In 2009, a devastating fire consumed the Rio de Janeiro house of César Oiticica, brother to the late Neo-Concrete artist Hélio Oiticica. The resulting blaze wiped out a huge collection of Oiticica’s work that had been stored at the house. Seven years later, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh has put on To Organize Delirium, the first comprehensive US retrospective of Oiticica’s work since the destructive fire ravaged his oeuvre.
What survived is a body of work that is highly immersive and painstakingly experiential. While Oiticica was an artist of many different outputs, his most interesting pieces are not the geometric wall works, but his hallucinatory installations. Eden, the centerpiece of the show brings together tons of sand sprawled across the floor of the museum’s Hall of Sculpture with a series of relaxation tents named after Brazilian musicians of the Tropicália movement. Inside each structure, viewers are encouraged to hang out, listen to music, and sleep.
Eden is emblematic of a cultural time period where low rent, hedonism, and danger were apt descriptions of New York and London, the two cities the artist lived and worked out of at the height of his career. His Cosmococa series is also exemplary of this long lost era. The works, a series of participatory, sensory-based installations, revolve around cinematic images of cultural figures that inspired Oiticica, traced over with lines of cocaine. On view is his shrine to Jimi Hendrix, while in other editions the artist focused figures like John Cage and filmmaker Luis Buñuel.
Installation view, “Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium” at Carnegie Museum of Art. Photo by Bryan Conley. All photos courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art
Oiticica, along with other artists in the Neo-Concrete movement, emphasized physical experiences over intellectual reflection in their works. “All of these artists were interested in building a different relationship with the viewer, and I think a lot of that has to do with the influence of phenomenology, particularly the ideas of Merleau-Ponty and the idea that perception is pre-cognitive,” explains Lynn Zelevansky, one of the show’s co-curators and a director of the CMOA. “In other words, you perceive things physically with your body before you intellectualize it.”
The 70s in New York, an era where the metropolis was a paradisiacal free-for-all for artists is also an apt metaphor for the way Oiticica worked. The artist’s frenetic output, led to a unique curatorial problem for CMOA; on top of having many works destroyed in a fire post-mortem, Oiticica didn’t actually finish many of his works while alive.
“Oiticica liked things to be very opened ended and he often didn’t finish things. He would make something and then send it to a friend and say ‘you finish it’. I think the concepts in a lot of his works have full integrity and are complete concepts, but they are not necessarily finished works,” adds Zelevansky.
“His friend Leandro Katz ran a press and wanted to publish an artist book Oiticica was working on, but Oiticica decided he was never going to finish it. Now you could say that he was never going to finish it because he wasn’t able to complete it (Oiticica passed away in 1980 at the young age of 42)," says Zelevansky. "Or you could say that he was never going to finish it because he really liked the open-ended spirit of a work, that something is always in development and is always changing. Both might be true in a sense.”