Hélio Oiticica. The Body of Color
Mónica Amor

“When color is no longer tied to the rectangle, nor to any representation on this rectangle, it tends to embody itself; it becomes temporal, creates its own structure, so the work becomes the ‘body of color.’” (Hélio Oiticica)

In the late fifties, Hélio Oiticica embarked on a meticulous exploration of form and space that took him from the bi-dimensional plane of painting to the real space of the viewer. Following studies with geometric shapes of concrete painting in works on paper that he called Metaesquemas (Metaschemes), in which he attempted to produce visual dynamism through the tilting and doublings of shapes, Oiticica turned his attention to the monochrome. In small, unframed, quadrangular paintings named Invenções (Inventions), initiated in 1959 and produced shortly after the realization of a series of white paintings, the artist set out to investigate what he called “embodied color”. The small format (thirty centimeters square) and scattered distribution of these works on the wall, as well as their wooden supports which included backings that offset them away from the wall, led to a dispersion of color that Oiticica associated with the temporal apprehension of the work. A year later, he wrote that when “color is no longer tied to the rectangle, nor to any representation on this rectangle, it tends to embody itself; it becomes temporal, creates its own structure, so the work becomes the ‘body of color.’”1  1 Hélio Oiticica, “5 de outubro de 1960,” in Aspiro ao grande labirinto, 17.

Hélio Oiticica, Metaesquema, 1957. Daros Latinamerica Collection, Zürich

Indeed, that same year Oiticica devoted himself to developing a body of work known as Relevos espaciais (Spatial Reliefs). Brightly painted in reds and yellows applied with a spray gun, the works consist of rectilinear shapes based on a combination of triangular and quadrilateral panels, layered wooden boards whose gaps, nooks, and crannies reconfigure the support and disturb the viewer’s habitual perception of painting. The Relevos hung from the ceiling and fully embraced architectural space, thus exploiting the intermedial potential of relief. On the one hand, this is exemplary for the influence of geometric abstraction as set forth by Tatlin, which inspired Brazilian art in the late fifties. On the other hand, it constitutes an instance of the concept of the non-object mobilized by the critic and poet Ferreira Gullar, who wrote in support of the neo-concretist artists, including the young Oiticica.

Hélio Oiticica, Relevo espacial, 1959-60. Daros Latinamerica Collection, Zürich

In these works, layers and gaps open up the surface of the support as if revealing the fictitious nature of the pictorial plane—an inquiry that Oiticica had dealt with in direct interaction with the work of Lygia Clark, another neo-concrete artist who was also parting with the notion of medium specificity as it had been elaborated by Van Doesburg in 1930.2  2 The 1930 concrete manifesto stated: “The picture must be entirely constructed from purely plastic elements, that is, planes and colors. A pictorial element has no other meaning than ‘itself’ and thus the picture has no other meaning than ‘itself.’” (O. G.) Carlsund, (Theo van) Doesburg, (J.) Hélion, (L.) Tutundjian, and (M.) Wantz, “Base de la Peinture Concrète,” Art Concret (Paris), no. 1 (April 1930): 1; reprinted in The Tradition of Constructivism, ed. Stephen Bann (New York: Da Capo Press, 1974), 193. Oiticica’s works produced between 1959 and 1960 were neither painting nor sculpture; they rather complied with the intermedial condition of the non-object defined by Gullar—after an abandonment of the frame and the base in the works of the artists he was supporting at the time, and in a dialog with phenomenology—as a first apparition At the same time, these works approached the status of ordinary objects and rejected the space of representation. As Oiticica wrote in 1960: “When the plane of the canvas began to function actively, a sense of time had to emerge as the principal new factor of non-representation. Thus the concept of the non-object was born, a term invented and explained by Ferreira Gullar, and one more appropriate than picture, given that the structure was no longer unilateral (as in painting) but multidimensional.”3  3 Hélio Oiticica, “Côr, tempo e estrutura,” in Suplemento Dominical do Jornal do Brasil, November 26, 1960, 5.

Hélio Oiticica, B23 Glass Bólide 11 - Gemini, 1965. Daros Latinamerica Collection, Zürich

In 1963, Oiticica initiated a series of works entitled Bólides, painted boxes with compartments and sliding doors that incorporated materials such as pebbles, mirrors, and pieces of mesh fabric but also included glass vessels and bottles that contained shells, pigments, and colored liquids. These Bólides testify to his continuing engagement with the issues delineated in his own prolific writings, in those of the artist Lygia Clark, and in the writings of the critics Mario Pedrosa and Ferreira Gullar. What remained important to Oiticica was the “first intention” of the work.

Hélio Oiticica with Bólide B11 Box Bolide 09, 1964. Photo Claudio Oiticica, © César and Claudio Oiticica

The appropriated objects, here glass bottles and pigments, become part of the overall work: they are not to be perceived as individual parts but as an integrated phenomenon that should be “direct.” The phenomenological reduction proposed in the “Manifiesto Neoconcreto” presupposes the experience of astonishment and, by the same token, defamiliarization. According to these principles, the reapprehension of the objects and materials employed in these works produced a “relation … that transforms what was already known into new knowledge.”4  4 “Uma relação que torna o que era conhecido num novo conhecimento.” Ibid., 66. A similar concept, that of estrangement, would become increasingly important in Oiticica’s work. See “Ivan Cardoso entrevista Hélio Oiticica,” in R. F. Lucchetti and Ivan Cardoso, Ivampirismo: O cinema em pânico (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Brasil-America and Fundação do Cinema Brasileiro, 1979), 74. The remainder, that which we do not know, are those aspects of the work that are left open to the imagination. Acknowledging Gullar’s efforts to rethink the art object through the non-object, Oiticica described these dynamic processes as “transobjectivity” and the work of art as an ideal “transobject.”5  5 Hélio Oiticica, “Bólides” (October 29, 1963), in Aspiro ao grande labirinto, 66. In 1960 Lygia Clark recalled that Pedrosa proposed the term transobject as an alternative to non-object. To the critic, non-object denied the form that conveyed the sensuousness of the object; transobject, according to Clark, suggested not a negation of form but a transcendence of it that departs from the object. See Lygia Clark, Diario-2, Folder 1960-4, Archives of the Associação Cultural “O Mundo de Lygia Clark,” Rio de Janiero.

Mónica Amor, 2017 Mónica Amor is Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, USA.