During his lifetime, Hélio Oiticica exhibited in major art centers in London and New York, including Whitechapel Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art, where he took part in the 1970 exhibition “Information.” That same year, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship and settled in New York for the following eight years. He was also a prolific writer of manifestos and artist statements. Notwithstanding this activity, the Brazilian artist remains relatively unknown, maybe because of his premature death in 1980. Early in the ’90s, renewed interest in his work resulted in a series of retrospectives, catalogues, and scholarly studies delving into the aesthetic, philosophical, and social aspects of his trajectory. Researchers still think that some parts of his work haven’t been adequately studied.
The influential 1960s movement that identified “art as life” was led by a group of artists who claimed public and unusual spaces as ideal stages for experiencing art. Rather than the passive and almost reverential attitude encouraged by galleries, public outdoor spaces invited people to become part of the artworks, which no longer needed to be marketable objects. These ideas gave rise to a variety of artistic practices with very different outcomes, as documented by the works featured in “Information,” which became a milestone for the delineation of conceptual art in subsequent years. Traditional art spaces were never fully rejected, however, and anti-institutional behavior co-existed with gallery-friendly versions of public interventions—or at least their documentation.
Oiticica was very consistent about the “art as life” position, and he often put into words his criticism of the New York art scene. In letters to friends and in his manifestos, he considered the movements of the time—Minimalism, Pop art, and Happenings—as excessively “bourgeois” and “aestheticist.” His deliberately marginalizing, fringe attitude likely explains why his work didn’t receive more attention during his life.
Oiticica began his career with Mondrianesque paintings in the mid-1950s—works in which color becomes a vehicle for the transcendental. His adhesion to the Neo-Concrete movement in the late ’50s and early ’60s was pivotal to his subsequent development, when color planes shifted toward three dimensions and led to interaction with the viewer. This evolution culminated in spaces that invite the public into suprasensorial experiences. In all of these phases, Oiticica remained on the fringes in terms of a transgression that questions authorship and gives the viewer an essential role in the artwork.
The military dictatorship that governed Brazil between 1964 and 1985 forced Oiticica and many artists from his circle into voluntary exile, including fellow Neo-Concretist and close friend Lygia Clark, singer and composer Caetano Veloso, poet Roberta Camila Salgado, and filmmaker Neville d’Almeida. Their exile implied neither a withdrawal from their roots in terms of artistic practice nor an estrangement from Brazilian politics; instead, it reinforced the social and political commitment reflected in their work. Oiticica, in particular, made marginalism and transgression a way of life, and an aesthetic drawn from the favelas and popular Brazilian culture inspired and grounded his installations. His 1968 motto, seja marginal, seja herói (“Be an outlaw, be a hero”) served as a symbolic rallying cry for the underground countercultural movement during the years of military repression. The phrase was printed on a red flag with the image of a then-famous Rio de Janeiro criminal and friend of Oiticica called Cara de Cavalo (Horse Face), who was shot down by militaries in the Rio favela of Mangueira.
During this time, Oiticica’s work evolved from pure color paintings into full-size installations. Paralleling the musical movement led by Veloso, which combined popular samba rhythms with rock and roll and Latin-American music, Oiticica’s transition to three dimensions allowed him to blend elements of popular culture with allusions to current thinking in sociology and philosophy. His first installation, exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro in 1967, included tropical plants, live parrots, sand, pebbles, and colorful, penetrable structures made with the same materials as those employed in Brazilian shantytowns. Viewers could walk through the installation, ending up in a room furnished with a TV set that encapsulated recurrent concerns about the power of the media. Tropicália—the title of this installation—soon doubled as the name for the entire Brazilian counterculture movement. Fluid and hybrid in inspiration, Tropicalism embedded foreign influences in its version of popular iconography, creating an act of “anthropophagism,” a term coined by Brazilian poet Oswalde de Andrade in 1928 and revisited by Oiticica, who refused clichés and ironically addressed the concept of identity. Far from an exaltation of the indigenous, Tropicalism acknowledged cultural permeability, which is at the core of the Brazilian personality.
Oiticica’s numerous essays and statements outline his view of the world, as well as the inspirations—both artistic and intellectual—that influenced his creative process. He always kept a balance between the popular and the intellectual in his creations, often collaborating with poets, samba dancers, and filmmakers while including philosophical references in his writings.
He had a wonderful ability to cannibalize terms and customs from other disciplines and contexts for the sake of art. Indeed, he created his own taxonomy, attaching coinages such as Parangolé and “Creleisure” to his works. The first word is a colloquial term that articulates a somehow improvised situation; it can equally refer to a jabbering or to the architecture of the favelas. In the case of his own work, Oiticica applied it to the odd, cape-like garments that resulted when he transferred the colorful, geometric shapes of his sculptures and penetrable constructions into something wearable. Clothed within the Parangolés, the body acts as a motor and generates a situation of color and movement—a metamorphosis, as Oiticica called it, of both the wearer and the observer. As the wearer moves, the Parangolé opens up to reveal “revolutionary” texts hidden within its folds and pleats: Da Adversidade Vivemos, Incorporo a Revolta, and Estou Possuido (“Of Adversity We Live,” “I Embody the Revolt,” and “I’m Possessed”). One could say that the philosophy of the Parangolés reached its culmination when samba dancers from Mangueira wore them. These dancers participated in many of Oiticica’s actions, but he also invited anonymous people in the streets of New York and visitors at his exhibitions to wear the Parangolés.
The term “Creleisure” (Crelazer in Portuguese) defines Oiticica’s appeal to a state of “creative leisure” in which humanity frees itself from all planned activities, especially those representative of consumerist societies and repressive governments. The concept has clear political allusions in addition to sensual ones, materialized by his penetrable constructions called “nests,” “cells,” and “cosmococas.” By interacting with these spaces, participants accept the power of giving meaning to the artwork, thus questioning the status of the artist as author—and the authority of the art institution, since these environments and actions were often in public space or Oiticica’s house.
Another aspect of these works that bolstered their anti-art and anti-establishment attitude can be found in their incorporation of non-artistic materials, including the shells, sand, and pebbles that often covered the floor. Oiticica frequently used low-quality, painted cloth, screens, mats, and other unsound components pressed into use in Rio’s shantytowns. Today, this intentional precariousness presents a challenge to curators. The fragility of the original pieces and the requirement that they be open to participation give rise to the debate of showing replicas—at least of the Parangolés and Penetrables—so that the work can be fully experienced as the artist intended.
The low-tech aspect of Oiticica’s work shouldn’t undermine his importance as an avant-garde installation artist and theorist. His unique ideas intersect with those of contemporaries like Warhol, Beuys, and LeWitt, and we can also see elements of his distinctive approach in the work of artists linked to Relational Aesthetics—from Ernesto Neto to Alicia Framis and Pipilotti Rist. Time has shown the seriousness of Oiticica’s project, and his legacy is more present than ever.
Paula Llull is a writer based in Australia.