When I went to the Whitney this summer, I wondered why it was showing a retrospective of the Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica (1937—1980). Of course, I’m all for diversity but the Whitney Museum of American Art “presents a full range of twentieth-century and contemporary American art”. I learned that the artist had lived in New York at least 7 years, but I guess you’re a New Yorker when you lived there for 10 years? And I don’t know if Oiticica ever:
- Had seen Woody Allen
- Had stolen a cab from someone who needs it more than he did
- Cried on the Subway and not given a damn what anyone thinks
- Killed a cockroach with his bare hand
I know why they turned a blind eye. It was an amazing show. Going to the new Whitney building itself only is a ravishing experience! I love what Renzo Piano did to the place. This review is based upon memory, but out of all the pieces, Tropicália and Eden have made the most lasting impression. The interactive experience of the former two works was sufficiently stimulating participation to physically engage the viewer. But it didn’t have an overtly social aspect and didn’t emphasize on collaboration and a collective social experience. This is a tendency in contemporary art where Claire Bishop writes about extensively (note to self: write about her). According to the Whitney, his art has the ability to challenge us to assume a more active role.
Tropicália is seen as his most famous piece. He made it at the end of the 60s for the Museum of Modern Art in Rio and it is reconstructed to be seen at the Whitney. The piece is an installation in which the audience can walk on a gravel meandering path going through a sandy environment. It’s an artificially made garden, with actual living parrots, banana plants, terracotta pots, and huts. The text on the wall makes sure that the visitor doesn’t see this as a mere image of a stereotypical reference to his “tropical” mother country. As Guy Brett, in 1969 a critic and Whitechapel Gallery curator wrote: “the hidden level of Tropicalia is the process of penetrating it, the web of sensory images which produce an intensely intimate confrontation, especially perhaps with the innermost image of all, in pitch darkness, the universal switched-on TV set. The typical turns into the actual in this mythical space.”
Eden is next right to it, and it is the more extravagant sister of Tropicália. But this time, the sandy ground has tents made from sheer fabric, some contain leaves, others a hay bed or used books. This piece got extra meaning because he made it London when he self-enforced exile, running away from Brazilian dictatorship.
The last part of the exhibition was a stark contrast in terms of vibes. The first part, although the works had a political undertone, was to a certain extent frivolous: colourfull, “tropical”, interactive. The last part was about his artist turned drug dealer period in the 70s. Around this time, he was still making works, but also spending time using and selling cocaine. His works were different. A reflection of Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, a homoerotic slide show. As New York Times critic Holland Cotter has stated: “Focus — Oiticica’s focus – is a problem. It’s hard to locate from the work on view what he was finding important, politically and aesthetically, and why.”
I think that this is reflected in the title of the exhibition “To Organize Delirium”. I think they meant by the title that the curators of the Whitney had the task to put these works, made from different eras in his life – his mind was all over the place – into an exhibition.
And sorry, I’m starting a self-enforced trend to only write about almost ending shows. Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium on view until October first.