A samba school dancer; from the Portuguese word for “passos,” meaning “steps.”
Environmental Art, Postmodern Art, Hélio Oiticica
Mário Pedrosa: Primary Documents
Available for purchase at the MoMA Bookstore.
This 1966 essay is renowned for its early use of the term “postmodern.” Unlike later theorizations, the Brazilian critic Mário Pedrosa deploys the concept to discuss how immersive environments replace distanced visual perception in the artworks of Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark. New attention to the essay—where the text is interpreted as an alternate theoretical point of departure—has instigated a rethinking of the relationship between art and broader cultural shifts in the postwar period in Brazil and beyond.
Now that we have arrived at the end of what has been called “modern art,” inaugurated by Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and inspired by the (then) recent discovery of African art, criteria for appreciation are no longer the same as the ones established since then, based as they were on the Cubist experiment. By now, we have entered another cycle, one that is no longer purely artistic, but cultural, radically different from the preceding one and begun (shall we say?) by Pop art. I would call this new cycle of antiart “postmodern art.”
(In passing, let us say that, this time around, Brazil participates not as a modest follower, but as a leader. In many regards, the young exponents of the old Concretism and especially of Neoconcretism (as led by Lygia Clark) have foreshadowed the Op and even Pop art movements. Hélio Oiticica was the youngest of the group.)
In the apprenticeship phase and in the exercise of “modern art,” the natural virtuality, the extreme plasticity of perception of the new being explored by the artists was subordinated, disciplined, and contained by the exaltation and the hegemony of intrinsically formal values. Nowadays, in this phase of art in the situation of antiart, of “postmodern art,” the reverse takes place: formal values per se tend to be absorbed by the malleability of perceptive and situational structures. As a psychological phenomenon, it is perfectly clear that the malleability of perception increases under the influence of emotion and affective states. Like the classical modernists, today’s avant-garde artists do not avoid this influence and certainly do not seek it out deliberately, as did the romantic subjectivists of “abstract” “or lyrical” Expressionism.” Expressiveness in itself is of no interest to the contemporary avant-garde. On the contrary, it fears hermetic individual subjectivism most of all—hence the inherent objectivity of Pop and Op art (in the United States). Even the “new figuration” (in which the remains of subjectivism have aligned themselves) aspires above all else to narrate or to spread a collective message about myth and, when the message is an individual one, to use humor.
As early as 1959, when throughout the world the romantic vogue for Art Informel and tachisme predominated, the young Oiticica, indifferent to fashion, had given up painting in order to forge his first unusual, violently and frankly monochromatic object—or relief—in space. Having naturally broken away from the gratuitousness of formal values that are rare among today’s avant-garde artists, he remains faithful to those values in the structural rigor of his objects, the discipline of his forms, the sumptuousness of his color and material combinations—in short, for the purity of his creations. He wants everything to be beautiful, impeccably pure, and intractably precious, like a Matisse in the splendor of his art of “luxury, calm, and voluptuousness.” The Baudelaire of Flowers of Evil may be the distant godfather of this aristocratic adolescent who is a passista1 for the Mangueira2 [samba school]—albeit without the poéte maudit’s Christian sense of sin. His Concretist apprenticeship almost prevented him from reaching the vernal, ingenuous stage of the first experiment. His expression takes on an extremely individualist character and, at the same time, goes all the way to pure sensorial exaltation without, however, achieving the psychological threshold itself, where the transition to the image, to the sign, to emotion and to consciousness takes place. He cut this transition short. But his behavior suddenly changed: one day, he left his ivory tower—his studio—to become part of the Estação Primeira, where his painful and serious popular initiation took place at the foot of Mangueira Hill, a carioca myth. Even as he surrendered to a veritable rite of initiation, he nonetheless carried his unrepentant aesthetic nonconformity with him to the samba in the eternally hardcore spaces of Mangueira and environs.
He left at home the spatial reliefs and Núcleos [Nuclei], the continuation of an experiment with color he called Penetravél [Penetrable]—a construction in wood with sliding doors in which the subject might seclude himself inside color.
