The word cosmococas derives from the words “cosmic” and “cocaine.” I noticed it as soon as I entered the gallery, through a thick velvet curtain. Projected on the wall is a portrait of Marilyn Monroe embellished with thick white powder outlining her eyebrows and lips. The artists knew that their art might get them in trouble, perhaps even jail. Robert Barry wrote recently in Apollo Magazine that “the cause of that risk was the prominent place the works gave to an artistic material that remains an uncommon drawing medium to this day: cocaine.” Though cocaine was only seen in these staged artistic photographs, the idea of drugs is also felt in the artists’ approach to leisure and their “anti-elitist” ideals, as the wall text suggests.
Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1937, Oiticica met and collaborated with Neville D’Almeida in New York in the 1970s to create a series of “supra-sensorial” environments. The exhibition “Cosmic Shelter” at Hunter College’s Leubsdorf Gallery is an opportunity to experience Oiticica’s immersive project “Cosmococas” as intended. Curated by Daniela Mayer, the gallery is transformed into a place of experience. The first room has buckets of water for viewers to step barefoot into. I noticed imprints of feet on the floor, first thinking they had been painted. In the second immersive room, the walls are covered in white fabric and text projections that extended into the couches, also covered in white fabric. Visitors are invited to sit on the couches. Also present in the room are vinyl records and a typewriter.
There is hardly any silence in the rooms, music plays from what feels like an old vinyl record. Yet, walking through the gallery on a Thursday morning, I had a difficult time feeling immersed. The couches weren’t inviting, neither was the idea of taking off my shoes then and there. Perhaps there weren’t enough people to share the experience with. What is a party room without the people?
Oiticica was making art when Nixon declared the “war on drugs,” subsequently making the “Cosmococas” a political statement. Oiticica and D’Almeida were against restrictive norms to begin with, but this political time inspired them even more to make art for their friends, for leisure, and to provide safe spaces of exploration. Despite my difficulty in feeling fully immersed, I did feel like I entered another world. A cosmic, nostalgic world in which art is everything.
At Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Gallery, 132 East 68th Street, New York, New York, through March 30, 2024.