Ӧyvind Fahlstrӧm (1928-1976) was the most significant Swedish artist of the Pop generation. Simultaneously painter, poet, playwright, composer, film-maker, performance artist and polemicist he was able to analyse and deride the geo-political system with unparalleled prescience. Today, he is an artist most famous and celebrated for his corpus of ‘board-game’ works, particularly those that play upon the ubiquitous and classic game of Monopoly: the Twentieth Century’s greatest family-friendly celebration of the capitalist system. These works hold a magisterial position within his production not only for their intricate and bold aesthetic, but also for the power of their message and the clarity of its delivery. Fahlstrӧm was also an accomplished abstract artist, whose early practice was strikingly unique and dense with content. He created with an overwhelming sense of purpose: not to woo the international intelligentsia with attractive imagery, but “to create a fusion of insight and pleasure…to formulate the terrifying shortness of life and the terrible shortcomings in a world where we struggle to experience and to create happiness” (Ӧyvind Fahlstrӧm, Texts and Manifestoes by Torsten Ekbom, Robert Rauschenberg, and Ӧyvind Fahlstrӧm, New York, 1967, n.p.).
Untitled and Tire Lire are prime examples of the artist’s formative style which he explored while living between Stockholm, Paris and Rome in the 1940s and 1950s. In keeping with the rest of this phase, they are dark and introspective, with elaborate compositions and cartoon-like forms. In the spidery hatchings of Untitled we can see the influence of Wassily Kandinsky’s linear abstractions. Meanwhile the swirling curvilinear articulations of Tire Lire belie Fahlstrӧm’s admiration for Robert Rauschenberg, a close friend and acknowledged influence. However, and despite these aesthetic references, these dense meditative works do not align themselves with any narrative or tangible subject matter. Although their graphic forms so often appear to approach the figurative, they remain shrouded in abstraction.
CIA Monopoly (large) and Eddie in the Desert…Dominoes encapsulate the style Fahlstrӧm adopted after moving from Paris to New York in 1961. They are both presented in a pseudo-board-game format and comprise of cut out magnets on a stainless steel background; they are colourful, engaging, and articulated in a playful Pop palette. Attuned to the work of Fahlstrӧm’s American counterparts, Eddie in the Desert…Dominoes from 1966, adopts a comic-book aesthetic in its bold graphic depictions of isolated body parts, dramatic faces, and miscellaneous props. It’s magnetic ‘dominoes’ can be read as panels, which the viewer can arrange and manipulate to create any number of narratives across the steel ground. This sense of variability, of leaving the final appearance of the work in the hands of the viewer, is typical of Fahlstrӧm’s playful yet seditious style.
By the beginning of the 1970s, Fahlstrӧm had settled upon the archetypal Monopoly board as the main arena for his particular brand of politically-charged Pop. These were works imbued with a mass-produced commercial aesthetic yet instilled with a caustic geo-political edge. As explained by the artist: “My Monopoly game paintings consist of 200-230 painted magnetic elements on a painted metal board. They deal with world trade, world politics, the left and the right in USA, Indochina, and CIA vs. Third World liberation forces. They can all be played, according to the rules written on the paintings, as variants of the classical Monopoly game, which is of course the game of capitalism: a simplified, but precise presentation of the trading of surplus value for capital gains” (Ӧyvind Fahlstrӧm, 1971, quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Ӧyvind Fahlstrӧm, 1982, p. 82). In CIA Monopoly (large) we see this overt socio-political subject matter reach an apogee. The artist pits the CIA against the Liberation Forces, juxtaposing labels of terrorist groups, such as ‘IRA Ireland’ and ‘ANC S Africa’, within the unmistakable Monopoly board format to draw an uneasy comparison between the frivolity of parlour games, and the player’s assumption of roles of groups and organisations characterised by their propensity for horror, terror, and violence: “The Monopoly paintings… deal with very complex realities - but nevertheless come out as basic game diagrams of these phenomena. That is, by the formulation of the rules, the definition of resources (million dollar coins, or hearts = lives), tactics and other such elements, plus the additional information you get from the sectors of the CHANCE-wheel. Blue colors stand for USA, violet for Europe, red for Russia, yellow for China, orange for North Vietnam, etc., and the Third World goes from brown red, over shades of green, to blue-green (S. Vietnam, S. Korea, etc.)” (Ibid.). Flippantly over-simplified, this subversive work is in keeping with the best of Fahlstrӧm’s oeuvre in the way it deftly engages the viewer in a game based in complex political reality.
Fahlstrӧm’s board-games were, in many ways, the product of his early interaction with the burgeoning Pop art movement. We might observe the commercial palette, the conscious removal of any signs of authorship, and particularly the elevation of seemingly mundane mass-market objects to a high art setting. Vehemently opposed to the ‘fetishism’ that surrounded the authorship of an artwork; Fahlstrӧm wanted his work to be about the object and its message, not the individual who had produced it. Akin to Warhol, he even expressed the desire to produce his works en masse. Just as Rauschenberg collaged photographs, Roy Lichtenstein adapted comic book strips and Warhol silkscreened movie stars and soup-cans, Fahlstrӧm subverted dominoes and Monopoly sets to distil his message and remove the marks of his artistic production.
The viewer’s implication as a player in Fahlstrӧm’s games is also redolent of his pioneering engagement in performance art. In devising a set of rules and creating a physical centrepiece (the board game) for their exploration, he created a portable performance whereby the viewer becomes the active participant. Fahlstrӧm was no stranger to performance art, and had become well known for his ‘happenings’ in 1950s Stockholm. However, with these magnetic board games, he advances the process and removes himself from the theatrics entirely. The lack of didacticism hugely enhances the gravity of these immersive and experiential works; it creates an arena, thematised by fraught geo-politics, whereby the viewer enacts an unpredictable win or lose scenario. By engineering a set of pre-determined outcomes steered by the arbitrary element of chance, Fahlstrӧm imbues his work with the sense of a journey, and allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions from the inevitable denouement of his Monopoly construct.
If Fahlstrӧm’s oeuvre is diversified by its range of media and contrasting modes of depiction, it is unified by his overwhelming sense of poetic voice. His early works are detailed and intense; indicative of the international artist’s compulsion to create and of his awareness of the contemporaneous artistic zeitgeist. However, there can be no doubt that the board games are the pinnacle of his artistic expression. They are engaging, witty, and innovative and represent a supreme appropriation of the mundane and its transformation into something extraordinary. From a twenty-first century perspective the fact that Fahlstrӧm’s contributions to the 1960s global zeitgeist should still seem relevant is further tribute to his work. As summated by the prominent Swedish critic Olle Granath:“There was something of the prophet about Ӧyvind Fahlstrӧm. His paintings…were like stones splashing down on to the surface of time and one can sit years afterwards watching the ripples still spreading” (Ibid., p. 11).