Amid political turmoil and then systematic repression, Brazil in the 1960s was a nation seething with creativity. Antônio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto took bossa nova to a global audience. Glauber Rocha, Ruy Guerra, and other directors and screenwriters associated with the Cinema Novo movement won awards at Cannes and Berlin and even got an Oscar nomination. In Rio de Janeiro, Clarice Lispector was quietly writing her radically disquieting novels, while in São Paulo the Teatro Oficina and Teatro de Arena were noisily upending traditional concepts of dramaturgy. In architecture, Lina Bo Bardi and Oscar Niemeyer explored daring new ways to give social content to human habitats.
Then there was the painter, sculptor, conceptual artist, and all-around provocateur and contrarian Hélio Oiticica, the subject of the retrospective exhibition “To Organize Delirium.” Though nowhere near as celebrated as the others were during their lifetimes, he has come to be seen as personifying the ferment of the era. He was at the center of many of the artistic movements and polemics that erupted during the decade, and he would later define his artistic mission as fighting Brazilian society’s “worst enemy: four-century-old moralism” and the subsequent “cultivation of ‘good habits’” that only leads to “national constipation.” “Whoever wants to build (no one more than I, ‘loves Brazil’!),” he wrote, “has to see this and dissect the innards from the diarrhea—to dive into the shit.”
Oiticica, born in Rio de Janeiro in 1937, came by this rebelliousness naturally, almost genetically. His paternal grandfather, José Oiticica, was a philologist, poet, playwright, and prominent anarchist and Rosicrucian who spent several years in prison and was the author of a manual called Anarchist Doctrine Within Everyone’s Reach. At his grandfather’s urging and partly under his tutelage, young Hélio was home-schooled until the age of ten, when his father, a polymath university professor and photographer also named José, won a Guggenheim fellowship and moved the family to the United States. After two years in Washington, D.C., where his father worked as a lepidopterist at the Smithsonian, Oiticica returned to Brazil essentially bilingual and eventually began to study painting at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio, a renowned center of artistic experimentation and bohemian thought and behavior.
Extremely precocious, Oiticica started painting abstract gouaches while still a teenager; the earliest works in the exhibition date to 1955. He also began writing elaborate artistic manifestos, a practice that would remain with him to the end of his life, and fell in with a group of older artists and critics, most notably Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Franz Weissmann, Mário Pedrosa, and Ferreira Gullar. His work from this period is promising but somewhat lacking in warmth and emotion, and reflects the influence of the European painters he admired and whose essays, lectures, and letters he was reading, especially Mondrian, Klee, and Malevich. At the same time he was devouring philosophy and poetry of every type, and struck up a friendship with the visually oriented Concretist poets Haroldo and Augusto de Campos.
By the end of the 1950s, though, Oiticica had become impatient with the limitations of two-dimensional works, wanting to create something that would gain meaning from the spectator’s physical immersion in it. At the Whitney the exhibition beautifully tracks his solution to that problem, which was to fly into space. Oiticica’s early paintings hang along two walls in the biggest room, but at the center, suspended in the air, is his NC6 Medium Nucleus 3 (1961), a three-dimensional assemblage in yellow and orange that is meant to be viewed from four directions and appears to be a different work from each angle. In short order, Oiticica progressed to creating similarly colored but larger pieces that came to rest on the ground and were exuberantly three-dimensional.
The next big leap in Oiticica’s development as an artist, and perhaps the most decisive, came in 1964. The Brazilian military seized power in a US-supported coup on April Fools’ Day that year, overthrowing a popularly elected left-wing government that the Johnson administration feared would turn Brazil into “another Cuba.” Around the same time, the sculptor Jackson Ribeiro introduced Oiticica to life in Mangueira, the most traditional of Rio’s many hillside squatter slums, called favelas. Oiticica began frequenting Mangueira’s samba “school,” or association, which competes against those from other favelas in Rio’s annual Carnival extravaganza, and both the club’s music and visual style, built around its green and pink costumes, had an immediate impact on his work. Nothing seemed to escape his notice: a pool table from a billiard parlor was redeployed as Appropriation—Snooker Room, after Van Gogh’s “Night Café.” And one day he came upon the improvised shelter of a newly arrived favela dweller, made of wood, rope, metal, and burlap, with the word parangolé written on it, and had what can only be called an epiphany.
