Olá, Hélio!

Olá, Hélio!

I went to the beach on Wednesday.

Fire Island? The Rockaways? Sandy Hook?

No, I wriggled my piggies in the sand at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the Meatpacking District.

Let me say at the outset that shoes and socks were the only items of clothing that I removed or that any other museumgoer eager to explore certain aspects of the Whitney’s just-opened Hélio Oiticica retrospective will be allowed to remove. In bringing Brazilian Oiticica to its galleries, the Whitney relaxed some of the rules, but not all. This is not a “clothing optional” exhibition. Although it may inspire you to dress up and do the samba (more about that later).

If I felt initially that “Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium” is the kind of show I expect to see produced by an upstart like the New Museum on the Bowery and not by an established marquee star like the Whitney—it’s out there, all over the place (film, photography, works on paper, sculpture, environmental installations) and even a little frayed and rough around the edges—I soon realized how mistaken this first impression was. Time may have burnished its image, but not its mission: The Whitney has always been about being on the cusp, and Oiticica was nothing if not avant-garde. And as the exhibit’s curators are quick to underline, the artist spent a large chunk of the 1970s in NYC, living, loving and working in the counterculture East Village.

So, what of this Latin artist, whose flame flared until a stroke extinguished it in 1980, four months shy of his 43rd birthday?

There are some wonderful early paintings on view: flat, geometric and white. But it wasn’t long before restless Oiticica moved these panels away from the wall, washed them in color, grouped them upright on the floor or suspended them from the ceiling. Many of these “Bilaterals” and “Spatial Reliefs” were meant to be handled, even entered (although their fragility forbids this or any other touching at the Whitney). Interaction between work and audience was essential to Oiticca’s aesthetic. And there’s no denying the electricity that passed between these objects and this viewer. These are the works I would most covet as a collector.

But Oiticica, I am sure, was not into ownership. (Although, as with every emerging artist, selling works meant surviving to create more works.) Politics first informed his work in Brazil, where he identified with society’s fringe and the underground. He transformed found objects into art (bólides), and created large-scale, immersive installations like “Éden” and “Tropicália,” in which clichés about Brazil (the tropical sandy beach that I trod on, for one) contrast sharply with that country’s hardscrabble reality. Within “Éden,” for example, are places for barefoot reflection; Oiticica called these “Nests.” Pull aside a plastic sheet, and there’s a mattress on which to recline and chill. Pull aside a gauze curtain, select a book or magazine from an overflowing trough and retire to a nook for a leisurely interlude.

Oiticica’s art is very much about breaking down barriers and connecting.

Another room attracts with its blaring samba music. Inside are a mirror and a rack of “parangolés”: brightly colored layered garments that reveal hidden inner political or poetical messages when put on and put into motion by dancing to the beat. Museumgoers are encouraged to choose something from the rack and boogie on down (not that I did). I’m surethis will be party central.

The exhibition generates sexual heat in the galleries devoted to Oiticica’s eight years in NYC, where he lived on Second Avenue opposite the Fillmore East and recorded city life on film and in stills. Here, too, he experimented with drugs, was involved in the gay community and wrote a great deal (poetry and prose). Jimi Hendrix was a favorite performer. But after eight years, he was burned out on New York—“I feel as if I’m in prison in this infernal island,” he wrote to a fellow Brazilian artist. Hereturned to Rio, and during the last two years of his life, enjoyed renewed artistic enthusiasm.

“Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium” succeeds in many ways: It introduces an artist who for many may have slipped under the radar. It utilizes the vast expanse, high ceilings and window walls of the Whitney’s fifth floor to the max. And, for those who knew the city in the 1970s, it brings back to life a particularly gritty and artistically productive era.

Good show, Whitney.

“Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium,” Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort St., 212.570.3600, www.whitney.org. On view July 14-Oct. 1, 2017.

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