Color invaded him. He made physical contact with color; he pondered, touched, walked on, breathed color. As in Clark’s Bichos [Animals] experience, the spectator ceased to be a passive contemplator in order to become attracted to an action that lay within the artist’s cogitations rather than within the scope of his own conventional, everyday considerations, and participated in them, communicating through gesture and action. This is what the avant-garde artists of the world want nowadays and it is really the secret driving force behind “happenings.” The Núcleos are pierced structures, suspended panels of colored wood that trace a path beneath a quadrilateral, canopy-like ceiling. Color is no longer locked away; the surrounding space is aflame with violent yellow or orange color-substances that have been unloosed, seizing the environment and responding to one another in space, as flesh, too, is colored, and dresses and cloth are inflamed, and their reverberations touch things. The incandescent environment burns, the atmosphere is one of decorative over-refinement that is simultaneously aristocratic, slightly plebeian, and perverse. The violent color and light occasionally evoke van Gogh’s nocturnal billiards room, in which those colors that symbolized the “terrible passions of humanity”3 reverberated for him.
Oiticica called his art environmental. Indeed, that is what it is. Nothing about it is isolated. There is no single artwork that can be appreciated in itself, like a picture.
The sensorial perceptual whole dominates. Within it, the artist has created a “hierarchy of orders”—Relevos [Reliefs], Núcleos, Bólides4 (boxes), and capes, banners, tents (Parangolés)5 —“all directed toward the creation of an environmental world.” It was during his initiation in samba that the artist moved from the purity of visual experience to an experiment in touch, in movement, in the sensual fruition of materials in which the entire body—previously reduced in the distant aristocracy of visuality—makes its entrance as a total source of sensoriality. In the wooden boxes that open like pigeonholes from which an inner light hints at other impressions, opening up perspectives through movable panels, drawers that open to reveal earth or colored powder, etc., the transition from predominantly visual impressions to the domain of haptic or tactile ones becomes evident. The simultaneous contrast of colors moves on to successive contrasts of contact, of friction between solids and liquids, hot and cold, smooth and creased, rough and soft, porous and dense. Wrinkled colored mesh springs from within the boxes like entrails, drawers are filled with powders and then glass containers, the earliest of which contain reductions of color to pure pigment. A variety of materials succeed one another: crushed brick, red lead oxide, earth, pigments, plastic, mesh, coal, water, ani¬line, crushed seashells. Mirrors serve as bases for Nucléos or create further spatial dimensions within the boxes. Like artificial flowers, absurdly precious and lush yellow and green porous meshes emerge from the neck of a whimsically shaped bottle (of the type that belongs to a liqueur service) filled with transparent green liquid. It is an unconscious challenge to the refined taste of aesthetes. He has called this unusual decorative vase Homenagem a Mondrian Tribute to Mondrian. A flask sits upon a table amid boxes, glass containers, nuclei, and capes—a Louis XV-like pretense of luxury within a suburban interior. One of the most beautiful and astonishing boxes, its interior filled with variegated circumvolutions (meshes), is illuminated by neon light. There is enormous variety in these box and glass Bólides. No longer part of the macrocosm, everything now takes place inside these objects; it is as if they had been touched by some strange experience.
One might say that the artist transmits the message of rigor, luxury, and exaltation that vision once gave us into the occasionally gloved hands that grope and plunge into powder, into coal, into shells. Thus he has come full circle around the entire sensorial–tactile–motile spectrum. The ambiance is one of virtual, sensory saturation.
For the first time, the artist finds himself face to face with another reality—the world of awareness, of states of mind, the world of values. All things must now accommodate meaningful behavior. Indeed, the pure, raw sensorial totality so deliberately sought after and so decisively important to Oiticica’s art is finally exuded through transcendence into another environment. In it the artist—sensorial machine absolute—stumbles, vanquished by man, convulsively confined by the soiled passions of ego and the tragic dialectic of social encounter. The symbiosis of this extreme, radical aesthetic refinement therefore takes place with an extreme psychological radicalism that involves the entire personality. The Luciferian sin of aesthetic nonconformity and the individual sin of psychological nonconformity are fused. The mediator of this symbiosis of two Manichaean nonconformisms was the Mangueira samba school.
