Since I was in my early twenties, Fahlström has been, and continues to be, one of my favorite artists. In fact, my esteem for his work has continued to grow over the years. The issues raised by his work are more timely than ever, and Fahlström is now happily starting to be recognized for what he was: one of the most important and complex artists of the Sixties. He is a complete original. Until recently, Fahlström was considered a minor player in the drama of Pop Art. Because he allowed the "political" to enter his work, because he was interested in issues of narrative, because his work was compositionally busy, he was perceived by the champions of Pop as somewhat naive at best, and a throwback to Surrealism or Agitprop at worst. His deviation from Pop standards was explained away by the fact that he was "European".
In America the battle lines were drawn. Any hints of the old Abstract Expressionism, and with it its distant father Surrealism, were to be excised from the serious art work. Psychoanalytic references were taboo, and social concerns were something quaintly old-fashioned, something Grandpa concerned himself with in the Thirties. Pop was youth culture formalism and, despite its surface topicality, Pop was timeless. Its images were meaningless; only their position — centralized and uninflected — was important. It reflected a world where all meaning was surface meaning, and this meaning was uniform gloss. You could read this as social commentary if you chose to. That was left up to you, and different critics embraced Pop in various ways. One thing was certain: compared to the "cool" of artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Fahlström was "hot", Some thought Fahlström was telling an anti-Pop, retrograde tale, dressing it up in Pop's fashionable clothing. More recently, Fahlström has been embraced by the supporters of the Agitprop sensibility. These critics accept the same divisions, they believe in the same insurmountable chasm dividing the "formal" from the "political", but they stand on the "hot" side. They want Fahlström there with them, declaiming social truths in a popular language to the masses. But Fahlström's work is not as simple as all that.
In fact, Fahlström is himself a formalist of sorts. His arrangements of topical and historical materials don't add up to any more coherent a story than James Rosenquist's or Robert Rauschenberg's image arrangements do. Fahlström is interested in having his work function optically. By that I mean that he sets things up in such a way that one is prompted to look through the image to see it as pure form. His use of the silhouette promotes this effect. But unlike Rauschenberg, Fahlström acknowledges the fact that the viewer tries to "read" a collection of images and to make sense of them, and does this using a common visual language, a socialized language.
Fahlström's work is about this impulse to read, which he plays with and subverts in various complex ways. He says this produces "the thrill of tension and resolution, of having both conflict and non-conflict (as opposed to 'free form' where in principle everything is equal)."1 Thus, while Fahlström constructs image constellations that are impossible to read as simple narration, he strives to keep them from becoming "noncommittal". In this regard, he differentiates his practice from that of Rauschenberg, whom he says "tends to neutralize all statements through a pattern of relationships and thus achieves a state of total weightlessness of...elements,"2 At the time, there was a tendency to see this "flattening" as a kind of artistic nihilism, and, in fact, the Pop artists were first perceived as neo-Dadaists. Fahlström saw his use of fracture and leveling as "a constructive Dadaism and thus not Dada at all."3
Fahlström's tactics have more in common with the ambitions of the Conceptualists than with those of the Pop artists with whom he is generally grouped. His interest in game strategies as an organizational principle links him to Conceptualism, but his use of popular imagery is inconsistent with most Conceptualist practice. The Conceptualists generally kept their distance from material associated with "low culture", focusing instead on "informational" forms like photography and typography. Fahlström, however, has little regard for uniformity of style, feeling that these class-based image distinctions are unimportant.
For Fahlström, style is irrelevant except for the content and experience it can convey. He feels painting should become "invisible"; it should be a carrier of meaning and not remain simply self-referential. This indifference to the "fetishistic" aspect of the artwork led him to conclude that artworks should, ideally, be produced as multiples. Now, especially after the rise of a neo-Conceptualism that accepts as a given a "post-Modern" plurality of style, it is easier to see Fahlström's practice as a kind of deconstruction, a deconstruction of the world using the popular signs which surround us every day, rather than as an exercise in raising "low" cultural material to the lofty realms of fine art.
