Los Angeles

Oyvind Fahlstrom

Stella Polaris Gallery

When the Swedish artist Oyvind Fahlstrom died of cancer in 1976, at the age of 48, he left many paintings and drawings and a few large-scale three-dimensional installations. His most ambitious effort in the latter genre was Meatball Curtain: Homage to R. Crumb, realized in 1969 for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s controversial and well-remembered “Art and Technology” show. High spirits and high ideals collided in a recent revival of the piece.

There is little advanced technology involved in these large freestanding painted metal-and-plastic figures, who owe their shapes and existence, if not their present complex scenario, to the irreverent and revered cartoonist R. Crumb. Robert Crumb was the star graphic artist and visionary of ZAP comics during the late ’60s and early ’70s; his readers enjoyed the vividly drawn political, erotic, and social satire one would expect from “the comic that turns you on.” While visiting Los Angeles, Fahlstrom saw the then-current first issue of ZAP and conceived of a freestanding adaptation of Crumb’s tale of “cosmic meatballs that rain down on the earth”––in Fahlstrom’s words an “homage to Robert Crumb, to a great American artist.”

During the early ’60s Fahlstrom was active in New York City, at a time when his penchant for popular art forms and kitsch throwaway objects ran parallel to the early stages of Pop. Yet Fahlstrom maintained a rare earnestness that stood in contrast to the tongue-in-cheek irreverence and art-about-art gamesmanship of his American counterparts. His art contains pointed references to real games—global economic warfare and military intervention by superpowers in third-world countries. Most often the United States is cast in the part of the villain: tragicomic caricatures of Vietnam War figures, CIA agents, grotesque fat cats, and the American urban poor populate Fahlstrom’s work from 1960 to 1974.

Meatball Curtain presents a jolly facade at first encounter, but we soon see figures tumbling in space, wildly out of control, the phallic form of an erotically detailed rocket defending a technocratic society, the prone form of a woman held down by a sinister shower of dollars. A disturbing element to do with the work itself is the ill-defined overlay of Fahlstrom’s ambitious tableau on the small-scale sardonic graphics of Crumb. To make this borrowed imagery truly his own, Fahlstrom would have had to convince us to share his outrage; his once timely script has dulled with the passage of years, its strident urgency somehow inappropriate in a time of muffled anguish and shopworn guilt. The crisp, shiny silhouettes of his factory-fabricated characters are also distinctly of their period. They are taken so faithfully from Crumb that one looks in vain for Fahlstrom’s own graphic touch, so much in evidence in the drawings and small constructions that admirably fleshed out this exhibition. Culture-bound and topical, yet strangely out-of-time, Meatball Curtain may appear in sharper relief in a decade or more when it is firmly located in the realm of history.

Susan C. Larsen