Historical Painting, 1973

I always admired novelists and comic-strip artists for their "God-like" power of recreating realities on any level. In the series of Notes (1 to 9) I started scribbling a mixture of figures and writing which gradually became more defined (I did not depart from comic-strips as I did in my works of the '60's). With the introduction of a completely coloured background (in the Column series, World Map, etc.), I have gotten into a sort of historical painting where all kinds of data and ideas — historical, economic, poetic, topical — are presented in a unified style. For the sake of clarity, data and interpretations are both written down and depicted visually. Blue colors denote USA, violet Europe, red to yellow socialist countries, and green to brown the Third World.

Like many people, I began to understand during the late '60's that words like "imperialism", capitalism", "exploitation", "alienation" were not mere ideas or political slogans, but stood for terrifying, absurd and inhumane conditions in the world. Living in LBJ's and Nixon's America during the Vietnam war — culminating in the Christmas '72 terror bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong and Watergate — it became impossible not to deal in my work — once I had the stylistic tools — with what was going on around me: Guernica, multiplied a million times.

Picasso, in his painting, reacted to Guernica by sharpening the emotional impact of his figures with expressionist distortion. My approach has been to orchestrate data, so people will — at best — both understand and be outraged. Will the pictures still function as a sensual and formal experience? Will the lettering also function as rhythmic percussion patterns? Can the pattern of facts become poetry? That is for the spectator to judge.

Obviously, most artworks (neo-Dada, Pop-art, conceptual art) use data that are "non-committal", "unimportant" per se. Will facts about economic exploitation or torture techniques destroy the balance and make the works "propaganda"? If so, are not Goya's war-etchings "propaganda" too?

Radical Chic
Same have criticized me for trying to sell "radical art" to the rich people and institutions of the West. By the same token Costa-Gravas should not have made State of Siege as a commercial feature film, reaching a very large public. Or Peter Weiss should be reproached for taking in royalties from plays on Vietnam and Trotsky.

The visual artist in the West can only reach out to a wider audience via the galleries. Only after becoming known through gallery shows will he appear in museums, print editions and art books.

Ideally, I would like to be able to sell enough expensive originals to pay for the manufacture of mass multiples, unsigned very large editions, available at the price of a record or a book and create an alternate distribution system. A first attempt in this direction is my reproduction of (a section of the drawing for) World Map, on newsprint, 80 x 100 cm, folded and inserted into the May '72 issue of a magazine, Liberated Guardian (circulation: 7000 copies, price: 25 cents).

Öyvind Fahlström
New York
May, 1973

"Historical Painting." Flash Art (Milan) Nr. 43, December 1973 / January 1974, 14.