When I first walk in to the exhibition, I wonder why there is a box in the middle of the room.
It is wooden and rectangular, with a piece of wall removed, giving the impression of an entryway. A sign on the wall informs me that it is PN1 Penetrable (Penetrável), not a box but perhaps a type of walk-in dresser, or a shed — a “booth,” Holland Cotter called it in a New York Times review.
At one point in time, anyone who came into contact with the work could walk through it, slide the interior panels, and enjoy the various yellow shades painted on its walls. Just as Hélio Oiticica would have wanted it.
In To Organize Delirium, the Whitney Museum showcases and recreates some of the Brazilian artist’s most famous works, in addition to displaying the films, notes, poems, lists and other documents Oiticica produced during his time in New York City.
Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1937, Oiticica was exposed to academic, intellectual and political pursuits from an early age. His father was both a mathematician and a scientist, specializing in butterflies and moths, with an artistic sensibility like an experimental photographer; His grandfather — who published an anarchist newspaper — was a philologist.
The opportunities and education he received from living in Washington, D.C. from age 10 to 12 and enrolling in art school at 16 surely only helped to galvanize the young Oiticica, who immersed himself in the creative world as early as his teen years.
The avant-garde and abstract art realms attracted Oiticica from the beginning of his career, with his affiliation with Neo-Concretists at 18 years old, and continued to be two of the major spheres in which he worked, as the Whitney’s exhibition shows.
Monochromatic polygonal panels of wood hang from the walls or are suspended from the ceiling. Although the works in this particular range are few, they encapsulate Oiticica’s fascination with color and space, which he believed could change a person’s mood and with which he experimented in his architecturally-inclined years.
Walking beneath and around the three suspended works, as opposed to observing two-dimensional pieces, I immediately feel the difference. To experience them as a whole, I am compelled to circle them, and it is only then I notice the subtle changes in color, angle and shape.
One section of Spatial Relief (red) REL 036 for example, is a slightly brighter, lighter red than the adjacent one. From far away the piece appears flat, but it is actually composed of narrow triangles which only exist because of the way the wood is connected and positioned.
It is only because of my involvement with the arts that these details, engaging individually as a result of their incredible subtlety, are revealed.
I feel almost as if I am being asked this question: What details or moments do you miss because of the lack of your active participation?
It is the viewer’s engagement with art which Oiticica developed as a key concept in his work. His Penetrables and Bólides series, of which several pieces are on display, exemplify this.
The Penetrables are large physical structures painted various shades and colors through which a person walks. Boxes with flaps, or drawers and glass bottles full of soil, clay, dust and sand meant to be opened and touched comprise the Bólides (“fireballs”).
Walking through the exhibit, I spot several of the glass pieces on a table, some draped in beautifully decorated sheets. I want to uncork them and to tinker with the wooden pieces enclosed in display cases nearby. Yet a sign again informs me that, although these works, like PN1, are meant to be touched, they are not available for interaction in this exhibition.
In the next room, a billiard table and cue rack (a copy of Oiticica’s Appropriation — Snooker Room, after Van Gogh’s Night Café) welcomes visitors to a game of pool, and in a tray, red clay waits to be molded with heavy gloves. Finally I can touch the work, but it is in a sterile, controlled, institutionally imposed situation.
Oiticica’s radical ”environmental art” in which — according to the artist — the person is a “participator” and not a spectator. His politics are also far from divorceable. Oiticica intensely opposed the right-wing military dictatorship which overtook Brazil in 1964, and his art quite literally became activism in the form of parangolés.
These were cheap, multi-colored fabrics and meshes creatively stitched together, sometimes with political messages painted onto them, used as dance-wear. There were plenty of non-political parangolés; yet in their very concept, they challenged traditional artistic structures.
The parangolé can only be fully realized as art when the dancer places the work onto themselves. As a type of clothing, it needs to be worn to actualize meaning.
When the wearer of the parangolé dances the hidden layers underneath are shown, revealing the colors, intertwining fabrics and political messages. The parangolé is a temporal, tactile experience of art for the wearer and which only emerges because of him.
The Parangolés, the Bólides, and the Penetrables all place the viewer in the position of initiator. If I do not don the garment, touch the clay or enter the structure, the experience never happens.
By demanding participation and by abolishing the distance between person and art, Oiticica’s art challenges strict aesthetic and social codes. The boundary between the participator and the work dissolves — there is an equalizing, democratizing force whose political, social and personal implications may possibly go beyond what Oiticica’s himself imagined.
Although he hailed from an upper-class family, the artist drew great inspiration from the culture of Brazil’s favelas. The parangolés, for example, shifted the focus to the autonomy and dignity the government denied those of lower socioeconomic class.
Cotter notes in his Times review that while Oiticica rejected the culturally nationalist vision of the left-wing, his “hatred of the government was [also] absolute.”
“Oiticica positioned himself outside both camps, in outsiderness itself,” Cotter wrote, much as he did in his personal life as a radical artist and — one can imagine — as an openly gay man.
Oiticica’s art consistently sought to break strict and oppressive social codes, and reimagine art’s integration in life. As Cotter writes, one of the core concepts of Oiticia’s work remained consistent throughout his short life and productive career: “Art is potent to the degree it merges with life.”
Oiticica’s work will remain at the Whitney throughout the fall, ending on the first of October. Events and guided tours have been organized to accompany the exhibition. Tickets may be purchased online.