There are some artists whose practice remained obscure in global terms regardless of their domains due to their untimely death. Such is the case with the exceptional innovator Öyvind Fahlström. This artist was associated with Pop Art, but looking closely, one might say that his art was also pre-Conceptual; the artist passed away in 1976, at a time when this phenomenon was just becoming institutionalized.
This slightly enigmatic figure left behind an abundant body of work based on an exploration of the rules and structures of games. Regardless of the medium, Fahlström constantly searched for different constellations of the notion of a game by engaging the audience physically or mentally.
In order to revisit his short, but important practice, New York-based gallery Venus Over Manhattan is hosting an exhibition of Fahlström’s NYC production including sculptures, paintings, works of paper, multiples, and, most importantly, the debut screening of his restored 16 mm black-and-white film titled Mao-Hope March initially made by the artist in 1966.
This interesting figure of Scandinavian descent was born in 1928 in São Paulo. In 1939 he traveled to Sweden to visit his relatives, but the beginning of World War II prevented Öyvind Fahlström from returning back home. That is how he finished school in Stockholm, eventually becoming contributor to the Swedish press, and started making art.
Fahlström received a grant from the American-Scandinavian Foundation in 1961, so he traveled to New York and moved into a studio previously used by Robert Rauschenberg. Quickly he became part of the art community consisting of Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg, and other artists associated with E.A.T.; Fahlström was part of the iconic 9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering with a complex multimedia performance titled Kisses Sweeter than Wine.
The exhibition in New York is focused on two series Fahlström made after moving to New York. On display are major examples from the Sitting... series the artist started producing in 1962, and they marked a point of his career at which he came closest to merging writing and visual art into an alternative hybrid. These works are based on various combinations of character-signs, or rather pictograms cataloged by Fahlström in a glossary titled Sitting...Directory (consisting of hand-drawn pages featuring each character-sign).
On view is also the first variable sculptural formation Sitting...Blocks, displayed in New York for the first time since 1993, consisting of ten hand-painted blocks decorated Fahlström’s constellations of character-signs. Two versions of Sitting...Dominoes are also in the show; these works again present the character-signs formatted as dominoes (a popular game in Brazil).
The second series date from 1972, when the artist started articulating global social and political events. Packing the Hard Potatoes (Chile 1: Last Months of the Allende Regime. Words by Plath and Lorca) is a large scale shelf cut in the shape of Chile’s map outline, with twenty spring wires with magnetic bases, each carrying a hand-painted element. As the title suggests, the is based on a sentence from one of Sylvia Plath’s final poems, providing a stark atmosphere of the coup which removed Chile’s socialist leader Salvador Allende from the position of a president.
A series of vibrant prints saturated with the information made by Fahlström as visual equivalents to his newspaper columns (Column no. 1 (Wonder Bread), Column no. 2 (Picasso 90), Column no. 3 (Chile-F), and Column no. 4 (IB-affair)) is also in the exhibition, as well as his last work from 1976 called Elements from Masses which functions as a critique of the United States’ involvement in Latin America.
The mentioned debut of a film Mao-Hope March is footage of a performance undertaken by the artist, his wife, and several artist peers (they marched down Fifth Avenue with placards depicting Bob Hope and Mao Tse-Tung).
This exhibition underlines the critical domains of Fahlström’s practice which moved nicely through both the explorations of aesthetic and socio-political issues. It is accompanied by a major catalog including new texts by Robert Storr, Sharon Avery-Fahlström, and Peter Bratt.
Öyvind Fahlström will be on view at Venus Over Manhattan gallery in New York until 2nd November 2019.
Featured images: Öyvind Fahlström - Sitting...Blocks, 1965-1966. Variable sculpture: tempera on vinyl attached to wood; 10 blocks, overall dimension variable, each block: 15 x 15 x 15in (38 x 38 x 38 cm) © 2019 Sharon Avery-Fahlström / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy The Öyvind Fahlström Foundation and Venus Over Manhattan, New York; Packing the Hard Potatoes (Chile 1: Last Months of the Allende Regime. Words by Plath and Lorca), 1974. Acrylic and india ink on vinyl, shaped metal board; elements on spring wire rods with magnets, 43 3/4 x 82 5/8 x 4 1/8 in (111 x 210 x 10.2 cm) © 2019 Sharon Avery-Fahlström / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy The Öyvind Fahlström Foundation and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.
New York City, United States of America