This deconstruction of the world is produced by the construction of an artistic world — a model of the world. Fahlström's preference is for multi-part works where the various elements are involved in complex interrelationships that imply system and narration, This pushes his work toward the theatrical, toward an art that has spatial and temporal aspects. Even in his early abstract paintings, done while still living in Sweden, this is evident.
Pontus Hultén describes Fahlström's presentations of his painting Ade-Ledic-Nander II during the period of 1955 to 1957 as a kind of performance. Fahlström would exhibit the painting covered by a sheet with holes cut in it so only sections of the painting were exposed, He would then explain these areas to those assembled by reading out of a thick, typed manuscript which contained his analysis and "topographical maps" of the work. This presentation in parts was designed to prevent the audience from becoming distracted by other elements of the painting during the process of analysis.
Not only was the painting presented in this manner, he worked on it in the same way, covering the part of the canvas he was not working on so as not to be seduced by overall aesthetic considerations.4 The painting was produced by constructing separate cells whose interrelationships were revealed only upon completion of the work. In this case, composition reflects Fahlström's views on geopolitics, which call for urban decentralization and communalism, The overall equality of composition is meant to be read as "democratic" rather than nihilistic and chaotic. Each part is as important as every other part of the painting. But each part must be considered in its autonomy first, then related to the system as a whole. The whole then becomes more than a sum of its parts, more than a mere compilation.
Fahlström's "signs" at this time were abstract and on the surface recall the pictographic constructs of some of the late Surrealist Jungian artists of the Forties and Fifties. Adolf Gottlieb's work comes to mind. Yet their concerns are almost opposed. Fahlström's are not timeless or "primitive" archetypal signs, they are not a kind of ur-language. His abstract marks are grouped typographically and imbued with specific character traits. These marks interact in the painting field in a precise and narrative manner. A complex set of game-like rules determines their interaction.
The painting can be read as a kind of model universe with composition providing the visual clues to unravel its "politics". Fahlström named the three character-forms that dominate the painting the Ades, the Ledics and the Nanders. He describes these forms as being akin to alien clans involved in a struggle for power. Hans Hofmann's "push-pull" is seen in social terms: compositional tension becomes symbolic of dialectical argumentation, AdeLedicNander II's accompanying written narrative has a science fiction flavor. Its title derives from a short story by science fiction author, A.E. van Vogt. Science fiction is a form where the shift of time is a transparent device; everyone knows that the described "future" is actually the present illustrated in terms of a parable.
Fahlström's abstract pictographs, easily misinterpreted as ahistorical, were soon replaced by overtly timely ones. In Feast on Mad, a drawing from 1958-59, various graphic elements taken from comic illustrations in the popular satirical Mad Magazine are decontextualized and rearranged in a chaotic cluster. In Sitting..., from 1962, elements from DC adventure and superhero comics are similarly decontextualized. But here the original context is more obvious. The painting is composed in a compartmentalized fashion, recalling the sequential frames used in comic book narratives, but presented in such a way that the frames no longer read as sequential, Again, Fahlström's use of the comic book image is not a play with low/high displacements à la Lichtenstein, but a play with temporality and narrative. Fahlström saw the comic strip as a narrative form lying halfway between the short story and film and was interested in it as such, He was not interested in comics as kitsch. Comic books offered a rich pictorial source reflecting contemporary mythologies, values, and belief systems in clear image tropes understandable to the public at large.
By the end of the Sixties, Fahlström was also using photographic images taken from the press, both of the serious and tabloid varieties. Presented in their normal narrative context, these image tropes remain invisible and thus "natural". Fahlström, using a technique similar to collage, reveals these tropes as manufactured, sometimes arbitrary, and thus "unnatural". Being man-made they are politicized; they are re-presented as purposely constructed toward specific social ends, Fahlström's interest in liquidity of meaning, the meaning of an image being defined by its context, led him soon after to abandon fixed composition. Shifting relationships, implied in earlier works by simultaneous depictions of a sign in various interactions within the visual field, were now replaced by change over time. He achieves this by making the elements in the paintings movable. In Sitting...Six months later, also from 1962, the elements are magnetized and can be moved about, producing a "variable painting", a kind of latent kinetic artwork. Fahlström continued to produce variable paintings until his death.
