This work is one of a series of paintings, all titled Metaesquema, that were made by the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica during 1957 and 1958. Three works from this group, all dating from 1958, are held in the Tate collection (see also Metaesquema 1958, Tate T12416 and Metaesquema 1958, Tate T12419). These three works are all horizontally oriented paintings on cardboard that feature geometric shapes directly applied onto an unprimed support. The shapes are arranged into dense compositions that resemble grids that are skewed, as the forms slant at different angles from each other. This particular composition features one stack of five rectangular boxes, repeated and flipped vertically and horizontally to make up the four quadrants. All of the works are painted using just one colour – in this case a blue outline. The paint is applied very smoothly in all of the works, with no clearly visible strokes. Each piece also features an unpainted border scored with many thin, straight and parallel lines.
Oiticica produced all of his Metaesquema paintings while living and working in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The total number of works in this group is unknown, but according to the art historian Irene V. Small it includes ‘several hundred studies and paintings’, and there are certainly more than thirty finished works (Small 2016, p.35). The three examples in the Tate collection can be distinguished from the earliest works in the series, which do not feature grid-like compositions. They are also notably different from the latest works in the series since, as the curator Mari Carmen Ramírez has noted, the latter feature two colours of paint instead of one and also dispense with the grid-like arrangement (Mari Carmen Ramírez, ‘The Embodiment of Colour – “From the Inside Out”’, in Tate Modern 2007, p.42).
The term ‘metaesquema’ can be translated as ‘meta-structure’. While Oiticica himself never explicitly provided a clear rationale for this title, it may refer to the particular use of symmetry in the work, which provides a framework for the artist to work with, but also to challenge. While Ramírez has argued that the rotational symmetry of the Metaesquema works provides a degree of ‘formal structure’ (Ramírez 2007, p.42), Small has noted that it also enacts a ‘three-dimensional folding of the flat surface of the plane’, which ‘acts as a point of spatiotemporal torsion rather than stability’ (Small 2016, p.35). In other words, through rotational symmetry, Oiticica created a kind of structure which folds in on itself and so might reasonably be called a ‘meta-structure’.
In 1972 Oiticica suggested that his Metaesquema works mark a key turning point in his early development, specifically a moment ‘when representation had dried up for me’ (Hélio Oiticica, untitled text, quoted in Tate Modern 2007, p.147). Ramírez has substantiated this by arguing that although the works he had been produced during 1955 and 1956 (such as Untitled 1956, private collection) were also abstract, they often ‘hint at stylized buildings or architectural shapes’, thus retaining a vestige of representation (Oiticica 2007 p.147). Since the Metaesquema works are painted directly onto the cardboard support, Ramírez has argued that these works ‘erase the “figure-background” nexus’, reducing any impression of recessional space (Ramírez 2007, p.39).
These works are also notable for the way in which they evoke but destabilise grid compositions, which are a common feature in modernist abstract painting. Writing about his Metaesquema works in 1972, Oiticica compared them with the work of Piet Mondrian, an artist who is best known for creating abstract paintings that solely feature right-angled shapes, often in grid-like compositions (Oiticica 2007 p.147). However, Small has written that rather than ‘the balance and predictability of normative perception’, Oiticica’s Metaesquema paintings confront the viewer with ‘a vertiginous, queasy ... sensation of jostling forms’ (Small 2016, p.36). The art historian Sergio Martins has also argued that due to their dynamic compositions these paintings foreshadow later works by Oiticica (such as B11 Box Bólide 09 1964, Tate T12452), which are designed to alter over time, ‘opening his work to durational experience’ (Sergio Bruno Martins, ‘Hélio Oiticica: Mapping the Constructive’, Third Text, vol.4, no.24, 2010, p.410).
Hélio Oiticica, exhibition catalogue, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam 1992, pp.27–8, reproduced p.29.
Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Colour, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2007, pp.20, 39–42, 147.
Irene V. Small, Hélio Oiticica: Folding the Frame, Chicago and London 2016, pp.35–6.
Supported by Christie’s.