View of “Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Color,” 2007, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

View of “Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Color,” 2007, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Hélio Oiticica

THE ONE-PERSON RETROSPECTIVE has a reputation for limiting, even undermining, the contextual understanding of an artist’s oeuvre—a reductive result antithetical to the aims of such an exhibition. Many aspects of the art’s origins and intentions, its dialogues with other artists’ work, and its relationships to different types of visual and cultural materials and contemporary social and political events tend to be suppressed as a result of the physical limitations of the installation space and the need for visual coherence. Curators may acknowledge the art’s contextuality in supplementary wall texts as well as in pamphlets and catalogue essays, but in the galleries, they must depend on the viewer to summon up memories of works of art by other artists, and to flesh out the visual and material traces of the connections and inspirations contained in the displayed works. That said, in the recognition of a problem lies the inception of its solution. “Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Color,” an exhibition of the Brazilian artist’s work made between 1955 and 1969—organized by Mari Carmen Ramírez for the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston—provides a powerful and convincing argument for the one-person retrospective as a format for viewing the work of artists whose familiarity to audiences is limited to certain aspects of their production, as is often the case for Latin American artists shown in the United States.

Ramírez succeeds for two reasons. First, a significant amount of the work she includes in the exhibition has either never been seen publicly or has not been seen often, let alone properly cleaned or correctly installed. Such a complete and authoritative show was made possible, in large part, due to the Hélio Oiticica Catalogue Raisonné Project, a joint initiative of the Projeto Hélio Oiticica in Rio de Janeiro and the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (of which Ramírez is the founding director) at MFAH. The catalogue raisonné project has two primary aims: the publication of a seven-volume catalogue and the conservation of the artist’s work. Thanks to restoration and research in the vast Oiticica archives, even many of the works that have been exhibited since the artist’s death now look different. Their restored surfaces reveal subtler brushwork and multiple layers of slightly different hues, and they are installed against supporting walls painted the colors that Oiticica intended. Some, such as the “Invenções” (Inventions), 1959–62—previously referred to as monochromes, in part because their multiple hues were not visible—have new names, both individually and as series, based on Oiticica’s notes. Seen together, these previously unfamiliar, recently conserved, retitled, and more correctly installed artworks provide a fresh historical context for viewing Oiticica’s more familiar works, such as the “Parangolés,” 1964–68, the multicolored inhabitable paintings made of fabric and meant to be worn while moving to the rhythms of samba. Drawing on and extrapolating from this wealth of insight and information, the catalogue—which includes substantial scholarly essays by Ramírez; Luciano Figueiredo, director of the Centro Hélio Oiticica in Rio de Janeiro; and Wynne H. Phelan, conservation director at MFAH, as well as previously unpublished translations of texts by the artist—also sets a new, very high standard for Oiticica studies to come.

The second reason the exhibition is so compelling is subtler, but may prove even more influential. Throughout the installation, Ramírez directly acknowledges the space of the museum and its integral relationship to the avant-gardes—and neo-avant-gardes—of the twentieth century as crucial factors in Oiticica’s artistic development and in understanding his art. In such an approach, the museum is no longer the limit-term of the one-person show; it becomes a means for suggesting a more expansive visual, material, and historical context because it also possesses visual and material residues of its own history that can be conjured up and brought into play. This exhibition was held in the museum’s Brown Pavilion, the second of two additions to the MFAH designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe between the mid-1950s and the late 1960s. This paradigmatic modernist space allows Oiticica’s work to speak with all the historical, material, and dialectical elegance it possesses. The Brown Pavilion’s signature Miesian curved glass curtain wall, thin black structural ribs, and movable interior walls provide an environment that is at times totally in sync and at other moments in dialectical tension with Oiticica, an artist who, throughout the years covered by “The Body of Color,” was immersed in conversations with some of Mies’s own fellow travelers in the European avant-gardes—Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Kazimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian, to name only the most central ones.

Immediately upon entering the exhibition space, viewers are reminded that, although Oiticica is now most often associated with the artistic developments that took place in Brazil in the ’60s and ’70s—antiart and the tensions between the avant-garde and economic and social underdevelopment—he came of age as an artist in the ’50s, one of the most economically and culturally expansive decades in the nation’s history. At that time Brazil was, in the words of critic Mário Pedrosa, “a country doomed to be modern,” a fate embodied architecturally and culturally in the building of the new capital, Brasília, and in the creation of the Bienal de São Paulo. In 1953 the second biennial provided Oiticica with one of his earliest opportunities to view works by Klee, Mondrian, and other European modernists. A year later, he and his younger brother César enrolled in Ivan Serpa’s influential art courses at the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio de Janeiro. Serpa’s pedagogical approach, developed through his experience teaching art to children, stressed intuitive experimentation stimulated by research and dialogue. He was interested in the art and writings of Kandinsky, Klee, and Mondrian and encouraged group discussions of these artists and contemporary writers on European modernism. These studies were reinforced by Hélio and César’s association with the Grupo Frente, a loose artists’ collective (founded by Serpa and supported by Pedrosa and his fellow critic Ferreira Gullar) that included younger Brazilian artists such as Aluísio Carvão, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, and Décio Vieira, among others.

