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Art Journal
ISSN: 0004-3249 (Print) 2325-5307 (Online) Journal homepage:
How to Organize Delirium?
Camila Maroja
To cite this article: Camila Maroja (2017) How to Organize Delirium?, Art Journal, 76:2, 155-158,
DOI: 10.1080/00043249.2017.1367204
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Published online: 12 Oct 2017.
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Date: 25 October 2017, At: 07:00
Camila Maroja
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How to Organize
Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium.
Exhibition organized by Lynn Zelevansky,
Elisabeth Sussman, James Rondeau, and
Donna De Salvo, with Anna Katherine
Brodbeck. Carnegie Museum of Art,
Pittsburgh, October 1, 2016–January 2, 2017;
Art Institute of Chicago, February 19–May
7, 2017; Whitney Museum of American Art,
New York, July 14, 2017–October 1, 2017
Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium.
Exh. cat. With texts by Lynn Zelevansky,
Elisabeth Sussman, James Rondeau, Donna
De Salvo, Adele Nelson, Guilherme Wisnik,
Martha Scott Burton, Anna Katherine
Brodbeck, Max Jorge Hinderer Cruz,
Frederico Coelho, Sérgio B. Martins, and
Irene V. Small. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum
of Art, and Munich: DelMonico Books/
Prestel, 2016. 320 pp., 291 color ills. $75
Visiting Hélio Oiticica:To Organize Delirium at the
Carnegie Museum reminds us that the success of the current Latin American canon
has marginalized a decade of one of its
most prominent artists’ work. Neither geometrically abstract nor explicitly politicalconceptual in its approach, the 1970s art
of Hĕlio Oiticica (1936–1980) does not fit
neatly within the current discourse of Latin
American art history. Mostly unfinished and
ephemeral, reflecting a precarious moment
of self-imposed exile, Oiticica’s work from
this period has rarely been shown in the
United States and has received scant scholarly attention.1 This exposes a powerful
irony in the career of Oiticica, as his longsought marginality—first encountered in the
Brazilian favelas in 1964—was actually fulfilled
in New York, the center of the art world,
where vestiges of the time he spent there
would remain for the most part unseen.
To encounter this lesser-known Oiticica
is to grasp that more than twenty years
after Latin American art famously left the
coatroom of the Museum of Modern Art,
New York, US institutions overlook much
of its legacy.2 By 2017, major US collections
have presented the artist’s trajectory from
Concretism to Neconcretism, highlighting
his redefinition of the art object as an intrinsically participatory experience. However, the
work made during his New York years (1971–
78) and his brief return to Brazil before his
untimely death (1978–80) has remained
obscured. Part of the explanation for the elision of Oiticica’s 1970s production lies in the
success of the Latin American canon itself,
firmly anchored in geometric abstract and
political art. The artist’s participation in the
Concrete and Neoconcrete vanguard groups
in Rio de Janeiro during the 1950s and 1960s
undeniably helped to construct and solidify
the concept of Latin American art that now
excludes his New York period. Works such as
the Metaesquemas (1957–58) and the celebrated
banner, Be an Outlaw, Be a Hero (1968) are by
now part of a global art history, granting a
multiple modernity if not a post factum genealogy for today’s participatory works described
under the rubric of “relational aesthetics.” Yet
the ubiquity of these canonical works obfuscated Oiticica’s later production, excising the
dominant narrative based almost exclusively
on participatory works from his Neoconcrete
phase. Thus, it is a happy surprise to walk
into the Carnegie galleries and encounter
these less familiar artworks, never before
comprehensively exhibited in the United
By choosing to emphasize this last
decade in a retrospective exhibition, Hélio
Oiticica:To Organize Delirium juxtaposes the artworks with works from his earlier and most
famous period, inviting us to reassess the
artist’s trajectory beyond the Neoconcrete
mythology. This opportune decentering
is promoted by a revised chronology that
emphasizes the later part of the 1970s, after
the artist had participated in the ground-
breaking show Information (MoMA, 1970) and
moved to New York while sponsored by a
Guggenheim fellowship. The more inclusive
chronology of Oiticica’s career is present
in the galleries and more clearly delineated
in the catalogue, in which essays and artworks are divided into the periods 1955–68
(encompassing his Concrete and Neoconcrete
production and canonical pieces like the
Parangolés), 1969–73 (marked by large, participatory environments and new-media work
made for the most part in London and New
York), and 1973–80 (a period that includes
the experiments with cocaine and the penetráveis or “penetrables” done once he was back
in Brazil). Examining these three phases, an
established team of scholars from Brazil and
United States avers that the scarce attention
Oiticica received while in New York is a thing
of the past. The English catalogue effectively
rewrites art history by historicizing the complete trajectory of one of Latin American’s
most acclaimed stars.
