society of his day, however, considered his efforts to reach across Brazil’s hyper-segregated society somewhat subversive. In 1965, when he tried to do a performance at Rio’s Museum of Modern Art with Mangueira dancers clad in his capes, they were denied entry. Famously, he turned the occasion into an impromptu parade-cum-protest dance on the grounds outside.

Tropicália was conceived in 1966. In a way, it was engineered to infiltrate the very museum that had turned away those dancers a year before: “the created environment,” he wrote of Tropicália, “was obviously tropical, evoking a small plot of land; but more importantly, you would have the feeling of actually walking on the earth. This was the same sensation I had felt earlier walking among the hills, of entering and leaving the favelas. Turning along the informal structures of Tropicália brings back memories of those hills.”

When you get right down to it, it is a thoroughly ambiguous work matching a confusing period, when US-style consumer capitalism was being imposed in the name of traditionalist values, and radical promises for art were matched by the repression of actual radical politics. Its tropical imagery is down-to-earth and inviting: “I had the idea of appropriating those places I liked, real places, where I felt alive,” Oiticica said, adding that, “It’s a map of Rio, and it’s a map of my imagination.”

Installation view of Helio Oiticica’s Tropicália at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Image: Ben Davis.

At the same time, it’s all a bit ironic – a Brazilian version of Pop art, with the camp images of “Brazilian-ness” (the parrots, the beach, lush foliage, etc.) put in quotations. “For me, as a cultural urgency, it was on first importance to grab all Brazilian roots in image, to confront it to American influence and overthrow its predominance by absorbing it.”

“Purity Is a Myth” reads a slogan painted within one of the walk-in pavilions, an aphorism that somehow both affirms the installation’s earthy imagery while mocking the political rhetoric appealing to an essential “traditional” Brazil. In another pavilion, you push through curtains into a dark nook, where a TV screen blares harsh static into the darkness as if to say that the secret at the heart of Brazil was an empty, blank transmission.

Tropicália is by far Oititica’s most celebrated piece. Its name almost immediately became adopted to describe a whole vein of countercultural, psychedelic, late-’60s Brazilian pop culture.

At exactly this moment, however, the junta decided it was time to slam shut the window on the relative freedom it had allowed the creative classes to maintain. The year 1968 involved a drastic intensification of repression, and the thriving climate of cultural radicalism came into its crosshairs.

Eden (1969)

Like many of his fellow Brazilian intellectuals, Oiticica now essentially went into self-imposed exile. He had made connections in London, lining up a big show at the Whitechapel Gallery. The installation known as Eden would be the biggest of his career, a vast ersatz beach.

Hélio Oiticica, installation view of “Eden” (1969) at Whitechapel Gallery, London (1969). Collection of César and Claudio Oiticica. © César and Claudio Oiticica.

It developed the same themes of Tropicália, but, as befitting his now-international status, it did so without the focus on tinkering with specifically Brazilian imagery. Eden is studded with pavilions and pods and objects that you may explore: tents containing fragrant leaves, jagged rocks, and running water to wash your feet in; a cocoon-like sleeping platform; lumber “nests” that you can crawl around in, filled with hay, shredded Styrofoam mulch, and even a bunch of used books to peruse.

With Oiticica now based outside of his home country, his message became more generally countercultural – an excuse for the artist to develop his ideas of “creleisure,” that is, creative leisure as opposed to the passiveleisure of mass entertainment or traditional museum culture.

In Eden you see how Oiticica’s works, though considered precursors to interactive art stand opposed to today’s glossy multimedia spectacles. Its attractions are not high-tech – they are funky and low-key by design. “Today’s world demands something improvised and participatory,” he wrote. “People are able to create things themselves instead of submitting to models. So the artist has to propose things which people themselves can create.”

Hélio Oiticica, Eden, 1969. Installation view, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 1969. Courtesy of César and Claudio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro. © César and Claudio Oiticica.

Eden represented the high point of Oiticica’s museum career, followed closely by his participation in Kynaston McShine’s landmark 1970 “Information” show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This show, featuring artists from Art & Language to Lawrence Weiner, is remembered as the official arrival of Conceptual Art as an international trend. Oiticica’s work in that show (not included in To Organize Delirium) was very different than classic text-driven Conceptualism – it consisted of inhabitable “nests” meant to invite the viewer to lounge (inspiring the likes of Vito Acconci in how they served as stages for human experience).

What’s important, though, is that in some ways the theory of “creleisure” remained a conceptual proposition only, something his works proposed as a provocation rather than fully enacting. “In general the nests were not inhabited much,” the British poet Edward Pope remembers of the Whitechapel show. “There was a gap … between what could happen in one of Helio’s environments and what did happen.”

Installation view of Hélio Oiticica, Eden, at the Carnegie Museum. Image: Ben Davis.

None of the attractions in Eden are that far outside of the ordinary experience of, say, a day at the beach. They are simply outside of the ordinary experience of things you might do in a museum at that time. In this sense, more than anything else, they stood less as a realization of paradise-in-the-museum than as an implicit rebuke of the stuffy expectations of a middle- to upper-class museum audience in 1969.

Oiticica was, in a sense, entering the museum to encourage people to leave it. And soon, this tension would cause him to eject himself from that space altogether.

CC5 Hendrix-War (1973)

This brings us to Oiticica’s ‘70s period, the most innovative, and difficult, part of To Organize Delirium – difficult mainly because, after the career high of his Whitechapel and MoMA showings, he now basically dropped out of art to pursue a totally non-institutional, intimate form of art-as-lifestyle in New York. Instead of trying to get his nest-like art into galleries, he turned his apartment itself into a warren of “Babylonests.”

Miguel Rio Branco, Babylonests, 1971. Courtesy of César and Claudio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro.

