Öyvind Fahlström

This large retrospective of Oyvind Fahlström’s work, curated by Thomas Nordanstad and Deborah Thompson, traces the development of the idea of the artwork as a game from the early abstract canvases, to the multivalent paintings from the ’60s (in which one can discern a shift from the abstract to the figurative), and finally to the Monopoly games and installations from the early ’70s. In addition to the retrospective, the critic John Peter Nilsson organized an exhibition that examined the influence of Fahlström on Swedish art. Works by Maya Eizin, Lars Hillersberg, Joakim Pirinen, Carsten Regild, Martin Wickström, and Ola Åstrand demonstrate how different aspects of Fahlström’s art have been adopted and developed since his death.

Fahlström’s works give expression to the kind of commitment that verges on mania. His maps, Monopoly boards, and variable paintings are no irresponsible fantasy games detached from political reality; they’re manifestations of an obsession. Fahlström dreamed of art forms that would go beyond subjective expression. In his view, what is central to an artwork is not its style or its psychological expressiveness, but something much broader: “strategy, manipulation, political psychodrama.” As the oft-cited essay by Walter Benjamin points out, in the era of mechanical reproduction art can no longer rely on uniqueness, but must reflect a new social reality. In the essay “Multiples,” 1966, Fahlström declared, “It is time to incorporate advances in technology to create mass-produced works of art, obtainable by the rich and the not rich.”

Little by little, the politics, technology, and media of the times entered Fahlström’s work. In the ’50s, evidence of the influence of pppular culture on his oeuvre was already present in the form of Bill Elder’s cartoons in Mad magazine, and soon American mass-culture was flooding his work. But one should not forget that when Fahlström left Sweden for New York in 1961, he had already produced a large body of work, and it is also quite clear that the early canvases relied on certain fundamental ideas that not even the encounter with American Pop art made him question.

One such idea is that the artwork should be conceived of as a game, consisting of a fixed number of elements that can be manipulated according to strict “rules of transformation.” This way of working reached its apogee in 1957 in the swarming Ade-Ledic-Nander, a painting jammed with meticulously finished details: small figures line up in series, engender each other through division, and stream out of cosmic funnels like angular insects. In a 27-page commentary, Fahlström accounts, in structuralist fashion, for the system of “rules of transformation” that underlie this painting. It is a metapoetical essay that describes what goes on in the painting, but it could also be read as a surrealistic poem. The name of the piece derives from a science-fiction story by A. E. Vogt that centers on the mysterious “adeledicnander principle.” But Fahlström’s version seems to be a free-floating fantasy, one that makes no reference to any preexisting literary or mythological system.

Fahlström has had many admirers, from Robert Rauschenberg to Mike Kelley. His influence on the Scandinavian art scene has steadily increased, such that today, almost twenty years after his demise, his art seems more urgent than ever. In spite of the fact that some of the political references link the works rather strictly to the period during which they were made, the dexterity and the geopolitical sensibility manifested in pieces such as C.I.A. Monopoly, 1971, and Kidnapping Kissinger, 1972, make his art appear highly relevant.

In an interview from the mid ’60s, he reflected on what it was to be a truly committed artist: “The artist is like an agent, like a spy, or a member of a clandestine organization. Previously I thought that I could paint at certain times, and entertain myself at others. But lately I have realized that you are never off-duty as an artist, the eternal fishing and hunting goes on continuously, and like a member of the resistance you can never relax, since you know that it can knock on your door at any time during the night.”

Daniel Birnbaum