London’s Tate Modern is offering visitors a rare treat this summer: a chance to view a major retrospective of the work of Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica in an exhibition showing works stretching back to 1955. Oiticica’s name may not be immediately familiar, but in his short life (he died in 1980 from a stroke at the age of just 42) he worked prolifically, producing an innovative and influential body of work that spans painting, sculpture and avant-garde film.
The emphasis of the Tate exhibition is on Oiticica’s expressive use of colour, and it opens with a series of his abstract, geometric works from the 1950s, created when he was still a teenager. With their clean lines and blocks of colour, these works underline the artist’s obvious debt to Modernist masters such as Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich, and show the general influence of European Modernism in Brazil during that period. In contrast to the stiff seriousness of some of the earlier Modernist works, however, Oiticica’s feel alive with energy and are executed in rich yellows, reds and browns, colours that seem intrinsically linked with his South American home.
The animation of these early paintings is continued in Oiticica’s first sculptural works, where his painted blocks start to take on three-dimensional forms in a series of hanging wood constructions, entitled Spatial Reliefs. It is these works that begin Oiticica’s preoccupation of encouraging a physical interaction between the viewer and his art, a theme that, alongside colour, would reoccur in his art throughout the rest of his life. Also shown at Tate is his large-scale sculpture B18 Glass Bólide 06 Metamorphosis, an elegant combination of hanging painted shapes, that appear to float in mid-air, and a patterned floor made of grey stones. The stones add an organic, earth-bound touch that provides a nice contrast to the angular boards and the whole piece hums with an energy that belies its age (it was created over 40 years ago, in 1965). This work, like Oiticia’s other sculptures, actively encourages you to walk around it, exploring the alternating visual effects it offers from different angles.
Oiticica’s desire for his work to be interacted with intensified during this period and he began experimenting with sculptures that encouraged visitors to climb inside, alongside creating a series of open mazes containing colourful double-sided hanging panels of varying sizes. Some of these include mirrors to enhance the colour and light effects and also reflect the participants as they move through the works. Around this time, Oiticica created the installation that he is perhaps most famous for in the UK, Tropicália (1967). This work, which has proved hugely influential on contemporary artists, incorporates sand and tropical foliage alongside structures to explore, and even includes two live macaws who chatter noisily to visitors from their cage, making it a truly multi-sensorial experience.
Tropicália showed as part of the Barbican’s 2006 exhibition of art from Brazil of the same name, and was purchased earlier this year by the Tate. It is showing on a separate floor from The Body of Colour exhibition, as part of display of 1960s Brazilian art from the Tate collection that should certainly be tagged on to a visit to the Oiticica retrospective. The artists in these rooms were all championed in the 1960s by curator and critic Guy Brett, who brought many of them to the UK for the first time. Works by David Medalla, Lygia Clark and Mira Schendel demonstrate the group’s deep interest in interaction between the viewer and artwork, and still feel refreshingly contemporary today.
Oiticica’s retrospective draws to a close by focusing on the series entitled Parangolé, that he developed in connection with the people of Mangueira Hill, a Rio de Janeiro shanty town. Consisting of banners, capes and tents constructed using a variety of materials including fabric, plastic, mats and ropes, these objects now hang limp and faded on the gallery walls. Yet, as an accompanying documentary film shows, they were designed by Oiticica to be worn – for the sculptures to truly “come alive” through a human body – and incorporated into daily life.
The film, which includes footage of Oiticica himself, reiterates the energy and enthusiasm that echoes throughout his art, as well as his ability to tread a careful line between maintaining a seriousness of form and colour while embracing a tactile pleasure in his works.
The result is a body of work that feels as exciting today as it must have done 40 years ago.
Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Colour is on Level 4 of Tate Modern until 23 September. www.tate.org.uk/modern