Parangolé is an old favela slang term that can mean idle chatter, a noisy party, or street-smart behavior intended to deceive someone: Qual é o parangolé? means something akin to “Wussup?” But Oiticica applied the word to scraps of tulle, linen, satin, nylon, canvas, cotton, gauze, and other fabrics that he sewed into colorful cape-like garments meant to be donned by onlookers. Though radical for the art world, Oiticica’s parangolés share a common ancestry with the showy Carnival garb of Rio’s samba schools: at the Whitney, several photographs and a film show Mangueira’s mostly black lead dancers wearing parangolés in various Rio settings—including the gardens of the Museum of Modern Art after they were refused admittance to an exhibition featuring some of Oiticica’s other creations. Visitors to the Whitney can even try on examples of Oiticica’s handiwork, some of which are adorned with the charged slogans he favored: “I Embody Revolt” or “Sex and Violence, That’s What I Like” or “I Am Possessed.”
The jerry-rigged shanties Oiticica saw in Mangueira also led him to experiment with a form of art he called “penetrables,” three-dimensional participatory installations. Oiticica created his first of these in 1960, but his exposure to Mangueira’s hillside landscape amplified his notions of where he could take the concept. The Whitney exhibition includes the most famous of these installations, Tropicália (1967), an exhilarating concoction that includes favela-like shacks, tropical plants, chattering parrots in a cage, a television set showing cartoons, a sandy pathway, and a poem inscribed on brick, tile, and wood. This is Oiticica at his best, simultaneously sending up age-old European and North American fantasies of Brazil as a tropical paradise, while celebrating the very items that give rise to those stereotypes. Yet it is also rooted in realism: I first experienced Tropicália before I had ever set foot in a favela, but navigating through it again at the Whitney brought back memories of being in Mangueira, Borel, or Rocinha.
When the Cinema Novo producer and screenwriter Luiz Carlos Barreto saw Tropicália, he applied the title to a musical movement then just emerging, and after its young musicians themselves visited the installation, they accepted that mantle, began calling themselves Tropicalistas, and forged an artistic alliance with Oiticica. Like him, the Tropicalistas Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Tom Zé, Os Mutantes, and others, most of them from the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, delighted in cut-and-paste collage techniques, the repurposing of artifacts of pop culture, word games, and challenges to political and artistic orthodoxy. Gil even recorded a song called “Geléia Geral” (“Generalized Jelly”), extolling this eclectic approach. Oiticica responded with a manifesto in which he praised the Tropicalistas for their “direct connection with mass consumption” and desire to “overturn the table with what is set on it.”
It is difficult to think of another twentieth-century visual artist with a greater affinity for music than Oiticica. His fascination extended not only to his kindred spirits among the Tropicalistas and sambistas but also to modern classical composers like John Cage, whom he met in Rio in the 1960s, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. But he was affected too by leading figures of the Anglo-American rock-and-roll scene: Oiticica adored Bob Dylan for his wordplay, Mick Jagger and David Bowie for their carnivalesque theatricality, and Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa for their musicianship. When he moved to New York, he even settled into an apartment at 81 Second Avenue, just down the street from the Fillmore East, where he regularly attended shows, and four months before his death he wrote a final manifesto called What I Do Is Music.
Indeed, it was Oiticica’s association with the Tropicalistas that eventually got him into political trouble. In 1968, he created perhaps his most notorious piece, a banner showing a black screen-printed corpse lying on a field of red, below which was written “Be an outlaw, be a hero” (see illustration on page 30). The body Oiticica chose to portray was that of Manoel “Horseface” Moreira, a favela drug dealer, pimp, and numbers game runner whom Oiticica had befriended and whom police had executed. As if that were not enough to enrage a military dictatorship that regarded cultural and political resistance as one and the same, the banner was hoisted later that year during performances by Gil and Veloso. If Oiticica and the Tropicalistas weren’t already on the regime’s blacklist, they were now; Gil and Veloso were almost immediately jailed and eventually forced into exile, and not long after Oiticica also departed Brazil.
