The Whitney’s new retrospective of avant-garde Brazilian sculptor, photographer and Andy Warhol favourite, Hélio Oiticica opens today. Next to his trademark abstract cardboard paintings and Canon F-1-snapped scenes of his boyfriend and friends in 1970s New York, there’s a huge tropical scene with real trees, birds and plants. It’s Hélio’s most seminal work, Tropicália (1966-77), and is on show for the first time in two decades.
Between 1960 and 1970, Hélio worked in Manhattan on what he called “environmental art” – the idea that music and art are the only things that connected people to their true selves. Despite his success, he self-exiled to Brazil in the late ‘70s, before dying alone in Rio de Janeiro in 1980, at 42 years old.
Hélio Oiticica traces his most ostentatious work. Taking its name from Brazilian Tropicália music, his sandy installation riffs on the socio-political impact of that culture after the Brazilian military coup of 1964. It was a time when pop singers from the favelas were some of the most politically resistant artists of the time (The Whitney have a playlist of their songs on Spotify). In a 1969 interview with the Whitechapel Gallery, he described the installation as a “web of sensory images that produce an intensely intimate confrontation.”
Hélio adored the electric rock music scene of downtown Manhattan and his photos are both influenced by, and a tribute to, the icon-like status of Jimi Hendrix, like the installation Hendrix-War (1973) and photography Babylonests (1971) of the Spanish author Miguel Rio Branco. Despite the unashamed glamour of his life, Hélio was always political. In the photo I Embody revolt (1967), he calls for revolution in Brazil that resonated in his home country, and, makes you wonder what other great things he would have done.
Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium at The Whitney – July 14 – 1 October 2017
Main image: Hélio Oiticica, P15 Parangolé Cape 11, I Embody Revolt (P15 Parangolé Capa 12, Eu Incorporo a Revolta) worn by Nildo of Mangueira, 1967. Courtesy of César and Claudio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro. © César and Claudio Oiticica. Photograph by Claudio Oiticica