Museums seldom encourage substance abuse, but the Whitney’s terrific show of Hélio Oiticica (1937–1980) comes close. This retrospective devotes much of its real estate to the space-filling, immersive installations that are the Brazilian artist’s most impressive achievements, along with the work he produced in ’70s New York in which he obsessed over sex, drugs and rock & roll. Perhaps his greatest American creation, 1973’s CC5 Hendrix-War, features hammocks strung across a room where Jimi Hendrix’s War Heroes plays on speakers and a slide show projects images of the album cover adorned with lines of cocaine on the ceilings and walls. Never realized during his lifetime—the museum reconstructed it using his written instructions and 35-millimeter slides—CC5 Hendrix-War is a time-traveling treat that lets you sway in a hammock while watching a vintage son et lumière.
Oiticica began as a modernist in his native Rio de Janeiro. At the end of the 1950s, he joined the Neo-Concrete Group along with Lygia Pape and Lygia Clark, fellow artists interested in expanding abstraction into everyday life. By 1960 he had built PN1 Penetrable, a structure composed of wooden panels in shades of mustard and burnt orange that reenvisions monochrome painting as a walk-in closet by inviting spectators to enter the piece.
In the late 1960s, Oiticica began creating expansive environmental installations. Tropicália (1966–67) and Eden (1969), presented side by side, form a large beach complete with stretches of sand, gravel paths, foliage, caged parrots and a number of cabana-like enclosures containing various things to be experienced by exploring viewers: puddles of water, dead leaves, straw, crushed brick, paperback books, music, a TV left on. Implicitly political in their breakdown of both aesthetic and social hierarchies, these constructions radically reimagined the possibilities of art. Tropicália, in fact, gave its name to the influential musical and cultural movement that opposed the military junta that seized power in Brazil in 1964.
Living in self-imposed exile in the East Village from 1971 to ’78, Oiticica threw himself into New York’s gay underground and disco-era drug culture. He experimented with writing, slide shows and Super 8 film but seemed to have lost his way, leaving all of his films and installations unfinished. His texts became particularly frenetic and addled. Based on the evidence presented here, the works he made after returning to Brazil were wan approximations of earlier efforts. He died of a massive stroke two years later at age 42, suggesting that when it comes to mixing pharmaceuticals and art, you might be better off just saying no.
Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort St (212-570-3600, whitney.org). Through Oct 1.