Oiticica was by no means, however, a reflexive, programmatic leftist, and true to his anarchic tendencies, he could also treat icons of the Marxist-Leninist left with irreverence when it amused him to do so. A parangolé from 1968 that is also at the Whitney features an image of Che Guevara, based on Alberto Korda’s ubiquitous photograph of the Argentine-born revolutionary, but subtly altered to produce a different effect. Oiticica first removes the black beret with a red star that was a symbol of Communist militancy, tweaks the expression on Guevara’s face so that his lips are bent into a slight smile and his eyes twinkle, then finishes by sprinkling sequins in Guevara’s hair. So instead of the implacable, glowering Guerrillero Heroico that Korda intended, Oiticica gives us an impish child who appears ready to pull a prank. To take such liberties just months after Bolivia’s military dictatorship executed Guevara was considered a kind of blasphemy by members of what Brazilians call “the ideological patrol,” which in turn helps explain why the doctrinaire left viewed Oiticica, as well as the Tropicalistas, with enduring suspicion.
The second section of “To Organize Delirium” is devoted to the seven-plus years Oiticica spent in New York, where he arrived in 1970 to participate in a show with other conceptual artists at the Museum of Modern Art, with a Guggenheim grant of his own in hand and full of ambitious, grandiose ideas that soon collided with reality. Initially, for instance, he hoped to install a “Subterranean Tropicália Project” in Central Park, but could never get beyond four intriguing maquettes and drawings, included in the exhibition. All four, especially one circular in shape, called for elaborately maze-like constructions, a form that enchanted Oiticica from early in his career because of its mythic associations: “I ASPIRE TO THE GREAT LABYRINTH,” he wrote in 1961.
But by the time I first met Oiticica, in the winter of 1971–1972, he had already discovered cocaine and gave the impression of a man adrift, an artist cut off from his natural sustenance and seemingly devoted to parangolé in its original sense. His New York years provide the justification for a museum dedicated to North American art to mount an exhibition focusing on a Brazilian artist, but with a couple of notable exceptions, Oiticica’s New York pieces are generally less interesting or innovative than the work he did in Brazil before and after his Manhattan sojourn.
For example, perhaps trying to reproduce the feeling of belonging he felt in Mangueira, he gravitated for a while toward some of the toughest Latino neighborhoods of the Bronx, which resulted only in the rather ordinary South Bronx Series of photographs. Nor are Oiticica’s comparisons of New York to Babylon, in his Babylonests and various writings that are also on display, or to Imperial Rome, in his Super 8 film Agrippina Is Rome-Manhattan, particularly original. And while he continued to create parangolés—one is called Escrerbuto, a portmanteau that combines the Portuguese words for “writing” and “scurvy”—away from their original cultural milieu they seem robbed of energy: a parangolé worn on the New York subway was met only with puzzlement, as a photograph shows.
In recent years, it has become increasingly common to hear arguments in favor of Oiticica’s primacy as a transgressively gay artist; indeed, that notion pops up in some of the essays for the thoughtful and comprehensive catalog accompanying “To Organize Delirium.” But this seems overstated. There is no ignoring the homoerotic content of some of the work shown at the Whitney, especially from the New York years: Neyrótika (1973) is a collection of eighty slides, most of them portraits of shirtless young men, projected on a wall and accompanied by a taped broadcast from the New York soul music station WBLS and snatches of Oiticica reading the poetry of Rimbaud. But even in his self-imposed New York exile, Oiticica is largely concerned with issues of Brazilian identity, culture, politics, and social and racial inequality. He thus seems to me to be more a Brazilian artist who happened to be gay than a gay artist who happened to be Brazilian.
