Doug Ohlson was born in 1936 and grew up in the farming country of Cherokee, Iowa, 50 miles east of the Missouri River, a land of flatness and endless skies. His parents owned a largely self-sustaining family farm that had the usual barnyard life fed by the produce of a few hundred acres of hay, corn, and sometimes soy beans. His father was a second-generation Swede who looked forward to the day when his three sons would follow him in farming or, at least, go into some practical occupation. The mid-1930s was the deepest period of the Great Depression. To survive was the only reasonable goal so it is not surprising that Ohlson Sr. would have had little interest in encouraging any of his sons to engage in frivolous pursuits, especially such a career as art.
However, young Doug had a strong distaste for farming and over the years following high school managed to work his way in and out of four different colleges (as well as a three-year stint in the U.S. Marines) before graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1961 where his major was, of course, art. That same year he moved to New York.
Ohlson came to the big city with virtually no money other than some small savings and a few dollars an indulgent uncle had given him for one of his paintings. Nevertheless he was used to finding his way with odd jobs and soon found a place with a contractor in Connecticut. Ultimately he was offered a teaching position that allowed him the freedom to continue painting.
Ohlson had arrived in New York with a painterly style of the sort that was prevalent among younger artists trying to find their way beyond Abstract Expressionism. That he would have been attracted to Franz Kline's powerful mannerist brushstroke and direct discovery of his black and white paintings is not surprising. Indeed, for Ohlson it was not at all difficult to produce successful works in a Klinesque style. But Ohlson soon realized that this approach had little to offer him other than an academic role in what had already become a vogue -- Action Painting.
One of several things he may have gotten from his study of Kline, however, was that complete paintings could be made with two "colors." This fact was substantially reconfirmed when, in 1963, he revisited the Art Institute of Chicago and encountered a newly acquired painting by Clyfford Still, entitled PH-246, 1951-52, a 10 by 13 foot canvas which consisted of a vast single-colored area of palette-knife worked paint interrupted only by a crooked thin line dropped from the top toward the bottom of the rectangle two-thirds of the way from the left. This wiry crack was the only overt incident in the painting. Though Ohlson had no affection for Still's work he describes his reaction as "so that's what it's all about."
It is possible, even probable, that Ohlson's obsession with color began during his youth on the farm in Iowa. Childhood experiences are more often than not formative, particularly in the realm of the senses. The earliest memory that he recalls of an impressive "work of art" was not colorful but very relevant to some of his later works. This was a photograph that an aunt had taken on a trip to visit relatives in Sweden which appeared on a wall in his home before he was ten years old. His recollection is of a scene of sky and flatness (land or sea?), with the midnight sun in its luminescent glow centered in a horizontal frame.
The coincidence of this memory with the reality of Ohlson's life at the time is worth noting. Every day in the work of the farm the hours began before dawn and continued after the return of the school bus in the late afternoon. The first requirements on his time were the chores. But there may have been compensations. One can imagine yellowish pink and green dawns, blue noons, and red-orange sunsets that swiftly slide from purple to black, a frequent and spacious enough panorama to last a lifetime. The world of the farm may have certainly been down to earth but the world of the spirit was in the sky.
"The material which [painting] uses for its content and for the sensuous expression of that content is visibility as such, insofar as it is individualized, viz., specified as color" (Hegel, in The Philosophy of Art).
Ohlson stands at the current end of a long line of painters who have in various ways revealed that color is the music of visual art: color, like music, is abstract, sensuous, and sufficient unto itself. He has been developing his own ways and means to work with this approach for some 30 years. Until the end of the 19th century color had to be used in a subterfuge of associations and as a means rather than an end. It had to support all other forms of materiality except those exceptional to itself. One of the greatest contributions of modern art in this century has been the effort to release color frankly and openly from secondary roles. Even Matisse, who made such a major contribution with his kind of color, was reluctant to abandon a modicum of illusion of nature in his pictures.