The challenge made by Oiticica’s 1970s
artworks to the limits of the white cube
further explains the long absence of a comprehensive display. Oiticica works during this
period display an increasing push toward
the rejection of the optical as the central
mode of artistic experience. The dominant
understanding that the 1970s were his “lost
decade” is revised and subverted in this exhibition. During these years, Oiticica in fact
Installation view, Hélio Oiticica: To Organize
Delirium, Whitney Museum of American Art,
New York, 2017 (photograph by Matt Casarella
provided by Whitney Museum)
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created an excess of projects, albeit projects
that escape easy control and are seldom fully
executed. Much of his art from the period
is thus difficult to display. Adding to these
inherent challenges was the destruction of a
large portion of his legacy in a 2009 fire at the
Foundation Projeto Hélio Oiticica in Rio. In
light of these obstacles, an Oiticica lacuna is
less mysterious. How does one exhibit a partially destroyed production, the remnants of
which also pose such inherent difficulties for
curators? Hélio Oiticica:To Organize Delirium takes
the challenge and helps decenter the myth of
a Neoconcretist, participatory Oiticica. But
how does one organize such an oeuvre in an
institutional space?
Before entering the gallery, the visitor
is greeted by a projection of Apocalipopótese
(1968). The video documents the collective
artistic experience that took place in Rio de
Janeiro’s iconic gardens designed by Roberto
Burle Marx and adjacent to Rio’s Museum of
Modern Art, where Oiticica started his career
with lessons from the painter Ivan Serpa,
winner of the first São Paulo Biennial. Taken
months before the artist traveled to London,
the footage is vital to contextualize Oiticica’s
practice as a participatory experience beginning in Brazil. The display of Apocalipopótese
amid tropical plants also reminds the visitor
of his anti-institutionalism; Oiticica was, after
all, an artist who affirmed that “the museum
Miguel Rio Branco, Babylonests, 1971, digital
projection, dimensions variable (photograph
provided by César and Claudio Oiticica, Rio de
is the world; it is the daily experience.”3
Inside the gallery, the first room displays the canonical 1955–68 Concretist and
Neoconcretist production. This body of
work engages formally with shape and color
and is undeniably the most visually striking
room in the exhibition. These are also the
works that are more familiar to the public
and were, for example, carefully displayed
in Oiticica’s last US solo show, Hélio Oiticica:
The Body of Color (Museum of Fine Arts,
Houston, 2006–7). On the walls the visitor
could contemplate early geometric works
that compose the series Sêcos (1956–57) and
Metaesquemas. These works on paper are beautifully juxtaposed with the sculptural Spatial
Reliefs (1960), Bilaterals (1959–60), and Nucleus
(1961–63), the last placed in the middle of
the gallery, floating in the space. There is
also the maquette for the Hunting Dogs Project
(1961)—a never-built environment with five
architectural constructions named Penetráveis
and featuring works by the poets and fellowNeoconcretists Ferreira Gullar and Reynaldo
Jardim. The Hunting Dogs Project preannounces
not only the increasingly immersive nature
of Oiticica’s production, but also the challenges for exhibitions showing his oeuvre:
a high pedestal, a device that Neoconcrete
artists categorically rejected, frustrates an
aerial view of the model. This is not the only
instance in which Oiticica’s production is at
odds with traditional museographic display.
