When he arrived in New York in the early 1970s, the late Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica dreamed of creating a large-scale outdoor public installation for the city. Situated outside a traditional arts institution, the work was meant to challenge what art could be by creating a space that would actively engage the public by inviting them to participate.

Oiticica, who died at 42 in 1980, was never able to realize this work, titled Subterranean Tropicália Projects (1971), the red tape of New York City’s bureaucracy proving insurmountable for the acclaimed artist. He even created several scaled-down versions of the original multilevel structure in the hope that some way, somehow, he might be able to accomplish the feat.

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In the 40 years since his death, the work has become the stuff of legend; it was a memorable inclusion in the artist’s 2016–17 traveling career retrospectives that made stops at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Whitney Museum in New York.

Now 51 years after its original conception the scaled-down circular iteration, PN15, will be at last realized at another New York City park, the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens. The installation will be on view from May 14 to August 14, and visitors will be able to enter it on Fridays from 5­–7:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m.–5 p.m.

Built to scale, the work marks the first major realization of an outdoor project by Oiticica in the U.S. The project is being realized in conjunction with the Americas Society on the Upper East Side and the Projeto Hélio Oiticica, the foundation established by the artist’s two brothers the year after his death. Lisson Gallery, which represents Oiticica’s estate, has also provided support. (Lisson opens a survey exhibition of Oiticica’s work, curated by Ann Gallagher, at its London space this week.)

“This is an artwork that is as radical now as it was in ’70s,” Aimé Iglesias Lukin, the director and chief curator of visual arts at the Americas Society, told ARTnews. “This an artwork that is free, has public access, and is inviting them to participate and is engaging with them. We don’t have enough of that.”

She added that the choice of Socrates in the New York of 2022 is the “perfect” choice. “If you tried to do that today in Central Park, it would be completely sterilized because Central Park is a different Central Park from the one Oiticica was referring to,” Iglesias Lukin said.

Archival sepia toned photograph of a mesh and cardboard maquette of a circular installation that appears labyrinthine. The model is seen from above.
Hélio Oiticica, maquette for Subterranean Tropicália Projects: PN15 Penetrable, 1971.
Photo: Miguel Rio Branco; ©César and Claudio Oiticica

Experimentation Above All Else

The idea to attempt to manifest PN15 came about through an exhibition at the Americas Society, which since it was founded by David Rockefeller in 1965 has acted as a connector for Latin American artists in New York, often by providing them with travel grants or exhibitions. A maquette for the original Subterranean Tropicália Projects, as well as sketches for two reconfigured versions, PN14 and PN15, were shown in Part I of the Americas Society’s “This Must Be the Place: Latin American Artists in New York, 1965–1975”; Part I closed in December, and Part II runs through May 21.

Iglesias Lukin said the exhibition offers a “re-reading of 1960s and ’70s American art through the lens of immigrants, in this case Latin American immigrants. We need to start questioning to which degree New York became the cosmopolitan center that it is without immigrants. How do you explain the neo avant-garde without all the artists who came from all over Europe, Latin America, and Asia?”

She sees Oiticica and the artists he was connected with as central to this rethinking, adding that “they arrived in New York at a moment when Latin American art, as a term, didn’t even exist and they totally invented it here.”

When she was in conversations with Oiticica’s estate to secure loans for the exhibition, Iglesias Lukin said she had “fantasized” about the possibility of trying to realize the project for years, but it was through her conversations with the estate that she realized they were just as passionate about finally realizing Oiticica’s large-scale installations. She approached Jess Wilcox, curator and director of exhibitions at Socrates, less than a year ago, and they got to work.

Oiticica left copious notes, along with scaled models and detailed instructions as to how to fabricate his works. Subterranean Tropicália Projects was no exception. He published an explanation with detailed renderings of the project in a 1972 issue of Changes magazine, which also featured interviews with musicians like Don McLean and Alice Cooper. “So that someone someday would realize them,” said Kaeli Deane, a director at Lisson who works closely with the artist’s estate. She added that “he did go to great lengths to try to have these realized. This was a major dream of Hélio’s.”

Added Wilcox, “He was laying the groundwork for someone else to take it up and create it.”

composite image of two magazine pages showing detailed plans for an art installation that is maze like.
Hélio Oiticica’s plan for Subterranean Tropicália Projects published in Changes magazine, 1972.
Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Works in this series were always meant to be collaborative and would present the work of other artists, including filmmakers and musicians, within each distinct Penetrable space, so called as viewers were meant to penetrate the spaces. For its presentation at Socrates, that will include a film program of historical works as well as more recent pieces that are still in development.