Matisse was unable to find another way to prevent his art from becoming totally decorative. It is Ohlson's passionate preoccupation with this unfinished problem in modern art that makes post-modernism a non-sequitur and his work so essential to the continuation of painting as a vital art. It is hoped that the comments that follow on individual paintings will make clear how Ohlson has, often adroitly, met the problem of giving color the full freedom it deserves.
Having left Kline and Action Painting behind and having experienced more thoroughly the "color field" art of Rothko and Newman, Ohlson again faced the problems and possibilities of melding the offerings of the times with his own skills and imagination. He had, in the paintings of the early `60s, developed a pictorial tension between black and white as occupants of distinct and opposed areas that he now wanted to translate into similar tensions between spectral colors. His first move was to replace the black, such as in Helen, and embed rectangles of the purest primaries in an expanse of white.
Unfortunately these pictures did appear as if they had constructivist antecedents and were so read by the public. But in late 1964, when he began to engage color more fully, it became evident he had had other ends in mind.
Color on a plane surface is what defines painting as such. Hegel had pointed this out before Chevreul and the Impressionists, and before modern color science. Up to the late 19th century, painters who were considered superior in the use of color were called "good colorists," implying that artists filled in black and white drawings with attractive hues. The ultimate move in the modernist drive toward a pure, non-illusionist abstraction has been to make color cling to the surface in ways that give only an inkling of naturalistic space while yet engaging our sensuous perception of its pictorial vitality. Matisse, in his great radical picture, Red Studio, 1911, demonstrated that a single ubiquitous color could create pictorial unity while displaying any variety of visual shapes that give hints of the illusory space of another world. The object, of course, is to make the painting of the real world.
Apparently Ohlson felt that he must find his own way to deal with color and its ramifications in the largest sense. In Sparrow's Red Rose (1966), he chose a format that would reduce to nearly zero any implications of internal incident other than the rectangular placement of one color within another. While this device was probably derived from Rothko, Ohlson uses it in a more austere manner, making sure that his edges are strictly parallel to the framing edge and that his two colors, though usually close-valued, sound clear and different resonances. In addition, he joined two panels establishing factually that the painting was unmistakenly a painting and not a depiction of something else.
With Ohlson the process of extension never ends. The implications of each state of his art, no matter how successful, always lead to more quest. The doubled panels he used in the 1965-67 pictures became separated, and then multiple. These rectangles, now squared, became parts of a thesis that led to eye-travel across the real space of a broad area. Indeed, a painting comparable in size and content to Vinca (1968) was included in "The Art of the Real" of that year at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and traveled abroad. ...
In 1969 Ohlson was invited to put on an exhibition of his new panel paintings at the Fischbach Gallery in New York. The group he wanted to show as an ensemble involved versions of the primary and secondary colors -- reds, blues, greens, yellow ochres and violets. Unfortunately the panels were too numerous and expansive for the limited wall space of the gallery. In order to show them all together he devised a standing structure upon which they could be displayed. The result was a pair of eight-foot-high boxes, one of them with eight-foot-long sides and the other with six-foot sides. One of the four walls of each box was extended to the corner of the other box, creating a continuous and somewhat mysterious wall around the whole structure. There were no paintings on the walls of the gallery, which was, in a sense, turned inside out.
In order to see the work in its entirety one had to circumnavigate the structure and in the process experience the sequence of colors and shapes as collected in the mind's eye the way music is collected in the ear. The eye-travel required in the viewing of an earlier work like Vinca was complemented in the Fischbach assemblage by literal, physical movement.
In this series he also made free use of a kind of painting that has been labeled the "shaped canvas." In this case, however, it was the result of combining sections of differing lengths. Pictures of this type are to be seen as gestalts, unified visually into a single image.
