(The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros through the Latin American and Caribbean Fund; Photo by Denis Doorly)

Hélio Oiticica (b. 1937)

P16 Parangolé Cape 12, 1965 (reconstructed 1992)

On view at The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Great Works, In Focus

Cape crusader

Hélio Oiticica made art that is acutely political and poignantly fragile

Hélio Oiticica’s ”P16 Parangolé Cape 12,” 1965, reconstructed 1992. On view at the Museum of Modern Art. (The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros through the Latin American and Caribbean Fund; Photo by Denis Doorly)

If you are already thinking that this work doesn’t look much like art — that it’s yet more proof of the folly of contemporary art, and that while fools applaud, you will gleefully point out that the emperor has no clothes — knock yourself out. Scroll straight to the comments.

I still think it’s amazing. And I love the story behind it.

It’s actually a cape, made from jute, fabric, wood shavings and plastic. It was made in 1965 by Hélio Oiticica (1937-1980), one of Brazil’s great 20th century artists, and was reconstructed (which is common for conceptual art) in 1992.

It hangs today, forlorn and apparently lifeless, in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. But Oiticica (pronounced “oy-ti-SEE-ka”) didn’t think of his capes — which he called “parangolés” — as static, museum-ready objects. He saw them as poems and protests, objects with their own agency, urging people to put them on and move about in them, so that their layers of colored fabric would be revealed as they ran and danced.

Of course, a fashion designer might say more or less the same thing about a cocktail dress. But Oiticica had some particular people in mind when he concocted his earliest capes.

In 1964, he spent time in the favelas, or shantytowns, in Rio de Janeiro. He made a series of capes from cheap and crude materials, and asked some friends from one favela, Mangueira, to wear the capes and come to Rio’s Museum of Modern Art.

When they got there, they were refused entry.

If the capes didn’t look much like art, museum officials evidently didn’t think the people wearing them looked much like people who should enter an art museum. By this action, which “highlighted the racial and class tensions of a society riddled with social inequality” (as MoMA’s wall label puts it), the capes shifted from poetry to politics.

Flimsy politics, you could say. But it was precisely flimsiness, precariousness and fragility that Oiticica wanted to highlight. He wanted to draw attention to marginalized people and precarious states of existence. In this way, his capes remind me of Van Gogh’s paintings of his own beaten up shoes, and of David Hammons’s abstract paintings draped with cheap plastic garbage bags and industrial tarps.

Oiticica’s “P16 Parangolé Cape 12” has two semi-concealed objects: a plastic bag in one pocket and, spilling out of the other, a white banner with the words (in Portuguese): “From adversity we live.”

You don’t see much adversity inside New York’s MoMA, where Oiticica’s cape is attached to a pristine wall several floors up on 53rd Street. And yet if you tune into the art all around you, it’s also true that few places in the world are packed with more emotional, poetic and oftentimes intensely political life.

Museums need to change. They need to be more welcoming to a broader cross-section of society. But as they fight against becoming high-end boutiques or exclusive mausoleums, they must also ensure that the people they invite in are allowed enough personal agency to try on the art for themselves and make it (if they want to) their own. This means trusting in their ability to animate art objects for themselves.

It’s important to be a good host. It’s good to offer guidance. But people come to art with their own personalities, their own complicated backgrounds, their own unsettled emotional life. If you’re a museum, you don’t want to suffocate all that people bring of themselves with your institutional insecurities, your righteous interpretations, your ideological noise.

I love what Oiticica did with this and all his other works, which placed a premium on audience participation. But if you’re a museum, you don’t necessarily have to provide art that people can wear. Sometimes you just have to invite people in and leave them alone, with their inner lives, their flimsiness and their fragility.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.