Oiticica was gay. In post-Stonewall NYC, he seems to have found the room to express his sexuality in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in the environment of Catholic Brazil under the dictatorship – though he detested the commercialization of the alternative scene coming out of Warhol’s Factory for “raising marginal activity to a bourgeois level.” His artistic inspirations came instead from the orgiastic experiences of a Jimi Hendrix rock concert on Randall’s Island and from witnessing filmmaker Jack Smith’s camp slideshows in his loft.

What Oiticica really, really liked, though, was cocaine. As he turned his back on the art scene, drugs came to fuel not only his lifestyle but his finances.

In 1971, with his Guggenheim grant running out, and no green card forthcoming, he would become a dealer. “He not infrequently moved cocaine worth ‘a thousand dollars’ – more than twice the monthly rent for his loft – in just a few days,” the catalogue tells us.

He wrote poetic odes to the drug, and gave artistic titles to different varietals of coke (“Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “Carol Channing’s Diamonds,” or even “Brancusias,” after the sculptor Constantin Brancusi). In his writings, he flirted with imagining his drug dealing as an act of aesthetic rejection along the lines of Marcel Duchamp’s famous decision to drop out of art to play chess.

This is the context for CC5 Hendrix-War, one of Oiticica’s “Cosmacocas” series of proposals, conceived with the filmmaker Neville D’Almeida. In “To Organize Delirium,” it is rendered as a room of hammocks, the surrounding walls covered with giant projected images of Jimi Hendrix’s face studded with lines of cocaine like war paint, as Hendrix music plays.

The “Cosmacocas” were only experienced privately during Oiticica’s lifetime, for obvious reasons, and remain an odd fit for the preppy museum environment. They stood – in the words of the poet Waly Salomão, one of the few to report on the experience – as “a way of taking pleasure in the sensation of time that is different from the time of protestant capitalism, time is money, for example. It’s different from that. Time is money, no. Time is pleasure. It’s the pleasure principle that rules, and the reality principle is suspended.”

If you’re not high, though, it’s basically a bunch of hammocks and Jimi Hendrix music.

This drug-den-as-art-installation is certainly very memorable, though definitely in a kind of Metal Machine Music kind of way, representing a terminal point for a certain self-absorbed idea of countercultural transformation.

Rijanviera (1979)

Such a cultural project has its limits, in terms of one’s physical stamina and material resources. Oiticica seems to have hit the wall sometime around 1975, when drug references abruptly stop in his writing. In 1974, he had been robbed at his giant Second Avenue loft, putting the end to the dream of remaking his life as an open, participatory work of art.

He moved to the West Village, seeking more privacy. In 1977, a fever seemed to have been lifted: “this year had a change … I’m not interested in ideas … now I want to make physical stuff.”

Facing money woes and difficulty with immigration, he moved back to Rio in February 1978. (A letter only arrived to his lawyer asking to schedule an appointment with Immigration and Naturalization Services two years after the artist’s death.)

Hélio Oiticica in front of a poster for Neil Simon’s play “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” in Midtown Manhattan, 1972. © César and Claudio Oiticica.

In Brazil, Oiticica now returned to old ideas and explored new ones. The last stretch of “To Organize Delirium” has the air of reassessment, of stock-taking. There is, for instance, a work that is simply an appropriated fragment of asphalt from a Rio construction site that looks kind of like the island of Manhattan, a gesture which feels sentimental, wistful.

The most ambitious of his late works is another environment, Rijanviera (an interpolation of “Rio de Janeiro” inspired by Finnegan’s Wake), which appeared just eight months before he died of a stroke. The installation was shown at the Café des Arts in the Hotel Meridien, at the Copacabana beach club. Oiticica declared it his most important work of the 1970s. Critics branded it derivative of his earlier work.

Rijanviera is indeed best read in relation to the previous installations, but in contrast to them. You approach the structure through a surrounding square of sand, take off your shoes, and walk through the twist of the pavilion’s corridor – where running water sloshes across your feet – before emerging on the other side.

On its opening night at the Copacabana, something symbolic happened. As Oiticica blasted Hendrix and Caetano Veloso tunes, the water system in Rijanviera malfunctioned, causing it to overflow. More alarmingly, one group of partygoers went a little too far in their excitement for the show, going wild.

Oiticica had once called for striking “a fatal blow to the concept of the museum” with his interactive art. Now he had to defend his own work from destruction, reportedly going so far as to smash someone in the face with a rock to save Rijanviera (Lygia Pape’s work, Wind Eggs, the only other piece in the show, was wrecked.)

Defending his project in the press following the fracas, Oiticica would write to a local art critic, “These works were made [for] and require a sort of exercise in breaking habits of understanding: non-ritualistic and cathartic.” In some ways, this sounds like the earlier rhetoric of using his environments to wean viewers from passive consumption.

But now, on the far side of his New York adventures, the idea of “breaking habits” has another connotation altogether. The 1979 work, with its simple, elemental themes, is still about activating the viewer, but seems just as much about rejecting the opposite extreme: the compulsive, destructive focus on ecstatic self-gratification. It suggests a return from the kingdom of the pure “pleasure principle” to the kingdom of reality.

Tropicália was flamboyant, an ode to impurity; Rijanviera is notably austere, purifying. Oiticica had considered Tropicália a “map of Rio.” Now he would write, “For me, Rio was first a myth, I had mystified it in such a manner that I had to leave it and spend all these years away to discover that after the process of mystification comes that of demythification.”

Rijanviera‘s cleansing path distilled Oiticica’s art to its sober core. It remains a symbolic representation of a transformative journey – but it no longer delivers you to another, rebel world of imagination. It just leads you back to a connection with where you already stand.

This article was originally published on artnet News, one of our partners.

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