Despite the frequent subtlety of close-valued color exchanges, these are not "intimate" paintings. They lend themselves best to carefully considered architectural environments, such as public art in spaces where people are usually on the move. This is probably true of most "shaped canvas" art because the design of the format functions in direct respect to the specific wall on which it is placed.
Meanwhile, Ohlson had emerged from painterliness into strict clarification of the edges of his spatial divisions, as illustrated here by Helen. Initially, such works might have been mistaken for descendants of early modernist geometric constructions but Ohlson would be justified in denying any such connection. When inspected closely, a painting like Helen indicates how carefully he has designed the areas of black as contrasted with white to ensure that neither will dominate and turn the other into mere field. In this sense, he went beyond Still in assuring the unity and presence of the surface without engaging in plastic maneuvers to call it to attention.
In 1970 Ohlson began a series of paintings that were a definitive break with the panel works of the late `60s. He was working then in an abandoned country church in upstate New York and had, for the first time, a virtually cathedral-sized space to function in and did not have to produce large pictures by combining small canvases. Moreover, he was living in an environment similar to the Iowa farmland where he grew up, similar at least in regard to open skies and the colors of nature.
The progression of the paintings produced over the next three years is one of the keys to Ohlson's passion as an artist. Once he has exhausted to his satisfaction a theme, thesis or manner, he posits a new one, often a seeming contradiction of its predecessors but, upon closer inspection, more likely a shift to a different angle on his central concern ... color and its exposition.
Newcomb Pond "1970" was one of the works done in the old church, as its 27-foot length would attest. This picture suggests that it was not just the smallness of Ohlson's urban studio that forced him to create pictures in panels but that his real urge was to create broad horizontals. The fact that his painting is comprised of four panel-like sections refers, if to anything, to the serial altar-piece predellas of the 15th century by Giovanni di Paoli or the Master of the Osservanza, wherein successive panels of a saint's life become color plates that cohere in the mind and in essence become one painting. There are later Ohlsons that use compositional strategies that appear directly related to these early Italian predellas.
Though Ohlson has not confined himself to it, the broad horizontal has been one of his major preoccupations ever since Vinca and Newcomb Pond. For instance, in Duo, he tests the possibilities of organizing a horizontal format with two distinct halves which avoid symmetry but hold their own in equilibrium through the nature of their colors. Ohlson here accepts the classic evaluation of such colors as red-aggressive against blue-recessive. It is notable that the "nodes," more like halos in the red half, have been growing increasingly soak-stained into the natural absorbency of raw rather than sized canvas.
In Djed, 1972, and Melt, 1973, the circular stains begin to flow into each other in earnest, reducing themselves to subliminal traces of forms until with Davy's, 1973, the mist of tints takes over completely. At this point Ohlson makes a grand and bold gesture. Almost doubling the size of his canvas, he virtually expunges the circles and lets the canvas play its own role as part and parcel of the presentation.
Ohlson started a new phase more or less in the way he had before, with a refreshed look at the properties of color and the medium in which they are made. In Rose and Flamingo, both 1975, he had simply worked a single tone into the canvas the same way he had applied the medium in Yellow, thinly and canvas-revealing. These works are handsome and almost fragrant in their appeal. But identifying one's colors by a name projected an overly limited future.
One must assume that Ohlson was seeking something other than competition with Barnett Newman's large, mostly single color works of the early 1950s. Newman had sought to identify each basic, full-field color by a relatively simple means. His huge vertical Day Before One was a midnight blue with slightly darker blue borders at top and bottom, and his Day One was a sunlight orange vertical with yellow edges. In his horizontal masterpiece, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, he used very narrow stripes of the primaries, each mixed with the basic vermilion plus a pure white. Newman was giving his color field an exact identity by playing it off against admixtures of itself. Ohlson, of course, knew all this (as well as Newman personally), and so moved on quickly to solve the problem in another way.
