Bossa Nova on the Concourse

Rita Sylvester (2003), by assume vivid astro focus.Photo: Courtesy of John Connelly Presents, New York/Peres Projects, Los Angeles,/The Bronx Museum

The Bronx Museum of the Arts: Did you know there was one? Located on the no-longer Grand Concourse, within roaring distance of Yankee Stadium, it does not have an easy situation for a museum. Among its closest neighbors are the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, the Bronx County Housing Court, the Concourse Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, and an intriguing store around the corner called African Movies Mall. It isn’t rich, and its collection is spotty. (The Brooklyn Museum, with its classical façade and magnificent collections, is by comparison the Louvre.) A museum like this can either fall asleep performing vaguely do-gooderish tasks or make an edgy virtue of its offbeat circumstances. The hopeful news is that the Bronx Museum isn’t sleeping.

The museum is now opening a $19 million addition designed by the architectural firm Arquitectonica and, simultaneously, an exhibition named “Tropicália: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture.” Perhaps there’s some outsider’s pride, a kind of south-of-the-border symbolism, in the twinned openings. Although Arquitectonica now has a New York office, the firm famously made its name in the eighties in provincial Miami (then a vivid, restless city outside the architectural mainstream), and Brazil’s polyglot, hybrid culture does not kowtow to the centers of American and European power. Not a bad perspective for a museum in the Bronx. Its new façade is silvery, the rhythmically shifting vertical planes at once lively and elegant, shiny and modest. The sliced planes are being likened to the creased paper forms of origami and have a dancing, fluttery quality. They also have a certain formal strictness: They do not seem to shock, challenge, or disturb the staid old-lady buildings on the Grand Concourse. The exterior glass gives directly onto the galleries, inviting the neighborhood inside. This building has manners.

A good design will sometimes refresh a neighborhood. The Bronx addition is a more successful piece of work, in that respect, than Arquitectonica’s flashy but dull Westin hotel in Times Square, a smarty-pants example of kitsch-glitz that brings little that’s new or surprising to midtown. The design in the Bronx enlivens the neighborhood visually and may attract enough money to recast the museum altogether. According to Holly Block, the new executive director of the museum, the institution next hopes to put up a residential tower and rebuild its older parts in a way that complements the Arquitectonica addition. Of course, the new Yankee Stadium will also be constructed nearby. It’s too soon to talk about a changing or transformed neighborhood, but “perhaps” and “maybe” now seem justified.

Tropicália is a word that carries a powerful symbolic charge in Brazilian culture. To begin with, it’s the name of a celebrated installation created by Hélio Oiticica in 1967 and the title of a famous album of pop music that came out in 1968. But Tropicália also evokes the rebellious Brazilian counterculture of the sixties and, more generally, its embrace of indigenous strains of art and its liberation from traditional forms of control. The artists associated with Tropicália challenged both the authoritarian military regime of the time (some were arrested) and certain powerful conventions of European and American art. In particular, they insisted upon mixing things up—combining high and low culture, mingling international and local styles, collaborating among themselves, joining the arts in interdisciplinary ways—to capture the vibrant impurities of the society around them. Only in that way could the true Brazil find its reflection in art.

Organized by Carlos Basualdo, curator of contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Bronx exhibit contains 250 objects made in the late sixties and early seventies. Several contemporary pieces inspired by Tropicália are on display—to emphasize that the tradition lives on—and a selection of posters, films, album covers, and television clips provides some historical context. The character of the art is fluid, participatory, and sensual. What might first appear to be a work of austere modernist abstraction, for example, becomes an opportunity for viewers to move around geometric blocks, as a child might, to find a concealed message. The two Oiticica installations on view—Tropicália and Eden—simultaneously evoke a beach paradise and the cramped, boxy favelas inhabited by the Brazilian poor. Viewers are invited to remove their socks and shoes, don a cape, and enter the art barefoot. They can walk on sand and in water, trample leaves and straw, explore hidden bins and passageways, admire two living macaws, and even lie down and read magazines.

The most fetching part of the show for many people will be Lygia Clark’s Sensorial Objects, an installation in which viewers are encouraged to touch. Clark had a marvelously proletarian wit with materials. A plastic bag filled with water and shells becomes a delight to pick up and hold in your hand. Her great big goofy hoods will, among other things, place shells over your ears and little mirrors in front of your eyes. Her art can be discussed in a highfalutin manner—she makes various points about perception—but her gist is simply to awaken people to their bodies. In fact, “Tropicália” ’s physical and participatory nature makes it a show children will particularly enjoy. The only thing there that might concern parents is a sound collage called Flower Orgy, an arrangement of sexual sighs, gasps, cries, and moans. But all you have to tell a curious child is that the piece is a celebration of the jungle or, if you’re willing to lie, of the Brazilian rain forest.

Despite “Tropicália”’s strong Brazilian accent, it has much in common with the youthful, mix-it-up spirit of Dada, Fluxus, and the Happenings of a half-century ago. And as with those styles and movements, its creations have gone a little stale. Inseparable from a particular time, place, and milieu, they are historically important but seldom transcend their history. They’re too often artifacts, too rarely art. They come from the era of grainy black-and-white television; in boomers, they will arouse the nostalgic melancholy that comes from the contemplation of a long-ago youth. But Tropicália’s desire to assert the marginal against the powerful is something that, in our culture, should never go out of style. New York is itself a city of tension between center and edge. The Brazilians of Tropicália would be proud, I think, to show in the Bronx.

The Bronx Museum not only has a splashy new building but also an ambitious new director, Holly Block. The longtime director of the nonprofit, downtown alternative space Art in General is known for her work with artists like Paul Pfeiffer and Carlos Garaicoa. Block was also a Bronx Museum curator in the late eighties. Her first big project, once the construction dust settles: an artist-in-residency program timed to debut during the centennial of the Grand Concourse in 2009. “We’re inviting artists to use the borough as a map,” says Block. “Even people who live in the Bronx don’t travel much in the borough outside of their neighborhoods, because the transportation makes it easier to go north-south than east-west.”

Tropicália: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture
Bronx Museum of the Arts. Through January 28.

Bossa Nova on the Concourse