Öyvind Fahlström, Sitting...Blocks, 1965-66, ten cubes, tempera, vinyl, wood, each 15 × 15 × 15", overall dimensions variable.
Venus Over Manhattan
by Jan Avgikos
Öyvind Fahlström (1928–1976) figures prominently in the unwritten histories of Pop and Conceptual art. Relegated to the margins of these major movements, he remains a footnote, which is curious given how deftly he juggled institutional critique with game theory, comics with front-page news. An exhibition of key works at Venus Over Manhattan begged the question: How does a significant and prolific artist get shunted to the sidelines? In Fahlström’s case that dismissal had everything to do with how truly radical he was. He belonged everywhere and nowhere at once: Brought up in both Brazil and Sweden, he moved to New York in 1961. Working as an artist and critic (while engaging in other pursuits), he was committed to the democratization of art, to social and political engagement, to intellectual rigor and play. Had cancer not killed him at a relatively young age, Fahlström would surely have been more widely recognized.
The artist’s “variable” (i.e., interactive) paintings and sculptures last appeared in New York at least fifteen years ago. Given pride of place in the exhibition was Sitting...Blocks, 1965–66, a set of ten fifteen-inch wooden cubes, whose vinyl surfaces sport colorful tempera-painted shapes that suggest pictures with text but never fully resolve as such. One might have imagined moving the blocks into different arrangements, as if the right configuration, magically, could transform abstraction into representation. The prompt to play also animated the smaller-scale painting: Sitting...Dominoes, 1965, which depicts the titular game in progress with its pieces—painted pictographic shapes on vinyl, mounted on Plexi with magnets and arrayed on a metal panel—ready to be moved into winning combinations.
Fahlström methodically developed his vocabulary of “character-signs” over time and collected them in a large notebook: Sitting...Directory, 1962–63, which was also on display. Its pages illustrate the distillation of his visual language from comic books and advertising. Cubes and grids were everywhere in art in the ’60s, but Fahlström’s were specifically referencing popular culture, asking: Who is art for? Whose experience is called forth? The questions are implicit with the hands-on play proposed by the “variable” works. Is every viewer potentially an artist? Can the production of art be a collective endeavor? Does this process soil the idea of the artist as an individual creator and of art as an instrument of his mastery? Avant-garde circles back then were just beginning to dismantle this trope. Alongside Billy Klüver and Robert Rauschenberg, with whom he collaborated in a series of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) performances, Fahlström was at the forefront in advocating models of inclusiveness.
Modularity is central to Packing the Hard Potatoes (Chile 1: Last Months of the Allende Regime. Words by Plath and Lorca), a metal wall piece from 1974. Its base mimics the shape of Chile, from which sprout twenty metal rods, each flagged with a nebulously painted shape. Suggestive of birds in flight or an exotic forest, the piece is leavened with texts that allude to political disturbance and unrest. Animating the sculpture, an abundance of handwritten text fragments, resonant with the descriptive energy of Federico García Lorca’s writing, make allegorical reference to violations of human rights. Coupled with the directness of the title—taken from a line in a late poem by Sylvia Plath—Fahlström’s critique of the coup that deposed Chile’s first democratically elected leader is loud and clear.
The artist’s dissidence was amplified in four silk-screen pieces produced between 1973 and 1974. Like colorful cartoon world maps, rendered in a wonderfully crude style and amorphously filling the page, these happy-looking prints are laden with information about the gnarliest political and social issues in the ’70s, such as Richard Nixon’s impeachment, the unjust war in Vietnam, the US involvement in Latin America, environmental devastation, poverty, and corporate greed. Notably, Fahlström’s cartographies insist unequivocally on the connectedness of local events to global crises. Almost fifty years later, his observations prove to be quite prescient. It’s not hard at all to read our own intractable predicaments into the conditions Fahlström protests. To recuperate his work—including his films, performances, and concrete poetry—is to open lines of communication with a heady artist and an unofficial art world predicated on experimentation, activism, and relative freedom.