The patchy perimeters of High/Low, 1976, tell the Ohlson story in the matter of color identification. Colors, he now begins to say, are not identified by names but only by what they are, colors. Colors precede language. High/Low start with a warm ochre that establishes its desire to be recognized in the realm of sensuous experience. But what is this particular ochre's precise projection of the artist's mood at the time? In the vocabulary of color only his choices of other colors can tell us.
On the other hand, this Ohlson painting is no color chart. Every choice of subsequent colors, as Matisse so firmly pointed out, will change not only the initial ochre but also the whole succession of tones as others are added. What makes High/Low so sensuously effective is Ohlson's decision to stick to low-key close values as he surrounds the ochre with pale blues, violets, orangey red and even a slight touch of weak green. Now, though the ochre initiated the succession of tones, it is no longer just an ochre but a specifically identified ochre. It is the remarkable flow between the colors as they deliver their individual messages that makes High/Low such a pleasure to contemplate.
Over the next year or two, the swatches of color in the perimeter are elongated and, especially in the horizontal paintings, are more area-defining and consequently more self-defining, achieving an equal role in the composition of the final character of the painting. From Open Hand, 1976-77, to Untitled, P-112, 1977, the shift from a base color (like the ochre in High/Low) to a featured central light mauve is notable, but the painting is still held together by an underlying tone of a rosier mauve that stretches behind all the others.
This affirmation at the perimeter of the wholeness of the canvas image is carried forward into the `80s. In Four Corners, 1978, it is again the perimeter area that ties the image together but now the job has been assigned to more than one color and the inner-outer depth of the field is totally dependent on color alone. Curiously, there is a connection to early Cubist drawing in the way some of the juxtaposed tones thrust opposite sides of the square panels backward or forward, activating an indeterminate space.
The same kind of opening and closing of space, a la Stuart Davis in Colonial Cubism, for example, appears again in Cadence, 1978-79. In this work Ohlson has also introduced verticals that serve as internal binding units as well as elements of color. In Cadence these are used in partnership with the perimeter binding units. Indeed, the division of this picture into equal halves is hardly perceptible. Cadence also suggests that Ohlson has had memories of the paintings in the Villa Mysteries at Pompeii where a single vermilion background together with overlapping figures sharply defined pictorial partitions, holds a whole, lengthy wall together.
Ohlson and Caravaggio
"The story of modern painting is not that of a flight as such from the imitation of nature, but rather of the growing rejection of an illusion of the third dimension."
-- Clement Greenberg
The critic Clement Greenberg carried a great deal of weight with the painters of his day, the Abstract Expressionists. His concept that non-illusionistic "flatness" was the essential characteristic of advanced painting became the challenge and the burden of his period (1940-60). For younger artists coming on in the `60s, the shadow of the previous generation lay heavy on them. To create pictures to serve "flatness is all" the older painters had each devised a personal solution for making a picture that conformed to Greenberg's dictum and yet avoided the purely decorative. The "second generation" followed suit: Frankenthaler identified the canvas surface by soaking her drawing and colors into it; Ellsworth Kelly placed emphasis on the distinctive shapes of his single-area colors; Jasper Johns chose flags, maps and other flat subjects. But the catalogue of devices grew thinner and options harder to find. Many artists moved back to neo-realism or toward sculpture. Some abandoned painting altogether. A few others, like Ohlson, were determined to keep the art of painting alive.
Until 1981 Ohlson had not used black as a color among colors. In that year he made a trip to Rome where he came into contact with a number of paintings by Caravaggio that proved to be a revelation for him.
Caravaggio is considered by many to be the father of Naturalism and thus a revolutionary in his departure from the Classicism and the mannerism of the preceding dominant styles. Caravaggio painted mainly scenes from the New Testament but he converted the conventional gradient modeling of figures and objects to sharp transitions from light to dark. And he chose ordinary Italians as models. For these latter practices he was vilified by some, ignored by others but later imitated by many and so changed the stylistic history of art.
