Hélio Oiticica: a Brazilian iconoclast who burst out of art’s frame
A retrospective of the late artist illuminates his remarkable artistic evolution
Parangolé P4 Cape 1 (1964). Photograph: Sergio Zalis
A still from the film Agrippina is Rome-Manhattan (New York, 1972)
At the heart of the Irish Museum of Modern Art’s Summer Rising festival, which culminates on Saturday, is the work of Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica, who is now regarded as having had a profound influence on much contemporary art.
Oiticica was in his early 40s when he died in 1980, having suffered a stroke. He was an exceptionally dynamic individual, boundlessly inventive and creative. Imma’s retrospective, Propositions, gains from being co-curated by his nephew, César Oiticica Filho. Not that an artist’s nephew will automatically be an authoritative guide, but it’s not just a question of the family connection: for 10 years, Oiticica Filho worked on a documentary film about his uncle.
The result, titled simply Hélio Oiticica, has garnered praise and picked up several awards. Oiticica Filho says he researched the project exhaustively, working through masses of archival material and allowing Oiticica to explain himself in his own recorded words, rather than imposing any outside, “expert” commentary.
It’s not at all random or miscellaneous, however. A remarkably coherent narrative emerges from a pattern of brisk, rhythmic montage, probably because there was a clear trajectory to the artist’s life and work.
Oiticica comes across as someone who was driven to transcend boundaries. While his art is conspicuously social and communal, occasionally to an extreme degree, at the same time he lived in an inner imaginative world of his own creation. He was at the heart of the Tropicálismo cultural movement that emerged from a liberal period in Brazil’s history, a period that was abruptly cut short by a military coup in 1964.
The movement’s title came from one of Oiticica’s works, Tropicália. More generally associated with musicians, including Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, the movement dispensed with divisions between popular and avant-garde culture, high art and low. Tropicálismo was opposed to the military dictatorship that followed the coup, and the utopian, countercultural nature of Oiticica’s work must be seen as being politically charged in that context.
He wants to break free
Oiticica Filho, working with Imma’s Rachael Thomas, frames the exhibition as a series of “propositions” put by the artist. Each represents a bid to break free from a set of restrictions, and there is a forward momentum.
Chronologically, we begin with his abstract paintings, very much in the mould of mainstream European abstraction, and quite beautiful. It’s noticeable that Oiticico quickly moves from a palette of primary colours to warmer, more tropical hues.
Oiticica Filho points out that his uncle’s artistic evolution began some time before even his student work, in a way that directly prefigures what was to come much later on: “As a child he was making work without ever saying that it was art.”
He made a labyrinth for ants, for example, a relatively minor project but one that anticipated his later creation of colour mazes in his Nuclei series. “He started making plays. He did his own adaptation of Medea and cast family members to perform it. He did the costumes, the design, everything.”
Then he moved on to writing plays from scratch. “He set about creating an imaginary city,” says Oiticica Filho. “In the city there were theatres, and his plays were being performed in those theatres. There were posters, advertisements. It was as though he imagined this alternative life, an alternative world. To me it seems that it was a very web-like way of thinking.”