GALERIE LELONG | NOVEMBER 3, 2018 – JANUARY 26, 2019
Hélio Oiticica (1937 – 1980) is a now integral part of the New York art scene, in large measure thanks to his 2017 retrospective at the Whitney, To Organize Delirium, which provided New Yorkers with an opportunity to experience him in full. His posthumous apotheosis eclipses anything he experienced in life, which is why the tight chronological focus of the exhibition at Galerie Lelong, from 1955 to 1959, is so important: it takes us back to Oiticica's artistic origins.
For the greater part of the twentieth century, Brazilian art was consigned to the niche labels of surrealism or magical realism. After the "Week of Modern Art," celebrated in São Paulo in 1922, when a nationalist avant-garde announced the birth of a new Brazilian culture, the painter Tarsila do Amaral (1886 – 1973) produced icons to define that avant-garde—surrealist hallucinations in tropical settings (Her 1928 painting Abaporu (The Canibal), is probably the most famous example.) Her work, to the rest of the world, was Brazilian art.
The generation of Brazilian artists born in the 1920s—Lygia Clark (1920 – 1988) or Ivan Serpa (1923 – 1973), Oiticica's teacher—disagreed. Their work derived from the geometric abstraction of Piet Mondrian or Theo van Doesburg, and possessed not a whiff of tropical exotica. The problem was that the world still understood Brazilian art only in terms of do Amaral, and it took a double seismic shift to change that mindset here in the United States: the Brazil: Body and Soul historical panorama at the Guggenheim in 2001, and the 2007 exhibition Geometry of Hope: Latin American Abstract Art, which presented work from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros collection at the NYU’s Grey Art Gallery. Those shows, especially Geometry of Hope, showed that there was a side to Brazilian art everyone had overlooked.
The irony is that flowering of Brazilian geometric expression, arguably the most apolitical form of art, occurred during the 1950s, at the moment of the country’s transition to democracy. After the suicide of dictator-president Getulio Vargas in 1954, free elections brought Juscelino Kubitschek to power. He inaugurated a new era of expressive freedom in the arts, and oversaw the creation in 1956 of Brazil's modernist, geometrically structured capital Brasília. Kubitschek's Brazil was no longer exotic, tropical, and surrealist, but abstract and concrete. When Ivan Serpa founded the concrete or neo-concrete Grupo Frente in 1952, it included both Lygia Clark and the 15-year-old Oiticica.
The eighteen pieces on view at Lelong fall into three categories, each marking a moment in Oiticica's exploration of abstraction. The first works we see are three small (17 by 12 in.) gouaches on cardboard, all untitled, from 1955 to 1956. In two, the field dominates the geometric figures much in the way the marble imprisons Michelangelo's unfinished slave sculptures, where the figures seem fighting to free themselves from the marble block encasing them. We must come very close to these compositions to see how Oiticica juxtaposes his sharply angled rectangles. In the third, color and the possibility of depth manifest themselves, hints of what is to come, but the composition is stolid in its monumental fixity.
Then, in the works produced between 1956 and 1958, the geometric slaves, unlike Michelangelo's frozen figures, free themselves and surfaces begin to move. Metaesquema 168 (1957) floats interlocking geometric puzzle pieces in a now lightened, neutral matrix. The next step, Metaesquema 212 (1957), scatters the pieces and renders color a collaborator in a complex suggestion of movement. The surface becomes, by 1958, a dance floor. In another gouache on cardboard from that year, Untitled, the geometric shapes take control of the surface. Implicit in the mass of blue, vaguely rectangular shapes is rhythm. The surface ripples and flexes, the figures threaten to leap off the surface.
The final phase liberates geometry from surface and wall. Relevo Espacial (Spacial Relief) (1959 – 60), done in acrylic on wood, suspends Oiticica's figures in midair. We experience yellow shapes at complex angles, and in depth-defying positions, unleashed from the forces of gravity any figure-ground relationship. The process of his art echoes Brazil's experiment with democracy, which ends in 1964 with a military coup. But by then Oiticica himself had taken flight, and nothing but premature death at the age of forty-two could stop this remarkable man who reshaped his national art history and occupies a prime spot in the history of abstraction.