The late fifties and early sixties in Brazil were filled with modernist dreams. The arts were flourishing under the newly elected president, Juscelino Kubitschek, who had promised to achieve “fifty years of progress in five.” Musicians were mixing samba with jazz and developing bossa nova, while visual artists experimented with abstraction and participatory sculpture. Modern architecture would revolutionize the face of the country in 1960 with the inauguration of the newly constructed capital, Brasília. Designed by the country’s greatest modern architect, Oscar Niemeyer, the capitol was a symbol of hope and transformation in a poor country that had been politically unstable for decades. But all that was swiftly overshadowed by the reactionary military regime, which overthrew the government in 1964.
In response to the new government’s violent, nationalistic rhetoric, artists began drawing even more heavily from cultural trends abroad to create a new, anarchist cultural movement, Tropicália. Like the indigenous cannibals who ate their colonialist enemies to become stronger, these artists wanted to consume foreign culture and to outdo it. For musicians, such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, this often meant fusing psychedelic rock with Brazilian beats; visual artists such as Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape melded the handcraftsmanship of indigenous communities with modernist aesthetics.
Hélio Oiticica, whose work is currently being celebrated in a massive retrospective, “To Organize Delirium,” at the Whitney Museum, was another actor at the center of this movement. Born into Brazil’s upper-middle class, he studied painting at the Museum of Modern Art of Rio de Janeiro and became a vital part of the city’s art scene. Following the military coup, he began working with the marginal classes in the city’s favelas, where he developed many of his ideas of making art in public spaces and designed his famous “penetrables,” freestanding, colorful labyrinths that mimic the makeshift architecture of the favelas. In the best known of these, “Tropicália” (1967), two multicolor structures sit on an island of sand, a clichéd Brazilian setting; Oiticica wanted it to be “the cry of Brazil for the world.”
As the military dictatorship became more severe, many of Brazil’s great artists were censored and declared enemies of the state. One by one, they started to emigrate. Veloso and Gil left for London, and Oiticica departed to New York. Brazil was regressing politically and economically; “falling to pieces,” Oiticica wrote in a letter to Clark in 1971.
Oiticica first thought of moving to New York in 1970, when he participated in the Museum of Modern Art’s groundbreaking exhibition of Conceptual art, “Information.” Writing to Clark, he said, “I really felt that I’m respected by the entire art world … This trip and now the prospect of coming back have cheered me up so much that it seems I’m alive again.” That same year, back in Rio, he was awarded a two-year Guggenheim Fellowship. He promptly left his studio near the city’s botanical gardens and moved into a loft in the Lower East Side.
When Oiticica first arrived in New York, he planned to create a sprawling installation of his penetrables in Central Park. He envisioned the installation as a space for community and called it the “Subterranean Tropicália Projects.” The title, he said, alluded to the disappointing fact that Brazil had essentially “buried itself.” But Oiticica’s attempt to resurface Brazil in the heart of Manhattan failed, as he was unable to secure the funds.
Still, he engaged with New York in quieter ways. He eagerly delved into the city’s art scene, experimenting with film, a new format for him, and he took classes at New York University. In one particularly precious set of photographs from those years, he hands his parangolés—bright capes, made from recyclable materials, that he often brought into the favelas for people to dance in—to passengers on the subway, who awkwardly and bemusedly try them on. In another series, a young man, presumably one of Oiticica’s lovers, stands seductively in a parangolé on the rooftops of towering buildings, most notably the World Trade Center.
The large, looming city is itself a subject in the movies Oiticica made in New York. In his film Agrippina Is Rome-Manhattan, from 1972, he likens New York to ancient Rome. Two eccentric characters, playing a pimp and Roman patrician, pose in front of the city’s neoclassical buildings but do not interrupt the constant flow of the city. Here, Oiticica seems to say, people are free to express themselves while going unnoticed, engulfed by their surroundings.
His most obsessive New York art project was his apartment, the nexus of all of his creations, where he slept and socialized inside sheer-cloth enclosures that he called his “nests.” Oiticica, who was gay, felt sexually liberated in the city, and invited young men into his home, photographing them suggestively and intimately. The television was always on and music, usually rock, played. There were lots of drugs, especially cocaine.
But in the next eight years, Oiticica, who well overstayed his visa, would discover that he didn’t have the necessary connections and resources to thrive artistically in New York. When he struggled to find work, he turned to drug dealing. Over time, he became increasingly withdrawn.
The title of the Whitney’s exhibition, “To Organize Delirium,” is taken from Oiticica’s friend, the Brazilian poet Haroldo de Campos, who once said that Oiticica was able to “organize delirium” through his art. The curators’ use of the quote is apt: Oiticica experienced delirium in manifold ways, from the chaos and disillusionment he felt in Brazil, to the sensory overload in New York, to the displacement that came with exile, to the heavy use of drugs—and he used his art to organize it.
One of the show’s first artworks from Oiticica’s New York phase is a slideshow of photographs, Topázion-flor, from 1975, which he dedicated to Campos. Each frame is dominated by bags full of glowing cocaine, arranged on books about the Incas, Jimi Hendrix records, photos of parangolés, and notebooks. Sometimes the bag of drugs is held up, out of focus, almost floating. Suspended in the realm of cocaine and disoriented in a fusion of pop-cultural references, there’s no depth of space—you could be anywhere.
