Dick Bengtsson

Dick Bengtsson painted his last swastika in 1972. It materializes in the four closing panels of the Domburg Suite, which he fashioned after Piet Mondrian’s progressively abstract versions of a church façade in Domburg, Holland. The creditability of modern abstraction, as Mondrian and others conceived it, had long since reached its low-water mark: In 1964, Donald Judd declared, in “Specific Objects,” that relevance had become a stranger to painting and sculpture; Roy Lichtenstein’s Red Painting (Brushstroke), 1965, downgraded its emotional content to something reproducible at will; and with Joseph Kosuth’s “Art After Philosophy I and I I,” 1968, the final undoing of modern art seemed at hand. While Bengtsson’s verdict on modernism’s upshot came a few years late, his retrospective shows that it was also more piquant and emotive than those current in New York in the ’60s. As Domburg Suite successively turns from fair to foul, abstract lines à la Mondrian gather into an accusing Nazi emblem, the unambiguous icon of high-culture fascism. Emotions ran high in those ideological wars.

Furthermore, Bengtsson’s use of the swastika, appearing in several paintings, including Landscape with Church, 1969, and Interior from Kumla Prison, 1971, poignantly rakes at Sweden’s claim to neutrality during World War II. The gift of hindsight charitably amended Sweden’s role to that of self-interested noncombatant, an assessment closer to, but still at arm’s length from, full acceptance of the truth, and so Bengtsson’s swastikas continue to provoke animosity. If his handling of the symbol initially registered as uncouth, if not to say unhinged, this retrospective confirmed that Bengtsson was as attuned to the international art politics of his day as he was to the unpleasant currents of national identity.

This exhibition also underlined Bengtsson’s forays into appropriation, bootlegging tacky but popular sentiments (10 Years, 1971), and exercising po-mo tools for cultural critique ahead of schedule (The Picture-Wall, 1977). Nevertheless, Bengtsson’s “self-taught” career remains overlooked outside of Sweden (this was his second retrospective at the Moderna Museet—the first was in 1983), even if it would be a cinch to resurrect him as a seer reprising his exact contemporary Paul Thek’s deserved but posthumous salute. Had Bengtsson lived (he died in 1989 from alcoholism), perhaps Robert Gober, Kiki Smith, Jim Shaw, Mike Kelley, and Banks Violette could have acknowledged their debt personally. His simultaneous mastery of hilarity and sublimated malevolence in pictures like Hitler and the Dream Kitchen, 1974, and Mountain Hikers, 1974, could make one believe that Neo Rauch had snuck back to the future, hauling away as much as he could carry from Bengtsson. Whether these artists know it or not, Bengtsson is their phantom limb.

A well-known art dealer told me fifteen years ago that there were no undiscovered artists in the art world, an expression of unquestioning faith in how comprehensive the stone-turning had become. But it is inevitable that we are overlooking artists today who will rank with Bengtsson. His story remains consigned to local lore because it lacked exposure within a historical milieu that could make sense of what he achieved. This exhibition was exceptional, in part because the story it tells is shaded in the melancholic tones of art historical dereliction. Today we may prize, even envy, Bengtsson’s uncanny and innate insight, but retrospectives make poor absolutions. Like the revisions that write Nazi sympathies back into Swedish history, they mask the sour breath of historical lapses. Bengtsson was a heedful artist above all else, and this Johnny-come-lately appreciation brings the palpable jab reminding us that important art exists beyond our capacity to imagine or comprehend. Could an artist wish for any more satisfying précis to their career?

Ronald Jones