Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Adrian Anagnost reviews Hélio Oiticica

Irene V. Small. Hélio Oiticica: Folding the Frame. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 304 pp.

Review by Adrian Anagnost

3 June 2016

Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica is a crucial figure for recent efforts to broaden art history's geographical scope. In Brazil during the late 1950s and 1960s, Oiticica reworked and expanded upon classical avant-garde modes such as the monochrome and the readymade. In the late 1960s and 1970s, his environments and performances participated in international conversations on the changing nature of artistic practice. As the first English-language monograph on this artist, Irene V. Small's Hélio Oiticica: Folding the Frame thus has a triple challenge: 1) to contextualize Oiticica's practice within mid-twentieth-century Brazilian art; 2) to analyze Oiticica's formal innovations in relation to the historical avant-gardes and a familiar Euro-American canon of postwar art; and 3) to propose a methodology for art history of the global contemporary.

Lavishly illustrated with color photographs, Small's book examines Oiticica's key bodies of work: geometric gouaches called Metaesquemas [Metaschemes], the Núclei hanging constructions and cabin-like Penetráveis [Penetrables] that made up environments like Tropicália, colorful and tactile assemblages called Bólides [Meteors], and sculptural performance garments called Parangolés [Hubbubs]. (Small omits Oiticica's 1970s “quasi­cinema” film environments, the subject of a 2013 book by Sabeth Buchmann and Max Jorge Hinderer Cruz.)

Small is wary of applying normative theories of modernism and the avant-garde to Brazil, a postcolonial context ambiguously positioned vis-à-vis the Western artistic and philosophical traditions. She thus proposes “folding the frame” as a formal and conceptual procedure that emerges from Oiticica's works themselves (p. 14). As a methodology, “folding the frame” is a sort of neoformalist social art history that insists upon the continued relevance of art qua art, while also recognizing that “the social is always already present in the production of perception within a situated space” (p. 14).

Small's discussion of Oiticica's Parangolés, fabric constructions used in participatory performances, exemplifies this approach. Judiciously deploying biographical detail and sensitively treating the relation of gender and sexuality to artistic form, Small analyzes the phenomenological experience of Parangolés in light of local social practices: Brazilian manifestations of Lenten Carnaval, spatial stratification by race and class, and protest of military dictatorship. Small similarly attends to local conditions in her discussion of Oiticica's Bólides, colorful and richly textured assemblages of raw and processed pigment and found objects. She examines them in light of the status of mass produced objects within Brazil's particular experience of industrialization, while also understanding the Bólides as part of a larger ecosystem of experiments with color and materiality in the interwar and postwar periods (those of Kazimir Malevich and Yves Klein), and as pointing the way to an emphasis on viewer over artist.

However, “the social” is more opaque in earlier chapters, those less tightly focused on Oiticica alone. For example, Small links the “spatial tensions” exhibited in multiplanar sculptures by Oiticica and fellow Neoconcrete artists Amilcar de Castro and Lygia Clark with problems of space and scale implicit in the rapid construction boom of 1950s Brazil. It is certainly believable that artistic approaches to relationships of bodies and architectonic forms evoke and critique the grandiose urbanism of the new capital city, Brasília, and the precarious architectures of informal settlements, favelas. Yet Small's juxtaposition of Brazilian politicians' emphasis on construction and Oiticica's working through of constructivist aesthetics offers pseudomorphic parallels between “the social” and the aesthetic rather than understanding “an artistic practice as part-and­parcel of the world at large” (p. 7). Moreover, Small's thematic approach collapses a large chronological span, from Oiticica's Núclei (1960) through Tropicália (1967) and Ready Constructible (1978–79), insufficiently accounting for dramatic changes in social context, art institutional infrastructure, and Oiticica's own practice over two decades.

This challenge is intrinsic to the material, which sits uneasily within Euro-American art historical paradigms and necessitates copious explanation for readers unfamiliar with Brazil. In response, Small draws on Walter Benjamin's materialist historiography and the Deleuzian fold to propose her “folding the frame” methodology, following Oiticica's model to “establish . . . the viewer and the work of art within a shared ecology of effects” (p. 12). Aptly, Small's book is at its best when it attends closely to the sensuous sociability of Oiticica's works themselves.