Treating all things in his pictures as real, including color, Caravaggio's black was more than a symbol of shadow and darkness. But to match its power as a color he had to create an equally powerful selection of simple, basic hues; red, green, blue, yellow, ochre and brown. And although he used white occasionally as light reflecting off metallic surfaces, it appears as a true color in tablecloths and shirt-stuffs. Caravaggio's strong contrasts of light and dark and of colors to each other are a major part of the success of his Naturalism, making it sing loud and clear.
Ohlson was drawn to Caravaggio's "color and facture." He especially recalls The Conversion of St. Paul, c. 1601, in Santa Maria del Popolo, a picture of extraordinary boldness in both treatment and composition. It looks like a modern news photo of an event that happened last night. This shift into a new use of space, one beginning at the forefront of the canvas and extending only a few believable feet into an illusion of depth is the Italian's signature. By this means Caravaggio created a sense of immediacy and reality far more convincing than the conventional deep and infinite spaces of Renaissance practice.
Work done after his trip to Italy in 1981 shows there was an even deeper reading of Caravaggio's painting than perhaps Ohlson realized at the time. This has to do with the Italian's "box of space," which occurs in most of his later works and is perhaps best demonstrated in his Supper at Emmaus, 1602, now in the National Gallery in London.
The setting of the Supper is at a dinner table where the resurrected Christ has appeared but is not yet recognized by Peter and his fellow disciples. The conversation is animated; two figures reach arms straight out at the spectator, far enough to touch an invisible plane coincident with the back of the forward figure. The area behind the active scene purposely challenges the plane of the canvas by avoiding deeper perspectival illusions. In other pictures, such as The Calling of St. Matthew, Caravaggio used extended arm gestures horizontally to control the dimensions of the "box" without invoking single-point perspective or an interior wall. And a great part of this control lay in the scenic action itself.
Until 1981, Ohlson had controlled the implied space in his work through the forward and backward optical effects of colors and the overlapping of differing color planes the subtleties of which were often at risk of the decorative. That Caravaggio the Naturalist should have given Ohlson the Abstractionist a suggestion as to how the latter might pursue his goal to further enrich his painting indicates how much the underlying tradition in art is effective. Art inches forward by making new connections with its past, not by breaking with it. Indeed there are no revolutions in art, but there is evolution. What appears to be revolutions are simply recompositions of previous practices.
Ohlson's first response to his Caravaggio experience, as noted prior, was to the colors, especially to the Italian's use of black. In his Deep Pocket, 1981, a dark, near-black blue holds the left side of the painting in a midnight mood while a true black appears on the right in a group of reds, yellows and lighter blues stabilizing the horizontal surface which is bonded by the overlapping repeats of the vertical colors. This added richness of black and darkness opened up a whole new range of possibilities for Ohlson.
Double Future, 1982, is a bolder integration of pure black into a simple opposition of it to other colors. By Cadman's Blue, 1982, he has truly begun to push out into new territory. After absorbing the broad and brooding nighttime colors one notices the brushed, light-revealing edges of the vertical rectangles and the broken horizontal bands across the top. This picture is no casual "painterly" expressionistic effort, however, it is emotion-packed, certainly, but constructed with the accumulated taste and discipline of a seasoned hand and eye.
With Kingfisher, 1984, Ohlson confirms that he has truly entered a new phase. In this painting the uneven scumbling at the center where the brighter blue is broken into by an underlying ochre and the same blue is picked up again at far left produces the exact amount of space that allows the picture to quietly breathe. And while the blue areas seem to jut forward from the surrounding red, a flat rectangle of the same red at the bottom left pushes everything behind it and keeps it all under control, very much like the back of the figure in Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus. In Gilt, 1984, a counterpart to Kingfisher, similar means are used to give and yet control depth and surface.
