Click on photos to enlarge.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Doug Ohlson

Not For Over The Couch (NFOTC) installation by New York City
painter Doug Ohlson. (Is that a bench just beneath the painting?)
Some art demands a gallery setting. It only looks good on neutral walls in large, virtually empty, deftly lit rooms. In some cases, it merely looks best in such spaces. That's true of most non-representational painting and especially the case with large color-field works and their derivative Minimalist cousins. That includes Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Lewis, Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt, Arshile Gorky and probably a few others. One of those "few others" would be Doug Ohlson. Though certainly not as well-known as the others, his broad, vertical color stripes on massive fifteen-foot-wide canvases, or painted stretched canvas strips hung separately side by side, definitely fits the type--NFOTC (Not For Over The Couch) display.
Rousillon, 1997, Doug Ohlson.
"Welcome to my living room art galley;
just find a seat and make yourself comfortable."
Unless your home is the size of an art gallery, work by Ohlson and the others would totally dominate most living rooms (even those without a couch). Any room scoured free of most creature comforts, would certainly not be conducive to much "living." That, of course, presents a problem for art galleries in selling such work. It limits their clientele to large corporations, "non-profit" organizations, and millionaires out to furnish their second or third homes. There they spend very little time, and quite a lot of money for art chosen to impress friends and colleagues who can't afford to do the same.
Doug Ohlson at work. That's probably the longest handled paint "brush" ever used by an artist.
Over the years, in writing about art, I've encountered and talked about dozens of different effects to be had in applying paint with various unusual tools, from tableware to underwear. Doug Ohlson's painting tools were not all that unusual...if you're painting the aforementioned living room. Ohlson painted his canvases primarily with a paint roller. Moreover, he made little or no attempt to disguise his very appropriate painting tool. Doug Ohlson was born in Cherokee, Iowa, in 1936. He's of Swedish parentage, not Native American. He received his bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota then moved to New York City in 1961, where solo exhibitions have been almost continuous since 1964. Prestigious galleries such as Fischbach, Susan Caldwell, Ruth Siegal, Andre Zarre and Washburn galleries handle his work.

"Yellowish pink...and red-orange sunsets: Doug Ohlson
After moving to New York, Ohlson studied at Hunter College under abstract sculptor Tony Smith, but dropped out when he could no longer afford tuition. It was then he began working as an assistant to Smith. He started teaching at Hunter College in 1964. Ohlson's work is sharply defined with repeated geometric shapes characteristic of his earliest painting. His early work has been described as depicting "yellowish pink and green dawns, blue noons, and red-orange sunsets that swiftly slide from purple to black." It would seem that Ohlson's experience working long days on the family's farm in Iowa may have given him a unique passion for color. It's certainly his strongest suit and the primary reason I like his work.

Heroic Abstraction, Doug Ohlson
Ohlson's rise as an important New York abstract expressionist gives credence to the old saying: "It's not what you know but who you know." Ohlson was helped along in his career by established artists such as Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Tony Smith, and various gallery owners. Doug Ohlson would have been the first to embrace the NFOTC label. His work is so strong as to color and format he can be forgiven the fact that it demands large doses of spatial sterility to function. Doug Ohlson died in June, 2010, after a fall in front of his Manhattan apartment. He was seventy-three.

An Ohlson gallery installation.



  1. These 'bar' paintings and color field painting in general remind me of Lancaster Co. PA Amish quilts from the turn of the last century.
    The Espirt quilt collection of Doug Tompkins has some fine examples that would look at home next to one of Ohlson's work. Ohlson probably never saw the quilts?
    Interesting how two very different environments create similar art.

  2. Bryan--

    You make an interesting observation I'd not thought about. However I'm not too sure Ohlson was unaware of the Amish quilts. Folk Art was starting to become quite popular among those of the elite New York art world about the time Ohlson came of age as an artist, so it's not outside the realm of possibility that he may have been inspired by their design motifs.