Ramírez’s delineation of the unfolding impact of these experiences on Oiticica’s early artistic development through her selection and arrangement of pieces such as those from the series “Sêcos,” 1956–57, and “Metaesquemas,” 1957–58, at the start of the show may initially appear to reproduce the familiar image of a young artist emulating the work of recognizable “modernist masters.” But closer attention reveals that neither Ramírez nor Oiticica produces a standard version of this historical narrative of engagement. Subtle flashes of deep interpretive intelligence and transgression appear from the very start in the quality of the surfaces in these early paintings. For example, when working on wood fiberboard, Oiticica chose to paint on its textured verso rather than on the smooth prepared surface of its recto. As a consequence, the pigments and the geometric shapes they articulate bristle unevenly from the surface of the board. The resulting impression, that the color exists somewhat independently of its support, only increases in the “Sêcos” and the “Metaesquemas,” works in which elaborate grids of rectangular and rhomboidal shapes in primary colors or black appear to conform to a unified spatial perspective or a bilateral mirroring pattern, but on closer inspection, often do not. These shapes weave in and out of multiple, partially articulated spatial configurations; or one or two elements in an otherwise strictly symmetrical format break free or are flipped to fold the space once again in half diagonally into a contradictory bilateral symmetry. When surrounded by so many of these works in the large open space created by the temporary walls of the first gallery—which, in turn, are surrounded by the much taller curtain walls of Mies’s pavilion—everything starts to float as an independent, yet syntactically similar, delineation of architectural space.

Oiticica’s rearticulation of Klee’s and Mondrian’s color armatures prepares the viewer for the “Série Branca” (White Series), 1958–59—here exhibited (newly restored) for the very first time—“Série Vermêlha” (Red Series), 1959; “Série Amarela” (Yellow Series), 1959; “Bilaterais” (Bilaterals), 1959; “Relevo espaciais” (Spatial Reliefs), 1960; and “Núcleos” (Nuclei), 1960–63, in the adjacent gallery spaces. Many of the two-sided works now appear literally to float; in fact, they are hung from the ceiling by steel wires. In several works, each side or facet is a slightly different hue or possesses a distinctly textured surface. This underlines something that Oiticica was already suggesting in his early fiberboard pieces and through the “flipping” of the rectangular forms in the “Metaesquemas”: that painting—and color—has a back as well as a front, which together can generate a sense of an inside and an outside and a space in between. The hanging “Bilaterais” and “Relevo espaciais” also unwittingly, yet suggestively, echo Mies’s own exhibition design for “Six Master Paintings, Two Glasses, One Sculpture” (which took place in 1963 at Cullinan Hall, a large exhibition space adjacent to the Brown Pavilion that was the architect’s first addition to the MFAH); in that show, paintings were hung on both sides of large floating white panels suspended from the ceiling by wires. Ramírez’s installation thus keys into multiple layers of historical reference, evoking at once the practice of Mies and his contemporaries, recognizing Oiticica’s engagement with their work and writings, and alluding to an installation design roughly contemporary with the art now hanging in the same institution.

What might appear in a much less carefully considered installation to be Oiticica’s gradual transition from painting to sculpture, Ramírez reveals as an engaged evolution from painting through architecture to the liberation of color from two-dimensional supports into an open-ended, three-dimensional environment. In this context, the final two major groups of work in the exhibition, the “Bólides” (1963–67) and the “Parangolés,” not only make more sense as transobjects, they are now situated within a larger, nuanced investigation of color, materials, and experimentation. Their apparent crudeness of execution and intense materiality—qualities present in most of the works in “The Body of Color” to varying degrees—provide a stark contrast to Oiticica’s systematic study and application of the utopian theories of the historical avant-gardes. Ramírez calls this contrast the “double-edged challenge” of Oiticica: “In reality,” she states, “the poète maudit coexisted with the methodical intellectual, intuitive researcher, and consummate artistic practitioner.”

“The Body of Color” is the first of two exhibitions of the artist’s work to be organized in conjunction with the catalogue raisonné project. The second show, to be subtitled “The Space of the Senses,” will address the last years of Oiticica’s life, beginning with his 1967 Tropicália installation, spanning his time in New York in the ’70s, and ending in 1980, the year of his death in Rio de Janeiro. Given the visual richness of the current show, I await the second with keen anticipation.

“Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Color” travels to Tate Modern, London, on June 7 and remains on view through Sept. 23.

Ann Reynolds is associate professor of art and art history and women's and gender studies at the University of Texas, Austin.