This particular exhibition focuses on Fahlström's installations, three in particular:
The Little General (Pinball Machine) of 1967,
Meatball Curtain (for R. Crumb) of 1969 and
Garden-A World Model of 1973.
As I have already pointed out, Fahlström's work, from the very beginning, had spatial and temporal aspects. His exhibitions were "installations" in themselves. The variable artworks were generally shown with related "fixed" artworks which revealed "phases", his preferred arrangements of the variable paintings, as well as sketches that shed light on their source materials. These were complemented by separate artworks that used some of the same images in different configurations. The ideational construction of the artwork as well as its various permutations over time were presented as a whole.
Fahlström wanted to create total art works, hence his fondness for Happenings, Opera was his model, not only because it aspires to synthesis, but because, as he wrote, it "demonstrates the 'amorality' of art, its readiness to profit from and transform into art anything at all to stimulate and broaden our self-awareness...which in turn can or need not be made to serve a political end."5 And like the composer or writer, he felt the artist should make fewer, bigger, and more complete works. In fact, one of Fahlström's earliest and most important works is titled Opera, He produced this massive drawing between 1952 and 1957. The work wraps around the room, enveloping the viewer, It is an additive work, composed horizontally, which promotes a reading of narrative progression, Fahlström was very much interested in Pre-Columbian Mexican book paintings, which evolved in long panels folded in concertina fashion. In Opera, Fahlström's abstract pictographs develop progressively in a way analogous to the recurrence of motifs in music or characters in a comic strip. The scale of the work forces the viewer to engage the picture physically, with one's whole body and not just one's eyes. More importantly, its vastness makes it impossible to take the work in as a whole, It can only be understood as a sum of experiences, as a gestalt.
The "installations" in this exhibition are, likewise, examples of Fahlström's larger-scaled works and well represent some of the strategies which characterize various parts of his career. of 1967 is the largest of a group of sculptural works where Fahlström's signature silhouette elements float in rectangular table-like pools of water. The related works are Parkland Memorial (1967), The Dante-Virgil Skating Race (1968), and Blue Pool and Green Pool (both 1968-69). The water in the two latter works is dyed and functions analogously to the pictorial field of some of Fahlström's variable paintings, such as Sylvie (1965), or Pentagon Diptych (1970). The pools could be seen as variable paintings shifted from a vertical to a horizontal orientation, from parallelto the wall to parallel to the floor, which heightens their theatrical, puppet show-like aspect. Like the variable paintings, which allow the movement of individual magnetized "figures" within their metal "grounds", the elements here float freely about in their aquatic pictorial fields (except for The Dante-Virgil Skating Race where the water is "frozen", fixing all but two of the elements in position). Composition is liquid.
The silhouettes in The Little General are photographic, unlike the cartoonish or paper doll-like silhouettes of some other works, and are drawn from a variety of sources, including cheap advertising, lurid headlines and photos from tabloid newspapers, pornography, "leftist" imagery such as a Pepsi bottle turned Molotov cocktail, and popular figures ranging from the young Shirley Temple to Che Guevara and Lyndon Johnson. The subtitle of the work. Pinball Machine, presents all of this as an active, festive game. The work is more garish and outlandish, more random looking, than the other works in the series. The variety of source material calls to mind those montage sequences in year-end news summaries where you are barraged with an incomprehensible array of events with no apparent context except their status as signs of the "current".
Drawings and a fixed model for the work reveal an underlying associational system and certain privileged connections, but the immediate jolt of the piece is black humor reflecting the absurdist politics of the Yippies (Youth International Party) and the New Left with which Fahlström was actively involved. Despite the apparent randomness of the work, its obvious "political" aura makes it difficult to view in terms of the leveling effect characteristic of more formalized Pop production, Fahlström plays with the viewer's tendency to split the "political" from the "formal" reading of an artwork. He refuses to succumb to the common dictate that these are oppositional terms. This is Fahlström's true contribution to the art of the late Sixties. Unfortunately, it was not much recognized at the time.
