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Mr Americas

Notes on two major retrospectives, of Andy Warhol and Hélio Oiticica, in São Paulo

Helio Oitcica, c. 1965. Courtesy: Projeto Hélio Oiticica, Galerie Lelong, New York.

Helio Oitcica, c. 1965. Courtesy: Projeto Hélio Oiticica, Galerie Lelong, New York.

Every chance I get, I head south of the border. North too. After all, I am an American and proud of it. The thing is, though, ‘America’ is not really a singular noun, certainly not one synonymous with the United States. What interests me and what I feel a part of is the Americas, and nothing could be more deliciously marbled or deliriously contradictory. In March I thus found my way back to Argentina for the third time and to Brazil for the fifth. Here are some travel notes.

A Saturday of openings in São Paulo, starting at the newly opened branch of the renovated Portuguese Colonial Pinacoteca. The Estação Pinacoteca is located in an old industrial building near a crack-house-infested slum that will soon be bulldozed to make way for a massive cultural centre designed by Herzog & de Meuron. Their structure will rise in the shadow of the old Anglo-Colonial railway station. (‘Globalism’ is just the currently fashionable word for the centuries-long race among national and commercial empires competing to put their stamps on new markets known as the New Worlds.)

Like most contemporary kunsthallen, the Estação Pinacoteca is a three-ring circus. That day the main ring was occupied by the first major retrospective of Andy Warhol’s work to tour the region. That he has in some respects conquered all is indisputable but the show’s title – ‘Andy Warhol, Mr. America’ – has a curious resonance in the southern hemisphere.
Despite the fact that queering the image of he-man masculinity in the US was one of Warhol’s great accomplishments, the ironically chauvinistic, arguably imperial overtones of ‘Mr. America’ are unsettling. Especially to the extent that the Warholian conflation of art has achieved a cultural hegemony unparalleled in this or any hemisphere, thereby creating an irresistible slipstream for wannabe Andys or – pace Elvis – outright Andy impersonators.

Across town another posthumous retrospective sharpened awareness of how little of Warhol’s social anarchism translates when packaged as a museological product and how much he can look like a stalking horse for brand penetration of other kinds. At Itaú Cultural – the eponymous bank’s art venue – a multimedia extravaganza of work by the gay, Cosmococa (as in cocaine), Carioca, Hélio Oiticica opened amidst the clangour of a Samba school band and the heat and hubbub of sweating, half-naked bodies dancing in the lobby and out into the streets where pedestrians joined the pulsing swarm. In the crush, ‘queerness’, was not only on display, as at the Warhol show, it was a contagious, contact high. In the galleries, viewers were also seduced and turned on, since much of Oiticica’s output consists of participatory installations that – along with some of his geometric sculptures recently destroyed in a fire – were refabricated for the occasion. They included mazes of gossamer fabric and Chinese puzzle-like walk-in closets. I’ll save discussion of those sculptures and Oiticica’s ravishing drawings for another time, but suffice it for the moment to say that they are among the marvels of 20th-century abstraction.

And they make him Warhol’s peer. Yet for all their ‘counter-cultural’ similarities, the contrast between the two artists was obvious in the differences between the two shows. Warhol’s celebrated celebrities and commodities and a bygone ‘you had to be there’ era of campy, creepy chic that Norteños of my generation recall in its disturbing actuality but younger viewers elsewhere can only speculate about and romanticize. Although equally historical and in some respects more traditionally modern, Oiticica’s show embodied the present tense by physically, sensually engaging visitors at every level. Emblematic of the United States at the pinnacle of its economic power and on the brink of an epochal meltdown, Warhol’s work had a weird but decidedly dated aura. While that afterglow has illuminated much of recent art, in São Paulo it flickered. By comparison, Oiticica’s work looked like the future and – insofar that it presaged installation and performance practices now associated with ‘relational aesthetics’ – it still is. Moreover, by demonstrating the rich possibilities of ‘making do’ over the wastefulness of ‘making out’, it offers still more lessons to imaginative artists in straitened circumstances.

The additional pair of exhibitions at the Estação Pinacoteca further qualified the image of Warhol as ‘Mr. America’. One was a survey of Wilfredo Lam, the Cuban Surrealist of Afro-Chinese descent whose mixed heritage makes him quintessentially ‘all-American’. Holding pride of place on the ground floor, the other was devoted to the life and death of Carlos Marighella, a Brazilian Marxist of Afro-Italian stock who lead an armed rebellion against the military dictatorship of the 1960s and in 1969 wrote a Minimanual Of The Urban Guerrilla which was widely circulated during the 1970s. Upstairs in the Warhol show were tongue-in-cheek portraits of Lenin and Mao; the Marighella show featured a wholly unironic portrait of Stalin. Downstairs in the basement of the Estação (and not on display) are the torture cells once used by the military. Only Roberto Bolaño could write seamlessly about such stark disparities.

Robert Storr is a critic and curator.

Issue 131

First published in Issue 131

May 2010
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