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"Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Color:

The MFAH gets a Brazilian

In the 1960s and '70s, Hélio Oiticica was a major figure of the Brazilian avant-garde -- no mean feat, as in retrospect it seems avant-gardists were pretty thick on the ground. This is the country that created Brasília, that eerily futuristic, modernist city, and made it the capital in 1960. In 1980, at the age of 42, Oiticica died from a stroke, but his work has been steadily gaining international acclaim. "Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Color" will wrap up this Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It focuses on the artist's works from 1955 to 1969.

The exhibition was curated by Dr. Mari Carmen Ramírez, the Wortham Curator of Latin American Art and director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas at the MFAH. It is part of a "multiyear collaboration" with the Projeto Hélio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro, which involves documenting, conserving, publishing and exhibiting the artist's work. In addition to committing to two exhibitions of his art, the MFAH is publishing a seven-volume catalogue raisonné.

The current exhibition required the MFAH to restore huge numbers of Oiticica's works. This was a guy who refused to sell his art and gave only a few things away. (He was apparently well off enough to do this.) Around 95 percent of the work is owned by the Projeto Hélio Oiticica, which was established by the artist's family after his death. Imagine almost all the production of a 25-year career stockpiled together. Oiticica was a highly experimental artist, but he was also highly organized. His works were created in neat series -- a curator's dream -- and he was really anal about his record-keeping. Later works are titled and numbered not only by series but by type and number within series. He even labeled the paints he used for particular series. But in spite of the attention paid to his records, the artworks themselves needed considerable conservation. When an artist has that much stuff around, he tends not to be too precious with it. Imagine 25 years of grunge...

The Metaesquemas series still feels really fresh.
Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
The Metaesquemas series still feels really fresh.

There is a lot of complicated dialogue surrounding Oiticica's art, but at its core, the work in the show centers on explorations of color -- with and without form. His artistic production evolved from works on paper, to painted shapes in space, to containers of pure, optically lush pigment, to color as costume for the viewer to wear. The gouache-on-paper works of the artist's Metaesquemas series date from 1957-58, and they still feel really fresh; Oiticica painted geometric forms in solid blocks of dense, matte color. Their forms and their placement on the page are slightly wonky. The artist cleverly plays with negative space between the colored shapes, creating abstraction with a sense of hip energy.

For his Invenção series (1959-62), Oiticica created small square panels of solid color, from Malevich-esque white panels to vibrant, earthy reds. Oiticica experimented widely with pigment and binders. The oil-and-resin mixture used in the series gives the panels' surfaces a feeling of hard-won tactility, as if tremendous effort were required to brush each stroke onto the surface.

With Oiticica's Nuclei works, from 1960-63, the artist moved away from the wall and into space. Rectilinear panels of various sizes are suspended from the ceiling in Mondrian-like arrangements that could originally be walked between, but not in this exhibition. (Museums always take the fun away in order to preserve and protect the art, the exact thing Oiticica was reacting against.)

But it's in the Bólide series that color is at its most fundamental. Oiticica filled a basin with pigment and added rubber gloves viewers could don to sift through the chunks. (You can't do that here.) He created a yellow-orange box with sliding panels and a drawer filled with sulfurous yellow pigment. Viewers could originally play with that as well.

In his Parangoles (1964-68), Oiticica created what were essentially paintings for the viewer to wear. Viewers could swathe themselves in his amorphous "body filters," floppy layers of colored fabric. They do so in a video that plays on three giant screens in the exhibition. A samba drum track plays as dancers move around in Oiticica's constructions, encompassed by color. The video blows off the dusty museum-ness that coats the exhibition and shows Oiticica's work as joyous and liberating. (You can't touch the costumes, but the MFAH does have dancers don the clothing from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays.)

The series Topological Ready-Made Landscapes (1978-79) was created shortly before Oiticica's death. Several of these later works are included in this show, a glimpse into the artist's future. Oiticica found color in unlikely little objects. The most absurd but also most striking is a golden-yellow bottle of Johnson's Baby Shampoo. The teardrop-shaped bottle has been stripped of its label. Oiticica stretched a slender blue rubber band over it to create a diagonal line over the shape, adding a weird geometry to the shape. It's a casual act, and a 30-year-old bottle of shampoo that probably had to be "conserved" is an inherently silly thing, but there's something really beautiful about it. The object gives an insight into how Oiticica's mind worked, as he ignored the product, seeing only liquid color and form.

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