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.”