The Meatball Curtain (for R. Crumb) was made two years later, in 1969. This massive work was done as part of the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The purpose of this program was to pair
artists with companies willing to assist them in the production of an artwork, utilizing the special resources the companies had to offer, Fahlström chose to work with Heath and Company, a maker of commercial signs. They manufactured the sort of huge illuminated signs that adorn gas stations and fast-food restaurants such as Kentucky Fried Chicken, and specialized in working with plastics and
Interestingly enough, while on his first visit to Los Angeles, Fahlström was introduced to Zap Comix and ended up making a work utilizing the imagery he found there. Zap was started in San Francisco in 1967, and was one of the first underground comic books made by members of, and geared toward, the hippie subculture. It's not surprising that Fahlström, who had earlier done a work utilizing imagery derived from Mad Magazine, would be drawn to Zap, The Zap cartoonists were the much more radical, counter-cultural descendants of the artists who drew for the socially satirical Mad Magazine during its heyday in the Fifties. The Zap artists openly defied the Comic Code Authority of America, which monitors comic book content, by wallowing in the very subjects that code was designed to censor: sex, violence, drugs, and left-wing ideology.
By far the most famous of the Zap Comix artists is Robert Crumb, and most of the imagery in Fahlström's work was taken from Crumb's drawings. The title itself, Meatball Curtain, derives from a Crumb story called Meatball in which meatballs, falling from the sky, strike people causing a sort of instant satori. Fahlström describes the Meatball Curtain as an "homage to Robert Crumb...a great American artist."
The work is an ensemble of large, free-standing metal and plastic cut-outs. Again, they are silhouettes, but this time they are radically simplified, with little of the detail and graphic outlining found in earlier works. Because of its simplicity, one is tempted to see the work as a reaction to the then-current trend toward minimal brightly-painted public sculpture of the Alexander Calder, David Smith variety. The Zap references, however, are quite specific and the work is extremely baroque and playful in form, Fahlström described his interest in the silhouette as a way of putting emphasis on the "character" or "type" of an element. This promotes a reading of the element either as a sign or as an abstract form, In the Meatball Curtain, as in the variable paintings, these isolated silhouettes are used to create a shifting and organic whole. The silhouettes function as parts of "machinery to make paintings.... Picture-organ".6 In this work, the emphasis is more on the "abstract", and I don't find I have the same impulse to project a narrative onto this work as I do in those that contain more detailed elements. The Meatball Curtain is one of Fahlström's most light-hearted works, a kind of counter-cultural sculpture garden.
Garden-A World Model, from 1973, represents Fahlström's last period, starting in 1971, when he became interested in working with current historical and economic data — commonly accepted "factual" material. The World Bank installation from 1971 is the first work Fahlström describes as being based entirely on such material, The pictorial images derived from popular sources that were the core of the variable paintings were replaced by images drawn by Fahlström himself.
I believe this was a radical decision for the artist. Fahlström's use of material lifted from popular culture suggests that the artist was something of a sociologist, standing outside of the culture whose myths he was "deconstructing". This, of course, is a fallacy; Fahlström left many clues to his own ideological positions in his works despite the freedom he afforded the viewer to interpret them. Yet, I see Fahlström's decision to use his own pictorial system as a sign of his uneasiness with his artistic anonymity. From Pop on, the trace of the hand has been a loaded issue, as evidenced by the continuing war between so-called Neoexpressionists and Neoconceptualists. Pop is characterized by its use of generic illustrations or photographs drawn from, or mimicking the style of, mass media. Its cool aesthetic depends upon this use of images that appear to be general, of society at large, rather than expressive, or indicative of a specific personality. When he introduced a gestural manner recognizably his own, Fahlström challenged this pictorial convention of "authorlessness" and anonymity. This convention is class based and reflects an ideology that seeks to prolong the useless distinction between "low" and "high" art.
