Hélio Oiticica: Folding the Frame

Hélio Oiticica: Folding the Frame

by Irene V. Small

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Hélio Oiticica (1937–80) was one of the most brilliant Brazilian artists of the 1960s and 1970s. He was a forerunner of participatory art, and his melding of geometric abstraction and bodily engagement has influenced contemporary artists from Cildo Meireles and Ricardo Basbaum to Gabriel Orozco, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, and Olafur Eliasson. This book examines Oiticica’s impressive works against the backdrop of Brazil’s dramatic postwar push for modernization.

From Oiticica’s late 1950s experiments with painting and color to his mid-1960s wearable Parangolés, Small traces a series of artistic procedures that foreground the activation of the spectator. Analyzing works, propositions, and a wealth of archival material, she shows how Oiticica’s practice recast—in a sense “folded”—Brazil’s utopian vision of progress as well as the legacy of European constructive art. Ultimately, the book argues that the effectiveness of Oiticica’s participatory works stems not from a renunciation of art, but rather from their ability to produce epistemological models that reimagine the traditional boundaries between art and life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226260334
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/03/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 264
File size: 39 MB
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About the Author

Irene V. Small is assistant professor in the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University, where she is also an affiliated faculty member in the Program in Latin American Studies and the Program in Media and Modernity.

Read an Excerpt

Hélio Oiticica

Folding the Frame

By Irene V. Small

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-26033-4


The Folded and the Flat

What is inside is also outside.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This path may lie in the creation of special objects (non-objects) that occur outside all artistic convention and reaffirm art as the primary formulation of the world.

Ferreira Gullar

In Brazil in the late 1950s and early 1960s, some works of art were folded things. They displayed physical folds: pleats that drew space within them, creating inner cavities and hidden clefts, or bends that pressed flat planes into three-dimensional figures, cutting through space and organizing form against it. But their folded character was virtual as well: a free-floating notch seemingly displaced from a plane, a temporal twisting, a hinge between work and world.

Such folded works illustrate the article "Arte Neoconcreta Agora" (Neoconcrete Art Now), published by poet and critic Ferreira Gullar in the Suplemento Dominical do Jornal do Brasil on November 27, 1960 (fig. 1.1). At top, Gullar and Countess Maurina Pereira Carneiro examine a metal sculpture by Lygia Clark, the former touching the corner of the sculpture, his hand poised as if about to turn a giant page. The hinged and folded sheets of aluminum that comprise the sculpture — its "pages" — were meant to be turned. Turned, that is, and propped, flattened, swiveled, flipped, buckled, collapsed. Clark named this sculpture and its corresponding series a Bicho (animal, critter, or beast) because each work had a life of its own. Flip one "page" and the sculpture's entire form changes in response as its flat, polygonal shapes pivot into unexpected three-dimensional configurations. Turn it back, or attempt to, and an entirely new set of possibilities is disclosed. The Bicho's form reveals itself successively, one "page" after another in time. Yet its heterogeneous movements defy linearity. "It is a living organism, an essentially active work," wrote Clark. "When they ask me how many possibilities of movement [it has], I respond: 'I don't know, you don't know, but it knows.' The 'Bichos,'" she continued, "have no reverse side."

Pictured below Clark's sculpture is an untitled sculpture by Amílcar de Castro, likewise constructed from planes of folded metal. Unlike the Bicho, these rigid iron sheets cannot be manipulated. This work does not concern physical participation but rather the phenomenal experience of form in space: the consequences of a plane submitted to time and weight in order to fold; the apprehension of a shape that no longer has sides but, surfaces of interior and exterior extension. Space does not exist apart from form in de Castro's sculpture. It is created, squeezed out, and enveloped by the fold. The sculpture's generative aspect does not lie in its medium so much as in the way its materiality dynamizes and defamiliarizes spatial perception. In Gullar's words: "It is no longer a question of making a sculpture, of making a canvas, of making a poem, but of utilizing expressive instruments — whatever they might be — in order to give form to a new understanding of the world."

The illustration of de Castro's sculpture merely implies a viewer who produces such an understanding in concert with the work. But this viewer returns in the article's last photograph of two hanging works by Hélio Oiticica made from painted wooden plaques. In the background is a Relevo Espacial (Spatial Relief) (fig. 1.23), a folded, origami-like construction composed of two interpenetrating lozenges, and in the foreground, the artist's Bilateral Equali, an aggregate of five double-sided squares suspended so as to create rectilinear columns of air. In each work, subtle variations in painterly tone — red and orange in the first instance, white-on-white in the second — render surface and edge as a series of chromatic zones. This spatialized modulation of color compels viewers to circumambulate the work and occupy its spatial intervals. Integrating plane and periphery through the cessation or continuity of a given tone, viewers perceptually create and recreate the work's folds, activating its structure in kind.

