PRINT October 1978

Oyvind Fahlstrom’s Political Gamesmanship

OYVIND FAHLSTROM DIED OF cancer on November 9, 1976. He left behind a question, scribbled in the diaristic notations of his late work. It is phrased as a question of “political art,” and reads: “Can we become the sons/daughters of Marx and Mondrian?”

The query is not original. The social role of the artist has been hotly debated since the late 18th century, with accelerated energy in the last decades. The literature on “engagement,” “commitment,” and the ethical obligation of the artist is indication enough. What is original is Fahlstrom’s answer, its esthetic cast, and its relation to the dense and involuted imagery of his mature work. For there are two ways to interpret the proposed merger. One involves a division between political and esthetic activity. This is the conventional separation of the artist’s roles, each passionately pursued, as a member of society and as a specialist. The other entails a restructuring of artistic norms to accord with political aims. It posits an “authentic” political art—a Marxist art, capable of intervening in history through the efficacy of form. Such is the art Fahlstrom proposed—at once “high” and socially concerned.

The paradox is that an antiformal, antimodernist approach was to give rise to radical formal developments. In a well-known remark Adorno said that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. The statement suggests problems extending beyond iconography and theme. For the difficulty in political art lies in its phrasing, or what might be called the adequacy of form to its intentions. This is particularly the case in Fahlstrom’s art, which he defined as a historical, critical art “about certain facts.” His aims can be summarized in a group of proposals to incorporate the language of realism (data, events, snippets of popular speech and opinion) into the formal structure of art; to make an openly ideological art free of the tincture of propaganda; to provide a legible language, using terms in the common domain, so as to avoid the hermeticism of formalism; and to provide an art symbiotic with modern life, doing that so as to stir the viewer to action. For all the idealism of his statements, Fahlstrom’s is a resolutely pragmatic art.

In this wedding of ends to means, the example is not Goya, George Grosz, Rivera or the Russian Constructivists but Bertolt Brecht. In the ’20s, as we know, Brecht began to broach new themes and to ponder the “cognitive adequacy” of form. The project of a play about grain speculation led him to question how the theater could deal with topics like the world distribution of wheat, the workings of commerce and high finance. Such things, he told Elisabeth Hauptmann, were not “dramatic in the accepted sense, and if you try to translate them into poetic terms they are no longer true. . . . But if it is realized that the present-day world does not fit the established dramatic form, then that dramatic form is no longer suitable for our world.” The epic theater, with rough and incongruous juxtapositions, unnatural actions and the famous principle of alienation, was to provide a “workable picture” of this world, and work for its alteration. And such devices—like quotations from Brecht—are spread throughout Fahlstrom’s oeuvre. Their impulse is revolution; a quotation in the corner of a painting notes that “the bourgeois artist paints the hull of a sinking ship.”

Brecht was not the only source. Fahlstrom was often denounced as a “literary” artist. He was, besides being an artist, a dramatist, poet, critic, journalist, broadcaster, filmmaker and minor philosopher of sorts. His origins were not in the visual arts, where he was self-trained, but in the “laboratory” of the word. Fahlstrom began as a poet-playwright in Sweden, where he had moved from Brazil in 1939 at the age of 11. These literary beginnings are important, as the issues of political function and the esthetic representation of the world have been better enunciated in verbal than visual language. From 1950 to 1955 he fully embodied this critical pattern, writing criticism and journalism along with his literary pursuits.

It is also important that he began as a concrete poet, in a movement bent on annexing alien fields. That transgressional sensibility, launched against the word’s privileged status, struck a sympathetic chord in Fahlstrom’s free-ranging imagination. Concrete poetry was more than a passing phase; its echoes permeate every aspect of his work, from the early essays in serial form to the visual onomatopoeia in his late work. In 1953 he defined his aims for non-symbolic language in a widely published manifesto, the gist of which advocated treating words as workable plastic material and, ultimately, as “evidence.” Renunciation of syntax and grammar in favor of relating single words prefigured Fahlstrom’s incongruous juxtapositions and wildly accretive style. From the notion of “architectures” of verbal/visual nexi came his “electric arcs” linking different facts or forms. Many works, like LSD-ESSO, 1967, are similar to the products of Italian poesia visiva, with overtly political themes.

