Column No.2 (Picasso 90) is one of a series of screenprints Fahlström made in the early 1970s. These prints use dense text, bright colours and cartoon-like illustrations to critique America’s military and economic expansion in the early 1970s. There are three elements in the title: ‘Column’, the series title, refers to the newspaper columns Fahlström regularly wrote for the Swedish press (these paintings on paper transferred to silkscreen prints are an extension of his literary efforts); ‘No.2’ refers to the place of this print within the series; while the bracketed caption ‘(Picasso 90)’ refers to the occasion for which the print was commissioned – Pablo Picasso’s ninetieth birthday. Column No.2 (Picasso 90) is a relatively large edition of 120 copies. Another print in the series, Column No.4 (IB-affair) (Tate P78632), was produced in a larger edition of 300.
Fahlström grew up in Brazil and in July 1939 was sent to Sweden, where he became trapped following the outbreak of the Second World War. After the war he divided his time between Stockholm, Paris and Rome. In this period he was a founding member of the Concrete Poetry movement, and turned to drawing in the spring of 1952 when he was in Rome. The combination of text and image in these late prints reflect his background as a writer as well as the influence of the French poets Antonin Artaud (1896–1948) and Henri Michaux (1899–1984) on his thought. In 1961 he moved to New York where he lived and worked until his death in 1976.
One approach to understanding the formal structure of these works lies in Fahlström’s admiration for cartoons. He recognised the subversive potential of the irreverent, surreal and sexualised narratives of MAD magazine and cartoonists like Robert Crumb (born 1943), which were an important part of the American counterculture. As in cartoons, the images and language in Column No.2 (Picasso 90) reinforce and lend emphasis to each other. Unlike cartoonists, however, Fahlström did not use a grid layout to convey a linear narrative. The complexity of the information he presents is such that there are too many interconnections and simultaneous narratives for them to be organized sequentially. Instead, he divides the images into small information bubbles that weave together, interlacing tangential threads into a non-linear network. Fahlström explained:
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.
(Öyvind Fahlström, ‘Historical Painting,’ Flash Art, no.43, December 1973/January 1974, p.14)
The principal theme is the link between American backing for right-wing coups and subsequent corporate expansion into the countries where those coups have taken place. American support of Pinochet’s coup in Chile is given special emphasis and surrounded by random captions dealing with New York’s crime rate, the growing gap between rich and poor, corporate malfeasance and tax evasion, sex toys, plastic surgery, and American torture of Vietnamese civilians. The centre of the image shows The White House in the form of a spider, each leg curling around a core power base, including the CIA, Pentagon hawks, organised crime, corrupt unions and what Fahlström describes in the print as the ‘nouveau riche conservative business men’ from the southern states.
In the bottom right of the print Fahlström cites Picasso’s (1881-1973) famous Spanish Civil War painting Guernica (1937) as a rare piece of political art. Guernica was painted after German aircraft bombed civilians during the Spanish Civil War – a policy actively pursued by the American military in Vietnam. A fragment of a letter from Fahlström to Picasso reminds the Spanish artist that he ‘once beautifully combined protest as an artistic expression and a political gesture. Why don’t you honor the pleas from American and other artists to remove Guernica from the Museum of Modern Art, until the USA completely withdraws from all of S.E. Asia.’ Next to this, a small cartoon shows what Fahlström and others hoped to achieve as Picasso’s Guernica is carried out of Museum of Modern Art, New York. For Fahlström, ‘living in LBJ’s and Nixon’s America during the Vietnam war … it became impossible not to deal in my work … with what was going on around me: Guernica, multiplied a million times.’ (Flash Art, p.14.)
Column No.2 (Picasso 90) was printed by Domberger KB, Bonlanden, Germany and published by Propyläen Verlag, Berlin, in an edition of 120 in the portfolio, ‘Picasso 90’.
Öyvind Fahlström, exhibition catalogue, The Solomon R.Guggenheim Museum, New York 1982, reproduced in colour p.100
Öyvind Fahlström – The Installations, exhibition catalogue, Gesellschaft für Aktuelle Kunst, Bremen and Cologne Kunstverein 1995
Öyvind Fahlström: Another Space for Painting, exhibition catalogue, Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona 2001, reproduced in colour p.266 (detail)