Hélio Oiticica, PN27 Penetrable, Rijanviera, 1979 Credit: César and Claudio Oiticica Collection, Rio de Janeiro

My art was developed towards an increasing participation, and the mistrust in the gallery and museum business,” the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica wrote in a letter to an art critic in 1969. This disinterest in institutional art settings, coupled with the experiential, immersive nature of much of Oiticica’s work, makes him a difficult artist to exhibit. Perhaps this is why “Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium,” on view now at the Art Institute of Chicago, is the first full-scale retrospective of the artist in the United States.

“To Organize Delirium,” which was first shown last fall at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art and will travel to the Whitney Museum of Art this summer, is also the first major showing of Oiticica’s work since many of his pieces were destroyed in a fire in 2009. Still, though his career was brief—he died in 1980, at the age of 42—Oiticica was incredibly prolific. More than 200 pieces are on display at the Art Institute. And while the museum does a respectable job of trying to stay true to the artist’s participatory ideals, “To Organize Delirium” falls short of the “suprasensorial” experience Oiticica longed to create, one that would “lead each person to find his or her own inner freedom.”

Oiticica’s work was always infused with ideas. He joined Rio de Janeiro’s Neoconcrete Group in 1959, while still a teen. Sprung from Grupo Frente, a small contingent of artists interested in nonreferential art and geometric abstraction, the Neoconcretists sought to free themselves from the formal rationalism of the earlier group.

His midcareer output was largely informed by burgeoning political awareness, prompted by the military dictatorship that took hold of Brazil in 1964. And though he grew up in a middle-class leftist family, Rio’s Mangueira favela influenced Oiticica considerably. He befriended many of its residents and attended the community’s well-known samba school, whose dancers he invited to perform in a piece—the first public presentation of Oiticica’s “Parangolé” series. The parangolés, which roughly translates to “chaos,” are colorful capes meant to be worn, danced in, or carried; the series marked a clear shift toward Oiticica’s interest in movement and participation in art. Yet the uncouth samba dancers weren’t allowed to enter the Museum of Modern Art in Rio, where the performance was meant to take place.

It’s easy to see why Oiticica soured on museum settings. In a 1965 journal entry, he elaborates on his evolving views on exhibitions: “Here is the key to what I will call ‘environmental art,'” he writes, “the eternally mobile, the transformable, which is structured by both the action of the spectator and that which is static,” he writes. “A pavilion, one of those used these days for industrial exhibitions (how more interesting they are than anaemic little art shows!), would be ideal for such a purpose—it would be an opportunity for a truly efficient experience with the people, throwing them into the creative participatory notion, away from the ‘elite exhibitions’ so fashionable today.”

Eden and Tropicália, his most iconic works, appear particularly lackluster in the Art Institute. Though viewers are encouraged to take off their shoes and enter the islandlike environments, the artificial lighting and institutional setting did little to encourage any kind of interaction when I was there on a busy Sunday. Sand covers the floor of both pieces, which are positioned side by side. Eden is reminiscent of a favela, full of tents and bright, colorful makeshift structures; cushions, books, and magazines are scattered throughout. Yet no one seemed to be lying around or reading any of the material. “Creleisure,” another term Oiticica coined, suggests that leisure is essential to creativity—by encouraging viewers to hang out in his installations, he hoped to share with them the joy of creating.

Tropicália is a livelier piece, and more successful. Two parrots, on loan from the Greater Chicago Cage Bird Club, are caged at one end—their mimicking cries are heard throughout the show. Tropical plants sit beside hand-painted signs featuring poetry by Roberta Camila Salgado. Though brief, the lines beautifully illustrate the turmoil Brazil was experiencing: “Dark sky / why do you not clear and light up my world . . .” Tropicália is a portrait of Rio, contrasting cliches of idyllic tropical life with the city’s poverty and harsh government.

After an eight-year sojourn in New York City—where Oiticica took a reprieve from Brazil’s political situation, got hooked on cocaine, and explored his homosexuality through rarely seen film and video work, the artist returned to Rio in 1978 for what would be the final two years of his life. According to wall text accompanying the exhibition, he’d endured “harassing questions from U.S. immigration officials” and was disillusioned with New York. In Brazil he got clean and told friends he saw the city with fresh eyes.

In his final two years he produced a flurry of new work, from readymades to new architectural installations. In 1979 he made PN27 Penetrable, Rijanviera, in which visitors are encouraged to walk barefoot through sand, stone, and water. Originally installed at the Hotel Méridien on Copacabana Beach, with a garden connecting it to the beach across the street, it seems like the perfect embodiment of the “creleisure” Oiticica envisioned.

At the Art Institute, PN27 is installed in its own room, far from any natural lighting. Oiticica held high the concept of vivências, or lived experiences, in which one’s presence and pure reactions were part and parcel of the art. With many of his pieces, Oiticica didn’t consider a work finished until someone was interacting with it: a parangolé when it’s worn, an installation when it’s occupied. What would he have made of “To Organize Delirium,” believing as he did that “any experiment in a formal gallery would be a turn back?” Still, though the exhibit may not give you a “suprasensorial” experience, it will expose you to one of the 20th century’s most brilliant innovators.  v