Concrete poetry, however, provided more valuable lessons in its interweaving of world and word. Its program can be seen as a concentration of literature’s links with history, stressing that art, as the natural product of time, must express time in its essential forms. Its mission was to provide pictures of the world through verbal forms: to figure plural spaces and intermingled time through syntax, image and apposition. Such notions, used in Fahlstrom’s writings, were easily translated into the plastic realm. Moving from the world as a vocabulary to jumbles of data and economic facts required but a closer alignment of political aims. Much as the movement, heeding Marinetti (and Mallarmé), railed against the flatness of the page, with its intimations of linear time, Fahlstrom rebuked the balanced stasis of formal art. Instead he expressed simultaneity as the essential trait of the modern era in his dispersed, noncausal arrangement of forms.

Fahlstrom stressed the temporality of his earliest works, describing them as space-time experiments. The early 1950s work sees two distinct, though not contradictory, types. In the first known drawings, dating from 1952, scrambled organic forms—really graphemes—group and regroup, collide and explode. Space is in constant rearrangement and dispersion. A shifting equilibrium among the swarming multiplicity of forms presents an image of simultaneity. The analogue of withholding connections is abrupt: illogical transitions. The second type, which developed around 1955, reflects Fahlstrom’s growing concentration on the visual arts. It introduces the concept of character-forms, or distinctive traits, taken from pre-Columbian codices and calendar hieroglyphs. In Serial Painting, 1955, action develops through the repetition and modulation of forms. These changing elements recall the concrete poets’ works with gradually shifting letters. The character-forms—curved or irregular shapes which “can be recognized when they are repeated, varied, dressed”—figure time’s passage through variations in space. The counterpart to passing time, fixed time or eternity, is given in the grid played against the progression of diagonal bands.

Gradually Fahlstrom began to include figures among abstract shapes, and to move toward the form of the parable. This tendency is a logical emanation from his interest in time, particularly the “bisociation,” (Fahlstrom’s term) of linear and eternal time. A painting like Ade-Ledic-Nander, 2, 1955–57, with its profusion of unmistakable and unrecognizable forms, illustrates this move toward narrative. The painting is also the first to draw from an external source—a science-fiction story by Van Vogt citing the wars between three separate clans. In Fahlstrom’s work an abstract pattern of cosmic war is developed through the features of character-forms. Time is expressed in motion from far to near, countered by the swirling, simultaneous disks at the viewer’s eye. Action is created through visual poesis, exploiting the power of image against image, like word laid by word, to elicit meaning.

By 1957—before he had settled in America, and before the cresting of Pop art—Fahlstrom had arrived at the comic-strip form. This can be viewed as a self-critical strategy, accompanied as it was by articles describing comics as linking short stories to films. It was also an artistic climate, a verbal-visual merger auguring Fahlstrom’s interest in hybrid genres. With their lexicon of codified signs in a modern, consumer-goods style, comics provided the dream of the concrete movement; a language of infinite accessibility, void of the hermeticism of either form or word. This visual Esperanto had clear appeal for Fahlstrom, who was always to call for elements in public domain. From the visual grammar of comics, with their separate and relatable parts, he drew illuminations which recur throughout his work. The construction of narrative time by shifts in space was primary: the word “kinetics” recurs in Fahlstrom’s writings, and the cinematics of comics furnished a ready fund of examples. Actually, the vocabulary of montage was established in comics long before Eisenstein introduced it in film, with shot and sequence, tracking forward and back and overlapping dialogue rendered in graphic equivalents. Such devices, with tones and forms, used as narrative links, are spread throughout Fahlstrom’s works. Works like Eddie (Sylvie’s Brother) in the Desert (made in 1965, after the “major” comic works) illustrate these principles in their different groups of identical figures constructing a developing drama; in the voyaging levels of space; in the nuances or flashbacks alluded to by telescoped space; in the way a spatio-temporal structure is cast out on the flat space of combination and arrangement. The lampoon’s gesture, used for satiric comment, enters through these cartoonlike works. From comics Fahlstrom derived a language and conventions to advance narrative: light bulbs for flashes of recognition; arrows to note shifts in time, or levels of thought; balloons and explosions; visual onomatopoeia like skulls, suns, sinking ships for failure, or logs sawn above sleeping heads. Comic-strip figures in current situations—Orphan Annie as Angela Davis, Superman for the United States—develop from these early works into the late World Map.

