Born in 1937, in Rio de Janeiro, Hélio Oiticica brought Brazilian art into the public eye through his colorful and socially conscientious compositions. As "the son of an entomologist/photographer and the grandson of a philologist/anarchist, Oiticica forged unlikely allegiances between politics and art, revolt and pleasure, science and spectacle," in the words of New Museum curator, Johanna Burton. His education began early at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio where he was a prolific note taker, drawing influence from Jimi Hendrix to Kasimir Malevich. Ultimately, his devotion to Piet Mondrian shaped his carrier and led to a lifelong fixation with color. He was "attracted to Mondrian's idea that, one day, art will dissolve into life." His work took various twists and turns, venturing into both the constructivist and neo-concretism movements, but his believes were vehement and unchanging. To Oiticica, art housed the spirit of revolt and revolution and was meant to be used accordingly. Many contend that Oiticica completed the triad of Brazilian Modernism, alongside architect Oscar Niemeyer and musician Caetano Veloso. Nevertheless, he was a deconstructionist at heart and saw all boundaries as arbitrary. He sought the perpetual amalgamation of opposites, the melding of extremes, where art, body, society, poverty, violence, sex, anger, drugs and love were all part of the same productive force.
Tenacious and invocative, Oiticica was a self-declared social outlaw. He saw art as the ultimate means of social liberation for the inhabitants of the city's impoverished favelas, hillside shantytowns. He believed that "art's relationship to established social hierarchies was artificial and unhealthy" (Basualdo 34.) The middle-class artist even moved into Mangueira, a favela in the North Zone of Rio, to live out his belief that art should be universally accessible and not simply a bourgeois pastime. Many of his greatest achievements came out of this experience. First were the Parangoles, wearable pieces of art that mobilized the creative spirit in the streets. Perhaps his most famous piece, Tropicália, erected in 1967 in Rio's Modern Art Museum, was large-scale tactile installation that he called a penetrável (or penetrable.) Oiticica invited visitors to take of their shoes and walk through and fully immerse themselves in sensation. He negated the tradition posturing of the viewer as spectator and sought to break down the barriers between art and its audience. The piece relayed the essential contradictions of the tropics to the audience through a sensual and confined interaction with them. This installation struck a chord with samba singer Caetano Veloso who named the infamous Tropicalismo movement after Oiticica’s piece. The followers of the movement openly condemned the military dictatorship and many of its figureheads were forced into exile, including Oiticica who went first to London and then the States. During his 8-year sojourn in New York, Oiticica’s work evolved drastically. He focused more and more on sensuality and started using film as his chief medium. This period in New York had a great effect on his career and ultimately established a precedent for Brazilian artists in the City.
In 1971, Oiticica received a Guggenheim fellowship to work in New York after the success of Information, a show he participated in at the MOMA. In a letter to close friend and co-conspirator, Lygia Clark, he wrote of New York, "it is the only place in the world that interests me." Infatuated with the convulsive spirit of the City, Oiticica delved into the expansive art scene and feed off the glow of megawatt Andy Warhol and the shadow of subversive Jack Smith. America was in the throes of discontent, now in the fifth year of war in Vietnam, and the youth culture had never been stronger. The democratization of art and the contagious air of experimentation struck Oiticica’s heartstrings. Inundated with fresh influences, he began a project called Quasi-cinemas. Projecting multiple images onto large screens, the artist constructed environments that left the audience to interact with art directly. In some, he ordered participants to inhale nitro benzol, drink Coke or swap pieces of fabric. "His projects allowed, even encouraged, participants to roam and loaf, for their attention to stray or wane." The productions renounced the conventional notion of progress, of art moving towards meaning, and were, instead, a constant reiteration of the present. His quasi-cinemas propositioned the audience and only through their participation were the productions complete. Eventually, Oiticica became disenchanted with New York and saw in it the violence of alienation that was the psychological counterpoint to the physical violence of Rio. He was working part-time as a translator and fell deeper and deeper into cocaine. By his last few years, most of his work was about cocaine. In the highly controversial film, Cosmococa, he used it as paint.
Tragically, Oiticica died at the age of 43 after a series of strokes. It is generally agreed upon that his death was a result of his excessive drug use. Yet, in his short career, he not only universalized art by bringing it into the margins of society, he also increased the breadth of art as a whole. His influence has propagated many of the staple concepts in art today: the repositioning of the spectator, the redefinition of public space and the integration of art and everyday life. In this global age, the art world is eager to appropriate new artists in attempts to make the history of art less Eurocentric. According to art historian, Carlos Basualdos, Oiticica's work "reflects the vibrant, pervasive internationalism of contemporary art" By immigrating to the States, Oiticica exposed a Rio-New York polemic that conjoined two disparate and previously unparalleled places. While his art always remained, at heart, Brazilian, his time in the US unearthed the universality of some themes. He saw the violence inherent in urban culture. He saw art caged in galleries, while people slept in the street. Bringing to mind the words of urbanist, Claes Oldenburg, “I’m for art that tells you the time of day, or where such a street is. I am for an art that helps old ladies across the street.” He saw the renegades combing the sidelines, ready to revolt. The space was reformatted, contorted but the concepts were the same. Perhaps it is for this universality of understanding, of digesting urban culture, that Oiticica is an up and coming icon in the art scene today. Just this year, he had a show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Tate Modern in London bought up ten of his pieces for their permanent collection. In his short life, we see what happens when a man folds under the compression of passions. Close friend, Caetano Veloso, the impetus behind Tropicalismo, conveys Oiticica's fatal charm upon saying, "I understood none of us could feel love at first sight again and again. But I took his demanding view seriously and kept on trying to live up to it." Ultimately, art is about liberation and nothing is more universal than that.