Nietzchean Yearnings
The Theoretical Foundations of Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica

Hélio Oiticica, firstborn son of the entomologist and photographer José Oiticica (Jr.) and grandson of José Oiticica, philologist, founder of the anarchist newspaper Ação direta (Direct action), and author of the book O anarquismo ao alcance de todos (Anarchism accessible to all), was born on July 26, 1937, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As a small child, Hélio was educated by private tutors and didn’t receive formal schooling until 1947, when his father was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and the family moved to Washington, D.C. In 1954, Hélio Oiticica began studying painting under Ivan Serpa (1923–1973) at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio. In the years that followed, he had his first exhibitions, showing a series of abstract gouaches on cardboard that he called “Metaesquemas”; became linked to the Grupo Frente, who advocated abstraction and internationalism; and established friendships with the artist Lygia Clark (1920–1988) and the critic Mário Pedrosa (1900–1981), key figures in contemporary Brazilian art.

In March 1959, some of the members of Grupo Frente, together with other local artists—including Clark and Lygia Pape (1927–2004)—countersigned the Neo-Concrete manifesto written by the poet and critic Ferreira Gullar (1930–2016) and published in the newspaper Jornal do Brasil to accompany the first Neo-Concrete exhibition, held at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio. According to Gullar’s text, “The term neo-Concrete indicates a position vis-à-vis nonfigurative ‘geometric’ art (Neo-Plasticism, Constructivism, Suprematism, the Ulm-School), and, in particular, concrete art taken to a dangerous rationalist extreme.” In reaction to what they saw as the excessive rationalism behind contemporary abstraction, Neo-Concretists sought to expand the “expressive conquests” of precedent movements, directing their research toward “an appraisal of verbal ‘time’ and expression as a lived fact” in order to reach an “existential experience.” In this context, Oiticica began his theoretical and plastic investigations into the destabilization of the pictorial plane, a pursuit that would lead him to abandon the two-dimensionality of paint on canvas in favor of experimentation in the fields of phenomenology and perception.

In “Theory of the Non-Object,” another text from 1959, Gullar raises some of the ideas that would be particularly influential in Oiticica’s work and writings. Indeed, the concept of the “non-object” perfectly fits the processes that Oiticica would develop during the 1960s. “The expression ‘non-object,’” writes Gullar, “does not intend to describe a negative object nor any other thing that may be opposite to material objects. The non-object is not an anti-object but a special object through which a synthesis of sensorial and mental experiences is intended to take place. It is a transparent body in terms of phenomenological knowledge: while being entirely perceptible it leaves no trace. It is a pure appearance.”

In subsequent years, Oiticica produced a series of spatial pieces that, rather than function as art objects, sought to generate “states of minds” and “predispositions to creative experiences.” Gullar’s non-objects became, in Oiticica’s language, “ambient art”: series of works he called “Penetrables,” booths in which the viewer is invited to enter; “Bolidos,” wood-and-glass boxes that, laid on the floor, require the viewer to look down in order to appreciate them; and “Núcleos,” labyrinthine “chromatic environments” that, consisting of multiple hanging panels, the viewer can pass through. “Ambient art,” he wrote, “is the overthrow of the traditional concept of painting-frame and sculpture—that belongs to the past. It gives way to the creation of ‘ambiences’: from there arise what I call ‘anti-art.’” In these series, which he created throughout the sixties, he left behind his role as a builder of works suitable for contemplation by viewers to become instead a facilitator of experiences to be shared by participants. Indeed, he later defined the “anti-art” as “the era of the popular participation in the creative field.”

Fragmento del texto publicado originalmente en el 8 de noviembre de 2017, con el título Between Carnaval and Mondrian: The Manifold Influences on Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica. View full English text.