Throughout the show, we are reminded
of the difficulties and ironies of displaying
such works. Pinned against the wall are the
original Parangolés (1964–68), conceived as
objects that required the body to operate;
sum m er 2017
segregated on short bases are the famous
Bólides, which the artist believed to embody
an ethical position as they were integrated
into the world. That some of the artworks
are post-fire reconstructions (all duly flagged
in the labels) poses a further dilemma and
raises the question of the destiny of these
new pieces post-exhibition. The iconic
installation Tropicálica (1967) concludes this
first room, the environment that, defying
kitsch, mashes together live parrots, sand,
tropical plants, poems by Roberta Camila
Salgado, TV sets, and penetrables. The visitor
meanders through the paths of the environment, swayed by Caetano Veloso’s song of
the same title, named for Oiticica’s work.
The Portuguese phrase painted on the
door of one of the structures, “Purity is a
myth,” almost seems to assuage our longing for original material and our increasing
concerns about the commodification of
Oiticica’s legacy.
In the catalogue, Adele Nelson revises
the Concrete period, associating Oiticica’s
early work with Paul Klee rather than
with the ubiquitous references to Kazimir
Malevich and Piet Mondrian. Guilheme
Wisnik subsequently examines Tropicália, placing the artwork in the larger context of the
countercultural and musical movement in
Brazil during the years of dictatorship. Both
essays are excellent additions to a vastly studied phase.
The next rooms remind us that Oiticica’s
career extended much beyond his canonized
work, with the display of art from the New
York years. Created and first shown mostly in
the semiprivate environment of his loft on
Second Avenue, which he called Babylonests (a
conflation of Babylon, the artist’s nickname
for New York, and Nests, the environmental
pieces famously shown in Information), these
pieces conflate working and living, tearing down the boundaries between life and
art. They demand a temporal engagement
at odds with the conventional gallery time
and suggest why this post-Brazil body of
works has until now been estranged from
the current canon. Yet the facsimiles of The
Subterrania Notebook (1971), the experimental
film Agrippina Is Rome-Manhattan (1972), and
the slide series Neyrótica (1973) demonstrate
that these works display strong connections with the contemporaneous New York
experimental scene, a period including Andy
Warhol’s films (which fascinated Oiticica).
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One of the only creations of this period that
was realized and exhibited in Brazil, Filter
Project—For Vergara (1972), makes evident the
exchanges between an exiled Oiticica and
the artistic scene in his home country. The
large-scale maze bombards the participant,
mixing the sounds of radio and TVs with
recordings of poems by Haroldo de Campos
and of Gertrude Stein’s reading of The Making
of Americans. The modulated color grid of
earlier penetrables, previously formed by
cheap materials such as nylon curtains and
plastic walls, is now dematerialized into pure
light. After being immersed in blues and
yellows, the participant can literally ingest
color, drinking an equally artificial orange
juice before leaving the environment. The
augmentation of the sensorial experience
through an increased use of technology illustrates one way in which New York affected
his work.
The catalogue section assigned to these
years gives life to the meager imprint that
remained from Oiticica’s stay in New York,
showing that the relative invisibility of this
period should not be equated with ostracism. James Rondeau explains how Oiticica’s
barracões, structures named after the sheds
where preparations for the Rio Carnival take
place, were constantly reinvented. From
their conception as immersive environments
that could shape consciousness via a synesthetic experience, as in early projects such
as Hunting Dogs, to the effervescent space of
Babylonest, the barracões polemicize Oiticica’s
trajectory as a continuum rather than as
a progressive march toward participation.
Elisabeth Sussman stresses that the marginality of these years are in fact fundamental to
redefining key categories in his work, such as
how the notion of the sensorial was enriched
by Oiticica’s contact with New York’s newmedia scene. Martha Scott Burton provides
an account of the artist’s trips to the South
Bronx, loosely guided by Martine Barrat and
Carlos Suarez, to reveal that Oiticica’s interest in marginalized neighborhoods did not
dwindle during his stay in the United States.
Anna Katherine Brodbeck demonstrates that
Oiticica’s sensorial experiments started in
Brazil and incorporated both Latin American
and US references. Mixing Brazil’s Marginal
Cinema and the thinking of Herbert Marcuse
and Marshall McLuhan, they conceive an
eroticized subject, capable of alienating herself from alienation—enlarging our notion
of the meaning of the political during those
turbulent years. By surveying the artist’s participation in multiple exhibitions in Brazil,
Brodbeck also aptly reminds the reader that
New York’s centrality did not promptly translate into international opportunity. Finally,
Max Jorge Hinderer Cruz interprets Oiticica’s
coinage of “Tropicamp”—a term associated with the work of Jack Smith and Mario
Montez—as a means to resist the gradual
commercialization of queer aesthetics in the
United States during the 1970s. Elucidating
how these years shaped social and ethical
concerns in Oiticica’s oeuvre, this section
successfully defies the “lost decade” moniker.
