at Feigen Incorporated, through July 3
Among my favorite works in the Oyvind Fahlstrom show at Feigen are four prints called Column. Each is a dense jumble of brightly colored curved and rectangular shapes. Each contains a hand-printed text, most contain small comic-book-like figures, and some have charts or graphs. The content of the images and texts is highly political, concerned primarily with the evils of capitalism, while the overall effect of the colors and images is almost riotous, carnivallike. Individual figures are depicted with only a few solid colors, with virtually no modeling. It's no surprise that some years ago the editor of Artforum is said to have walked out of a Fahlstrom exhibit after "only a few seconds."
Perhaps because the child in me remains attracted to bright colors and comic-book imagery, I looked at each Column for a long time, not seeking a coherent work but lost in the apparently chaotic facts and images, captivated by the mixture of humor and rage with which each element is presented. It soon became evident that behind the disorder was a grand theme. The differently colored areas of the picture, in some ways like the panels of a comic strip, began to resemble countries on a map. The interrelations between shapes, images, and texts are Fahlstrom's attempt to make sense of the complex interdependencies among the world's people, institutions, and nations.
Near the center of Column No. 1 (Wonderbread) (1972) is an area shaped like a bread slice; the text inside states, "Helps build strong bodies in 12 ways." Beside the text is a happy bodybuilder, but below the bread slice is a larger area with a text that lists the allegedly deleterious effects of Wonder bread. Beside this text is a nude man next to a load of bread, and sticking out of the loaf are guns that are shooting at him. To the right of the bread slice is an image of a body being destroyed by bombs. Here the text explains that the same corporation that at the time made Wonder bread also made electronic systems for missiles: "Helps destroy strong bodies."
These are only three of the picture's approximately 60 panels, many of which establish similar connections. At the top a chart of major nations' industrial production leads (if one reads left to right) to a world map depicting restrictions on U.S. foreign aid, which leads to charts and images showing the ill effects of U.S. herbicide exports. Other images describe the colonization of Africa, the slave trade, new riot-control weapons.
Fahlstrom's taste for the surreal is most evident at the bottom of the picture, where a newspaper headline reads "4 Police Cars Crash Chasing Nude Driver." To the right are images of prisons, then of various activities of oil companies. Above them the text and images refer to bourgeois life-styles. None of these images are connected to the nude-driver story as clearly as the image strings mentioned above are connected; indeed, each Column alternates between images that are intimately, causally linked and those that have more associative connections.
The individual figures and objects, with their flat, even colors, have all of the instantaneous comprehensibility of a mass-culture artifact and none of the visual resonance of a fine-art object; at first glance these works do seem on the aesthetic level of a comic strip. Both classic comics and the then-new underground "comix" are obvious influences, and there are direct references to R. Crumb. But the viewer who looks at them carefully--it takes a while to simply read all the texts and view each image--is soon lost in a mysterious labyrinth of connections and disconnections. The grid form encourages the eye to travel back and forth between panels; the mind is encouraged to make links even when none are obvious. Yet if one steps back to better appreciate the whole composition, it seems no more aesthetically unified than before. This absence of a meaningful overall design seems to reflect an absence of transcendent meaning or unity in the world. Fahlstrom's sensuous bright colors, sinuous lines, and seductive objects draw the viewer back into the picture's individual parts.
Looking at Fahlstrom's tiny figures, I found myself thinking of the small figures in certain great Mexi- can pre-Columbian codices--folding books--which present a dense array of simple, even cartoonlike figures and designs that taken together seem freighted with some giant systematic meaning. I later learned that as a young artist Fahlstrom studied pre-Columbian codices.
