Hélio Oiticica in Manhattan

Silviano Santiago

Artwork by Mirza Jaafar

One who is acquainted only with Hélio Oiticica’s artistic work would not guess that he was a fast-paced, straight-laced person. Throughout the 1970s, when he lived in New York, he spent frantic, laborious days on the fourth floor of number 81 2nd Avenue. The apartment was next to the Fillmore East, the name given to the old Village Theater in 1968 for its resemblance to the Fillmore West in San Francisco. The new temple of rock ’n’ roll was also on 2nd Avenue on the East Side, near 6th Street. It was there that I saw Frank Zappa’s circus-like show in the summer of 1971. Between 1968 and 1971—the year it closed—The Doors, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and so many other bands played at the Fillmore. At the end of the 1970s, the theater went on to become a pretty glitzy club, itself a replica of Studio 54, that glamorous, millionaire cabaret. And Hélio would soon be back in Brazil.

Rent prices were why Hélio would choose to live in the East Village. This was the poor cousin of the West Village, or The Village, as it was known at the time, as it was being discovered and invaded by the alternative youths that flooded in the city in hordes. He chose a squat building, spindly and decrepit, with no doorman and a single flat per floor. The living room in his loft (there were no walls to separate spaces) was arranged in “nests” and the area in the back, what one might call a kitchen, was an office with a drafting table and heavy metal filing cabinets.

Each nest was like the belly of a ship, surrounded by netted curtains. Inside, one felt a sort of maternal comfort, similar, in fact, to most of the labyrinths conceived of by Hélio at the time, which would soon be transformed into architectural models. Looking around was like being enveloped in smoke.

I never saw Hélio pass through the doors of the Fillmore East. For him, the show was at home. Hélio was a wired man. Everything happened at the same time. Sitting in a lotus position or lying down, he spent his days in the nests. Television, camera, slide projector, radio, cassette recorder, telephone. An eternal clinking of sounds. An unceasing parade of visitors.

There was something about the space he created in the 2nd Avenue loft that put the classic artist’s atelier into question. It facilitated the ideal environment for collective artistic creation, one in which the celebrated Haroldo de Campos didn’t exclude the younger brother of Waly Salomão, who at that time was making a living as a shoeshiner on 42nd Street. Made brothers through the common ground of the loft, they had to interact.

Like The Factory, which Andy Warhol would set up in the 1960s, the apartment added to the classic atelier. The nests enabled a collaborative space where the most daring experiences were created with words and other lethal weapons. The space was human, excessively human. People in real life and in color. Ours was a legitimate kind of contemporary artistic laboratory, given that human beings and culture could now be subject to experimentation, thanks to the principles of an aesthetic of collective adventure and risk.

The best way to unravel the laboratory—to reference the story “Desenredo” by Guimarães Rosa—are the cassette tapes and letters Hélio sent to friends abroad. Once, he wrote: “I’ve always liked what is prohibited, the life of malandragem, which represents adventure, people who live in an intense and immediate way because they take risks. Those people are so smart. Much of my life has been spent visiting friends in prison.”

The West Village would birth and nurture the great generations of artists in the first half of that century. It had a newspaper that was as prestigious as The New York Times—The Village Voice. Meanwhile, right next door, the East Village was taking in undocumented immigrants from central Europe—Jews in particular—and far to the north, next to the Columbia University campus, Harlem had become a home for black people. Reaching underneath the luxury skyscrapers of central Manhattan, the city’s two eastern extremities would connect via the Lexington Avenue subway lines 5 and 6.

Harlem and the East Village had little in common with millionaire Manhattan, and shared more similarities with Brooklyn and the Bronx. A colleague of mine at SUNY at Buffalo said that there were two kinds of Jewish families. The kind that immigrated with a violin and the kind that immigrated without one. The Jewish clans that came without violins and the restaurants on 2nd Avenue, familial transplants from central Europe, were testaments to the poverty and lack of prospects that the region had suffered. At the time, I began to learn the recent history of the East Village, reading short stories by Bernard Malamud, whose parables were brought together in The Magic Barrel (1954).

At night, an infernal flux of hippies and groupies surrounded the Fillmore East. Around 10:00 p.m., Hélio would descend the building’s three flights of stairs (there was no elevator). He left to go to work. He translated commercial documents at an office up by 53rd street, right by the corner of 5th Ave. At sunrise, he would return to the East Village apartment. Like Holly Golightly, Truman Capote’s unforgettable character interpreted in film by Audrey Hepburn, Hélio would admire the beautiful, minimalist windows of Tiffany’s, outside of which both would eat their symbolic breakfast. (Andy Warhol had shown his first paintings in the window of the Bonwit Teller department store in 1961.)

