You won’t need drugs to feel like you’re tripping at a major new art exhibition in Pittsburgh. “Tropicália,” one of several large-scale immersive installations included in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s important new Hélio Oiticica retrospective, plunges you into a kind of denuded Amazon jungle, where you are stared at by live parrots, decked by a sack of patchouli, and spun through a favela-inspired labyrinth that dead-ends on a small television playing nothing but static.
This installation, first shown in 1967 in Rio de Janeiro and then restaged at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London in 1969, is perhaps the most iconic work in Oiticica’s brief and wondrous career. “Tropicália” was not only a pathbreaking example of the kind of gallery-bound immersive artworks that seem so common today. It also gave name to a larger cultural movement, an efflorescence of art, literature, theater, and especially music—coinciding with Brazil’s harsh military dictatorship—that Oiticica once termed “the cry of Brazil to the world.”
The Carnegie has pulled out all the stops for its exhibition, “Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium,” which it is billing as the largest-ever U.S. gathering of Oiticica’s work. After its run in Pittsburgh, the show moves next year to the Art Institute of Chicago and then to the Whitney. Its organizers hope this hat trick will spark American interest in this artist who remains vastly underappreciated outside his native Brazil.
Oiticica (pronounced oy-tee-SEE-kah) was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1937 and grew up in a family of leftist intellectuals—his grandfather was a philologist and the publisher of an anarchist newspaper; his father was an experimental photographer and entomologist. While Oiticica’s early philosophical and artistic influences were highbrow and European—Kandinsky, Malevich, Merleau-Ponty, Nietzsche—his work quickly expanded to incorporate aspects of Brazilian culture and social reality. He died in 1980 at the age of 42, his early death likely hastened by decades of very hard partying.
Because a considerable portion of Oiticica’s art was damaged or destroyed in a devastating fire in Rio in 2009, the Carnegie created facsimiles of some works and relied on institutional loans for others. My favorite pieces are his early works—abstract cardboard gouaches and painted boxlike sculptures suspended from the ceiling that slowly rotate, playing with shadows and showing off Oiticica’s sophisticated understanding of color.
The show also works hard to throw light on a lesser-known chapter of Oiticica’s life: the so-called “lost decade” he spent in New York, from 1970 to ’78, when he lived in a bohemian, downtown drug haze, creating erotic portraits of his male lovers as well as Warholian art films and a series of wild “cocaine drawings” in which the facial features of pop icons like Jimi Hendrix are traced by lines of blow. These latter images, created with Neville D’Almeida, are shown projected in a small room full of colored hammocks; lounging in them is a bit of a strange experience as everything about the space—the images, the music, the drug allusions—makes you want to grit your teeth and dance.
The grand finale of the exhibition is Oiticica’s most ambitious installation, Eden (1969), which fills the Carnegie’s soaring neoclassical Hall of Sculpture. You take off your shoes, dip your toes into a pool of water, then walk into a garden of sand (5 tons of which was brought in for this show). There are tents for listening to music; boxes of straw to play in; wooden tubs, divided by transparent curtains and loaded with pulpy novels, dry leaves, foam flakes. To the side of the installation was a billiard room, based on Van Gogh’s The Night Café, which was one of Oiticica’s favorite touches, because it brought common folks into the gallery. Oiticica put no limits on how people interacted with the space—whether they lounged, or wrote poetry, or shot pool. The reliance on participation, in fact, meant that his work wasn’t quite finished until people entered it. For Oiticica, creating this space for idle fun was serious business. He called it “creleisure”—a neologism of creativity and leisure, which he imagined as an “unconditioned way to battle oppressive, systematic ways of life.”
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