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Shedding Light on the Historical Significance of Hélio Oiticica

It seems to me that it takes about 25 years for events to become history. That’s the span of a generation, the time it takes to grow up. After 25 years, the social context for a period’s intellectual, artistic, political, and economic trends has begun to fade into the past, leaving lots of room for misunderstanding. As a curator and art historian, I most enjoy working in the space between the time shortly before I was born and when history kicks in. In researching those periods, dim memories—little more than instincts—can be excavated, shedding light on the subject I’m studying and on my own past.

Museum directors rarely get to do this uniquely fulfilling work, so I feel extremely fortunate to be in the thick of such a project now: an exhibition covering the career of Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica. While Oiticica is arguably the most influential Latin American artist of the decades after World War II, the full story of his achievements is still being written.

Oiticica was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1937 and died there in 1980. Something of a wunderkind, he was making sophisticated contributions to the artistic life of the city while still in his teens. His mature work, which began as exquisitely refined geometric paintings on board, came to include works to be experienced physically—to be worn, carried, manipulated, or entered into. His groundbreaking 1967 architectural installation, Tropicália, gave name to the renowned Brazilian musical movement and a political position that was strongly against the dictatorship that had overtaken Brazil in 1964. He left his country during the worst of the oppression, spending a year in London and almost eight years in New York before returning to his native city for the last two years of his life.

Hélio Oiticica, Tropicália, 1967. Installation for the New Brazilian Objectivity, at the Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, 1967 © Projeto Hélio Oiticica
Hélio Oiticica, Tropicália, 1967. Installation for the New Brazilian Objectivity, at the Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, 1967 © Projeto Hélio Oiticica

I recently returned from Brazil, where I spent eight days doing research for the exhibition with colleagues from the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, with whom Carnegie Museum of Art is co-organizing the exhibition. It has been important for us to see every work we are considering for inclusion and to read as much as we can by and about the artist. Had he lived, Oiticica would be 77 today, so on this trip we were guided largely by a sense of urgency to capture for the historical record the recollections of those who are still around and knew him well. Our stay was packed with meetings with Oiticica’s fellow artists and friends and with scholars who have done important research on him. We also worked in the archive at the Projeto Hélio Oiticica. We came away not just with new insights, but also with areas for further research to be done on future visits to Brazil, London, and New York.

Of course, at some point the research has to stop, and a book and an exhibition made. Those culminating parts of the curator’s job are the most gratifying aspect of any project. Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium will open in Pittsburgh in fall 2016 before traveling to Chicago and New York. Please make sure to see it.

Hélio Oiticica, Nildo da Mangueira with Parangolé P15 Cape 11 (“I Embody Revolt”), 1967. Photo by Claudio Oiticica © Projeto Hélio Oiticica.
Hélio Oiticica, Nildo da Mangueira with Parangolé P15 Cape 11 (“I Embody Revolt”), 1967. Photo by Claudio Oiticica © Projeto Hélio Oiticica.

Inside the Museum is Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky’s blog about the local and global impacts of the museum and the art world. For past installments, please visit the Inside the Museum archive.