It was in this way that he developed a connection to the jewelry store, and so it was there that, in more prosperous times, he would buy the valuable materials for Cosmococa.

I remember a little pillbox made of real silver. It was shaped like dice and would be rolled across the floor of a nest until it found new hands. You could hear: “Les jeux sont faits” (the name of a play by Jean-Paul Sartre), or “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” (the title of a poem by Mallarmé). Hélio liked the rhetorical flourishes of literature, just as he liked to cite Arthur Rimbaud's verse: “Nous avons foi au poison” [We have faith in poison]. He had even bought a little drinking straw at Tiffany’s, also made of silver. It served to “imbibe the great labyrinth.”

Self-exiled in New York, Hélio had been praised as a genius by British critics that went to see his works in the Whitechapel Gallery in 1968, though he cared little for the games of the artistic establishment and its bureaucracy. For that reason, once he spent the stipend from his Guggenheim fellowship, his financial survival was dependent on his arduous and disciplined labor as a nocturnal translator. He deftly navigated four languages—Portuguese, English, French, and Spanish—and would alternate between them in his translations of commercial correspondence and legal documents.

When examining the immense and noteworthy collection of material written and collected by Hélio on 2nd Avenue, one must ask: why would such a fast-paced, straight-laced person feel such disdain for the linearity of phonetic writing? Where did his horror for the norms of his country’s language, the norms transmitted to us through the dictionary and grammar, come from?

Could it be that grandson Hélio’s contradictions might have had something to do with the duality apparent in the work of a well-known instructor at the classic Pedro II High School, José Oiticica (1882—1957), world-renowned philologist, who was also celebrated for his political commitment to anarchist and workers’ movements? Oiticica’s grandfather would reconcile grammar and anarchy, formal order and indiscriminate freedom.

In 1972, the book The Life of the Theater by Julian Beck from The Living Theater company fell into Hélio’s hands. During Brazil’s dictatorship, the author, along with his wife Judith Malina, had been with us in Ouro Preto’s winding streets, and in its prison. Hélio couldn’t hide his emotion when he came across his grandfather’s name and words in the epigraph of one chapter: “The maximum happiness of one depends on the maximum happiness of all.”

It is not necessary to isolate individual desire for formal order in life from the pursuit of collective, radical freedom. Anarchy is a subtle and unapologetic form of individualism. The 1964 military coup in Brazil drew a line that separated individual desire from collective struggle and pitted them against each other. Hélio wanted to suture that (historically) transient and artificial division through the mystery of artistic creation. Because of the specific position that he had managed to attain in Brazilian society and the art world, a position of transgression by definition, Hélio, in a paradoxical and paroxysmal way, embodied the unity of the subject’s desire for order and the affirmation of freedom for all.

One consequence of repressive military force was that the reigning social disorder in Brazil locked this artist’s ethical commitment in with individual order. He became absorbed in himself in New York. Within the tentacles established by repression, indiscriminate freedom—anarchy—became exclusive to an elite few. When Rio de Janeiro and the Mangueira favela became mere nostalgic longing, longer and longer lines became the goal.

In Manhattan, Hélio was a grammarian in his everyday behavior and an anarchist in his artistic writing. He wanted to introduce into our everyday Portuguese a foreign language, a close but far more fascinating relative to our lingua franca’s latest iteration. Hélio’s reader should approach his words as they would an explosion, without fear of emerging slightly charred. We are, dear readers, voyeurs of the successive and uncomfortable nucleus of pure dynamite that blasts the sentences in cadenced and monotonous reading that denounce the Latin origins of our writing: subject, verb, predicate.

On the pages of his notebooks, one word would not follow the other; they would not allow themselves to fall into grammatical order. They penetrated one another like bodies in a mass of affectionate lovers, like wild horses that scramble one on top of the other across the white field of paper. Like halves of human bodies pitted against other halves of human bodies that both feel attraction and hate each other with the flourishes of swordplay, with the piranha’s bite, with the death-shot of the revolver. Or with the spray of ink.

The time of assassins, to quote the words of Henry Miller when he wrote about poet Arthur Rimbaud, would invade the space of the everyday. The cover of the young French poet’s anthology in New Directions’ bilingual edition was an unavoidable reference for those whose eyes combed the couches in the nests. So too was the cover of Marilyn’s biography, by Norman Mailer, and that of the book Notations by musician John Cage. And the covers of long-playing records, like the Jimi Hendrix vinyl in which a lung drawn in white powder emerges from a huge nose. Portable and solid platforms on the couches, these covers were favorable surfaces for lines of blow after the little white rocks received the necessary cuts from a razor or a knife on the smooth surface of multicolored agate.

