Hélio Oiticica (1937–1980) was one of the most innovative Brazilian artists of the twentieth century and is now recognised as a highly significant figure in the development of contemporary art. Oiticica produced an outstanding body of work, which had its origins in the legacy of European Modernism as it developed in Brazil in the 1950s. But his unique and radical investigations led Oiticica to develop his artistic production in ever more inventive directions.
Through his work he was to challenge the traditional boundaries of art, and its relationship with life, and to undermine the separation of the art-object from the viewer, whom he turned into an active participant. Among Oiticica’s most original achievements was his inventive and uncompromising use of colour.
This exhibition explores the dimension of colour as a vital focus of his work, from his early career onwards. It includes several related series of works which unfold in sequence, showing the conceptual and technical processes that led to the artist’s liberation of colour from the twodimensional realm of painting out into space, to be walked around and through, looked into, manipulated, inhabited and experienced. Oiticica emerged as an artist during a period of optimism in Brazil, before the utopian dream of a modern society was thwarted by the oppressive military regime in the 1960s. In the cultural sphere this period saw many new developments: the instigation of progressive architectural projects by Lúcio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer and others; important innovations in the worlds of avant-garde film, music, poetry, theatre and choreography; the establishment of the international Sao Paulo Biennale; and the founding of museums of modern art in both Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.
It was at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio that Oiticica was taught painting by the influential abstract artist Ivan Serpa. He later joined the Rio-based Grupo Frente, a radical art organisation founded by Serpa that also included the innovative artists Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape. Oiticica exhibited in the group’s second exhibition in 1955. His work from this period shows an affinity with the abstract idiom of the group, as well as the influence of modernist masters such as Paul Klee, Kasimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian. These early works, mature for such a young artist, contained the essence of what was to follow.
Oiticica began to disrupt the dense colouring and structure of his early paintings in a series of gouaches on board called Sécos 1956–7. These formed a transition into a major series begun in the following year, titled Metaesquemas 1957–8. In these spare compositions he sought to dissolve the two-dimensional picture plane by demolishing the suggestion of a frame, and deconstructing the grid structure with a dynamic combination of squares and rectangles in black, red, blue and white. The final pieces from this series were white abstract compositions, which eventually led to the series of white-on-white paintings, Série Branca (White Series) 1958-9. Here Oiticica explored ways of producing different tones of white, and experimented with layering and brush techniques to maximise the effect of light on the colour. He later referred to white as ‘the ideal colour-light, the synthesis-light of all colours’. Meanwhile he began working on a series of irregularly shaped double-sided white paintings, Bilaterais (Bilaterals) 1959. These were designed to hang from the ceiling, compelling the spectator to walk around them. Oiticica’s experimentation with the interaction between colour and light continued with a series of yellow and red monochromes, including triangular paintings, and the first in the series of Invenções (Inventions) 1959–62, painted structures composed of vertical layers of colour. Here he developed ways of experimenting with the physicality of colour that he later made use of in three-dimensional works.
In 1960 Oiticica joined the Neo-Concrete group, a Rio-based movement that broke with the principles of the Concrete movement that had originated in Sao Paulo, by reacting against its extreme rationalism and advocating an expanded creative freedom. Oiticica had by then begun the ground-breaking series of red and yellow painted hanging wood constructions, Spatial Reliefs 1960, which effectively liberated colour into three-dimensional space. He designed many maquettes for these complex forms, but few were built in full scale.
By the end of 1960 Oiticica had arrived at a synthesis of his experiments with colour. In his theoretical text Colour, Time and Structure of 1960 he referred to this integration of colour as ‘a supreme order similar to the supreme order of architectural spaces’. This thinking led to the concept he called ‘côr nuclear’ (nuclear colour) - embodied in a group of works in which colour ascends or descends in gradual hues from its centre. This series, called Núcleos (Nuclei) 1960–6, consists of open mazes of double-sided hanging panels of varying sizes and closely related colours. The first to be made was the Pequeno Núcleo no. 01 (Small Nucleus No. 01), which includes a mirror that enhances the light and colours, and reveals the viewers to themselves as active participants in the work. Three medium nuclei were eventually combined into a large-scale hanging environment to form the Grande Núcleo (Grand Nucleus) 1960–6. This spectacular work, with panels in tones of violet at the nuclear centre unfolding into a range of luminous yellows, amplified the spatial and temporal aspects of the Spatial Reliefs. By contrast the Penetrável (Penetrable) series 1960–79 consisted of closed labyrinthine environments, as in the large scale model of Projeto Cães de Caça (Hunting Dogs Project) 1961 (its title taken from a group of stars in the constellation of Orion). Like all Oiticica’s maquettes, this model was considered a work of art in its own right. Consisting of five chromatic penetrables, it was conceived as a monumental magic garden for intense aesthetic experience, and incorporated sand gardens and areas for the appreciation of music, poetry and theatre.
Oiticica continued to construct maquettes for colour environments, including the Magic Square maquettes of 1978, which were also conceived as large open-air penetrables. PN 1 Penetrável 1961 was the first free-standing penetrable, a small-scale cabin with sliding coloured panels, which the viewer was encouraged to enter and participate in the sensory experience. It was with this series that Oiticica felt that ‘the sense of spectator involvement reaches its apex and its justification’.
Oiticica began to work on the first Bólides (Fireballs) in 1963, after the completion of the Invenções (Inventions) series, through which he had discovered the means of infusing colour with depth and luminosity. The Bólides, small wooden boxes, appeared to be ‘inflamed’ by light and charged with energy, an important evolution in Oiticica’s idea of ‘totalidade-côr’ (total colour). They were designed to be handled, with moveable panels revealing new chromatic planes. With the introduction of glass Bólides into the series Oiticica began to incorporate loose pigment in the works and to include everyday materials such as glass vessels, plastic, earth, painted cloth, shells and foam, to expand the range of sensory experience offered through interaction with the artwork. The range of colours was extended to include pinks and blues, and ready-made objects also began to find their way into the work, including poetry and images, further encouraging the viewer’s emotional and intellectual participation.
Oiticica reached a crucial point in his integration of colour, structure, time and space with the Parangolé series: banners, capes and tents constructed from a variety of materials, including fabric, plastic, mats, screens and ropes. He began to develop these flexible colour structures as a result of his involvement with the people of Mangueira Hill, a Rio de Janeiro shanty town, and they encouraged his immersion into the world of traditional Brazilian samba. The Parangolés, designed to be worn or carried while dancing to the rhythm of samba, represent the culmination of Oiticica’s efforts to encourage the viewer’s interaction with the artwork and to liberate colour into three-dimensional space.
Text by Ann Gallagher