Among the works made between 1973
and 1980 is the famous series Cosmococas.
These works employ cocaine, the sale of
which seems to have been Oiticica’s main
source of income in the mid-1970s. Made
in collaboration with Neville D’Almeida, the
enclosed environment contains hammocks,
loud music, and projections of rock-androll album covers adorned with the white
powder. Segregated inside the gallery space,
CC5 Hendrix-War (1973) provides the visitor
with a chance to experience both a moment
of collective solitude (evoking the original
context inside Oiticica’s apartment) and the
friction that such works introduce into the
institutional space. This friction is exacerbated with Newyorkaises (1971–77), an open
archive of texts and images that began as a
book project. The facsimiles cover the walls
of an entire room, are mostly in Portuguese,
and are placed too high on the gallery’s walls
for a viewer to read. This display proves the
productivity of these years, but also highlights that this work-in-progress was never
truly conceived as public.
If the galleries evince the sparse retinal
quality of Oiticica’s 1970s works, the catalogue helps to integrate this body of work
into art history. Frederico Coelho, author
of an extensive analysis of Newyorkaises in
the context of the counterculture, examines Oiticica’s unfinished book.4 Sérgio
Martins exposes Oiticica’s vast landscape of
references that amalgamate Nietzsche and
Hendrix. Cruz, in his second contribution to
the catalogue, explores Oiticica’s literal and
artistic use of cocaine in the context of his
precarious status in New York, as a publically
gay, South American dissident in exile, living
under an expiring resident permit, who
nevertheless considered his return to Brazil
The works of the return to Brazil (1978–
80) include Brutalist Manhattan—Semimagical
Found Object (1978), a large chunk of asphalt
in the shape of Manhattan island “appropriated” from a construction site on Avenida
Presidente Vargas, a street that crosses Rio’s
downtown center. The artist carefully placed
the “found object” in his bathroom among
other appropriations of Rio’s sidewalks. Both
Brutalist Manhattan and its private display in the
artist’s apartment attest to resonances of the
New York period back in Rio. The exhibition
also includes original photos and reenactments of the performance Counter-Bólide 1,To
Return Earth to Earth (1979), in which a square
wooden frame placed on the ground is
filled with soil taken from another site and
then removed, poetically evoking the artist’s recent experiences of displacement and
exile. Finally, consider PN27 Penetrável, Rijanviera
(1979), one of the few originals exhibited.
Rijanviera, as the name suggests, was created
in homage to the city of Rio and realized at
the Hotel Méridien in Copacabana. The penetrable, like Filter Project, consists of colored
walls, but also contains a floor partially filled
with water and a rock garden. When it was
first presented in Rio, almost forty years ago,
the pump broke on the opening night and
flooded the gallery. But as the visitors learn
from H.O., Ivan Cardoso’s 1979 experimental
film about Oiticica’s work, even a flooded
floor did not discourage a plethora of friends
and collaborators, from the poet Ferreira
Gullar to the artist Lygia Clark, from walk-
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ing through the semi-veiled penetrable. At
the Carnegie the pump broke again, and it’s
ironic that now the piece had to be closed to
the public. By contrasting this spontaneous
reenactment with Cardoso’s moving images,
the visitors are given a bittersweet reminder
of the consequences of the inevitable institutionalization of this period.