Fahlstrom’s varied, and at times contradictory, experiments with temporal structure are evident in such comic works as Dr. Livingstone, I Presume, 1961. Fahlstrom had come to New York in 1961 on scholarship, liked what he found—an easy, relaxed atmosphere—and decided to stay. He quickly made friends with Oldenburg, Lichtenstein, and with Rauschenberg—whose idea of a fluid continuum is doubtless reflected in these early works. Dr. Livingstone is formed of hundreds of comic fragments pasted in a wide, pulsing amalgam, presenting “reality” as an endless flow of information. A sense of simultaneity comes through in the equal weight accorded elements differently placed in space and in the shifting places imparted by the tattered edges of collage. Another approach is evident in Sitting, Like Pat with a Rat in her Hat, 1962 (the references move through free association from Patty Oldenburg and her clothes to the Batman comics Fahlstrom was reading at the time). Here schematic white lines from comics segment the canvas into sequences in time. Reading the scrambled imagery depends on recurring factors. The character-forms and comic images repeated by color and contour, size and shape, transpose Sitting into a “discontinuous image” of plural spaces and times—an image, Fahlstrom notes, that is “far removed from a closed, boxlike and centered composition.” Other works hew to more typical narrative. Performing Krazy Kat, 1964, advances by juxtaposition, with panel against panel structuring its plot in a common comic-strip way. Here Fahlstrom lifts his character from George Herriman’s strip, painting in a newly linear style. The word assumes significance, and points to the importance of the reader-viewer. A brick thrown between horizontal panels, counteracting the linear, left-to-right scan, provides connectives.

Yet Fahlstrom, like Rivera, Guston and Reinhardt, was undoubtedly also drawn to the political dimension of comics. Much as Brecht turned to gangster films and beer-garden comedy, to Bavarian fairy tales and the spicy language of Kipling and Jack London, Fahlstrom was attracted to comics’ structure as parable, and their inflection by a specific time. If one briefly scans the history of comics, one can note their sensitivity to social conditions, to variations in public taste and political situations. Their success as a mass medium has always depended on topicality. Hence their readiness to function as political propaganda, which, in turn, is why they furnish important documents for historians. Their own historical development in America lagged behind the European comic, whose major features were developed by 1890. Political slants are obvious in Rudolph Dirk’s Katzenjammer Kids (a favorite of Picasso’s), with their will to destruction stated as “society is nix”; in Jean-Pierre Pinchon’s Becassine (c. 1905); and in Louis Forton’s La Bande des pieds-nickeles (c. 1908), with its allusions and jibes at Deroulade, Jaures and contemporary politicians. By 1910 American cartoonists were split into two ranks, “entertainers” and “thinkers.” Among the latter was George Herriman, whose Krazy Kat (1910–44) portrayed the battles between Ofissa Pup, guardian of law and order, and Ignatz, the embodiment of anarchy. Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie (1924ff) introduced a clear ideology—that of the Right—into the strip, a tendency that was accelerated during the ’40s, when war-time sentiments were injected into such complacent vehicles as Joe Palooka and Jungle Jim. In each case, the appeal of topical, easily projected feelings dictated their incorporation into popular forms.

