I have spent the last week in Rio de Janeiro looking at the work of Hélio Oiticica (1937–1980), one of the great practitioners of geometric abstraction, doing research for a retrospective exhibition that Carnegie Museum of Art is co-organizing with the Whitney Museum in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago. Geometric abstraction—art that uses geometric forms exclusively—is an extremely refined and difficult proposition for artists and viewers alike. By playing with subtle shifts in color, tone, and form, geometric abstraction manipulates and explores the perception of space, color, and movement. Appreciating it takes dedicated, concentrated looking. The challenge for museums is to give people an entry point to this sometimes exquisitely beautiful art, the confidence to believe that they can understand it, and the trust that careful looking will offer a meaningful reward.
Having known Oiticica’s work for decades, looked at it long and hard, and even written about it, I am nonetheless amazed at how skilled he was. Oiticica’s goal was to create a form of modernism that was distinctly Brazilian, and he accomplished that by melding the country’s strong legacy of European geometric abstraction with the use of vivid, sensual color. He applied hues in such subtle ways that the origins of the color shifts he created are often difficult to identify. In his three-dimensional structures, it is a change in tone from the thinnest edge of one plane to another, the number of paint layers from one area to another, or the direction of the brush strokes in a given location that changes your perception of an entire surface.
Oiticica’s formal achievements are subtle and refined in a way that could have become arcane, but he resisted that—pushing his art into the realm of the everyday. His Metaesquemas, paintings on board that he made as a young artist, communicate space, motion, and flight on a two -dimensional surface, so it seems natural that the abstract forms within them would take off into space. Many of his later works require viewer participation to be fully understood. Viewers are meant to circle his Spatial Reliefs, which hang from the ceiling. Eventually Oiticica’s hanging forms arranged themselves into structures that surrounded the visitor, engaging architecture and intensifying physical as well as emotional engagement. By the late 1960s, his work manifested his fascination with the indigenous architecture of the Brazilian favelas (slums). His move to a favela where he took up samba dancing is legendary. There he made Parangolés, costumes and props of his own design—often constructed from soft geometric forms—for the samba dancers. Later he explored film, music, and the integration of art and text.
“The Museum is the World,” a phrase from one of his many writings, suggests that art cannot be constrained by the museum’s physical, intellectual, and social context, that it should be part of everyday experience. Here, Oiticica was giving voice to the broader intellectual currents of his time. Modes of viewer participation, emphasis on the sensate experience of art, and challenges to boundaries and authority were approaches shared by many of the most prominent artists of the 1960s and ’70s all over the West.
The internet age appears to have brought many of these values and ideas back into prominence, this time in society at large. The attitude is far less oppositional today than in Oiticica’s time, but the sense that culture (music, for example, or portraits by French artist J R, which he recently gave to passersby in Times Square, New York) should be free and that participation is not just allowed but expected is resonant in today’s world.
Until next month,