Hélio Oiticica Untitled 1956

Hélio Oiticica
Untitled 1956
Gouache on cardboard
409 x 409 mm
César and Claudio Oiticica Collection, Rio de Janeiro

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. His influence has continued to spread since his premature death in 1980 at the age of forty-two.

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. His unique and radical investigations led him to develop his artistic production in ever more inventive directions. He challenged the traditional boundaries of art, and its relationship with life, and undermined the separation of the art-object from the viewer, whom he turned into an active participant.

This is the first major museum exhibition to focus exclusively on Oiticica’s lifelong preoccupation with colour. It explores colour as a vital focus of his work from the outset of his career, tracing the conceptual and technical processes that led to his liberation of colour from the two-dimensional realm of painting out into space: to be walked around and through, looked into, manipulated, inhabited and experienced.

Grupo Frente (1955–6)

Oiticica’s exploration of colour began with the early paintings and gouaches he created as a member of the Grupo Frente, a radical art organisation based in Rio de Janeiro. The group was established by Ivan Serpa, who ran an influential art course at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, on which Oiticica had enrolled in 1954. They explored a wide range of approaches to making art, with the emphasis on abstract, geometric forms. Many members also shared a concern with using colour to activate a flat surface.

In these early geometric pieces, Oiticica is already embarking on an intensive exploration of the physical properties of colour. Using dense areas of paint, he ‘builds’ forms in space – an architectural approach to colour that will recur in his later works. Here, it is the colours that give the works their spatial power. Abstract forms – squares, rectangles, circles, triangles – have a weight which impacts on the surrounding area. These paintings also reveal the influence of modernist masters such as Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich.