Arto Lindsay Remembers Hélio Oiticica

The guitarist of the No Wave band DNA talks about the 1970s in Downtown New York and his friend Hélio Oiticica, whose retrospective is now at the Whitney Museum.

Hélio Oiticica in front of a poster for Neil Simon’s play “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” in Midtown Manhattan, 1972 (© César and Claudio Oiticica)

Arto Lindsay, musician, artist, member of DNA and The Ambitious Lovers, is a singular voice in culture. He has collaborated with numerous artists over the past four decades, including Vito Acconci, Laurie Anderson, Animal Collective, Matthew Barney, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Caetano Veloso and Rirkrit Tiravanija. He also knew the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica, whose retrospective Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium, is currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Lindsay lived for many years of his childhood with his missionary parents in Brazil, where he gained a deep appreciation of Brazilian culture as well as Tropicália (Tropicalism), an artistic movement, especially in music, that merged Brazilian styles with cross-cultural influences, such as African rhythms.

In To Organize Delirium, Lindsay’s voice can be heard over headsets as he reads several of Oiticica’s writings from his years living in New York City, from 1970-1978. This fall, Lindsay will carry out a series of events at the Whitney in conjunction with the retrospective in a project called Myth Astray.

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Cora Fisher: I’m a huge admirer of Oiticica’s work. I saw the Cosmococas when I was a teenager and my mind was blown. And now there’s this show at the Whitney, To Organize Delirium, and I thought it would be such a nice chance to reconnect with you and get a first-hand account of his work and life. How and where did you meet him?

Arto Lindsay: I met Hélio through a guy called Waly Salomão, a Brazilian poet and lyricist who lived in New York. By chance we became roommates. Waly was a close friend of Hélio’s. Through Hélio I met other Brazilian artists and intellectuals who were coming through New York, including the filmmaker Julio Bressane; Neville de Almeida, the guy who did the Cosmocacas with Hélio;  and Ivan Cardoso, another filmmaker. I grew up in Brazil and I was surrounded by Brazilian popular culture, which was full of all kinds of artistic information. This was particularly true of Tropicalism, but I didn’t really realize the implications of it when I was a teenager. But as soon as I moved to the States from Brazil I started digging into this stuff and learning more about it.

Hélio was a completely fascinating guy. I got a chance to hang out with him a bit. He actually came to an early DNA show. To a young guy newly arrived in New York, the way that Hélio lived was really interesting. He took his Nests and installed them where he lived. These were inhabitable sculptures that were first shown in the US in the exhibition Information in 1970 at the Museum of Modern Art. When I knew him he lived on Christopher Street and he had reinstalled these Nests in this small apartment. He always had lots happening at the same time: the TV on, a record playing, the radio on and he was often on the phone while talking to whoever he was with — this constant buzz.

Miguel Rio Branco, “Babylonests” (1971), digital projection, dimensions variable (courtesy César and Claudio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro)

I remember he was taking these pictures of Ivan Cardoso’s girlfriend Helena. They were beautiful photographs, slides, lit the way those photos of young boys in his bed were. And he was also working on maquettes for public sculptures, one of which was eventually built at Inhotim, which is a big art park in Brazil. It’s a mining magnate’s collection of art with pavilions dedicated to specific artists. Inhotim is, as we say in Portuguese, pharoaonic. Matthew Barney, Dominique Gonzalez Forrester, Adriana Vareijao, Miguel Rio Branco, Rivanne Neuenschwander Anish Kapoor, Tunga. All these artists and others have individual pavilions. And these are all out in the middle of the countryside set off from each other by wild vegetation or ornate gardens. Bernardo Paz, who built and owns Inhotim, was close to modernist landscape designer Burle Marx and he collected plants before he collected art. Inhotim built one of sculptures that I saw Hélio planning, with geometric slabs, maybe ten feet tall, colored slabs of concrete. There is also a pavilion with several of his Cosmococas.

I was trying hard to learn as much as I could about art history at that point and trying to fit together his really abstract work, his performances and what we now call installations. I heard that he was a Samba dancer, that he had learned how to samba as an adult and that the other Samba people took him seriously. And gradually I got some notion of his trajectory, where he started and where he ended up.

During the 90s he was such a big deal here in Brazil, before he was discovered outside of Brazil and before he was given the importance that he eventually was given. He was a huge influence on several generations that came after him, in terms of investigating the fact of being Brazilian, in terms of audience participation, of a different way of seeing art and life and how they can connect to each other. Of course there is a kind of basic 20th century idea about the connection between art and life, but he had his own really strong take on that. He was such an interesting theorizer — not exactly theoretician — he was constantly writing stuff, both manifesto style and critically about his own work.

Last night actually Hélio would’ve been 80.

CF: It’s special that he would’ve been 80 yesterday. So when you were in New York in the 70s did you feel that his work was connected to other downtown artists at the time, or did you see him occupying his own cosmology?

AL: I really felt that he was an extremely contemporary artist. I started college in 1970 and I was really excited by reading about Vito Acconci, Yvonne Rainer, and a whole generation of people. I got a chance to see some of it in New York when I first moved up. I didn’t really think of him as being distinctly different. Obviously, he was Brazilian, but it just seemed like people put themselves into their work. It didn’t strike me as being of a different strain. He had a close relationship with music. The musical movement called Tropicalism was named after one of his environments. Musicians Caetano [Veloso] and  [Gilberto] Gil, who didn’t know his work heard about him when somebody said, “Hey, you should call your movement this.” And they said, “I don’t think so, we shouldn’t take somebody’s name, somebody’s title.” But then a journalist started to call their work by that name and it took off.

One of Hélio’s best-known aphorisms is — O que faço é music/What I make is music.

Installation view of “Tropicália, 1966-67,” plants, sand, birds, poems by Roberta Camila Salgado on bricks, tiles and vinyl squares. Collection of César and Claudio Oiticica (photo by Matt Casarella)

CF: From what I gather, Tropicalism is something both super-authentic, representing the counterculture of a certain period, and also kind of kitschy at the same time. Can you speak to what Tropicalism might have meant for Hélio as a Brazilian living in New York?

AL: I think he was trying to counter the way that Brazil was exoticized. And the musical Tropicalists were super-aware of Brazil having been exoticized and at the same time they were kind of reclaiming the right to the territory that was considered kitschy by other people. The Carmen Miranda image had been sold all over the world but it was rejected in Brazil. The Tropicalists were saying, “But there’s so much good that’s good there.” At the time there was a really strong cultural lobby, a leftist anti-imperialist lobby that identified culture from outside of Brazil as a form of imperialism. Basically, it was a back-to-the-roots movement by a bunch of white kids enshrining Samba from black people in the favelas or folk music from northeastern Brazil as the only possible authentic Brazilian music.

This wasn’t coming from musicians themselves, this was coming from the politically correct Leftist student movement, which of course, was the main vehicle of resistance and it had plenty going for it, but did have this culturally oppressive attitude. The Tropicalists deliberately went against that, and eventually Hélio did too, though he started from a different place. He became quite close to Caetano and to Gil. And he was a music freak. He was completely in love with Mick Jagger. There were always…two sides to Hélio’s thinking and living: the hyper-rational and then this idea of the Dionysian, the Nietzschean, which was so important to the Brazilian counterculture.

Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida, “CC5 Hendrix-War” (1973), installation view, Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis, 2010 – 2011, slide series, hammocks, and soundtrack. César and Claudio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro and Neville D’Almeida (© César and Claudio Oiticica, and Neville D’Almeida)

Also Hélio was gay, and coming from a traditional Brazilian background this wasn’t easy. Being involved in the favelas and Samba was a revelation. It was a big deal for him in many ways, including sexually. I think that for him to come to the States was a relief. Remember that at the time New York and San Francisco still were the only places in the States with openly gay communities. People came from all over to the West Village;  there was that strongly specific economy there.  I think it was really important to him.

CF: What else stood out to you about Hélio’s experience of New York?

AL: I know that he was really interested in some of the Warhol Superstars. It’s important to remember where these ‘60s and ‘70s guys came from, what they had to make their way through to become who they became, and what they saw around them as being culturally significant. Apparently to Hélio, drag queen superstars seem to have been the most meaningful thing about Warhol. To those of us who lived on the Lower East Side, they were truly emblematic figures; these super-loud, super-aggressive Puerto Rican drag queens really ruled. They represented a kind of freedom and beauty and a kind of boundary-pushing to me and to my friends, too.

You know that really beautiful photo — I don’t know if it’s in the show — of Hélio painting Waly’s face an unbelievably bright red? That picture’s actually taken by Eduardo Viveiro de Castro, who’s an important anthropologist. South American Indian Cosmology is his thing. He happened to be really good friends with Ivan Cardoso, and Hélio was in some of Ivan’s movies, and de Castro ended up taking these great pictures of Hélio at that time.

Hélio sold work when he lived in Brazil but when he lived in New York he didn’t make any money from his art at all. He was always talking about leaving the art world and not being interested in it anymore and finding different ways to make his work.  He was trying to find some kind of crease or some kind of place between art and life.

Hélio Oiticica, “P15 Parangolé Cape 11, I Embody Revolt (P15 Parangolé Capa 11, Eu Incorporo a Revolta)” worn by Nildo of Mangueira, 1967 (courtesy César and Claudio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro. © César and Claudio Oiticica. Photo by Claudio Oiticica)

CF: I loved that the show gives some insight into his New York period. There’s this amazing photograph of Hélio and Romero on the subway and they’re putting on the Parangolés [Oiticica’s wearable fabric artworks] and other people start jumping in. There’s something so inclusive and amazing about that moment in terms of that connection between art and life. In Brazil he was going to the favelas, learning Samba and that texture of his work really comes out in the Parangolés. For me those pieces are some of the most exhilarating because they come alive. It’s the dance and the Samba and the accidental meeting on the street.

Were Oiticica’s Parangolés important to you? I think about the parades that you’ve been organizing….

AL: Absolutely. Maybe in a different way. Even back in DNA, I wanted to make something that could work in more than one way at once, as opposed to kind of meshing into a third transcendent form. It’s more about going back and forth between music and art, performance and poetry, art and life, I guess. When we made DNA, I really thought you could look at DNA the way you could look at a piece by Yvonne Rainer or a performance by an artist: gesture, rhythm, confrontation. You could see a kind of structure up against a totally unstructured or spontaneous or organic behavior. You could set up all kinds of conflict.

CF: It’s helpful to hear you talk about music and art not as binary or dialectical or transcendent but polyvalent, androgynous — offering many different outcomes. This openness that Hélio had, how does it relate to Brazilian class-consciousness?

AL: There’s two ways you can look at it. One way is you can say it’s a result of the possibilities presented by a post-slavery culture. When you have a lot of people with a lot of time on their hands, whose labor isn’t worth hardly anything to them, then the ways they find to express themselves in this oppressive situation give rise to this openness. You can see this as a result of the way things are in Brazil. Or, you can look at it the other way and you can say that this is an attempt to inject spontaneity and a more direct relation to physicality into a hide bound, bourgeois, white upper-class culture. So you have both things. That’s the nature of Brazil — and I guess you could say of a lot of places — that oppressive conditions give rise to transforming cultural practices. They require them! And Brazil is such a paradoxical place. It’s got its own set of behaviors that came about because of, or in opposition to, these awful conditions. Famously, Brazilians get along. They’re warm. They’re friendly, as opposed to South Africans or North Americans No legal segregation. No apartheid. But they’re equally racist. It’s just two ways of dealing with the same thing — being absolutely rigid about something or pretending it’s not happening. Obviously the United States and Brazil are so similar and so different in the way they deal with this legacy of slavery.

Installation view of “Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium” (2017), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. From left to right: Nests, 1969-74; Topázion-flor dedicated to Haroldo de Campos, March 20, 1975 (photo by Ron Amstutz)

CF: So let’s talk a little bit about the text you were reading in the exhibition. What was it and did it strike you as musical? Was it exciting?

AL: Hélio’s writing is super-interesting in the way that he can shift quickly from  theoretical writing to a rant. There’s got to be a great campy word for this kind of rant… telling people off and making a performance of what you’re saying. He could shift beautifully from inaugurating a new art form to railing against some other artist that he thinks is a fool or getting all excited about Mick Jagger as his — and the world’s — object of desire. So, there’s that in his writing.

There’s one thing about Hélio’s writing that always strikes me as similar to Vito Acconci’s and that of other artists from the ‘60s: they’re not really manifestos but they’re written in the style of manifestos. Every text kind of establishes a new point of view, defines new terms. And this is completely out of fashion, by the way. Most artists now use language in a way that’s completely different. It’s tough to get that flavor, and Hélio’s work still really attracts me. I like that kind of freshness.

You know Hélio was close to the Brazilian Concrete poets and the notion of the visuality of language and how to deal with that was super-current in the ‘50s and ‘60s, from the Concrete poets to Brion Gysin to William Burroughs to Carl Andre, Vito Acconci, and Lawrence Weiner. You can think of a million things. Some of the things I read [in the exhibition] were from these notebooks of his. Words are splayed out across the page; there might be a drawing in the midst of the writing. Mallarmé was important to the Concrete poets in how you arrange the words on the page.

CF: Do you think his writing had to do with, not only the Modernist history of Concrete poetry, but also this new buzzing information — you said you went into his apartment and there would be the radio on and the TV and  10 things going at once — that lent itself to a kind of free association?

AL: Yeah, it was kind of like a proto-internet: a buzz of information.

CF: So did you find revisiting Hélio’s texts and his work inspiring in a new way?

AL: I did. Of course I noticed some of the tics of the period. Very post-Joyce, very portmanteau, where you build these giant words out of various words, there’s a lot of that in there. That’s something that I wish would come back into fashion. And I really enjoyed the descriptions of cocaine because there’s so much humor there. Hélio was really funny as a person. He had this kind of Vincent Price laugh, very self-consciously pseudo-evil. He used to really enjoy it. He obviously knew he was a very brilliant and complex guy. There is an often overlooked, delicate side to his work, too.

In the early ‘90s I visited an apartment in Rio where all his work was stored.  A close friend of his called Luciano Figueiredo took care of the work when nobody cared or gave it any value because he wasn’t really a marketable artist. Later, I visited the Hélio Oiticica Foundation, which Rio set up and where the estate was housed for a while. I got a chance to look at flat files full of his stuff, none of it behind glass. That’s when I really started to understand his work. I was always struck by how psychedelic some of the early geometric work was. At the time, Brazilian geometric art was influenced by [Victor] Vassarely, who was considered cheesy in Europe and the United States. There was an oddly Op art flavor to it. But in Brazil there was no such filter. Or there were different filters. And this was before Hélio got high. It was just from the way he got so deep into the materials and ideas he was working on.

Installation view of “Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium” (2017), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (photo by Matt Casarella)

And I particularly love the Bolides, which are sculptures with pigment that he made himself. I love that they’re perishable. He made these things out of wood and pigment and hardware store materials. There was no notion of them lasting forever and I think that’s important. And I think people don’t emphasize that enough. To make something that will rot is a statement.

CF: But there is a notion of preservation now.

AL: That’s always been there. And that’s cool, it’s important. Different approaches.

Hélio Oiticica, “B11 Box Bólide 9 (B11 Bólide caixa 9)” at Rua Engenheiro Alfredo Duarte, Rio de Janeiro, 1964, oil with polyvinyl acetate emulsion on wood and glass, pigment, 19 5/8 x 19 11/16 x 13 3/8 inches, Tate, London; purchased with assistance from the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, Tate Members and the Art Fund, 1970 (photo by Desdémone Bardin)

CF: What do you think is the most fragile aspect of Oiticica’s work? And what do you think is the most durable?

AL: Well I would say that the most durable is maybe the most ephemeral in the sense that it’s about behavior, fitting our body up to these ideas. I don’t know what I would say the most fragile is. I guess to be really historically specific when you try to understand them, like his famous installations, long before people made installations. I remember people looking at his work and saying,  “Well, Marcel Broodthaers did that.” And I’m like, “Yes and no.” It’s not really the same thing; it’s not really the same idea. Tropicália, it has such an edge. When you go inside those shack structures you see something really dark and sad, like a TV between channels, you know it was meant as a repudiation of the way people understood Brazil. At the same time, it’s kind of an endorsement of the shacks’ open, almost casual, asymmetrical, hand-built architecture.

I still don’t know what I would say is the most fragile aspect. His work is super-romantic, as is all of Modernism. Homage to Cara-de-Cavalo (1965), which is in the show, contains a photograph of a guy he knew, a guy who was killed by the police. It says, “Seja Marginal Sea Heroi” — “Be Marginal, Be a Hero.” Marginal in Brazil means outside the law. So there’s that aspect which is so easily misunderstood. It’s similar to our fascination with the Red Army Faction in the ‘70s, with the terrorists. It’s romanticism taken to an indefensible conclusion.

CF: So the fragility may be most keenly felt in the historical context?

AL: I guess. I don’t really have a good answer for that because right now it seems so strong and necessary. Some of the art/life stuff maybe seems simplistic in hindsight, because he kind of just harped on it, proclaimed it. He didn’t really have a chance to go further with it because he died. An early death is certainly one kind of fragility.

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