SANTA FE, N.M. — Eleven paintings by the least-known Taos Modernist, Oli Sihvonen (1921-1991), will light up the exhibit space at David Richard Gallery in the Railyard in a show opening today.
Sihvonen spent much of his working life in Taos, before moving to New York City in his last years. He was of Finnish background, a hearty, jovial man who made friends easily and concentrated fiercely on his art. Three of his friends and admirers, Allan Graham, Lilly Fenichel and David Eichholtz, will have a panel discussion on his work at 2 p.m. Saturday at the gallery.
Graham offered a poignant glimpse of his old friend for an exhibit at The Harwood Museum of Art in Taos in 2011: “‘Ages and stages,’ Oli would say, as we drank another glass of Retsina, bitching, moaning and laughing about life’s ironies. ‘Ages and stages.'”
Eichholtz, co-owner of the gallery, said in his statement that these 11 works are “quite possibly [Sihvonen’s] most important series of paintings as they are a culmination of decades of his thinking about and examining visual perception through the use of reductive forms and color.
“This is the first time that most have ever been exhibited and the first time all have been presented as an exploration of the subject of the artist’s two grants in the 1980s from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and Gottlieb Foundation to create movement in paintings,” Eichholtz said.
“They conflate the elements he developed in his better-known and earlier series, including ‘ellipses,’ ‘grids’ and ‘ladders.’ … Sihvonen wanted to capture time in paintings and he did so by focusing on the temporality of such things as movement, beat and rhythm,” Eichholtz added. “Interested in the mathematical principle of Set Theory, he applied that to painting, with his reductive elements each comprising a set. By repeating each element within a set, Sihvonen developed a beat and pattern that amplified the set. By combining different sets, he generated a sense of randomness that conveyed both the concepts of chance and time. Not only does one see in these paintings blocks of vibrant and angled color bracketing and defining thin black and white stripes and pinstripes, but the overall feeling is that they are vibrational and full of energy. Compositions are activated by the lines with their alternating pattern and variations in width, creating both depth and movement from the layering of pattern on pattern and challenging visual perception.”
According to the biography furnished by David Richard Gallery, Sihvonen spent his career studying geometric shapes, surface texture and the adjacency of colors and how that combination influences one’s perception of color. After studying with Josef Albers at the famed Black Mountain College in North Carolina, he lived in New Mexico for a year and then painted murals in Mexico.
The Harwood’s background information notes that the Black Mountain College influence came to Taos and to New Mexico with the postwar arrival of at least 22 of its students. Brooklyn-born, Sihvonen attended Black Mountain College from 1946 to 1948. Sihvonen’s geometric-optical abstractions reflect what he had learned from his mentor, Joseph Albers. “Abstraction is the essential function of the human spirit,” Albers declared in his teachings at Black Mountain. Sihvonen stayed focused and true to these teachings. His entire body of work remained clean, objective and flat, with no gestural or emotional contrivances. After a sojourn in Taos, he moved back to Washington, D.C. and New York, teaching at Hunter College and Cooper Union.
Sihvonen returned to Taos in 1949 where, inspired by the light, serenity and heroic landscapes, he painted large canvases and diptychs. In Taos, Sihvonen continued his studies under the G.I. Bill at Louis Ribak’s Taos Valley Art School in 1949 and 1950, seven years before he became a full-time resident of Taos, with the support of a Wurlitzer Foundation grant. By 1950 he worked exclusively with abstract imagery. In Taos, his artwork was featured in exhibitions at Betty Parson’s, and he had a solo show at the Stable Gallery.
Many of Sihvonen’s paintings were large compared to those of other Taos moderns, who rarely attempted to work much beyond five or six feet. There was little market for paintings on such a public, architectural scale in New Mexico at that time. But while he was in New Mexico, his career took off on the East Coast with his paintings included in seminal exhibitions such as “Geometric Abstraction In America,” in 1962 at The Whitney Museum of American Art; “The Formalists,” in 1963 at The Washington Museum of Contemporary Art, Washington, D.C.; and the legendary “Responsive Eye” in 1965 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which also purchased one of Sihvonen’s “Elipse” paintings for its permanent collection. The broader acceptance in the East of his large scale and the inclusion of his work at MOMA led him to move back to New York in 1967.
Sihvonen’s final years were spent living in a studio above a Chinese gambling establishment. Although he had suffered from a serious heart condition and was living on the edge of poverty, he regained his health and began painting prolifically until his death in 1991.
Posthumously, Sihvonen’s paintings were featured in 2000 at SITE Santa Fe, in Allan Graham’s exhibition “As REAL As Thinking” and thereafter in numerous solo exhibitions celebrating his ellipses, grids and ladders at Canfield Gallery and James Kelly Contemporary in Santa Fe and Sandra Gering Gallery, New York, as well as an exhibition focused on the last four years of his work in 2011 at the Harwood Museum in Taos.
Sihvonen was a recipient of grants from the Pollack-Krasner Foundation in 1988, Adolph and Ester Gottlieb Foundation and two from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1977 and 1967. His artwork is included in the permanent collections of Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Rockefeller University, New York; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts; The Art Institute of Chicago; Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Mass.; Asheville Art Museum, Asheville, N.C., Albuquerque Museum of Art; Black Mountain College Museum, Asheville, N.C.; University of New Mexico Art Museum; Brandeis University; Rose Art Museum, Waltham, Mass.; Harwood Foundation Museum of Art, Taos; New Mexico Museum of Art; New York State Art Collection, Albany, N.Y.; Roswell Museum and Art Center and Worchester Art Museum, Worchester, Mass., among others.