As the photograph makes clear, Oiticica's hanging works have little use for frames. Frames enclose works of art from space, so designating their self- sufficiency. The folded forms and operations of these works depend upon space. In so doing, they enter into a dialogue, not simply with space but with everything space contains: the unordered world of real bodies, the chaotic realm of ordinary things. This, too, is visible in the picture. In seeking to capture the works' scale, their phenomenological solicitation of the viewer, and finally their peculiar status as neither painting nor sculpture but suspended spatial structure, the photographer has documented a host of contingencies: the gloss of the suspending wires, the wooden scaffolding of a poster board, the puckering of a viewer's shirt, the glint of an overhead light. Incidental to the work, such details are nevertheless pulled into its orbit in the process of encounter and documentation. The folds that turn these works back upon themselves, generating their reflexivity as autonomous aesthetic entities, then, are also the folds that dispel the distinctions between a given work's interior and exterior space. Here, self-same operations consistently give rise to difference rather than equivalency.

The occasion for these photographs was the 2° Exposição de Arte Neoconcreta (2nd Exhibition of Neoconcrete Art), which opened in Rio de Janeiro on November 21, 1960. At this exhibition, the budding movement of Neoconcretism demonstrated its vigor, having added several members to its ranks — Oiticica among them. Gullar emphasized that the Neonconcretists did not "constitute a 'group'" and that their works exceeded "any conventional classification of genre." Rather, their coherence stemmed from a shared investment in the work of art's capacity to activate spectators through emergent rather than predetermined perceptual phenomena. For Gullar, this established nothing short of a "new type of communication."

What might such a "new type of communication" have meant in Brazil circa 1960? A type of communication reported in a newspaper, itself a vehicle for communication, and announced by a writer — Gullar — pictured within his article as an ideal viewer and thus coproducer of the Neoconcrete work? Between 1956 and 1961, Brazil's most advanced modern art and poetry were divulged, theorized, and debated in the pages of the Suplemento Dominical do Jornal do Brasil, the Sunday supplement of the Rio-based daily Jornal do Brasil. Gullar was an art critic for the supplement and principal theorist of the Neoconcrete movement. The countess was director and president of the Jornal do Brasil, and it was her initiative that had brought the Suplemento Dominical into being in 1956. The photograph of the two with Clark's Bicho at the top of the article "Arte Neoconcreta Agora" thus sets forth a complex chain of associations between readers and writers, artworks and pages, patrons and spectators, observers and users. Such a relay situates the embodied encounter described within the bounds of the article vis-à-vis the embodied encounter that occurs beyond it — in the space of information transfer typified by the newspaper itself.

This space, too, is conditioned by folds. Folds that collapse a newspaper's textual density into an object, that are reversed when its pages are extended on a plane, that are reiterated and reconfigured by readers in the process of navigating the newspaper's content. Indeed, it would be tempting to suggest that these dual instances of folding — the folded artwork and the folded pages of the newspaper — are isomorphic in character. Such a one-to-one correspondence would posit the work of art as a self-contained model for a social practice writ large. Yet the newspaper and the Neoconcrete work approach communication and a host of attendant terms — information, fact, message, knowledge — through radically different means. While the prototypical form of the newspaper is folded, for example, its informational content is legible only when it establishes a readerly zone that is flat. This zone may consist of a full two-page spread or a single column isolated by a reader by means of multiple folds. In either case, folding is a means of delivering flatness. But it is flatness that is the newspaper's privileged communicative state.

By contrast, the Neoconcrete work conveys no content save the spatial and chromatic relations produced in the process of its perception. It does not transmit preexisting information as much as it provides the conditions for informational construction within a situated time and space. Like the newspaper, it becomes a communicative entity by virtue of its folds. But we might say that it mobilizes the newspaper's medium rather than its message, isolating that interval in which content is suspended in favor of the independent materiality of the page. Refusing to reference or illustrate the world, the Neoconcrete work nevertheless establishes a coterminous relationship with it in time and space. The "new type of communication" lauded by Gullar is therefore one positioned in contradistinction to that of the newspaper, but plied from the very caesuras by which a newspaper's communication takes shape.

This chapter charts the emergence of two communicative modes — "the folded" and "the flat" — that were operative within works and discourses of Brazilian geometric abstraction between 1956 and 1961 and that shape the aesthetic field through which Oiticica conceived of his first mature works. This period coincides with the split of the Concrete artists and poets of Rio from those of São Paulo following the 1° Exposição Nacional de Arte Concreta (1st National Exhibition of Concrete Art), which opened in São Paulo in December 1956 and traveled to Rio in February 1957. It also coincides with the complete run of the Suplemento Dominical, which published key polemics leading to the rupture and served as the discursive vehicle for the new movement of Neoconcretism to establish its theoretical claims (fig. 1.2).

The break between the two groups has long been narrated as a difference in sensibility: between Concrete rationality and Neoconcrete intuition. First advanced in contemporaneous polemics but repeated ad infinitum in later accounts, this explanation appeals to long-standing, if highly clichéd, tensions between residents of the two cities. In its sheer simplicity, it has consolidated putatively coherent historical movements while ignoring the fluidity of identification and divergence. While this regionalist narrative is insufficient as a causal explanation for the distinctions between Concretism and Neoconcretism, we must nevertheless take seriously the imperative to become distinct to comprehend the historical import of the works in question. As Brazilian critic Ronaldo Brito argued in his pioneering 1975 analysis, Neoconcretism staked its significance on a negation or supersession of Concretism in largely art historical terms. Yet in so doing, Neoconcretism crystallized the limits of the claim to universality upheld by Concrete movements in Brazil and elsewhere. By refusing to acknowledge either rupture or contradiction (for them, the Neoconcretists were simply "disoriented" Concretists), the Concretists held on to this universalist fiction, even as it butted up against the local specificities of Brazil.