What else could explain the fact that in the world of fine art, Lichtenstein is considered the sole author of images lifted almost intact from the work of other artists? To those familiar with comic book illustrators the images Lichtenstein quotes are immediately recognizable as the work of specific cartoonists. To the general public, however, these images are understood as generic cartoons, and are thus synonymous with the "low", with children, or the illiterate lower class. To the upper class viewer, a cartoon may symbolize the undifferentiated mass mind of the lumpen proletariat.
Fahlström's own style is a kind of loose cartooning. He had, in a sense, learned the language of cartoons well enough to speak it himself rather than quote it. Yet Fahlström's position within the field of high art prevents his comic style imagery from being completely transparent. Because of their context his cartoons cannot be seen as simple and invisible carriers of the information they illus- trate. They are too idiosyncratic to fall within the conventions of Agitprop, a tradition in which artists purposely suppress personal style in order to appear as spokesmen for the masses. Neither do they decontextualize and formalize cartoon illustration as Lichtenstein does, Instead, through the formal complexity of his composition and information groupings, Fahlström self-consciously subverts the viewer's conditioned response to popular images. His images are not heroic symbols of the common man, nor are they merely representations of the "low". Rather, they are elements of a visual language whose syntax can be manipulated, as in concrete poetry.
Fahlström undermines the notion that a popular lexicon implies a homogeneous audience. He presents a dizzying and conflicted array of factual material in the conventionalized language of cartoons, but uses this language in an unnatural way. The "naturalism" of a cartoon style is a function of its anonymity, its invisibility. This is why cartoons lend themselves so well to use in propaganda. They have an air of truth about them; they appear given, pre-existing, unconstructed. Fahlström's busy and unstable compositions and information overloads throw this naturalism into question. The only true political image must be the unnatural one, the one that challenges archetypal and unquestioned pictures of reality. This "unnaturalism" need not be an escape from the pictorial; as in abstract art, it can be a dissection of the pictorial. The secret language of pictorial conventions must be revealed as a construct, otherwise you remain the unwitting pawn of its shaping influence. This is what Fahlström does with his strange use of mass media conventions. The dissection of the natural is Fahlström's politic.
The finest example of this period of Fahlström's work is the World Map of 1972. The World Map presents a topography of current historical "facts" separated from each other by borders which call to mind national borders. You soon realize these borders are random, produced by pictorial necessity, and are dictated by the amount of information they contain, This play with border is most apparent in "At Five in the Afternoon" (Chile 2: The Coup. Words by Plath and Lorca) of 1974. Here the recognizable silhouette of Chile becomes the site of connection between various other random silhouettes, attached to it by long needle-like feelers. These contain images drawn by Fahlström "illustrating" the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Federico Garcia Lorca. By now, the enclosing forms are much more extravagant and baroque than those of World Map, Here the "political" form of Chile is thrown into sharp contrast with the "aesthetic" forms hovering about it.
In 1974, Fahlström wrote "recently I have...been making hundreds of improvisations in order to find shapes that are both interesting as such, and 'unnatural' to the factual content and to the space needed for the facts," and goes on to say that these forms "have something of the surprising beauty of tropical fish".7Garden-A World Model uses these kinds of extravagant forms in a manner similar to their use in "At Five in the Afternoon", but heightens their "aesthetic" reading by presenting them as flowers growing out of pots. The material these "flowers" contain is the same kind he used in the World Map: historical and economic data.
Garden can be seen as an intermediate work, lying between World Map and "At Five in the Afternoon", still using historical data but presenting it in a much more opulent manner. The piece is an "installation" in that it is presented in a green room by itself, as an environmental tableaux, but in a very simplified way, not nearly as formally complex as Meatball Curtain or Fahlström's installation masterwork of 1964-66, Dr. Schweitzer's Last Mission, which I believe to be his most important variable painting.
