Column No.4 (IB Affair) is one of a series of screenprints Fahlström made in the early 1970s. These prints use dense text, bright colours and cartoon 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 from which the statistics and information in the print were taken. ‘No.4’ refers to the place of this print within the series. The bracketed caption ‘(IB Affair)’ refers to the Swedish Intelligence Bureau, one of the many themes discussed in this specific work. Fahlström hoped to produce these prints in unlimited runs to be sold for the price of a book, but was unable to for financial reasons. Column No.4 (IB Affair) is, nonetheless, a large edition of 300 copies. Another print in the series, Column No.2 (Picasso 90) (Tate P78631), was produced in a smaller edition of 120.
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.4 (IB Affair) 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 in this print is the link between American foreign policy, international intelligence agencies and the wave of right wing coups in Latin America during the early 1970s. At the centre of the image is a cartoon reel-to-reel surveillance tape machine wearing a police hat and sunglasses beneath the legend ‘Murder Export, Inc./ US Public Safety Program’. This refers to Washington’s International Police Academy which, the next caption tells us, spent $308 million training 7,480 Central and South American officers from 1962-7. Successive information bubbles narrate the return of operatives to such countries as Chile and the Dominican Republic to work with what Fahlström describes in the print as American ‘advisors’ organising the secret police and ‘off-duty Death Squads’. The Swedish Intelligence Bureau is accused of flouting Sweden’s reputation for neutrality by spying on Communist and Arab nations and cooperating with intelligence agencies in Europe, America, and Israel. The print concludes with a sequence ironically titled ‘Israel Ueber Alles’ which accuses Israel of using terrorism and enforcing ‘apartheid’ in occupied Palestine. Fahlström quotes statistics that claim ‘since the ’67 war, Israelis have destroyed 16,000 Arab homes in Sinai and Golan Heights’ and that ‘before 1948: 1 million Palestinians in 480 villages/ today: 90 villages.’ These multi-caption narratives are broken up by single information bubbles that refer to food exports, racism and migrant workers, social class and the sharp increase in US arms sales. For Fahlström, ‘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.’ (Flash Art, p.14)
Column No.4 (IB Affair) was printed by Domberger KB, Bonlanden, Germany and published by Die Zeit, Berlin, in an edition of 300.
Öyvind Fahlström, exhibition catalogue, The Solomon R.Guggenheim Museum, New York 1982, reproduced p.101
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.267