Öyvind Fahlström

ÖYVIND FAHLSTRÖM was, of course, the Swedish artist who immigrated to New York in 1961 and became known for work that was related to Pop art but had a political bent that made it marginal to the movement.

True enough. And yet this retrospective, the most comprehensive ever mounted of Fahlström's work, showed that almost every word in that sentence stands in need of questioning—starting with the seemingly straightforward matter of his relation to Pop art. His pair of vacuum-formed plastic signs, ESSO-LSD, 1967, are as characteristic of the period as better-known icons like Robert Indiana's Love or Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe, but their emblematic concision is exceptional in Fahlström's oeuvre. Whereas American Pop tends toward such iconicity, as well as a certain disengagement, Fahlström's approach to blurring the boundaries between art and popular culture is usually garrulous, rhapsodic, minute, and open-hearted. Roy Lichtenstein looked at comics with the cool eye of an ironist and quoted them as though they were anonymous; Fahlström was an impassioned enthusiast—even more so than fellow immigrant Claes Oldenburg. When Fahlström discovered underground comics in the late '60s, he not only wrote an article in the Swedish press proclaiming Robert Crumb “one of the few truly major American artists today” but also borrowed from Crumb's repertoire of forms for his own installation Meatball Curtain (for R. Crumb), 1969, an uproariously colorful environment of flat cut-out forms. He was no newcomer to incorporating the rowdy, anarchical side of vernacular American draftsmanship into his own work, having long before, while still living in Sweden, executed Kalas på MAD (Feast on MAD), 1957–59, a large-scale drawing in which he seems to have taken fragments of motifs found in the satirical magazine and recombined them into a sort of fluid, abstract cartoon.

Then there is the assertion of Fahlström's nationality. He was born not in Sweden but in São Paulo—in 1928, the year in which Oswald de Andrade published his manifesto of cultural cannibalism, Manifesto antropófago. Fahlström was shipped off to visit Swedish relatives in 1939—what timing!—and the outbreak of war prevented his return. On coming of age, he opted for Swedish citizenship, but apparently he never felt entirely at home in his adopted country. While he remains an anomaly as a Swedish artist, Fahlström makes perfect sense as a diasporic Brazilian. His art is in fact quite congruent with that of the great Brazilian artists of his generation, Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, whose “anthropophagous” Neo-Concretism called for participants rather than viewers. Nor is it surprising that a fascination with Latin American art and politics was a constant for Fahlström—from the formal properties of his first significant work, the vast, scroll-like drawing Opera, 1952–53, which was visibly inspired by the pre-Columbian Mexican art he'd seen while working as a tour guide at the Liljevalchs Konsthall in Stockholm, to the overt content of late works in which he vented his obsession with the CIA-backed overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973, among them Packing the Hard Potatoes (Chile 1: Last Months of the Allende Regime. Words by Plath and Lorca); At Five in the Afternoon (Chile z: the Coup. Words by Plath and Lorca); and Skeleton Larks (A Latin America Puzzle. Words by Lorca and Galeano), all 1974.

What really separates Fahlström from most American Pop artists, though, is the literary underpinning of his work. His art is less concerned with showing than with talking. Its origins, in fact, are primarily in concrete poetry, for which he wrote a manifesto in 1953. No wonder he was captivated early on by the work of Giuseppe Capogrossi, the Italian artist whose paintings consisted of swarming iterations of a single highly variable letterlike character. Writing and drawing existed on a continuum for Fahlström, with innumerable intermediate varieties and no inherent contradiction. (Maybe that's why he never saw formal exuberance and referential specificity as antithetical.) Similarly, he recognized no essential distinction between work in two and three dimensions, or between a painting on the one hand and a board game with movable pieces magnetically attached to their wall-mounted support on the other. Such “variable paintings,” probably his best-known work, engaged him from Babies for Africa, 1963, through Night Music 4: Protein Race Scenario (Words by Trakl, Lorca, Plath, and Pietri), realized in 1976, the year of his death.

And yet Fahlström's art was not as protean, as infinitely permutable as he may have wanted it to be. In particular—and in contrast to the brilliant use of photographic imagery by the equally adept draftsman Warhol—whenever Fahlström stepped away from that drawing/writing continuum and yielded to the temptation to use the neutral gaze of photography, his work loses energy, looks dated. (I am thinking, notably, of The Little General (Pinball Machine), 1967, with its flotilla of pictorial elements drifting freely on a pool of water.) His subject matter extended to the grand scale of geopolitical events (essentially a new form of history painting) and, though his political aspirations are less interesting than his anxieties and even paranoia, to utopian desires for humanity at large, as in the installation Garden—A World Model, 1973. But its embodiment was always entrusted to the eccentric immediacies of the hand, the insubordinate divagations of a line that had more than a little affinity with Surrealist automatism, as shown, for instance, in the studies that make up 20 Improvisations (for Chile 2), 1973–74. Such forms, as incorporated into Fahlström's more elaborate compositions, could be deliberately athwart their constative meaning. Their intricacy, as the artist himself once observed, “may have something of the surprising beauty of tropical fish.”

Barry Schwabsky is a frequent contributor to Artforum.