Children read as adventure stories what adults interpret as modern myths—a fact underlying the easy acceptance, and social power, of the comic. Much of Fahlstrom’s interest probably springs from this dual force. If we study the sources that Fahlstrom used, their appeal is more than the easy allure of Pop art. Krazy Kat is there; the social morality of Mad is there. Robert Crumb’s theater, with its vulgar Venuses and raunchy underground swells, puts in appearances as late as 1970. For The Black Room, a play written in 1971, Fahlstrom used not only a dozen Hollywood B-movies but quotations from “E-C Comics,” a series censored in the 1950s for its violent political themes (example: a man was beaten to death by a crowd of “patriots” because he did not take off his hat to the American flag; he turned out to be a blind veteran). Beneath the variant stories run the themes of vulnerability of the hero and of good battered by evil that are common to comic plots. Such parables of human foibles, when set against current history, provided political versions of the moritat or street-singer’s tale.

What is the relation between these early experiments with comics and character-forms and Fahlstrom’s late, overtly political works? The answer is that the course of contemporary history supplied him with an endless succession of horrors with which to fill out his basic scenarios and to elaborate the roles of torturer and victim present in his early works. It is not far from Ofissa Pup and Ignatz to the quashed uprisings of New Guinea, the stymied hopes of socialist Chile and the numerous lynchings of the present-day world. Each provided enough details to develop the lineaments of a leftist vision. Here those “character-forms” function as emblems of eternity and change. (In The Black Room this fusion or “bisociation”— Fahlstrom’s term—is obvious, as Watergate is seen “as a combination of the timeless corruption in America and the fascist tendencies during the Nixon regime.”) Their recurrence recalls Robespierre’s division of the world into “pure” and “corrupted”; Fahlstrom’s opposition is a bipolar alignment of Americans against Asians, imperialists against the Third World, “motherfuckers” against “pigs.” These terms are constants in his work, recognizable whatever their role or “dress.” Their importance, moreover, is dual, as they defeat the notion of “progress,” or linear time, embedded both in modernism and political thought.

In a manifesto entitled “Take Care of the World” Fahlstrom cited the value of repetition as “showing that a rule functions—thus the value of space-temporal form and of variable form.” Sitting—Six Months Later, 1962, a version of the earlier work, is the first to use cut-out and movable magnetized parts. These “variable” pieces are made of sheet iron faced with vinyl on which a tempera image is painted. The easily manipulable elements permit an assortment of arrangements, and the viewer is free to group any or all elements at will. (An example of how far Fahlstrom would go in this direction is found in two later versions of Sitting, 1966, one in which the panels themselves are movable, the other where they form blocks which the viewer can arrange into chairs.) An image can actually be placed, rather than repeated in paint, onto different parts of the canvas. Since the configuration shifts constantly, formal composition is subverted. Attention moves from pictorial structure to meanings engendered by the constant rearrangement. Often plots, scores or scenarios were attached to indicate an initial plan, but basically the technique stresses the maximum freedom and mobility of forms.

It has been said that Fahlstrom, as a nomadic artist given to rapid and plentiful travels, had to invent the portable medium of variable art. But while this is probably true, Fahlstrom seemed to see in it a catchall solution to his difficulties with Art. The movable form, he said, involved neither “the one-sidedness of realism, nor the formalism of abstract art, nor the balanced unrelationships in Surrealist pictures, nor the balanced unrelationships in neo-dadaist works.” Such a neutral, antiesthetic, antisymbolic approach suggests that certain poetic premises were assets to his art and, ultimately, to a viable political art. For Fahlstrom did not call these works paintings, but “picture-organs:” machines for making art. Early works like Sitting, Eddie or Switchboard, from 1963, are akin to Concrete attempts at self-created poems. In Switchboard, for example, visual/sound “poems” can be made from the phrases and forms aligned on the board’s lower part. These quizzical elements—the verbal spliced phrases of nautical songs, thrillers and low-class novels (“His mouth drew into a tight line,” “Vital to ze mission,” etc.)—comprise, as visual character-forms, a lexicon of nonsense units from which meaning can be made only through the viewer’s acts. We move, in this hybrid art, from the reader-viewer of the comic to the viewer-participant. “Sense” is achieved through “electric arcs,” in which the touching of elements elicits unexpected affinities and impact.

