Sunday, February 07, 2016


Paintings from the 1980s
February 4 - April 2, 2016

Washburn Gallery Installation

Doug Ohlson's work stands its ground. Always has. This makes it imposing. Formidable. Even intimidating. It speaks of strength; it speaks of character. It also makes it surprising and unexpected, all the more so because on some level it seems so unsurprising and so expected. This subtly paradoxical spine of the paintings charges them with enormous power and tension.

Cadman's Blue, 1982, oil and acrylic on canvas, 84 x 176 in.

At first glance we might think we know the work already, this kind of work, this kind of hard edged, large-scaled, rectilinear abstraction. This kind of massive minimalistic fabrication. We might dismiss it. We might feign immunity to it. Claim we are inured. Mistake. It is only when we brave the paintings physically, and personally, that we get them. That we hear them. When we let go of what we think we know and think we see, and then engage the work on Ohlson's terms. When we let them have their way. Then he speaks. Then he makes music. Then he takes charge, and takes us on a trip of color and space, and light and force. Great force. With great passion.

Shooting for 19, 1981, acrylic on canvas, 66 x 67 in.

I have written more than once in the last few years that Hans Hofmann's paintings were nothing if not instructional. One could say the same of Ohlson. An artist who spent a good chunk of his life teaching at Hunter College in Queens, New York; Ohlson, like Hofmann, shows us how it is done. In no uncertain terms. Great force. With great passion.

Untitled, 1987, acrylic on canvas, 62 x 60 in.

Some of us are born in the wrong place, and we have to find our way to the right place. I have made this point often to explain how one must overcome being born a swan among ducks, or viceversa. Future farmers get born in the city; future ballerinas get born on farms. Ohlson was born on a farm, son of a farmer. Iowa. During the depression. Getting to the New York art world can't have been easy. Which isn't to say that there was no farmer left in him. His paintings have a certain sturdiness beneath their eloquent color, a bruised and hard-fought fist, a fierce no foolishness work ethic about them. Fields plowed until the sun goes down. Rows of corn as far as the eyes can see.

Night Watchman, 1987, acrylic on canvas, 62 x 60 in.

Much is made of the Rothko influence and that is evident in the work. Ohlson also studied with and worked for Tony Smith, and there is something of that as well. But color is so much of what Ohlson is about. Color space, color dialogue and interaction, color poetry, and color character. And for this I think of Hofmann again. Hofmann more than Albers. For while there is nothing of Hofmann's craziness, there is the conversation across space between blocks of color that is so highly tuned, thoughtful, even heartrending, and frankly, exceptional. The results are unmistakable. We know what we are experiencing. Color. Cut and dried. Color, with Hofmann's push and pull. Color, that knocks you on your ass!

German Town Red, 1984, acrylic on canvas, 62 x 60 1/8 in.

Ohlson died in 2010 at the age of 73. He left a prolific body of work that spanned decades, the 60s to the 2000s, and is dumbfoundingly if not stubbornly consistent, like some hard-edged Morandi, across time. Like a straight, midwestern highway, across space. It comes down to the way he stands his ground. The way he imposes his will on a painting, which imposes its will on the viewer. Again, nothing less than formidable.

The Washburn Gallery is putting Doug Ohlson on our radar once again, and asking us to take a another good look at someone so many of us might have missed. Joan Washburn does this as well or better than anyone. Asking us to see what she sees. To prize what she prizes. To discover what she has discovered. The Washburn Gallery is making a case for his relevancy; they are making a case for elevating his  place in art history from a successful, well-respected painter to someone celebrated in the larger context, to someone whose bold, elegant, hard-edge abstractions continue to earn him a voice in the conversation.

Addison Parks,
Spring Hill, February 2016

Doug Ohlson

Paintings from the 1980s
February 4 - April 2, 2016

Washburn Gallery
20 West 57th Street
New York, New York 10019
T (212) 397-6780 F (212) 397-4853

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