"I have been obsessively concerned with the problem of color," Hélio Oiticica wrote in his journal in 1960. "I truly believe that the principal problems of color in the contemporary artistic evolution of painting must be reexamined."(1) In short time, Oiticica would embark on a radical liberation of color--and indeed, of art--from its traditional conceptual limits, exploring the spatial power of color through sensory and perceptual experience. The artist would interrogate the tactile and phenomenological properties of color in his Bólides and Parangolés in the early 1960s, ultimately turning the visual vocabularies of Modernism into the conceptual tools of its critique. But in 1957 Oiticica was still interrogating the conventions of pictorial space, and in the transitional Metaesquema series of 1957-58, the artist both deconstructed the picture plane and found in its remains a newly liberated, corporeal language of color and form.
The Metaesquemas represent the culmination of Oiticica's brief concretista period, spent in an unusually independent apprenticeship under Ivan Serpa, the leader of Rio de Janeiro's vanguard Grupo Frente and a stalwart advocate of abstraction. Just twenty years old, Oiticica found spiritual and intellectual kinship with the principal exponents of Modernism--Kandinsky, Klee, Malevich, and particularly Mondrian--whose works and theories he studied under Serpa's tutelage. Taking as a point of departure the primacy of the Modernist grid and the flatness of the picture plane, but rejecting the rationalism of his predecessors, Oiticica set out on a more organic, experimental path toward the distillation of painting to pure essences of color and space. The self-described "obsessive dissection of space" --the "space without time: cracks in the mute plane, infinitesimal mondrianstructure"--that for Oiticica characterized the Metaesquemas gradually led him to discover "the end of painting in the colour square."(2) The unfolding of that discovery plays out to brilliant effect in the tensile energy of the series, in which the artist explored the limits and possibilities of two-dimensional form.
Working within a limited, constructivist palette of black, white, blue, and red, Oiticica experimented with the placement of different configurations of monochromatic squares and rectangles within a rectangular grid. The concrete shapes of the color blocks, pulled just off-axis, perceptually activate the flat surface, undermining the stability of the grid through the animation of its structure. In the present Metaesquema, the pattern of deep blue shapes creates a visual rhythm that reverberates across the surface to the edges of the board; the rectangles appear to hover just above the black cardboard surface. Here and throughout the series, Oiticica effectively deploys the square against itself: the symmetry and regularity established by the Cartesian coordinates are at every juncture visually interrupted by the perceptual vibration of the shapes, which seem almost to dance across the surface. The chromatic effect is visually arresting: the virtual movement of the blue shapes beyond the two dimensions of their support creates depth across and within the picture surface through the interactions of color alone. The dynamism of this experience is amplified here against the black background, less commonly used than white but more sensorially rich and suggestive of the movement of forms beyond the picture plane. These beginnings of Oiticica's rebellion against pictorial space--in which he would soon be joined enthusiastically by Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape [lot 50]--anticipate the evolution of his work into three dimensions and herald the phenomenological directions that he would explore in the early 1960s.
1) M.C. Ramírez, "The Embodiment of Color--'From the Inside Out,'" in Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Color, Houston, The Museum of Fine Arts, 2007, 27.
2) H. Oiticica, quoted in Hélio Oiticica, Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, 1992, 27.