New York

View of “Hélio Oiticica,” 2018–19.

View of “Hélio Oiticica,” 2018–19.

Hélio Oiticica

With its no-frills title, the exhibition “Spatial Relief and Drawings, 1955–59,” offset one of the suspended objects made by Hélio Oiticica (1937–1980) with two of his early series from the late 1950s. The first, “Metaesquemas,” 1957–58 (loosely translated as “Metaschemes” or “Metastructures”), comprises abstract gouache drawings on cardboard, and the second consists of works produced during his affiliation with Grupo Frente, an artist collective founded by Oiticica’s teacher Ivan Serpa and active in Rio de Janeiro from 1954 to 1956. With members including Aluísio Carvão, Lygia Clark, and Lygia Pape—and champions such as the critic Mário Pedrosa—Grupo Frente sent a shiver up the rationally ordered spines of the Concrete movement, injecting their geometric abstractions with sensuality and spontaneity, all in the name of creative freedom.

Constituting the bulk of this show, Oiticica’s “Metaesquemas” series occupied the main gallery space, while a trio of perky-paletted pieces from the Grupo Frente era were cordoned off in an antechamber. With experimentation as its primary mantra, Grupo Frente did not mandate any particular style for its members. (Pedrosa lauded the collective’s greatest virtue as “a horror of eclecticism.”) The three Oiticica drawings presented here were small, boxy, imperfect squares dominated by strong vertical bars and clean-cut circles, built up into overlapping layers. In the limbo zone opposite the reception desk hung a pair of untitled images from the period 1955–56. Unlike the exacting lines and undiluted yellows, reds, and blues of the Grupo Frente works, these drawings swarmed with irregular forms of maroon, burnt umber, milk chocolate, and Prussian blue. Darkness did not equal depth here. Rather, the shapes, seemingly weightless patches of color, sidled next to each other on the surface.

This flatness started to give way in the later “Metaesquema” drawings (alternately titled “Sêco” [Dry]), which were executed almost entirely in a horizontal format on the same type of card stock. In Sêco 15, 1957, an asymmetrical grid was thinly etched in faint blue, with four figures—two maroon lipstick-like logs, a royal-blue oval, and a formidable spot of crimson—sliding along the lines like beads on the rods of an abacus. Sêco II, 1957, presented another free-form grid, this time with slanting planes of burnt orange, indigo, and deep leather browns, suggesting an impossible clash of perspectives pressed up against the surface of the image.

In Metaesquema 308, 1958, solid black parallelograms of varying widths stood in for the grid, casually composed like shutters askew on a building facade. Untitled, 1958, repeated a similar setup, with thin bands of cobalt-blue rectangles stacked in four vertical columns, like cards dealt out for a game of memory—except that here no two “cards” are alike. The middle two columns are much thinner than the outer two, giving the impression that someone may have bumped the table, sending the forms buckling upward at the center.

The exhibition nodded to the accepted art-historical convention that after these formal experiments, Oiticica would turn to suspended reliefs, “liberating” his colors from the page and dispersing them into the surrounding environment. One such work, Relevo espacial (Spatial Relief), 1959–60—a wooden construction of interlocking origami-like angles, painted in a daffodil-yellow acrylic and hung from the ceiling—accompanied the trio of Grupo Frente compositions in the front room. Reliefs like this one would later be hung together to form Oiticica’s iconic immersive installations. On its own, however, Relevo espacial seemed surprisingly static when compared to the dynamism drenching drawings such as Metasquema 308. Oiticica’s colors, this exhibition reveals, need not be liberated; even when embedded within grids, they escape any sense of confinement.

Kate Sutton