New York

Öyvind Fahlström

Feigen Contemporary

“Supertotalitarianism to preserve the world for the rich and powerful few . . .”; “Become bourgeois or else (US style)”; “boom for Whom?” It appears that Öyvind Fahlström has been reading the news. But no: The puckish and prolific painter, filmmaker, writer, and documentarian died in 1976 at the age of forty-seven. Born in Brazil and raised there and in Sweden, Fahlström was unabashedly political, exuberantly absurd, and dauntingly prolific. He was at the forefront of the Concrete Poetry movement, something of an expert on Surrealist compositional techniques, and a pioneer in the use of both comic-book imagery and portraits of culturally charged figures like Chairman Mao (predating Lichtenstein and Warhol). Loopy, colorful, verbally and visually dense, the two-part exhibition featured approximately forty prints and multiples from the Bank One Art Collection as well as eleven rare drawings and paintings. Though the work on view represented only a fraction of Fahlström’s output, it functioned as a primer for the career of an artist who—because of an early death, a radical, polymorphous oeuvre, or simply capricious history biding its time—is not yet considered the titan he should be, at least in American art circles.

An article by Fahlström on “The Comics as an Art” appeared in a Swedish newspaper in 1954; in 1957, references to MAD Magazine began appearing in his work. In 1969, while he was researching Surrealist automatism, Mayan codices, and Cagean compositional procedures, a trip to Los Angeles introduced him to the drawings of R. Crumb and Zap Comix. These discoveries show up in Fahlström’s prints, which buzz with a crowded, stickin’-it-to-the-Man kind of energy while achieving a multilayered and harmonious visual flow.

With images based on jigsaw puzzles, dollar bills, and pie charts throughout, it’s easy to see why Fahlström’s work gets lumped under the rubric of Pop. But he doesn’t really belong there. Notes 6 (Nixon’s Dreams), 1974, for instance, shows a blue-faced, insomniac Tricky Dick counting panthers jumping over a police barrier and an electrified map of South Vietnam lying on a catafalque surrounded by gold bullion. Notes 7 (“Gook”-masks), 1971–75, a hand-colored etching, depicts Smokey Bear, Angela Davis, Uncle Sam, of course, and personifications of Hiroshima and South Africa. What American Pop-ist would base an entire composition on snatches of poetry by Sylvia Plath (Sixteen Elements from “Chile I,” 1976/89), or include in a dense, rollicking silkscreen a request addressed “Dear Picasso” that the artist remove Guernica from MoMA until the United States withdraw from Southeast Asia (Column no. 2 [Picasso 90], 1973)?

Fahlström’s relative lack of critical lionization is belied by the fame of some of Pop’s abject, punk-rock offspring whose work was prefigured in his—among them Raymond Pettibon, Matthew Ritchie, Carroll Dunham, and Mike Kelley. In fact, any contemporary artist who mixes words with pictures, sociocultural reference with dreamlike personal form, or writing and performance with painterly and graphic production is, to a certain degree, Fahlström’s inheritor. There’s little about this artist that isn’t, still, en avant.

Indeed, like the late Mark Lombardi, whose post-Conceptual depictions of political and financial malfeasance bear a distinct relation to this very body of work, Fahlström is an artist one wishes were here to comment now: Guernica, rejected by the UN in February 2003 as a too-embarrassing backdrop for a press conference on Iraq, has again become symbolic in the struggle against a cryptoimperialist US-led war, while the problem of creating effective agitprop that maintains aesthetic independence is, of course, perennial.

Frances Richard