If we extend this approach to Fahlstrom’s late works, exchanging data and events for words and forms, variable art has clear advantages for morally neutral expression. No stance, for one thing, is taken. Though opinions and ideas are included, their use depends on the participant’s acts, and ambiguity is implicit in the changing equilibrium of forms. No position, moreover, is definitive. The “meaning” of each work shifts constantly according to context and situation. Pictures of the world can be constantly revised, leading to a reading through time corresponding to history in the making. Thus, also, the readings allowed by these varying relations approximate a linguistic syntax or the operations of a game.

This is not the place to stress analogies with Saussure and his chess game used as an image for language. It is enough that Fahlstrom had developed these ideas by the early 1960s—long before they became common coin in American art. Moreover, game structure, with its merger of rules, mobile pieces and the all-important chance, came to play an increasing role in Fahlstrom’s work starting in 1965. The basics of game structure underlie many constructions, but one series is patterned on actual game forms, the titles themselves being indicative: Dominoes, 1965; Roulette, 1966; World Trade Monopoly, 1970; CIA Monopoly, 1971; Pentagon Puzzle, 1970, are but a few. Several, such as Kidnapping Kissinger, 1970, refer to topical figures, with their action advanced by increments of contemporary facts. Throughout, the game functions strategically, as a model for present-day scenarios—a formalized version of the conflicts described as early as Ade-Ledic-Nander, 2. As in all games, a contingent relation is imposed between free and invariable elements. Rules function to set up conditions, and to fix the total play of perspectives, while chance is implicit in the functioning of the movable parts. Success, as in real life, is predicated on knowledge of the rules of the game, although these are often implied rather than clear in its operations.

But the game supplies a critical as well as an operative strategy. If we study the vernacular of politics, two basic lexicons separate out. On the one hand, such language is replete with dramatic references: allusions to scene, stage and role, to scenario, acts and drama, are pronounced. The other vocabulary is formed of “positions” and “moves,” of players and strategies, culminating in references to “the game” of politics itself. Moreover, Fahlstrom’s games, for all their bright colors and scrambled forms, present accurate models of political systems, in which units or nations interact according to fairly regular patterns. Morgenstern and von Neuman’s Game Theory might provide a larger model for these plots of economic competition and war. Even a cursory view shows the similarities. Systemic analysis “explains” political behavior according to changing distributions of power. Each state’s behavior affects the behavior of the others; each move or strategy is interdependent, reflecting a narrow policy range. The various states’ interests are similarly restricted, and contribute to a uniformity of behavior. The operation of the model tends toward the maintenance of equilibrium, with shifts in the power axis causing responding shifts and changes in the system echoed by each and every member. Among models of international policy, the bipolar one is the most familiar, corresponding to Fahlstrom’s alignments of warring groups.