Ohlson had long since mastered opaque hues as such. Now he opened the seams between them, letting air into some of them by manipulating the density of the surface. In Toucan, 1982, he not only pits the worked panels of color against the opaque ones but also develops an overlap of brushed blue and a free-flying dash of crimson into a neat vertical of black. This new spatial excursion is not deep. Things float in an area defined by the forward layers of bright color and the somber colors behind. He has thus subtlely created his own "box of space" and a whole new context for his kind of color painting.
Ohlson's transition from a cool, flat, hard-edged style to a denser, space-enriched approach was more than fortuitous. The years of coping with the presentation of colors dependent mainly on their optical qualities to differentiate their spatial relations to each other now paid off in many ways. As he introduced a dialogue between the optical and the sensual it enabled him to reach a kind of authentic space for color painting which was more than the symbolism of, say, the paired neat and fuzzy strips in Barnett Newman's works of the early `50s.
Ohlson was, indeed, escaping from Minimalism and reviving the larger volume of experiences available in the amplitude of 17th-century art. He was building for himself another room to work in rather than, as Newman had, creating final statements. Ohlson is closer to Rubens and Caravaggio than to most of his contemporaries; he is a painter, not a theoretician.
After Toucan, large geometric panels of opaque color are rarer and eventually disappear altogether, replaced by more painterly sections. Elongated solid color panels remain, however, since they are necessary to the spatial dialogue. They are, of course, the secret to the most forward affirmation of the canvas plane in physical rather than optical terms.
A large number of Ohlson paintings are horizontals, a format he has made peculiarly his own. They are, nevertheless, related less to their usual association with landscape than they are to his frequent predilection for the square. It is the play-off from one side to the other that seems to attract him, to energize and challenge his talent. Of course, none of the basic formats conform slavishly to the square as such, and small variants here and there abide. And though he does not indulge the overlapping human figure as the Pompeiian artists did in their break-up of the long wall into rectangular units with pictured black columns, there is a similarity in terms of interwoven elements.
The usefulness of an underlying order against which he plays his colors in their variable verticals and horizontals brings a satisfying animation to our experience. There is a normal optical response to a horizontal painting, which is to divide it in two equal halves corresponding, perhaps, to our eyes and arms. In his New Mexico, 1986, Ohlson meets that expectancy head on and uses it to reinforce the weight of a huge black with five other brilliant colors. In Bridgehampton, 1988, several pastel colors quite differently meld themselves into one harmonic field and allay our tendency to divide them.
Spirit Lake, 1990, transcends the more overt solutions of the two preceding pictures, adding a mood and drama that in recent years Ohlson has begun to reach for (and succeed in getting). His binding of the unequal parts with the opaque red vertical makes sure the picture does not sag inward at the center. The far left introduction of a pale translucent green illuminating the beneficent blue's edge prevents it from fading into meaningless space.
At the same time that he was producing a good number of horizontals he also made some compact, squarish pictures in which he used a brushed staining technique over the whole surface. Upon this spatially ambiguous and amorphous beginning, where raw canvas is left at certain edges, he laid his flatly painted rectangles in discreet positions to establish the foremost plane and thus the space within which the "action" occurs. Round Robin, 1987, Falcon and Raven, both of 1988, all fall into this technical category, each presenting its own characteristics and mood.
Med, 1989, shows the degree to which Ohlson can create space, activate and complicate it with his simple units of color. Who might have guessed that by floating four flat pieces of red, blue and orange, perfectly scaled and distributed, such a three-dimensional result could and would occur. This, of course, happened in conjunction with a highly charged back-drop of golden light shifting to forest darkness. A similar process is at work in Untitled, 1988, where languid pink and blue are made to respond with gumption to an intense black.
The remarkable range Ohlson has developed has become even more evident in the `90s. One has only to look quickly at Sentinels, 1991, and Brothers, 1992, two serious pictures but each in its own way, in that the role of black is constituent in the first and dominant in the second. And again in two versions of a theme, reminding us of the columnar interruptions in the Villa of Mysteries murals, Cat Eyes and Black Cat, both 1993. Significantly the green edging is brushed, lighter in the horizontal treatment but in both instances responsible for a shaped-canvas effect at the left base. Here one can make a choice in preference.