Part of what gives his imagery resonance is the multiple ways in which it relates to the text. Often the maps and charts and figures simply illustrate the words' meaning. At other times the images literalize words meant as metaphors: a Lenin quote about "radish radical[s]--red outside, white inside" is accompanied by a drawing of a split radish. Even within a single panel an object's function can shift: a gold crown stands for the kingdom of Laos; the same crown, only smaller, is also seen on the king's head. Two boats--one with small money bags on deck, one with larger--are seen steaming toward and away from Chile to illustrate the inequality of capital flows between Chile and the U.S.
The flatness of Fahlstrom's colors and the simplicity of his figures deny the viewer the traditional fine-art experience, in which colors and shapes enliven and deepen themselves, acquiring their own inner mystery. This denial directs the viewer's attention away from the unknowable aesthetic realm and back to the facts of the world and to the relations between its parts. At the same time the lack of a unifying compositional organization suggests a world that's chaotic and disunified, organized only as an accretion of individual facts and specific relationships. This is consistent with Fahlstrom's attack on the separation between art and life--a main theme of much 60s art that continues to engage many artists today.
While no significant artists' work can be explained by their biographies, Fahlstrom's life story is certainly consistent with works that strive to understand the whole world while denying the possibility of its comprehensibility. Fahlstrom, who died in 1976, was born in Brazil in 1928 to Norwegian and Swedish parents and was sent to Sweden on a visit in 1939. With all the cruel fatalism of a melodrama, World War II began, making safe travel impossible and separating him from his parents for eight years. As a young artist he lived in Sweden, moving to New York City in 1961, where he became friends with many major Pop and proto-Pop artists--Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, and others--as well as with composer John Cage.
As a young man Fahlstrom worked as a journalist, sending reports of the world back to Sweden--hence the "Column" titles. He was also a poet, playwright, performance artist, and filmmaker. He participated in and staged "happenings"--live events that abandoned the linear causality of theater. His public performances were sometimes nearly surreal: for a "Mao-Hope March" in New York in 1966 he and others paraded down a street carrying giant photos of Chairman Mao and Bob Hope. What seems to unite most of Fahlstrom's efforts is a desire to address--and to live in--the world here and now, rather than providing, as earlier traditions do, a way to transcend the present.
Many of Fahlstrom's early works were heavily influenced by surrealism. These early pieces, in which the comic-book influence had not yet come to the fore, look a bit more conventional than the "Column" works. Nothingness Thunders On (late 1950s, water-based paint on copper) is divided into three irregular shapes set against a nearly gold copper ground. Within each outline is a group of strange forms that seem to hover between abstraction and representation. They're not purely graphic or geometric, yet one senses that they represent something--though it's impossible to determine what. (Fahlstrom did develop a personal language consisting of these and other symbols, which he called "character-signs"; their definitions, however, are relatively obscure.) But when one looks at the image as a whole, it's neither aesthetically pleasing nor particularly unified, which again suggests that one should look only to the parts, not to the whole.
The silkscreened Dr. Livingston Collage is dated 1974 but is based on a work of some 15 years earlier. Images drawn from Swedish comics are combined and inked over to obscure their origin; the eye is confronted with a dense, almost abstract surface, full of rhythmic clutter that leads the eye in and out and around without reaching any pictorial finality or clear meaning. The image directs the viewer's attention to the intense, even seductive physicality of its shapes; it doesn't appear to point to anything outside of itself. In this respect Dr. Livingston Collage reminded me of the work of Jasper Johns, who owns one of Fahlstrom's key paintings, Sitting . . .
Though there are many connections between Fahlstrom's work and that of the New York artists he knew, the differences seem stronger. If one views key works of Rauschenberg, Johns, and Rosenquist (many of which can be seen in a superb exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art through June 20), it's clear that the use of materials from the mass culture represents a break with earlier generations and that these paintings seek to discover pleasure in looking at mundane objects. But it's equally clear that each painter is concerned with the overall design of his picture, with achieving part of his expression through composition. By contrast, Fahlstrom painted one of his major early works while most of the finished portions were obscured with a cloth; he intentionally denied himself a view of the whole.