The expression of this absolute nonconformity is his "Homenagem a Cara de Cavalo” [Tribute to “Cara de Cavalo”], a veritable monument of authentically pathetic beauty in which formal values are finally not supreme. An open box without a lid, modestly covered by mesh that must be lifted to reveal the bottom, its inner walls are lined with reproductions of a photograph that appeared in the newspapers of the day; in them, [the outlaw] “Cara de Cavalo”6 appears lying on the ground, his face riddled with bullets, his arms open, as if crucified. What absorbs the artist here is emotional content, now unequivocally worded. In an earlier Bólide, thought and emotion had overflowed its (always-magnificent) decorative and sensorial carapace to become an explicit love poem hidden inside it upon a blue cushion. Beauty, sin, outrage, and love give this young man’s art an emphasis that is new to Brazilian art. There is no point in moral reprimands. If you are looking for a precedent, perhaps it is this: Hélio is the grandson of an anarchist.7
Originally published as “Arte ambiental, arte pós-moderna, Hélio Oiticica,” Correio da manhã (Rio de Janeiro), June 26, 1966.
Mário Pedrosa: Primary Documents is the latest volume in MoMA’s Primary Documents publication series, which is devoted to making source materials related to the visual arts of specific countries, historical moments, disciplines, and themes available to English-language readers for the first time. Mário Pedrosa is the first publication to provide comprehensive English translations of Pedrosa’s writings, which are indispensable to understanding Brazilian art of the twentieth century.
Grêmio Recreativo Escola de Samba Estação Primeira de Mangueira, founded in 1928 on Mangueira Hill in Rio de Janeiro.
Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, September 3, 1888, in Van Gogh: A Self-Portrait, Letters Revealing His Life as a Painter, ed. W.H. Auden (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1963), p. 319.
According to Oiticica, “BÓLIDES were not actually an inaugurated art form: they are the seed or, better yet, the egg of all future environmental projects.” Hélio Oiticica, O objeto na arte brasileira nos anos 60. Written in New York, December 5, 1977, for the catalogue O objeto na arte brasil nos anos 60 (São Paulo: Fundação Armando Alvares Penteado, 1978).
According to Hélio Oiticica, “The discovery of what I call ‘parangolé’ signals a crucial point and defines a specific position within the theoretical progression of all my experiments with color-structure in space, especially insofar as it refers to a new definition of what the ‘plastic object’ (or, in other words, the work) may be within this same experience. . . . The word here serves the same purpose it did for Schwitters, for example, who invented ‘Merz’ and its derivates (‘Merzbau’, etc.) to define a specifically experimental position [that is] basic to any theoretical or experiential comprehension of his entire work.” Helio Oiticica, “Bases fundamentais para uma definição do ‘Parangolé,’” Opinão 65 (Rio de Janeiro: Museu de Arte Moderna, 1965).
“I knew Cara de Cavalo personally and I can say he was my friend although—to society—he was public enemy number one, wanted for bold crimes and robberies—what perplexed me then was the contrast between what I knew of him as a friend, someone to whom I talked within the context of everyday life, as one might to anyone else, and the image created by society, or the way he behaved in society and any other place. This tribute is an anarchic attitude toward all kinds of armed forces: police, army, etc. I make protest poems (in capes and boxes) that have more of a social meaning, but this one (for Cara de Cavalo) reflects an important ethical moment that was decisive for me, because it reflects an individual outrage against every type of social conditioning. In other words: violence is justified as a means for revolt but never as a means of oppression.” In: Hélio Oiticica, “Material para catálogo” [Whitechapel Gallery, London, 1969], typescript, partially published in the exhibition catalogue for the artist’s show at London’s Whitechapel Gallery from February 25 to April 6, 1969. See also, by the author, O herói anti-herói e o anti-herói anônimo, March 25, 1968.
Hélio Oiticica’s grandfather, José Rodrigues Leite Oiticica was a philologist, poet, translator, and editor of the anarchist newspaper Ação direta. He lectured on Portuguese philology at the University of Hamburg in 1929. Hélio’s father, José Oiticica Filho, an engineer, professor, and photographer, received a Guggenheim Foundation grant in 1947, and worked at the United States National Museum-Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., in 1948.