Oiticica’s saudade—the word Portuguese speakers use to describe any yearning, longing, or nostalgia for something forever lost or even temporarily beyond reach—is perhaps most clearly on display in a pair of immensely clever and engaging multimedia installations that he created with the film director Neville d’Almeida for a series called Cosmococas. As that title indicates, both works parenthetically employ actual cocaine not just as subject matter but also as compositional material: lines of white powder are carefully applied to images of Jimi Hendrix and Luis Buñuel in much the same way that an Amazon shaman would daub red urucum dye on the faces of warriors in preparation for battle or tribal rituals.
In numerous other ways, these two works reference not only Brazil but specifically the country’s northeast, the historic cradle of Brazilian culture and of the Oiticica family. That same region, it should be pointed out, also supplies the Oiticica family with its unusual surname, which is Tupí-Guaraní Indian in origin and derives from a resinous tree that flourishes in the semiarid backlands and produces a flower in shades of yellow and orange similar to those Oiticica used in several of the paintings and assemblages included in the exhibition. At the same time, the northeast has always been Brazil’s poorest and most socially conservative region, and its exploited peasants have traditionally migrated to the large cities of the south, many of them ending up in the same favelas Oiticica came to know so well.
The first of the Cosmococas series, Trashiscapes (1973), is presented in a room littered with blue mattresses, with nail files of the type used to cut cocaine back in the 1970s available at the entrance. From a reclining position, the spectator is bombarded with a jumble of images projected, though not simultaneously, onto four walls: the cover of the Mothers of Invention’s album Weasels Ripped My Flesh, a copy of The New York Times Magazine, a rotary-dial telephone, a toilet bowl, friends of Oiticica’s wearing parangolés. It’s all rather dizzying, in the manner of the Chip Monck and Joshua Light Show performances Oiticica saw in New York, but still quite enjoyable.
Oiticica heightens the disorienting effect by integrating three very different types of music, which he conceived of as essential components of the piece, not as mere accompaniment. The soundtrack opens with Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” but eventually shifts to a passage of dissonant orchestral music—Oiticica was striving for an atmosphere that he describes in written notes, with his characteristic love of Concretist-inspired neologisms, as “Woodstockhausen”—and also features a pair of songs by the Brazilian Luiz Gonzaga. An accordionist and singer from the northeast, Gonzaga was the master of a style of hillbilly music called forró, derided at the time Trashiscapes was being assembled as “music for maids and taxi drivers” but now quite fashionable.
To round out the sonic salvo, Oiticica includes a recording of another northeastern folk style, played by the astringent fife-and-drum corps known as Banda de Pífano Zabumba, as well as tapes of noisy street traffic. With this eclectic mix, Oiticica was declaring that he continued to embrace Tropicalismo’s mix-and-match ethos, specifically Gil’s all-encompassing geléia geral. (Gil was appointed Brazil’s minister of culture in 2003, and during his five and a half years in that cabinet post did much to help elevate Oiticica’s profile.)
Hendrix reappears as the focus of the exhibition’s other Cosmococa installation, just across a corridor from Trashiscapes and called CC5 Hendrix-War. Six hammocks of various hues are strung across a room onto whose walls are projected images of the cover of Hendrix’s posthumous War Heroes album; one of the hammocks even has a red-and-white-checked design that echoes some of Oiticica’s early abstract paintings, on display in the main room. Viewers are invited to make themselves comfortable in the cocoon-like hammocks as slides appear and Hendrix’s music plays. Oiticica would no doubt be delighted with the way this piece turned out: spectators often stand in line waiting for an opportunity to occupy the hammocks, whose design and coloration Brazilians would recognize as clearly northeastern.