If denying himself a unified compositional whole was a way to engage the viewer in a more authentic relationship with each part, Fahlstrom was soon to literalize the idea of viewer participation in a series of works he referred to as variables. In his first variable painting, Sitting . . . Six Months Later, derived from the original Sitting . . . , oil, gouache, and collage on canvas create a cartoonish image with a variety of disconnected elements, some representational, others not. A few cutout shapes sit in grooves and can be positioned anywhere along the groove; one shape hangs from two strings, whose length can presumably be varied. A larger number of shapes are on magnets that adhere to a metal sheet behind the canvas and can be moved anywhere. At the bottom of the picture a part of a planet with mountains in relief seems to become a shock of hair sitting above an abstract white shape; the hair in turn ends in cutout thunderclouds that can be moved.
A number of other variables followed. For some, Fahlstrom made a series of phase drawings showing arrangements he preferred, from which the owner could then select. He also made a number of installation pieces involving cutout figures arranged in space. Many works had versions in several different media--Sitting . . . also became a sculptural variable made out of blocks. The gallery has two sets of these works, the most interesting of which are three versions of World Map: two prints of sketches for World Map and Section of World Map--A Puzzle (1973). In the latter, color images of the map represented in the sketches are printed on magnetized metal squares and arranged in a five-by-eight grid, stuck to a metal plate behind. There's only one "correct" arrangement--the obvious solution to the puzzle, in which images will be continuous across the squares--but the viewer is free to arrange and rearrange the pieces and solve the puzzle again.
World Map in its various forms makes explicit the maplike nature of the "Column" works. The division into countries follows actual geography only very approximately. Yet in a sense Fahlstrom is working in a centuries-old cartographic tradition, in which strange monsters are drawn over unknown lands or images of the goods produced in countries are shown on their land. Instead of such images Fahlstrom uses illustrations and texts that describe facts or express his own views. We learn about various economies--and about death squads and torture--through a panoply of texts, charts, and images. Fahlstrom's criticism is not directed only at capitalism: in the Cuba section he speculates on possible positive and negative outcomes of the revolution by placing opposites at the ends of boards balanced like a lever over an A-frame: "puritanism," for example, at one end, "selflessness" at the other. If one's viewing the puzzle version of this work all these ideas seem even more provisional, only versions of truth.
Fahlstrom also made a number of Monopoly-like board games. On view is Sketch for "Kidnapping Kissinger", which is shaped somewhat like a country: the top border is a straight line (like much of the U.S. northern border); other borders have the curves of coastlines. The "country" is divided into squares labeled with the names of one or two states. Each state is also numbered in the upper left, as if it were also a date on a calendar. Dotted lines thread their way across the squares, and a set of complex rules is written in the border. The eye is not encouraged to look for an aesthetic image but to parse it into states, dates, journeys, rules, plots. The image becomes a landscape, which becomes a game of travel and power. This sketch can also be seen as instructions for viewing most of the other images in the exhibit.
One of the best of Fahlstrom's later works is the 1974 color silkscreen Notes No. 6 (Nixon Dreams), a sketchlike work that consists of many separate images on a white background, all connected only by being different versions of "Nixon dreams." Near the center a sleeping president dreams, via a comic-book thought balloon, of police cars jumping over a barrier. A variety of images, some enigmatic, most bitingly clear, are grouped about the center: scissors with dollar signs for handles, South Vietnam represented as a coffin, a weighted-dice-as-world-map with the U.S. on top. At the top is a small color code that explains the color scheme of this and some of Fahlstrom's other works--the U.S. is blue, Europe is purple, Russia is red, and so on. The eye is invited by the apparent disorder of the arrangement to move about in a variety of directions, connecting the various images in different ways: in other words, to read the images almost as if one's playing a board game. Here too Fahlstrom redefines the relationship between viewer and artwork, and by implication between the viewer and the world, encouraging each viewer to understand concrete facts and relationships rather than journey toward some wordless otherness.