In its stripped-down quality, Garden-A World Model is reminiscent of a product display. It recalls Fahlström's World Bank installation of 1971 which is a similarly simple monolithic display presented by itself in a color-coded room. Garden has a pathetic quality. By this, I mean that the isolation of the work in a room by itself may be read as a display of false grandeur. The beauty of the installation, with its complex jungle-like shadow effects, purposely grates against its disturbing historical and economic content producing a confusion of emotional effect. Soon after this, in "At Five in the Afternoon" and in the beautiful variable painting Night Music 2: Cancer Epidemic Scenario (Words by Trakl, Lorca and Plath) of 1975, in which both the field and the informational magnetized elements are highly baroque forms, historical "facts" are replaced by "facts" taken from poetry. Commenting on his use of such material in "At Five in the Afternoon", Fahlström writes, "the loss of Chile cannot be expressed merely by depicting a succession of events,"8 In these, his final works before his death from cancer in 1976, Fahlström proclaims the "reality" of art. Historical facts are as mythic as literary constructs; art, on the psychic level, is just as "real" as this worldly data. The artist, functioning in a symbolic world, nevertheless affects our perception of the everyday world. The artist's problem is to devise games interesting enough to bridge this gap. Fahlström's work continues to stand the test of time because it does just that.
THE REALM OF MYTH
A myth among other things
Is basically in the category of an idea
The vibration — radiation of an idea
Activates itself manifested synchronization.
A lie among other things
Is basically in the category of a myth.
The myth is of images,
Because the myth and that which is of the myth
Is the activator of unlimited imagination
.......... Parallel to or more...........
Synchronized to that which is not.
Everything is of a particular science
And myth is no exception
And the manifestation of its self
To a living what is called reality
Or so-called reality.
As a science Myth has many dimensions
And many degrees
Tomorrow is said to be a dimension of myth
Or even the very realm of myth itself.
When it is said that
"Tomorrow never comes,"
Thus when we speak of the future,
We speak of a lie,
Because the future is tomorrow
And tomorrow never comes.
Sun Ra, 1979
© 1995 Mike Kelley
Notes on the Text
1. Fahlström, Öyvind. "Take Care of the World." In: Manifestos. "Great Bear Pamphlet." New York: Something Else Press, Inc., 1966. Dieses/This Great Bear Pamphlet also includes manifestos by Ay-o, Philip Corner, W.E.B. DuBois Clubs, Robert Filliou, John Giorno, Al Hansen, Dick Higgins, Allan Kaprow, Alison Knowles, Nam June Paik, Diter Rot, Jerome Rothenberg, Wolf Vostell, Robert Watts and Emmett Williams. Fahlström's 1975 revision of his original text is published here for the first time.
2. Fahlström, Öyvind. "Jim Dine." In: Pop Arf Redefined, Russell, John and Suzi Gablik. London: Thames and Hudson, 1969.
3. Fahlström, Öyvind. "Hipy Papy Bthuthdth Thuthda Bthuthdy." In: Öyvind Fahlström. New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1982; Öyvind Fahlström. València: IVAM/Centre Julio Gonzalez, 1992. First published as "Hätila ragulpr på fåtskliaben: manifest för konkret poesi." Odyssé (Stockholm) Nr. 2-3, 1954, 1-8.
4. Hultén, Pontus. "Öyvind Fahlström, Citizen of the World." In: Öyvind Fahlström. New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1982; Öyvind Fahlström. València: IVAM/Centre Julio Gonzalez, 1992.
5. Fahlström, Öyvind, "After Happenings." In: Öyvind Fahlström. New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1982. First published as "Den livsviktiga teatern." Konstrevy (Stockholm) Nr. 4-5, 1965, 123-127.
6. Fahlström, Öyvind. "Manipulating the World." In: Art and Literature. Lausanne: Société Anonyme d'Editions Littéraires et Artistiques (Herbst-Winter 1964) Vol. 3. Reprinted in Öyvind Fahlström. New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1982; Öyvind Fahlström. València: IVAM/Centre Julio Gonzalez, 1992.
7. Fahlström, Öyvind. "Notations 1974." In: Fahlström. Mailand: Multhiplo Edizioni, 1976.
9. Sun Ra. The Immeasurable Equation. Chicago: Ihnfinity, Inc./ Saturn Research. 1972.