One of those works will be by Oiticica, as a way to further evoke the artist’s original intentions. Agrippina Is Rome–Manhattan (1972) stars Mario Montez, a Warhol superstar who also appeared in several Jack Smith films, and was the only film that Oiticica made and exhibited while living in New York. In his original conception of the installation, Montez would have created a live performance in PN15, but the New York underground icon died in 2013.

But a key component to Oiticica’s Subterranean Tropicália Projects is something that Socrates can’t plan for: the interactions in the park. It is after all a place where local residents walk their dogs, go for a run, hang out with friends, practice dance moves, and much more. It’s part of his idea for “creleisure,” the term he coined for creative-leisure.

“He had always talked about this work as a place for planned performances and for spontaneous ‘auto-performances.’ We have spontaneous auto-performances happening in the park everyday that’s the beauty of public art,” Wilcox said. “He was very interested in the idea of the experimental. We have the plans, but until it’s created there are parts we won’t know.”

Added Deane, “For him, it was all about the public, the work coming alive through people.”

Oiticica In New York

A young Brazilian man stands on a street in New York in front of various wheatpasted posters.
Hélio Oiticica in Midtown Manhattan, New York, 1972.
© César and Claudio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro

When Oiticica arrived in New York in 1970 his star was on the rise internationally. In Brazil, he was “hailed as the head of a new generation of avant-garde artists,” not only for his experiments in neo-Concrete art but also for Tropicália (1967), his first major environmental installation in which visitors would take their shoes off to navigate a space covered in sand and filled with flora and other elements.

Tropicália was shown the year it was made at the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio de Janiero. It initiated an entire artistic movement in Brazil (also called Tropicalismo) that was made even more famous when musician Caetano Veloso used it as the title of a song that in essence became an anthem against the Brazilian dictatorship.

In 1969, Oiticica presented another major installation similar to Tropicália, titled Eden, at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, and the following year he was included in curator Kynaston McShine’s landmark exhibition “Information” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. With these important showings, he was able to obtain a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to relocate to New York permanently in 1971, where he stayed until 1978.

Though Oiticica had garnered major institutional support in three countries, he found working in that structure to be limiting, both conceptually and in how he could reach his audiences. He soon proclaimed that the “museum is the world” and so he set out to create art outside the traditional framework of art institutions. From there his idea of Subterranean Tropicália Projects was born.

It was his idea for a massive multilevel installation that would be installed in Central Park, what he called Subterranean Tropicália Projects, that had helped Oiticica secure the Guggenheim Fellowship. A precursor to Subterranean Tropicália Projects came in one of his earliest installation projects. Conceived when he was 24 but never realized, Hunting Dogs Project (1961) was to take form as a labyrinthine public garden of sand and pebbles where open-air concerts could be held.

But garnering the financial support, as well as the permits from the city, an institution unto itself, to realize the project proved out of reach for the artist. By way of comparison, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates project for Central Park was originally conceived in 1979 and realized only in 2005.

“There was a set of institutional conditions, with regards to Brazilian art and American art, that prevented an artist like Oiticica to develop to his full potential,” Iglesias Lukin said.

an architectural drawing of a circular art installation.
Hélio Oiticica, PN15, 1971, sketch on paper.
©Estate of Hélio Oiticica/Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

That eventually led Oiticica to scale down the Subterranean works to various models, in the hopes of actually realizing the project, of which PN15 is the third such iteration, which also went unrealized. The first major of his works to be executed posthumously was from the later “Magic Square” series (1977), which was constructed some 30 years later at Inhotim, the massive sculpture park in Brazil founded by collector Bernardo Paz.

Given all this history, Wilcox sees this presentation of Oiticica’s work as more relevant than ever, especially since his work has been influential for generations of artists. “In terms of art history, I think for a lot of people seeing an Oiticica work in Socrates makes sense because there’s a lot of artists who show here are in a way following in his legacy, even if they aren’t aware of him,” she said. “This is a missing piece in that art historical narrative because Oiticica is underrecognized in the everyday public art realm.”

Oiticica believed that it was the artist’s job to lead those who view his work, whom he called participators, to “a state of invention,” as he said in 1979, or a way of “encouraging individuals to exercise confidence in their own intuitions and aspirations,” as curator Lynn Zelevansky writes in her catalogue essay that accompanied the traveling retrospective. The art he made was only complete with people interacting with it.

It’s that spirit that is to guide this realization of PN15 at Socrates. When Wilcox was reviewing his notes for Subterranean Tropicália Projects, she recalled seeing one comment he left at the bottom of the page: “To experiment is the only axiom.”