Hélio Oiticica at the New Museum

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Hélio Oiticica

Oiticica, the subject of a recent exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, is that spiniest of art subjects: a dead artist with a genuinely outlandish legacy, and a poster boy for 21st-century curatorial globalism, art's latest institutional orthodoxy. It's easy to dismiss him for the posthumous company he keeps; to love him is to engage in the sort of art historical autopsy literary critics used to call close reading. Like the dreaded fugu fish, getting at the meat of Oiticica's work requires skirting noxious bits of fishy tripe: one touch of the liverish curatorial rhetoric surrounding it could prove deadly to an honest appreciation of this artist's achievements and his largely unfulfilled promise.

Hélio Oiticica was, by anyone's yardstick, a highly unorthodox artist. Emerging in Rio de Janeiro as a full-fledged creator during Brazil's cultural Neo-Concretist movement of the 1960s and 70s, he quickly became a touchstone for artists of every stripe, among them musicians, writers, filmmakers and architects. A highly charismatic presence, he migrated from traditional painted and sculptural versions of late constructivism to making three-dimensional sculptures large enough to walk into. Later works took the shape of free-form constructions, such as clothing, banners and capes. Others, made from streetwise materials like bricks, sand, plastic and potted plants, pointed directly toward the sort of environments that we have come to call, with prized inexactness, installations.

Looking to move art off the walls of museums and into the grittier realm of everyday life, Oiticica did his best to make elitist notions of art give way to popular culture. He staged showings of his art in Rio's favelas, collaborated with performers in public actions, took part in underground films and gave to Brazil and the world the term Tropicalia, borrowed from one of his art works by fellow vanguardists Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil to christen a new growing musical and cultural movement. The creative national experiment, alas, would be short-lived. The military government that came to power in Brazil in 1964 saw in these artists a potential threat and gradually closed in on their activities. Oiticica, who was far too flighty and inconsistent to be truly political, avoided censorship, prison and exile by lighting out for New York City. It was a case of jumping from the fire into the frying pan.

Arriving in the U.S. during a period of intellectual effervescence that was not only matched but surpassed by the country's social and political ferment, Oiticica dove head-first into New York's downtown milieu. Drawn to American pop culture in all its manifestations and to the swinging low life below 14th St., he poured his newfound interests, artistic and otherwise, into his own bubbling stew of "newyorkaise." Among the things that immediately fascinated him were advertising, the movies, rock 'n' roll, radio, television, celebrity worship, the Hollywood star machine, Andy Warhol, underground drug culture and risky homosexual behavior. It was Oiticica's inclusion in MOMA's groundbreaking conceptual exhibition "Information" that brought him to New York. A Guggenheim grant allowed him to stay. But it was his great enthusiasm for American commercial culture in all its guises that resulted in the production of the enveloping multimedia environments he dubbed "quasi-cinemas," which are incidentally the subject of the New Museum's exhibition.

Like many others at the time who thought that the personal truly was political, there was virtually no separation in Oiticica's mind between his conceptual aspirations and lived experience. A slide show of erotic photographs of young chickies (male, of course) scored to random radio outtakes limned the worlds of fashion magazine layouts and Andy Warhol's Factory (and his "superstars" manque). A deliberately mysterious film featuring several camped-up characters acting out in front of loaded New York City landmarks, like the Stock Exchange, explored his consuming interest in oddball sexuality and anti-narrative art. But it was the large-scale, all-enveloping rumpus rooms he called Cosmococas that took the cake both for conceptual ambition and open-ended, far-out art.

The Cosmococas, conceived and executed in collaboration with another Brazilian resident in New York, the filmmaker Neville D'Almeida, were the culmination of Oiticica's efforts to forgo object-making for an art that placed the spectator at its center. Elaborately documented in his notebooks and built inside his loft for performances-cum-parties, these works were intended to challenge the traditionally passive relationship between the audience and cinema. Oiticica himself described the Cosmococas as "a multimedia salad without the obtrusive dressing of 'sense' or point of view." In point of fact, they were rooms that, as recreated inside the New Museum, encouraged horizontal occupancy and surrounded the spectator with a cool if disjunctive message blitz. Period images like photos of Marilyn Monroe taken from Norman Mailer's biography and the face of Luis Buñuel, both decorated with cocaine lines, were projected onto the corners; mattresses, sand or hammocks covered the floor; the sounds of Jimi Hendrix's squalling guitar filled the room.

Marcusian readings, both past and present, of Oiticica's environments suggested that they were supposed to ward off capitalist alienation. It is a pity that neither the artist nor his current promoters, who have the advantage of more than two decades of retrospection, ever noticed the similarity of the quasi-cinemas to Times Square's multimedia advertising shill. Carlos Basualdo, the show's curator, additionally claims in the exhibition catalog nearly necromantic powers for Oiticica's highly symbolic use of cocaine as artistic material. The use of Bolivia's finest was, in his hyperbolic formulation, "the only way for Oiticica to resist repressive police violence" and "the instrumental violence of late capitalism," two specters of First World conceptual art whose appearance, like that of Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, would truly shake things up should they ever descend to earth from the apocalyptic rantings of institutional academics.

Truth to tell, Oiticica's cocaine drawings were a ploy, among a spate of others, to satisfy his revolutionary fantasies and up the cool quotient of work that depended very much, then as now, on its embrace of pure zeitgeist. The times were a-changing faster than anyone, even large-hearted Soho radicals, could admit. But Oiticica did manage to get out firmly in front of two major artistic developments before returning to Rio de Janeiro, where he died young at the age of 43. To him belongs the largely unaccredited distinction of having been the first to systematically construct modern-day art installations and glimpse the demotic value inherent in film and the projected image. The rest is large, restless, hungry, promise. But as the man said, in promises anyone can be rich.

"Hélio Oiticica: Quasi-Cinemas," through Oct. 13 at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, 583 Broadway (betw. Houston & Prince Sts.), 219-1222.

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