The galleries are laid out chronologically, and the rooms devoted to Oiticica’s New York years are dark, filled with slides and pages of words, much as the artist’s apartment would’ve been. The curators have re-created two of his nine “Cosmococas” installations, which he staged in his loft in 1973 with fellow Brazilian artist Neville d’Almeida as spaces to escape capitalist consumer culture. Around this time, Oiticica had been absorbing the avant-garde art around him, such as John Cage’s recordings of street sounds and Jack Smith’s improvised films, and reinterpreting it with Brazilian elements.
The “Cosmococas” series, for instance, immerses the viewer in trippy, nonnarrative visuals and chaotic, unpredictable patterns of sound. In Cosmococa I, you lie on a mattress, surrounded by giant projections of pages from the New York Times Magazine and Frank Zappa albums—objects he kept around at home. Popular Brazilian northeastern music plays, followed by recordings of Second Avenue. The museum offers you nail files to pass the time (Oiticica would’ve given you lines of cocaine, the inspiration for the series’ title).
While Oiticica intended for his “Cosmococas” to be installed in public, he was never able to, only realizing them behind the closed doors of his apartment. (Museums are now able to re-create them because of the detailed notes he made for each installation.) At this point, Oiticica had retreated from the art world and stayed mostly at home, obsessively writing in his notebooks, recording tapes of his thoughts, and photographing visitors; he called his home of nests a “world-shelter.”
Since the sixties, Oiticica had stressed the idea of vivência in his artworks: his idea that they were meant to be completely inhabited, even lived in. It would seem that in New York he took this idea to its literal conclusion, living so completely in his art to the point of secluding himself. He wrote long, discursive letters home, though sometimes he couldn’t finish them. When he did, they would cause his friends and family to worry for his health and financial situation. Writing again to Clark, only a few years after settling in New York, he said, “I feel as if I’m in a prison in this infernal island.”
Walking through the Whitney’s galleries, there’s a cacophony of sounds. Caetano Veloso’s sprightly voice and Hendrix’s electrifying guitar seep into the space. In the main gallery, you can listen to audio recordings of Oiticica’s notebooks, which he collectively called his Newyorkaises. These notebooks, along with the rest of his output in New York, are generally overlooked, or at least deemed less interesting than the work from his earlier days in Rio. His writing is often dense or cryptic, and you’re better off if you know both Portuguese and English. Even I, a Brazilian living in the United States who has this advantage, didn’t think I’d have the patience to read through it. But in his words, I felt something familiar.
There’s a rich range of artistic influences in Oiticica’s writing: Gertrude Stein’s impenetrable prose; the visual arrangements of Brazilian concrete poetry; the performativity of American Conceptual artists, such as Vito Acconci and Yoko Ono. Naturally, Oiticica’s New York notebooks also reveal someone whose life straddled two places and cultures: he invented his own language that mixed Portuguese and English, folding wistful allusions to Brazil into his thrilling experiences in New York. One of his favorite refrains was the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” which he always spelled in capital letters and used as his own chorus when meditating on his parangolés.
Anyone who’s grown up bilingual will recognize what Oiticica does with language, even if the meaning is at times opaque. Language is often the first, or at least most evident, sign of one’s identity being split and rearranged. But this mixing happens elsewhere, too, from the food one cooks to the music one listens to. This mixing happened palpably in Oiticica’s art. Inhabiting two cultures at once is an exhausting, confusing, and exhilarating experience. It can be exciting to absorb another country’s way of life, but with that comes pangs of loss, as well as the desire to forget—to feel like you can start over, leave things behind.
In 1978, Oiticica returned to Rio de Janeiro. He had been hounded by immigration officials and narcos in New York and, as revealed by his lawyer after his death, had been interrogated about his homosexuality. Soon after moving back, he wrote to a friend that being in Brazil was “much, much, much, much, much better than staying in fucking NEW YORK … I feel free free free and all the desire for those ‘other things’ vanished like a miracle and also my old chronic paranoia dissapeared [sic]; I couldn’t feel happier.”
In a way, it makes sense that Oiticica confined himself in his home away from home. Even before he left Brazil in 1970, Oiticica had already imagined alternate realities and redefined his sense of place. Of his New York apartment, he said, “I want to create a place that is so complicated-complex that it’s its own world.” This became symbolic of his sense of displacement—in both Brazil and New York—but also of his taste for freedom and escape.
Back in his native country, Oiticica, clean of drugs, felt restored and grounded. His reaction is not unlike that of other Brazilian artists who had been living in exile. Veloso, on returning from London, wrote, “My proximity, the certainty that I am real and vulnerable, brings my legend back to Earth—to my immense pleasure, since in London I was climbing the walls sometimes, like a ghost.” And Gil wrote “Back in Bahia,” a song that distilled the longing he felt for home when also in London. “Island of the North, where I ended up out of luck or to be punished, I’m not sure,” he sings, “Today I feel it was necessary to leave in order to come back.” Returning to Brazil, for all three men, was a rediscovery of the roots they once thought they’d lost.
The last gallery, which is devoted to the final years of Oiticica’s life, contains a large penetrable with water on the floors called Rijanviera, his homage to Rio. After he came home, Oiticica went back to making sculptural installations, or, as he told the art critic Aracy Amaral, “I wrote all this material, notebooks and notebooks … This year had a change … I’m not interested in ideas … now I want to make physical stuff.” It’s impossible to know what would have come of this, as Oiticica died of a stroke only two years later, at the age of forty-two.
“To Organize Delirium” is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through October 1.