In the catalogue, the years in Rio are
treated as a phase in its own right. Irene
Small ingeniously “organizes delirium” to
place Oiticica’s return to Brazil in the larger
context of his work. Following patterns cherished by the artist, such as constellations and
labyrinths, she demonstrates that his “invention” is immune to dilution as it transforms
finished works into something generative
and new. In short, Oiticica’s work cannot be
reduced to a linear, static chronology. Finally,
the struggles of putting together a comprehensive retrospective of Oiticica’s show are
examined in Donna De Salvo’s essay. She analyzes The Whitechapel Experiment (1969), the only
major museum show held during the artist’s
Installation view, Hélio Oiticica: To Organize
Delirium, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh,
2016 (photograph by Bryan Conley provided by
Carnegie Museum of Art)
life, and the first posthumous retrospective,
the 1992 Hélio Oiticica show at the Witte de
With in Rotterdam. This last contribution
effectively embodies the ambitions of the
exhibition when it theorizes the later part of
Oiticica’s work and historicizes the whole of
his legacy.
When the visitors leave the galleries at
the Carnegie Museum, they realize that the
exhibition’s chronology was positively interrupted. Due to the sheer size and nature of
some of the 1960s production, some artworks were placed in a large atrium below.
The re-created large-scale installations Eden
(1969) and Appropriation—Snooker Room, after Van
Gogh’s “Night Café” (1966), together with some
reproductions of Parangolés, the celebrated
interactive capes, invite the public to finally
experience the works in a fashion closer
to Oiticica’s intentions. Viewing Oiticica’s
celebrated Neoconcrete pieces after being
exposed to the whole of his production
cleverly connects these participatory works
both to his earlier formal experiments (Eden,
viewed from above the atrium, clearly transforms Mondrian into planes materialized in
space) and to his last production in Brazil
(by comparing, for example, his taste for
appropriating items difficult to transport,
sum m er 2017
such as pool tables and asphalt). These associations are important, especially as they
undermine the Neoconcrete myth of an isolated moment of radical experimentation—a
mythology that has dislodged both his earlier
formal experiments with color (which were
categorically dismissed by the artist himself
in 1972) and the later 1970s phase. The circularity helps us to avoid the pitfalls of inflecting a progressive reading into Oiticica’s
artistic production, a progression that is
then suddenly interrupted when his 1970s
artworks no longer fit the canon. By placing
the noncanonical pieces inside the galleries,
the exhibition successfully rewrites Oiticica’s
narrative in more meandering ways—an apt
metaphor for an artist who aspired to the
great labyrinth.5
Camila Maroja is the Kindler Distinguished
Historian of Global Contemporary Art and
an assistant professor of art and art history at
Colgate University.
1. Although Oiticica scholarship in English
continues to grow, as attested by Irene Small’s
excellent Hélio Oiticica: Folding the Frame (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2016), most of the
attention is given to his work of the 1950s and
1960s; the English-language literature on the 1970s
concentrates on Oiticica’s cinematic experience,
including the famous Cosmococas series. See,
for example, Carlos Basualdo, Hélio Oiticica:
Quasi-Cinemas (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2001);
and Sabeth Buchmann and Max Jorge Hinderer
Cruz, Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida: Block
Experiments in Cosmococa—Program in Progress
(London: Afterall, and Cambridge, MA: MIT
Press, 2013). The Projeto Hélio Oiticica digitized
the artist’s writings, including the extensive texts
and notes produced during his time in New York,
before the 2009 fire.
2. I refer here to John Yau’s 1988 piece “Please
Wait by the Coatroom,” Arts Magazine 63,
no. 4 (December 1988): 56-59, rep. Out There:
Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures,
ed. Russel Ferguson (London: Afterall, and
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), in which Yau
writes about Wifredo Lam’s La Jungla (1943) being
placed outside the MoMA galleries.
3. Hélio Oiticica, “Posição e programa—Programa
ambiental—Posição ética” (1966), in Hélio
Oiticica, Aspiro ao grande labirinto: Textos de Hélio
Oiticica (1954–1969), ed. Luciano Figueiredo, Lygia
Pape, and Waly Salomão (Rio de Janeiro: Rocco,
1986), 79.
4. Frederico Coelho, Livro ou livro-me: Os escritos
babilônecos de Hélio Oiticica (1971–1978), (Rio de
Janeiro: EDUERJ, 2010).
5. On January 15, 1961, Hélio Oiticica wrote: “I
aspire to the great labyrinth.” The phrase was
later used for the title of the posthumous anthology of his writings cited above in note 3. The title
makes it clear that the earlier period of Oiticica’s
trajectory is also substantially more explored in
his home country.
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