There is no set way for reading the black-and-white writings that Hélio Oiticica drafted and collected in his apartment on 2nd Avenue, now bequeathed to us.

Just as Hélio found it difficult to complete a word in a conventional, by the book way, he found it challenging to begin the word that followed. Mancoquilagem, for example. Manco Cápac, the Inca emperor chased down by Pizarro and killed by his brothers, comes together with the end of the word for make-up, maquilagem. In Maileryn, writer Norman Mailer partners with Marilyn Monroe in another mancoquilagem.

Incomplete words climb one on top of the other, just as an enjambment of one verse climbs upon the next. According to rhetoricians, enjambment creates an effect of cohesion between two verses, since the verse in which the enjambment begins cannot be read with the typical descending pause at the end and instead with a rising intonation that indicates the continuation of the sentence. Enjambment leaves the reader breathless, ready for new and profound inspiration.

Poets find it difficult to complete a verse. Their (unadmitted) ideal is to be a writer of prose, one that must deal with stanzas rather than the verse-unit. Hélio would never manage to become a prose writer. As a poet, he would make words climb onto each other through their different halves. On the two extreme opposites of the eastern end of this island, Harlem climbs onto the East Village.

Enjambment is the explosive nucleus of phonetic writing’s commitment to cadenced rhythm and linear behavior. It is the way in which syllables copulate, a delirious orgy of bodies divided, in movement through the subterranean island.

It is not just rhythm and behavior that are linear. So too is the gaze Hélio Oiticica would direct at objects and people, always straightforward and incisive, with no margin for error, no drifting along a curve. Also linear is the method of classifying, stacking, collecting, and storing the sheets of paper in an artist’s archive.

In the hegemonic United States, where high quality paper pervaded any and every notebook (even the most commonplace of yellow notepads), Hélio Oiticica’s desire for linearity found a dependable crutch. The typical North American notebooks and notepads that he selected with such care would have inspired jealousy in any student enrolled in Brazilian primary schools. Back then, pupils were accustomed to yellowish pages with the quality of blotting paper and the words of the national anthem printed on the final page.

To further immerse oneself in Hélio’s linear universe is to, on the one hand, get used to the notion of order gifted to the user of a notebook, which has a design that is geometric and “honest” (this adjective is often translated to the Portuguese as honesto, but it should be translated as sincero). The numbering that a notebook provides exists a priori; it is established through the process of binding the object itself. Artificially ordering a notebook—that is, writing numbers at the top of the page—was one of the games Hélio liked to employ. When the artificial superseded the natural order, numbering could run explicitly from start to finish or could move backward from the end to the beginning. It would depend. On the other hand, Hélio knew that other situations (existential, artistic, etc.) demand not a notebook but instead a yellow notepad. In this case, the artist can remove sheets from their detachable bindings, and the new set of loose pages, whether stapled or not, can gain their own specific and modest (in terms of quantity) numbering.

Poems are not written in notebooks; instead, they must appear on pages from a notepad, like the scattered notes that found their support on loose pieces of paper, which are often unnumbered.

It was necessary for notebooks to be the force responsible for the Metaesquemas, since loose pieces of paper and notepad pages would inevitably regret their form, one that disrespected formal, predetermined order.

Hélio once confided in me that he had only learned one thing as Ivan Serpa’s student in art school. How to cut in a straight line along the middle of a sheet of paper without leaving the cut visible to the casual viewer. The white remains immaculate. The piece of paper, which seems to never have been cut, as well as the incision itself, which seemed to have never been carried out, were the way in which the straight line hid in the white space of the piece of paper to the layperson. It, too, is a way in which the page itself could hide. . .

At times, a white sheet of canson paper, cut, on top of another white piece of the same paper, intact, served as an envelope. It was an envelope. The space between the two pages hid content—a letter, one could say—from an intrusive, probing gaze. It hid any and every hint of telltale white powder. It was in that apparently untouched space between one sheet and the next that you would sprinkle the powder, steering clear of curious eyes. White on white, homage to Malevich—that was what he wrote in the poem “Manco Cápac” after attaching it to one of these undone paper dime bags, with its impeccable folding marks still intact.

I was in Hélio’s apartment when the downstairs buzzer rang. He went to the window to see who was at the door. Two well-dressed men opened their wallets and raised their FBI badges. They wanted to come inside. They walked up the three flights of stairs. Door open, fearless. A friend of Hélio’s, formerly a model for Pierre Cardin, had been detained for possession at JFK International Airport. All she had with her was Hélio’s address. They wanted information. They combed through everything and came up dry, having yet to roll out their jaunty sniffer-dog protocol. I would find out a few days later that Hélio had not abandoned his friends to the whims of the police.