Such an agon of economic powers, set against the backdrop of China, Africa or wherever, betrays the persistently theatrical cast of Fahlstrom’s work. If we acknowledge his debts to theater culture—evident in the stage-set works, scenario details, or in his plays themselves (Hammarskjold on God, The Brothers Strindberg, Pardon, Hitler, The Black Room, numerous happenings), his obvious mentor is Brecht. It seems not unlikely that Fahlstrom tried, through his various tactics, to form an artistic parallel to Brecht’s theater of consciousness, with its implicit directive to alter the environment. Both urged the discovery of the conditions of life; both attempted to portray them in parables of relations, rather than human nature—alignments of signs, with their parallels in economic, social and political terms. I include a quotation from a friend’s letter, a response to which, like all viewers, Fahlstrom was unusually attentive: “Look this is the way it is look at it why are you avoiding what I am saying why don’t you see it and if you see it how can you let it happen”—an emoted definition, but a fair analogue to the “theater of astonishment” that Benjamin cited as Brecht’s. Variable art can be seen as a painterly means of encouraging viewers to take sides, to become “engaged,” conceptually to manipulate data so as to arrive at solutions. In this way, Fahlstrom’s heuristic art, like the “epic, narrative, historical theater,” might become a “tool for social engineering.”

Brecht, heeding the cry to transform the world, was to refer to his theater as “the Marxist theater par excellence.” One of Marx’s letters supplies a pertinent view on such ethics of astonishment. “The reform of consciousness,” he wrote to Arnold Ruge, “exists merely in the fact that one makes the world aware of its consciousness, that one awakens the world out of its dreams, that one explains to the world its own acts.” In the painter’s language, the term is “present.” Fahlstrom’s is the role of witness rather than educator: he posits an ideal spectator with his detached and unequivocal eye. In this process the viewer forms a necessary complement, as a counter to the charge of propaganda. Although Fahlstrom’s is an openly ideological art, the viewer is delegated to be interpreter, drawing inferences from the data seen. As this dyad requires emphasis, a host of tactics were developed to shift from “I” to “you.” The first was the variable, with its easy manipulation of parts. In The Black Room such freedom was invested in stage direction, with deletion, addition and substitution suggested for all interested parties. Meatball Curtain, 1970, was designed for replication, with its permeable, movable elements encouraging myriad “pictures of the world.”

Gradually Fahlstrom moved toward a position in which the spectator was implicit in the composition. Manipulation, though retained in many works, became an intellectual, rather than manual, act. The late works, from the World Map and Columns to the Night Music scenarios and Chile protest sagas, depend on the viewer’s participation to order and reconstruct the very data; the task of “making sense” is central to the enterprise.

Possibly Fahlstrom succeeded too well in his heuristic aims. Frequent comments note that the work demands too much from the viewer, is “exhausting” or only intellectually stimulating—less culinary art (Brecht’s term), with enticing shapes and colors, than art to make one think. The operation of such “machines” is best seen in the World Map, 1972, a key example of Fahlstrom’s synoptic talents and of the accretive structure of his mature style. Its form is a wide, extensible flow-chart of information that only vaguely approximates the shape of a map. Within the rough regions of countries lie facts, comic strip bubbles, quotes and grotesquely caricatured forms. These elements, grouped in registers, are rendered in strident colors, with unsettling imbalances of shape and hue. Their impulse is journalistic. They assemble, by enumeration, an inventory of contemporary experience. Against the facts of United Fruit profits (85% Puerto Rican industry U.S.-owned, etc.) are placed reports that a hungry child has devoured her finger. Dictates from diplomats’ manuals proclaim the virtues of demure behavior during popular revolts. Elsewhere, a poster held by a smiling Chiang Kai Shek reads “Welcome to Taiwan. Cheapest labor in East Asia. Wages 10¢ an hour, no strikes.” “Then a brief revolution in April ’64 brought into being a government practically made to order for foreign investment,” states an excerpt on Brazil from Business Week, as a later scenario shows the military teaching torture on political prisoners. Skulls, question marks, explosions and grotesque forms are interspersed as visual semaphores, flash-forwards to action.

