Participate in the Art of Hélio Oiticica at the Art Institute

In the canon of contemporary art, Hélio Oiticica (Brazilian, 1937–80) is considered an innovator who pushed the boundaries of what art can be.  His retrospective at the Art Institute, Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium, reveals how his practice evolved from two- and three-dimensional works to works you can walk through or wear. Many of his projects have come to include immersive installations involving sensory experiences.  Central to his mission was a commitment to transforming the viewer from a passive spectator to an active “participator.”

Hélio Oiticica. Metaesquema, 1958–59. Collection of Diane and Bruce Halle.
Metaesquema, 1958–59. Collection of Diane and Bruce Halle.

Oiticica’s practice can be divided into two phases, with core ideas continuing throughout.  The first part of his career, from 1954 through the mid-60s is characterized by an exploration of abstract, geometric, painting and sculpture.  His early works on paper are shown in the Prints and Drawings Galleries and establish the foundation for his life-long pursuit of color, planar geometry, and movement.  Seeing these works in advance of the larger exhibition in Regenstein Hall is helpful in establishing the trajectory of his practice.  For those who have an affinity for geometric abstraction, these works are a must-see and a visual delight.

The exhibition is organized chronologically and begins with Oiticica’s transition from two to three dimensions.  He begins with geometric forms realized as paintings that transition to sculptural panels suspended from the ceiling.  The Spatial Reliefs and Nuclei exist in our space in a manner beyond traditional sculpture.  These forms are further articulated in his Penetrables, which have a distinctly architectural quality.  PN1 Penetrable is a closet-size structure with movable walls, enabling “participators” to enclose themselves in colored, geometric planes.  To protect the artworks, many pieces that were intended to be participatory are no longer able to be activated.  Taken together, these sculptures exhibit several hallmarks of Oiticica’s practice:  participation, enclosure/immersion, and movement.

PN1 Penetrable (PN1 Penetrável), 1960. César and Claudio Oiticica Collection, Rio de Janeiro. © César and Claudio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro.
PN1 Penetrable (PN1 Penetrável), 1960. César and Claudio Oiticica Collection, Rio de Janeiro. © César and Claudio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro.

The second phase of Oiticica’s career occurred in the years after military dictatorship came to power in Brazil in 1964.  He termed his vision “anti-art” and created works that are experiential, social, and environmental.  Oiticica identified with marginalized communities and looked to the favelas and  samba for inspiration.  His Parangolés are objects created to be carried or worn and like much of his practice, are unfinished until activated.  These colorful cloth works often have political or social messages that only become visible when in motion.  The Art Institute displays a selection of  Parangolés hung on the wall, a slideshow of documentary images, as well as exhibition copies available for wear.  While seemingly different visually and in intent from the first part of his career, this body of work is yet another iteration of Oiticica’s interest in participation, motion, and enclosure in planes of color.

Much of the gallery space is occupied by two participatory installations, Tropicália (1967) and Eden (1969).  While they are distinct artworks, they share many of the same themes and materials and are literally conjoined.  Tropicália is a portrait of Brazil that presents stereotypes associated with tropical life including sand, live parrots, and exotic plants.  Two “Penetrables” (meaning “works that are penetrable” in Spanish) reference the favelas through a television monitor that projects sound and image.  The installation gave its name to a movement that encompassed multiple art forms, most notably music, that embraced the local.

While Oiticica considered Tropicália a “journey,” Eden was a “destination.”  Eden provides places to rest, read, and listen to music so as to encourage what Oiticica called “creleisure.”  In both works “participators” are invited to remove their shoes and stroll through sand and water, stopping to rest or converse in tents and beds filled with grass, straw, books, and foam.  Children, college students, and adults alike readily and happily understand and embrace the spirit of the installations.

Hélio Oiticica. PN27 Rijanviera, 1979. César and Claudio Oiticica Collection, Rio de Janeiro. Photo courtesy Edouard Fraipont.
PN27 Rijanviera, 1979. César and Claudio Oiticica Collection, Rio de Janeiro. Photo courtesy Edouard Fraipont.

In the early 1970s, Oiticica moved to New York City where he sought to create art that was exhibited outside museums and galleries.  He adopted a domestic approach and encouraged creative living in his loft and other venues, making work that often doesn’t have pure form.  Galleries documenting this phase of his practice include selected writings, photographs, films, and archival material.  Presenting work that is ephemeral in nature is difficult; the exhibition does an admirable job in providing visually-appealing and informative slide shows and video monitors presenting site-specific and performative works throughout the latter galleries.

Continuing Oiticica’s earlier interest in creating immersive environments from planes of color is Filter Project for Vergara (1972).  The work was exhibited in Rio when the dictatorship was at the height of its power.  Unlike earlier participatory works that are peaceful and contemplative, this one reflects the artist’s anger and concern.  “Participators” are bombarded with sound and visuals, coming from television, radio, and colorful plastic scrims through which they must walk.  We are literally encouraged to imbibe color, in the form of glasses of orange juice.

Oiticica returned to Brazil in 1978, pursuing core ideas which are articulated in films, propositional models for architecture, and work using found objects.  The exhibition concludes with PN27 Rijanviera (1979), incorporating sand, water, and gravel, as well as his tenets of participation, planes of color, and movement.  It takes a unique artist and exhibition to engage on visual, physical, and intellectual levels with equal integrity.  This show succeeds on all measures.


Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium is on view through May 7 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave., during museum hours.  Tickets start at $29 for non-members. Entry is free for members. For more information on this exhibition visit


Susan Musich
Susan Musich
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