Another comparison allows a different kind of choice if one cares to make it. Peep Show, 1993, and 50/50, 1993, comparable in size but not in kind, these two paintings demonstrate the vast gap between one sensibility and another. Peep Show, as its name implies, plays with quickly perceived spaces, while 50/50 uses its spatial references only as low-key visual referrals across the field; the flat, hard-edged red rectangle meets the challenge of the forceful black area, unrelentingly putting it in its place, while the gray is gently lined by brushed red. Meanwhile, the gray superimposed on black and the black superimposed on gray at the bottom states strongly the spatial ambiguity of each.
By 1994 Ohlson had again stretched the possibilities of his accumulated knowledge of how to bind colors to the surface and at the same time move them quietly back and forth within an acceptable but limited space. Way of All Flesh, 1994, is a horizontal divided into three vertical plots that play paled hues against slightly stronger versions of themselves or their complementaries. The slenderness of these vertical areas, which appear also in Nemesis, 1995, is a new rhythm in his horizontals that began with Sentinels, 1991, though there are certainly precedents in the separated panel pictures of 1969-70. Here, of course, there is a broad rectangle within which the divisions function like the figures in the Byzantine mosaics of the 6th Century, where the eye sees both the group and the distinctive individual portraits of Theodora and her attendants.
Medley, 1995, shows how Ohlson can take a new and ambiguous structural approach and enlarge it by changing his sensual and emotional projections through color. This painting may have an additional vertical section than its predecessor but it expands the format from a trinity to a divisible field. Three cannot split in half without self-destruction, while four elements can easily break into two equal parts. Ohlson seems to like this balancing act and usually pulls it off. Here he is trusting the viewer's visual memory to follow the plentiful green left of center and see it stand for itself as an equalizing force in two slim stripes on the right. The bright, light blues which give the work its zing, like the green and yellows, are actually picked up and out of the background, where they are nearly obscured, and laid open in the foreground. What is the most amazing (and intriguing) thing about this work is that the nonaggressive green "panel" becomes a main feature and carries the whole painting despite the piquant hues.
In Nemesis, 1994-95, also with four vertical divisions, he is revamping earlier and recent uses of truly powerful colors. Taken as a statement without closer inspection one might feel that the two blacks and the hot red are too much for the pink, but when he puts one black in its place with the hard-edged pink verticals and the other with a piece of the red across its top, the hard-edged pink verticals stand out like dawn after a difficult night. Indeed, Ohlson's strategies often give colors meanings they perhaps have never had.
"We see cotton-ball clouds, violet clouds and clouds the setting sun has given the color of honey. Sometimes the sky overhead is radiant blue, the horizon inky. In front of a low and seething black cloud we see a line of trees sunlit to radioactive brilliance."
--Richard Wolkomir, on Great Plains skies, Smithsonian Magazine, Oct. 1994.
It may have been his discovery of Caravaggio's black as a working color that brought a psychological third dimension to Ohlson's work but it was the mastery resulting from three decades of perfecting the means that made it possible. And although there is no question of his sensitivity to all aspects of art and art history, there may be more self-distinguishing things that have given rise to his preoccupation with color as the core of his painting. While, for example, Caravaggio may have given him permission to use black, and the Modernists in general to indulge color as such, there is still his early life on the farm in Iowa to be considered.
No matter how much the above discussions of his progress may have delved into his methods and his means, Ohlson is not an intellectual artist. He is much more like Matisse, dedicated to making color come alive and speak for itself. He has accomplished this through his sensuous eye, trained in nature and nurtured in art.
E.C. GOOSSEN was a critic and curator and for many years served as chairman of the art department at Hunter College in New York. He died on July 14 at age 76.