In October 2008, the Chinati Foundation opened a special exhibition by Swedish painter Olle Baertling (1911–1981). Baertling’s work is widely recognized in Scandinavia — in 2007–08 a major retrospective of his work was co-organized by the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm — but in the U.S. it is largely unknown, even though Baertling exhibited widely here in the 1960s and ’70s. (Donald Judd reviewed Baertling’s exhibition at Columbia University in 1964 and later collected his prints.) Chinati’s exhibition included thirty paintings and one sculpture spanning Baertling’s career from the early 1950s to 1980 and was the first solo exhibition of his work in the U.S. in almost forty years. It remained on view through May 2009.
Baertling began mapping out the rudiments of the pictorial system that would preoccupy him throughout the rest of his life in the early ’50s, when, traveling from Stockholm to Paris and absorbing the new abstract art slowly gaining a foothold there, he renounced his previous representational work and committed himself to abstraction. In the years 1953–4 he discovered what would become the essential components of his work: rich fields of single, unmodulated color, outlined in black and formed into triangles which neither originate nor end within the space of the painting itself. For almost thirty years, these simple-seeming devices generated a rich field of possibilities for Baertling as he experimented with different configurations of line, shape, and color. Later in his career, Baertling began making sculpture in addition to his painting and also created designs for buildings and clothes. The Chinati Foundation’s exhibition included works from all three decades of Baertling’s mature activity.
Olle Baertling: Life and Work
Olle Baertling was born in Halmstad, Sweden in 1911. In 1928 his family moved to Stockholm. Baertling was trained as a banker and later became a currency trader at Skandinaviska Banken, maintaining this position throughout his early artistic career. Baertling was largely self-taught as an artist. While employed at the bank, Baertling always painted on the side; his earliest works from the late 1930s are expressionistic land- and cityscapes. In the 1940s Baertling developed an interest in the Cubists and especially Matisse. Baertling visited Paris during these years, but it wasn’t until after Second World War that he spent significant amounts of time in the city. In 1948 Baertling began studying with Fernand Léger, a major influence on his work at this time and the first of his mentors. Under Léger’s tutelage, Baertling began moving away from figural and landscape-based painting toward a more geometric, abstract style. This development was further encouraged by the artist’s second mentor, the painter Jean Herbin, who, unlike Léger, was fully committed to abstraction, regarding representational work as both politically and aesthetically retrograde.
This period, the early ’50s, was one of rapid development for Baertling, as he absorbed lessons from the work of Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich while struggling to find his own method and “voice.” He began exhibiting his work at galleries in Paris and Stockholm, eventually establishing a relationship with Galerie Denise René, the prestigious Parisian gallery that focused on new abstract painting. At this time Baertling’s paintings often featured straightforward, flatly painted groupings of squares, rectangles, and circles — the basic building blocks of concrete or geometric art. Looking to create a greater sense of dynamism and mobility in his canvases, Baertling began introducing diagonal lines and triangle shapes into his work, and with these new forms came into his own as a painter.
Triangles began to appear in Baertling’s paintings in 1953–54, first set against a few lingering rectangles, then coming to dominate the entire image. The paintings began to feature precise arrangements of greater and smaller triangles — pyramidical wedge-shapes whose vertices are never located inside the painting but seem to exist in some imaginary space outside it.
These “Open Forms,” as Baertling called them, give the impression of shooting off the painting in different directions and at different speeds. Each triangle is demarcated by a band of black paint. These lines appear straight at first glance, but in fact are subtly curved, as though mimicking the effect of gravity on movement. The color of the triangles is applied flatly, with no trace of the artist’s hand, and the hue is always richly, almost garishly synthetic, as Baerling wanted to avoid fostering any associations with “nature.” Baertling worked hard to achieve the proper “temperature” for his color, so as to control the relative dynamics, the “tempos” of his restless, mobile forms.
Baertling had his first solo exhibition in Paris at Denise René in 1955, and thereafter exhibited regularly in France and Scandinavia. In 1964 he participated in an exhibition organized by the Guggenheim Museum in New York to coincide with its annual International Award. That same year, Columbia University organized Baertling’s first major solo exhibition in New York. Reviewing the show for Arts Magazine, Donald Judd wrote:
The sour color and the sharp, fast and open triangles [in Baertling’s work] are fairly interesting; the paintings are dynamic, as Baertling intends them to be, but the work is somewhat simple — not the few areas, but the quality, in the ideas involved. For example, the implication that a form continues beyond the painting is an old device by now, an easy way to suggest the continuation of something, either to a great extent or to infinity. It’s better than discrete and rationalistic parts, but it’s inferior to a more direct consideration of continuity and infinity, as in Frank Stella’s paintings. On the whole, Baertling’s work is still too near the older geometric painting.
Despite this mixed review, Judd remained interested in Baertling’s work and later collected a number of the artist’s prints.
During the ’60s and ’70s, the forms in Baertling’s paintings became simplified: fewer in number, with larger expanses of astringent color. At the same time, the artist began focusing equally on his sculptures. These share with the paintings a concern for elementary forms and the activation of energy, sometimes almost literally—Baertling’s characteristic sculptural form is a lightning-like zigzag of steel, as though the contour lines in the paintings have been pried off the canvas and rendered in three dimensions.
During these years, Baertling expanded his artistic activities into other areas as well, making architectural plans for Stockholm University and designing street flags, women’s clothes, and theater curtains. Baertling hoped to introduce his Open Forms into as many contexts as possible, believing to the end of his life that his were the forms of the future.
Baertling died on May 2, 1981, just before the opening of a retrospective of his work organized by the artist with the Mälmo Konsthall and the Moderna Museet in Sweden. His work is represented in major museum collections in Europe, including the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Tate Gallery, London; Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie; the Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, Paris; and many others. In the U.S. his work is included in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the University of California, Berkeley; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and others.
This exhibition was presented with generous support from Moderna Museet and Caisa and Åke Skeppner.