Hélio Oiticica


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Brazilian painter, sculptor, and installation artist, born in Rio de Janeiro. His father was a photographer and painter, his grandfather was an anarchist leader. A combination of radical aesthetics and political revolt were to be the hallmarks of his career. In the 1950s he worked in the field of geometric abstraction, exploring visual dynamics and the effects of colour. Early influences were Piet Mondrian, Kasimir Malevich, and above all Paul Klee. His concern was not just with the internal structure of the works but their relationship to the environment and the spectator. The Série Branca (1958–9) paintings were in pure white to maximize the effect of light. Other works hung from the ceiling. The Invençōes (1959–62) appear at first sight to be undifferentiated monochrome but eventually reveal divisions subtly created by changes in the direction of brushstroke.

In 1960 Oiticica joined the Neo-concrete group, which had been established a year earlier and whose leading figures included Lygia Clark. Influenced by phenomenology, they opposed the idealist tradition of geometric abstraction, accused of addressing the ‘eye machine’ rather than the ‘eye as body’, as based on a mechanistic concept of humanity. Oiticica proposed the theory of ‘nuclear colour’, the idea that colour could be organized in a series of transitions from a ‘nuclear’ centre. This received its most spectacular manifestation in the Grand Nucleus (1960–6), a collection of large fibreboard rectangles suspended at different levels at right angles from each other. There is a violet core surrounded by various shades of yellow. It is likely that he was influenced by the then popular Munsell system for the scientific classification of colour. Oiticica explored ways in which a more immediate sense of colour could be induced. The PN 1 Penetrável (1961) is a cabin which the viewer can enter. The critic Mario Pedrosa (1900–81) described it as a ‘labyrinth of colour in which the spectator was invited to stand on colour, smell colour, live colour’. Bólides (‘Fireballs’) of 1963 onwards would include pigment in the form of coloured powder in wooden boxes which could be manipulated by the spectator. Guy Brett (Kinetic Art, 1968) wrote of a ‘kineticism of the body’ as a specifically Brazilian contribution to the art of movement.

In 1964 there was a military coup in Brazil. Oiticica became drawn to the world of the Mangueira favela (shanty town) and the life of marginals. The Parangolés, colourful capes which sometimes bore political slogans, designed to be experienced as much by the wearer as the viewer, were part of the fruit of this change of situation. According to Vincent Katz, the title is a colloquial expression referring to the devious behaviour of the ‘well dressed ne'er-do-well who lives off women’. After his friend the outlaw Cara de Carvalo was killed by the police, Oiticia made Box Bólide 18 in his memory. Described by Edward Leffingwell as a ‘kind of cenotaph or reliquary’, it was filled with red earth in a sealed bag with an image of the dead man's body. Another image of Carvalo was used on a red banner with the words ‘Be an outlaw. Be a hero.’ The music group Os Mutantes went into exile after using this banner in a concert. Oiticica liked to cite the idea that Brazil was a country ‘condemned to modernity’. His work clearly demonstrates a less celebratory view of technology than that of most European and North American exponents of Kinetic art. His installation Tropicália (1967, Tate), employing live parrots, sand, and a flickering television, is a comment on the uneasy relationship between progress and traditional culture and an attempt to establish a specifically Brazilian aesthetic in a global movement.

Oiticica moved to London in 1969. Not only was he a political dissenter but his open homosexuality was highly problematic in Brazilian culture. In London he made what is still regarded as his finest achievement, the Eden environment at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, a multi-sensory experience based on the artist's theory of ‘cre-leisure’ or creative leisure which opposed the traditional distinction between work and play. It could be regarded as an attempt to put into practice Mario Pedrosa's Marxist view that art was ‘the best experimental laboratory for creating a socially emancipated Utopia’ (F. Alambert, ‘1001 words for Mario Pedrosa’, Art Journal, winter 2005).

Oiticica subsequently moved to New York. Some controversy persists on the final years of his life. Certain critics have talked of a ‘lost decade’ as a result of the cocaine addiction which was certainly a partial cause of his early death from a stroke. He worked at the concept of ‘quasi-cinema’, which involved the environmental use of slide projection and amplified sound. CC1 Trashscapes (1973), made in collaboration with the Brazilian film-maker Neville D'Almeida, used photographs of the Surrealist film director Luis Buñuel and the record jacket of Frank Zappa's Weasels Ripped my Flesh. Pillows and nail files were provided for the viewer's sensory experience. The faces were embellished by lines of cocaine employed as pigment or make-up which then vanished, presumably ingested by Oiticica himself. He returned to Brazil in 1978.

From A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Art.

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