New York

Öyvind Fahlström

Arnold Herstand & Company

This show of Öyvind Fahlström, a lesser-known, but key figure in the Pop art movement, presents prints and multiples made between 1962 and his death in 1976. A dedicated political activist, Fahlström sought to make work that would inform and influence the greatest amount of people, and though his graphic output represents only a fraction of his life’s work, the multiple nature of prints served this goal well.

Fahlström’s first major print, a silk screen of a 1952 felt-tip pen drawing entitled Opera, 1968, introduces his personal language of abstract symbols influenced by music, pre-Columbian book paintings, and the concrete poets, in a horizontal mural-like format. Opera reveals Fahlström’s interest in the repetition and variation of a central motif. In 1958, he began making collages of comic-strip cutouts, and these early experiments with appropriated pop culture imagery are represented here by works such as Dr. Livingston Collage, 1974. Hundreds of comic-strip “bubbles” form an allover abstract pattern evoking a jungle interior, and the artist has included yellow areas where the original newsprint began to age. This work evidences both Fahlström’s early interest in developing a repetitive, highly personal language, and the Pop esthetic he would develop after his move to New York from Sweden in 1961.

Fahlström’s involvement in the New York pop scene of the early ’60s is reflected by his increased use of comic-book images. In 1962, with his “Sitting. . .” series, he invented “variable” paintings and sculptures that featured movable parts. Sitting. . .Dominoes, 1966, presents images silk-screened onto magnets that adhere to a metal board. The viewer is invited to rearrange the magnets, perpetually altering the composition of comic-fragments. In Eddie (Sylvie’s Brother) in the Desert, 1966, two silk-screened panels hang side by side, depicting “before” and “after” versions of a desert landscape. The left panel presents an arsenal of Pop cutouts, gathered in the margin, with the instructions “cut out and arrange”; in the right panel the results appear. Each cutout takes on new meaning by virtue of its placement. In his “variables,” Fahlström—ahead of his time—appropriated images from popular culture and reintroduced them into a protean sign system that effectively subverted their original meaning.

In the early ’70s, Fahlström began to work in a semijournalistic mode, making paintings that addressed national and international issues and events, such as the destruction of the environment, the Vietnam war, and human rights abuses. Mixing straight facts with a cutting sense of humor to get his message across, a format emerged in the “Notes” series, that combined written information with cartoons drawn by the artist. Notes No. 7 (Gook Masks), 1971–75, suggests a pool of floating text fragments and corresponding cartoons that together form a scathing, albeit random satire of the U.S. role in the Vietnam War. In Notes No. 6 (Nixon Dreams), 1974, the president’s nightmares are haunted by war protestors.

In his “Columns” series, the artist’s mature style emerges, in which the text/image couplings are delineated by colored shapes to form “elements,” that lock together like claustrophobic puzzle pieces. Fahlström’s color scheme after 1972 became fixed, each color representing a different political persuasion—blue for the U.S., red or yellow for socialist countries, and green or brown for the third world. Column No. I (Wonderbread), 1972, addresses Vietnam, the history of slavery, the U.S. economy, and the evils of processed food. In all of the “Columns,” diverse subjects receive equal treatment, making for a sometimes overwhelming viewing experience.

Toward the end of his career, Fahlström made prints that presented isolated and enlarged “elements” from earlier paintings. In Seven Elements from "S.O.M.B.A.”, 1974, key bits have been selected, their biomorphic shapes isolated against a light background. Evidencing the artist’s essentially Marxist disposition, these later distillations communicated more clearly and poetically than the originals on which they were based. Of all the Pop artists, Fahlström was the most politically engaged, constantly seeking to develop methods of art production in keeping with his message. He never quite achieved his goal of making high-quality, mass-produced works that would be available for the price of a book or record, but in his graphic works, he came close.

Jenifer P. Borum