View of “Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium,” 2016–17. Photo: Bryan Conley.

View of “Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium,” 2016–17. Photo: Bryan Conley.

Hélio Oiticica

View of “Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium,” 2016–17. Photo: Bryan Conley.

“HÉLIO OITICICA: TO ORGANIZE DELIRIUM” was the first US exhibition in more than two decades to feature the full breadth of the Brazilian artist’s vibrant aesthetic production, from his early experiments with color and geometrically shaped supports—including his “Bólides” (Fireballs), 1963–69, “Núcleos” (Nuclei), 1960–66, and “Parangolés,” 1964–79—to his immersive environments. Among the latter was his seminal Tropicália, 1966–67, in which visitors are invited to physically engage an array of materials, from gravel and sand to poems and a TV set. The survey also marked the artist’s first showing in the US since the devastating 2009 fire at Projeto Hélio Oiticica in Rio, which destroyed much of the artist’s work and archive. More so than any previous team, the show’s curators faced two principal challenges: how to re-create lost or damaged works and how to reactivate them and revivify their invitations to participatory experience.

Here, the former concern was addressed via exhibition labels that drew attention to the fact that many of the pieces on display were copies. This gambit, and the materials and methods of construction used, struck the right note between fidelity to a lost original and assertion of the copy’s necessity, while demonstrating the curators’ commitment to the preservation of the artist’s legacy. Three of the environments on the exhibition’s main floor—Tropicália; Projeto filtro—para Vergara, 1972; and PN27 Penetrable, Rijanviera, 1979—were introduced via video documentation of the works’ prior installments, thereby drawing attention to material variations. Crucially, visitors were reminded of both the work’s mediation and the temporal disjunctions that complicate any attempt to accurately re-create an “original” experience. (And the show will be differently installed in each venue as it travels.)

This emphasis on participation, both in the present iteration and in documentation of previous installations, also raised the question: What kind of experience does a reactivated historical work offer a contemporary viewer? This exhibition largely framed participation in “exhilarating” terms, and thus assumed a viewer that would be playful and ready and willing to put on, for example, one of the “Parangolés,” artworks that are meant to be worn like capes and moved about in, revealing different textures, colors, and sometimes texts. The “Parangolés” are a direct challenge to passive contemplation and to traditional forms of reception, but their criticality also derives from the antagonism they encountered during their 1965 premiere. When faced with avant-garde artists and samba dancers performing in the garments at Rio’s Museu de Arte Moderna, the elite audience was affronted, and the museum director forcibly evicted the performers from the premises. This pushback, so crucial to a contextual understanding of the work, was here elided rather than addressed, the omission proving how difficult it is to reactivate time-based works, especially in a dramatically different cultural milieu.

The exhibition’s strongest section was its presentation of Oiticica’s years in New York and London, his exile prompted by Brazil’s military dictatorship following a 1964 coup d’état by the country’s armed forces. These galleries carefully charted the artist’s exposure to the queer sensibility of filmmaker Jack Smith, seen in works such as the film Agrippina é Roma–Manhattan, 1972, through protagonist Mario Montez’s flamboyant transvestism, as well as his penchant for rock music, evinced by a facsimile of a set of pages titled Ultimately Mick Jagger, 1974. These sheets were included as part of a constellation of facsimiles of typescripts and manuscripts related to Oiticica’s writerly aspirations in relation to his Newyorkaises, 1971–78 (later called Conglomerado), a book that was always in progress but was never published during his lifetime. Here and throughout the exhibition, the curators deployed Oiticica’s generative concepts such as “quasi-cinema,” “blocos-experiências” (block-experiences), and “crelazer” (creleisure; the original Portuguese is a portmanteau of the language’s words for “creation,” “leisure,” and “to believe,” or crer). In so doing, they asked contemporary viewers to confront the work’s difference from, rather than its assimilation within, the North American and European canon. Oiticica’s series “Cosmococas,” 1973, which is now infamous but was never shown in his lifetime, either, is a collection of slide-show environments featuring drawings delineated by lines of cocaine placed over appropriated photographs of pop-cultural icons like Marilyn Monroe and Jimi Hendrix. Of these, the only work included was CC5 Hendrix-War. In the presentation of this highly partial selection the focus lapses into simple biography, as when the details of Oiticica’s personal use and drug dealing obscure the work’s countercultural context and broader aesthetic significance.

The show’s tour de force was Eden, 1969, for which visitors were encouraged to shed their shoes and socks and enter a fenced-off space in which they could walk on sand, settle into one of the work’s “nests” to relax or read, or explore one of the installation’s Penetráveis (Penetrables), makeshift structures that recall shantytown architecture and in which one is invited to listen to music or feel the water, rocks, or leaves underfoot. Eden encapsulates Oiticica’s notion of creleisure, but what I missed in the didactic text was mention of the artist’s explicit nod to Mondrian in his primary-colored and sequentially positioned Penetráveis. Oiticica openly acknowledged the impact of European geometric abstraction and constructivism in his work. But while Mondrian remained a key reference for Oiticica, the younger artist reconceived the critical possibilities of constructivism as an aesthetic “will” or impulse independent of any specific movement or visual style.

This experimental repurposing of European avant-garde history was greatly enhanced by the installation’s placement in the Carnegie’s Hall of Sculpture: a two-story colonnade with classical sculptures perched in the upper walkway encircling the lower atrium, where Lothar Baumgarten’s permanent installation The Tongue of the Cherokee, 1985–88, which features letters from the Cherokee alphabet, is painted on individual glass panes of the hall’s gridded skylight. Such juxtapositions allowed for different historical accounts, aesthetic experiences, and cultural innovations to coexist. Perhaps most strikingly, visitors encountered John White Alexander’s murals for The Crowning of Labor, 1905–1908, a visual history of the host city’s industrial workforce, before entering Eden, where they might somatically experience the possibilities of creation through leisure. For Oiticica, production and play were inextricable from one another, embodying an idea that was always less hedonistic than urgently utopian.

“Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium,” organized by Lynn Zelevansky, Elisabeth Sussman, James Rondeau, and Donna De Salvo, travels to the Art Institute of Chicago, Feb. 19–May 7; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, July 14–Oct. 1.

Kaira M. Cabañas is associate professor in global modern and contemporary art at the University of Florida, Gainesville.