Viva Tropicália!

Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium

an exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, October 1, 2016–January 2, 2017; the Art Institute of Chicago, February 19–May 7, 2017; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, July 14–October 1, 2017
Catalog of the exhibition by Lynn Zelevansky, Elisabeth Sussman, James Rondeau, and Donna De Salvo, with Anna Katherine Brodbeck and others
Carnegie Museum of Art/Art Institute of Chicago/ Whitney Museum of American Art/DelMonico/Prestel, 320 pp., $75.00; $45.00 (paper)
César and Claudio Oiticica/Matt Casarella
Hélio Oiticica: Tropicália, 1966–1967. The installation, on view at the Whitney, includes plants, sand, birds, and a poem by Roberta Camila Salgado inscribed on brick, tile, and wood.

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…

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