The Source of Growth and Change: Hélio Oiticica at Galerie Lelong
Hélio Oiticica: Spatial Relief and Drawings, 1955–59 at Galerie Lelong
November 3, 2018 to January 26, 2019
528 West 26th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, galerielelong.com
The Brazilian artist and activist Helio Oiticica (1937-1980) had a genius for turning settled commonplaces into startlingly stirring problematics. In his hands, the square and the diagonal prove sufficient means to create a world of thought-forms, orders or systems—and, indeed, polemics. A principle believed long settled comes into its own again, full of generative possibilities.
Although the exhibition of his early work at Galerie Lelong is decidedly uneven, to witness apprentice studio exercises alongside drop-dead perfect realizations is far more satisfying than the all-too frequent encounter, in a gallery or museum setting, of predictable examples of masterful production.
The exhibition centers on Oiticica’s emergence as an artist who was none the less soon to become fluent in the language of Neo-Concretism. Thanks to the Grupo Frente, and in particular the mentoring by Ivan Serpa, Oiticica and others, including Lygia Clark, he attained to an abstraction that picked up where Constructivism left off. Eager to reformulate assumptions of society though the potential inherent in combination and permutation of the one and the many, for Grupo Frente (which went from 1954-57) abstract art seemed the ideal means to posit and then to bring about dynamic change. The point would be to approach this modelling of human relations through an integrity of means.
Although certainly not the first time the implications of the square had been proposed Helio Oiticica reasserted it with high hopes and every aspiration to intelligent visual literacy. Metaesquema 212, 1957 and Sêco II, 1957, range between extremes of composition issuing from the square, and the square skewed: a diagonal orientation of the rhombus now activating the developing visual field with mobile relationships.
In a certain sense, this phase shows Oiticica to be an orthodox modernist, albeit while exercising his prerogatives to explore implications within a rigorous set of givens. The diagonal line drawn corner to corner within the square augments the form through its extra length in such a way as to become the source of growth and change. The constraints are not stultifying in Oiticica’s early works. But more expanded vocabulary does not necessarily help matters: and exercises in color to create an encyclopedia formal relationships (of red-plus-blue, in transparent, translucent and opaque stages within and without concentricity of circles crossing quadrilaterals) do seem still in parts. Some of these exercises remain practice pieces, especially when compared with Malevich’s exemplary axiomatic clarity or El Lissitzky’s Proun 99, 1924, at the Yale University Art Gallery, a work that “nailed it.”
The square and the diagonal are enough to create a world of thought forms, and through that, to posit and then inaugurate new ways of being and doing. Untitled, 1955, introducing a curve, is one way; another is through increased concreteness, as in Relevo Espacial, 1959-60, a hanging planar relief constructed of triangles the internal edges of which cause perceptual folds. And there is no one more gifted than Oiticica in enfolding relationships so that the in-between spaces restate the diagonal interstices in ways both sensible and intelligent. The concrete approaches to structuralist antimonies, then, are not just emergent, they compound the art in its productive energies.