Such misalignments between universality and place are not surprising, as Concretism was itself something of a phantasm in the postwar period. Although its name derives from an eponymous 1930 manifesto by Theo van Doesburg that outlines a rigorously anti-representational, anti-naturalistic basis for painting, its implications in Brazil were tightly bound to articulations popularized by Swiss artist Max Bill and Argentine artist, theorist, and designer Tomás Maldonado in the 1940s and 1950s. Trained at the Bauhaus in the late 1920s, Bill was associated with avant-garde figures such as Piet Mondrian and Jean Arp in the 1930s. In the postwar period, he fashioned himself as the principal disseminator of Concrete art in the international sphere. Through publications, exhibitions, and at the Hochschule für Gestaltung — an institute of design he cofounded in 1953 in Ulm, Germany — Bill promoted a systematic, mathematical art that, lacking the radicalism of earlier avant-gardes, was nevertheless utopian and universalizing in its aspirations. In 1950, the newly inaugurated Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) staged a retrospective of Bill's work. The following year, his sculpture Tripartite Unity won the international prize at the 1st São Paulo Bienal. In 1953 he returned to Brazil to give highly publicized lectures in Rio and São Paulo on art, architecture, and design.

For his part, Maldonado was a leading protagonist in the development of geometric abstraction in 1940s Argentina. There, artists radicalized notions of "Constructive Universalism" and "invention" formulated by the Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-García. Having been active in Parisian avant-garde circles in the 1920s, Torres-García returned to Latin America in 1934 in order to launch his Escuela del Sur (School of the South), which aimed to synthesize modernist and indigenous abstraction. In 1953, the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro (MAM-RJ) showcased an exhibition of Argentine painters, several of whom, like Maldonado, now self-identified as Concretists. That year, Brazilians Décio Pignatari and Waldemar Cordeiro met several of these artists when they passed through Buenos Aires on their way to Santiago de Chile to attend a congress on Latin American culture. There Pignatari, Cordeiro, and Maldonado all vigorously rejected the Communist Party's advocacy of socialist realism. Maldonado, who soon departed to begin teaching at the Hochschule für Gestaltung, published a multilingual monograph on Bill in 1955, key sections of which were published in Brazil by the Suplemento Dominical. Bill's and Maldonado's formulations of Concretism and the broader legacy of constructive art thus provided a template upon which Brazilian artists could both model and distinguish their theoretical practice and work. To suppose a purely regional basis for the Concrete-Neoconcrete split is therefore to suppress a host of historiographic maneuvers by which the Concrete idiom was itself instrumentalized as a universal and portable method and style.

This chapter triangulates Brazilian Concretism and Neoconcretism by way of the formal and ideological entity of the newspaper. In so doing, it yields an account that differs from both a regionalist narrative that naturalizes aesthetic and discursive differentiation and a totalizing modernism that subsumes such differentiation within a single art-historical chain. In this alternate account, qualitative differences in approaches to communication between the Concretists and Neoconcretists do not chart fully actualized positions so much as aspirations or tendencies involving the capacities of communicative exchange. In this sense, Neoconcretism did not break with Concretism — it assimilated and transformed Concretism's strategies of flatness into folding. Insomuch as Concretism could only strive towards flatness as an ideal communicative state, Neoconcrete folding mobilized Concretism's vulnerabilities and failures toward aesthetic ends.

In their various formulations, both groups subscribed to a basic notion of the work of art as a container or catalyst for aesthetic information communicated to the viewer over the course of the perceptual encounter. The Concrete paradigm conceived of the success of this communication in terms of the equivalence of the information sent and received. It sought ways to minimize the "noise" of the perceptual process in order to maximize the fidelity of an artistic message or idea. Concretism likewise sought to integrate art and industry by producing visual prototypes that were metaphoric if not fully pragmatic in orientation. Conceiving of the work of art as a transparent and transferable vehicle of visual information, it exploited such techniques as bounded compositional fields, neutral pictorial spaces, simple graphic marks, and strong Gestalt forms in order to produce objects and images optimized for perceptual speed and legibility. In contrast, Neoconcretism dilated the process of perception. It approached information in terms of its variability and instability, its proclivity to break apart rather than cohere. It further asserted the autonomy of artistic expression. Insisting on the phenomenological duration and particularity of the viewing experience, its practitioners experimented with procedures such as folding in order to open the work of art into dialogue with its surrounds. The transmutation of Concrete flatness into Neoconcrete folding thus has at its fulcrum the use of information, for if information fails to cohere into a message, it does little more than call attention to perception's procedures rather than its aims.


Excerpted from Hélio Oiticica by Irene V. Small. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Note on the Text

1. The Folded and the Flat
2. The Cell and the Plan
3. Ready-Constructible Color
4. What a Body Can Do


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