The diffuse, undifferentiated array of images and words recalls the structure of Dr. Livingstone, “painted” in 1964. As in Livingstone, events are reduced to the field of simultaneous time—of contemporary history—and, as in Livingstone, the eye shifts constantly among the elements in a queer, disorienting space. Like the earlier work, it presents an attempt to figure modern time, in its imbricated space, but it offers an ambiguity central to Fahlstrom’s mature work. World Map offers the paradox of images and words intended to be read—like storyboards, rebuses and pictographic texts—which are both symbols of an information-rich society and of the near-illegibility of facts. A quote from Fahlstrom is relevant here: “I deplore my incapacity to find out what is going on, what life, the world, is about, through the confusion of propaganda, language, time, etc.” In the map and its correlates, this material, garnered from diverse sources (news reports, popular and specialized journals, economic studies and speeches) is strewn over an overcharged field too wide to take in with a single glance. The eye in its trajectory constantly watches things slip in and out of focus, seizing an insight only to dissolve it in the confusion of scrambled forms. This irresolution forces attention. The content of material can be grasped only by concentrated reading. Such dispersion serves as an attentive aid, and attack on the single or stressed images common to “formal” art.

It functions, as well, as an image of cognition. Consider two quotations, the first from Max Weber: “The absolute infinitude of this multiplicity of objects and events in the world must be ordered by the observer, according to the ideas he brings to the object of his scientific inquiry;” the other, from Spanier’s Games Nations Play:

. . . making sense of international political life means surmounting a fantastic amount of fragmented information. It is all too easy to be overwhelmed by the masses of data that literally bombard us in random fashion throughout our working hours—newspaper articles, television news, Presidential press conferences, official communiqués—all of which add up to a stockpile of jumbled information. All these bits and pieces become intelligible only when they become organized.

The latter is political, of course: but all fictions, artworks or opinions entail rearrangements of reality. Without such rearrangement, reality is void of sense, for order is essential to its apprehension. If we isolate this tendency toward meaning, it can find a concrete analogue in a Fahlstrom work. Its completion depends on yet another duality, that of evidence and inference, embodied in witness and judge. The evidence signalizes: fragments of information work as starters of thought. Since the evidence is not developed, but distributed over the surface, the task of interpretation is delegated to the viewer. To him belongs the job of tying together, of aligning details, of finding clear currents beneath the confusion of facts. Art, in this sense, is a historical hieroglyph: within the random distribution of material is an implicit appeal to decipher.

This is what Barthes would call an art of signification, in which meaning, though imminent, is arrested. It is also Jiri Kolar’s world of “evidence,” where word and image, Leonardo’s Madonnas and the kitchen sink, touch unaccountably before the viewer’s eye (similarities could be stressed, I think, between the common literary origins of Fahlstrom and Kolar and their relation to an interior politic of art). In literary history Fahlstrom had a ready fund of exercises in unfulfilled meaning: to make mechanisms of meaning, or meaning-machines, is the literary game itself. If we acknowledge the urge to restore words’ multiplicity—to make them shimmering matter, glistening with meanings—then the choice, the responsibility for choice, resides in the reader. This literary morality is built into devices for involving the reader, including shifts in person and experiments with leveled time. Between readings and his Concrete manipulations Fahlstrom had a reputable legacy to draw upon. And the Brechtian theater, with its questions rather than answers, in which the viewer is brought to recognition purely through exposition, helped too. It remained for Fahlstrom to link such signification to political thought, and to discover its applications in the visual arts.

It remains, as well, for us to examine our critical categories so as to admit the phenomenon of “political art.” And to examine whether “literature,” imbalance, scattered forms, and dry, difficult facts—all targets of criticism in Fahlstrom’s work—have a value in a certain domain. Possibly the art might have fared better nowadays under “pluralism.” There the wider critical structures might more easily acknowledge an art whose imbalanced and altering form looks not to Art, self or idea, but to multileveled or “impure” concerns: to structure as a metaphor for the world, and as a cognitive aid; to structure as an image of human relations, and of economic and social terms; and to structure as a means of moving from an impossible present to a revolutionary future. Fahlstrom, like many radicals, tended to describe his works as political tools, and like tools, they are pointedly shaped.

Kate Linker