It was this man and artist who taught me to explore the island of Manhattan, starting in winter of 1969 and 1970. Our first encounter took place in the loft of Rubens Gerchman, who at the time was married to artist Anna Maria Maiolino. I know that, all of a sudden, I was at their apartment, in the company of Roberto Schwarz, who had defended his doctoral thesis Ao vencedor as batatas at the Sorbonne and was being hosted at an aunt’s house. Also, all of a sudden, Hélio and his group entered the apartment.

He was wearing a black cape reminiscent of the Conde da Belamorte. It was the only time I had seen him, in Manhattan, brusque, electric, and impatient. Soon after, all of us went to a video-art exhibition. I remember successive images of more and more water, taken by a still camera. Very much in the style of the videos that Andy Warhol had filmed with his 16 mm Bolex.

I didn’t talk to Hélio that night. Nor did we speak the next time we saw each other. During our third encounter, he passed me his phone number and address. Stop by at my loft. We still hadn’t had a chance to talk, but I could tell that he had listened to my words and noticed me. He only bothered with those he had discovered. With him, the Brazilian charm of ingratiating yourself at all costs wouldn’t get you anywhere.

During my first visit, we talked a lot about psychoanalysis and Nietzsche (topics I was interested in at the time). Of the former, Hélio was skeptical, and he had read the German thinker at age 12. He told me that he would revisit the philosopher’s work. I added that I was concerned with issues of language and new forms of political thought. Hélio was attentive in these and other conversations. I found them very useful, and it seems to me that he felt the same way.

More and more, Hélio was distancing himself from the “universe of painting and old friendships with visual artists,” deepening his relationship to photographic and verbal language. In pieces that he later sent to the magazines Navilouca and Polém, I saw that he had alluded to our conversations and even to me and to my work directly. Now, I revisit those references in the Argentinian edition of the book Cosmococa.

We always exchanged materials for reading and reflection. I mentioned earlier that Hélio griped about psychoanalysis. One day, I happened to find a rare book of Freud in its English edition: Über Coca. I gave him a copy as a present. It was his reconciliation with Freud. Years later—June 7, 1973, to be precise—I received “copy 1” of a long polyglot poem that had as its title that of Freud’s own book, “Über Coca.” Immediately after the title, he would add these words: “according to Freud / as homage-love / poema freudfalado”.

Hélio had vast, precise, and valuable knowledge across a range of disciplines, but he was not erudite in a strict sense of the word. His cut in the broad panorama of ideas was very personal, and he constantly threw in unexpected concepts or rich and original suggestions in the detours, tangents, stumblings, and turning points of a conversation. Not only did he generously share his ideas, but he also brought out the best in what others thought. He was never satisfied with our typical mediocrity, nor did he accept anything that was so-so. He wanted what was strongest. Most authentic. Most pure. What took the biggest risks.

This constant intellectual friction generated heat and energy so specific that I would leave his apartment levitating. I would walk aimlessly through the Villages, from east to west, for hours and hours. Hélio had the ability to mine the gold within another person. To give them as a gift the very best of their hidden self.

In 1973, I managed to arrange for the Albright-Knox Gallery (a hyper-exclusive museum in Buffalo) to invite Hélio for a slide exhibition, accompanied by an essay-manifesto on his view of the state of the arts. The title of the exhibition gestures to his concerns: “slides as documents showing forms of experimental activity not compromised with art as display.” I still have the exhibition poster, signed by the artist.

Final note

I cannot resist copying this section of the book The Emigrants (New Directions, 2016. P. 83) by W. G. Sebald, in Michael Hulse’s translation:

“Until the First World War, the Bowery and the whole Lower East Side were the districts where the immigrants chiefly came to live. More than a hundred thousand Jews arrived there every year, moving into the cramped dingy apartments in the five- or six-storey tenement blocks. The so-called parlour, which faced the street, was the only room that had two windows, and the fire escape ran past one of them. In the autumn, the Jews would build their sukkahs on the fire escape landings, and in the summer, when the heat hung motionless in the city streets for weeks and life was unbearable indoors, hundreds and thousands of people would sleep outside, up in the airy heights, or even on the roofs or sidewalks or the little fenced-off patches of grass on Delancy Street and in Seward Park. The whole of the Lower East Side was one huge dormitory.”

translated from the Portuguese by Lara Norgaard