Oiticica’s appreciation of Hendrix was unlimited: he wrote that “everything starts in MONTEREY POP,” the festival at which the guitarist set his instrument ablaze fifty years ago this summer, and described that gesture as a “watershed as important as the MALEVICHian white on white, as MALLARMÉ.” Hendrix’s sexual magnetism has sometimes been suggested as the basis of this admiration, but I would offer another explanation. To any Brazilian familiar with syncretic Afro-Brazilian religions like candomblé—as Oiticica was because of all the time he spent in Rio’s favelas—Hendrix’s act would have been read, Gilberto Gil once explained to me, not as a showbiz gimmick but as an invocation of Xangô, the Yoruba deity of fire, lightning, justice, and strength, recognized for his virility, daring, and ability to seek out and punish evildoers. So when War Heroes was released, seemingly amplifying that connection, the combination may well have proved irresistible to Oiticica. (Most of his references to this Afro-Brazilian spiritual realm are coded rather than overt, though it is worth noting that an aquatic section of the exhibition’s sprawling Eden penetrable is named for Iemanjá, the mother of creation and goddess of the sea in the cosmology of candomblé.)
Exhausted by New York, Oiticica went back to Brazil early in 1978, as the military dictatorship was easing its political grip and censorship of culture—part of a policy of abertura, or opening. He returned to his atelier in the Jardim Botânico section of Rio—a leafy neighborhood whose serenity was the exact opposite of the East Village’s bustle. Much of his work from this period strives for visual simplicity, eschewing any unnecessary ornamentation, and the pieces from that time chosen for the exhibition, presented in a large room with plenty of natural light, effectively convey that feeling. Oiticica created, for instance, one last great penetrable, called PN 27 Rijanviera, its title a playful homage to Rivera in Januero, James Joyce’s name for Rio in Finnegans Wake. But the piece is markedly different from the penetrables he had devised a decade earlier: restrained rather than exuberant, its severe lines, muted colors, and use of sand, stone, and water recall the austerity of a Japanese garden, not the lushness of the tropics to which Oiticica had returned.
During the late 1970s, Oiticica was also working with what he called “semi-magical found objects.” Chunks of concrete pavement and pieces of wavy black and white stone mosaics, dislodged from the sidewalks of downtown Rio by jackhammers, yielded Appropriation No. 4, while Manhattan Brutalista consists of a single fragment of asphalt that attracted Oiticica because it was shaped like the island he had just departed. Similar in spirit are two assemblages from the series Topological Readymade Landscapes created as homages to two artists he particularly admired, the Futurist Italian painter and sculptor Umberto Boccioni and his old friend Lygia Clark. The Clark piece is a droll one, consisting of white sand in an aluminum baking pan, nothing more, while the Boccioni tribute comprises a glass bottle filled with liquid detergent, around which curves a meshed wire screen.
Oiticica died of a stroke on March 22, 1980, just a few months short of his forty-third birthday, and while he has posthumously been elevated to the status of national treasure in Brazil, international recognition has come more slowly. “To Organize Delirium” is the first career retrospective of his work in the United States, and it is hard to say what he would think of it. No doubt he would complain that some of the pieces he meant to be entered and explored are closed off to visitors and can only be viewed from a safe distance. But a visit to the museum store made me chuckle: though many other artists might complain about the mass commercialization of their work in the gewgaws typically on sale in such a setting, to encounter T-shirts emblazoned with Oiticica’s slogan “I Embody Revolt” somehow seems fitting. A T-shirt is a distant cousin of a parangolé, and since Oiticica always invited spectator participation, that is what he gets.
Beyond that, however, is the larger issue of art-world hierarchies, especially as they concern the belated discovery of artists from what used to be called the “periphery,” or third world. “What’s this? Thirty years of waiting! It’s taken so long, incredible as it may seem,” his co-conspirator Neville d’Almeida said in 2003, when the pieces in the Cosmococas series were mounted together for the first time, in São Paulo. “The world had to evolve for this work to appear.” That’s a fair assessment, especially at a moment when Oiticica’s friend Lygia Pape, a decade older than he was, has just had her first major American retrospective, at the Met Breuer. Oiticica was a pioneer and inveterate pot-stirrer who would have benefited from greater attention and respect while he was still alive. But better late than never.