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Doug Ohlson Home

(A conversation with Doug Ohlson below)

Personal History

1936 Born in Cherokee, Iowa
1961 BA University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

Selected Solo Exhibitions:

2003 Elaine Baker Gallery - Paintings
2002 Hunter College of Art, NY - 20 Years of Painting: 1982-2002
1995 Andre Zarre Gallery, New York, NY
1993 Andre Zarre Gallery, New York, NY
1992 Andre Zarre Gallery, New York, NY
1992 Marsh Gallery, University of Richmond, VA - Recent Paintings
1990 Andre Zarre Gallery, New York, NY
1990 Jaffe Baker Gallery, Boca Raton, FL
1989 Ann Jaffe Gallery, Bal Harbor, FL
1986 Nina Freudenheim Gallery, Buffalo, NY
1986 Galerie 99, Bal Harbor, FL
1985 Ruth Siegel Ltd. New York, NY
1985 Andre Zarr Gallery, New York, NY - Works on Paper 1980-1985
1983 Susan Caldwell Inc., New York, NY
1982 Bennington College, Bennington, VT - Doug Ohlson at Bennington: Two Decades, 1962-1982
1981-1982 Susan Caldwell Inc., New York, NY
1979 Susan Caldwell Inc., New York, NY
1978 Portland Center for the Visual Arts, Portland, OR - Recent Paintings
1974-1978 Susan Caldwell Inc., New York, NY
1972 Fischbach Gallery, New York, NY - New Paintings
1970 Fischbach Gallery, New York, NY - New Paintings
1970 Florence Wilcox Gallery, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA
1964-1969 Fischbach Gallery, New York, NY - New Paintings

A Conversation with Doug Ohlson

Saturday, April 6, 2002, Ohlsonís Studio

Present with Doug Ohlson are:
Michael Brennan, Adjunct Professor of Painting, Hunter College
Heeyoung Bae, M.A. student
Johan Marby, M.A. student
Allyson Spellacy, M.F.A. alumna
Richard Stapleford, Professor of Art History

A.S. So Doug Ė how did you get into painting?

D.O. Well, I was really young. But there were no peers, there was nobody to look to. And so I drifted away from art. I started out in forestry in college, but it was a romantic idea. I didnít really know what it was. My buddy Dave became a smoke-jumper and I tried to get into the smoke-jumpers, but they wanted more then just somebody who wanted to jump out of a place. They wanted someone who has some prior knowledge. So I got discouraged by that, and I just joined the Marines ultimately. That was like my Walden Pond.

J.M. Did the Marines change you in any way?

D.O. The Marines for me was not much of a deal at all, because it was easier than life on the farm. It was important in the sense that I said Ė being like my Walden Pond. It was a way of absolutely breaking one pattern, one way of life. Nobody could touch you there, they couldnít mess with you. And then you walked out the other end changed.

A.S. As you were growing up did you have much exposure to art?

D.O. I had seen paintings, besides in magazines, in Chicago and in Minneapolis. We took cattle into Chicago and then weíd go downtown to the Loop and look around the museums a bit. I had relatives in Minneapolis and so Iíd go there sometimes. And we went on a couple of trips with my father. I saw the National Gallery in Washington pretty early on. I mustíve been fourteen or so.

A.S. You did painting in school too, right?

D.O. No. I took an art history course before I joined the Marines which reminded me that there were actually people who painted. When I got out I went back to school with a purpose.

R.S. Doing what?

D.O. Studying art, painting. I went to a small college, Bethal in St. Paul, where I had gone before the Marines to play football. Then I established my residency in Minnesota and went to the University of Minnesota.

A.S. Were you always an abstract painter?

D.O. Well, basically. I did take classes where you had to do other things Ė still life, figure drawing. There was one or two Life magazines that came out about then Ė I still have them I think. The Big Three were in there Ė Still, Pollock and Rothko. And there was a rush on Franz Kline in those times. He came across loud and clear in the black and white of the magazines, because they were black and white paintings.

A.S. What did your dad think about your paintings?

D.O. I donít think he was actually opposed to it but he didnít understand it either. He wanted me to stay on the farm. We Ė the boys in the family Ė has the northwest room in the house. His idea was that we could fix up that northwest room because it had good light and I could work there. Well, I donít know when the hell I wouldíve worked Ė fifteen seconds a day? So I sort of rejected that idea. Then later, he has a heart attack so I went back to Iowa to work on the farm. I painted a mural on the wall of the barn, green and white Ė the dark green was the closest I could get to black. It was Ė Iím guessing Ė about 30 by 40 feet. I have a photo of it somewhere. I was stuck there, with really nothing to do. My father was in the hospital, I couldnít really leave for a while. I guess thatís what it was Ė I got mad and I had to do something. I took the photo up to the hospital, and my father said, I guess thatís the way you should paint a barn.
My parents never referred to me as a painter and my mother would say, Youíre a teacher!
When I returned to college after the Marines I left under very bad circumstances Ė I walked out of the door and got in the car and drove away. Later when my father was back in the hospital again, he said Ė which was sort of biblical Ė he said, Well, I guess each man has his own calling. And so that was forgiveness on his part.

R.S. The rural environment that you grew up in, do you still have a strong sense of that? Can you conjure up those images?

D.O. I can certainly conjure them up, yeah, in the right frame of mind Ė some beautiful vistas. Depending on the time of year, expanse of the sky, Mars sitting up there red as could be.

R.S. Tell us about the circumstances of leaving college and coming to New York.

D.O. There was a painter, Peter Busa. He came out to the University just as I was leaving. I was in an exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of art called The Minnesota Biennial that has been curated by Hilton Kramer. Pete Busa saw my painting and said, why donít you come and by in my class next term? And, I said, I canít Iím leaving, and he said where are you going? and I said Iím going to graduate school, and he said, in my day we didnít go to school, we got to work. Which came back to haunt me later, or rather help me.
Pete came down to my studio to see my paintings. He said, so where are you going to graduate school? and I said I was going to Berkeley. I had been stationed there, and I thought it was really nice. And Pete said, donít go to San Francisco, thatís the end of the road, youíll get nothing done. He said if you want to learn something, go to New York. So I said, well I donít know anything about schools in New York, and he said, go to Hunter College. Bob Motherwellís there and I think youíll like him. So in a couple days or so, I packed up and came to New York, I packed a bag and a blanket and the airfare was 39 dollars, it was one of those flights they carried mail on, so it was unheated and I caught cold, but I got here.

R.S. The year wasÖ?

D.O. The end of `61. I stayed in the Marboro Hotel on 8th Street for one night. I went to a place called D.D. Stein where you could rent apartments and paid a monthís rent, a monthís security and a month to D.D. Stein, so I was pretty much wiped out almost immediately, but I got a place on Avenue D and 7th which was a nice neighborhood then.

A.S. Did you go to Hunter to seek out Robert Motherwell?

D.O. Well, Bob was not teaching then, he has taken a year off. I went in and up to the 16th floor and I had my portfolio, and I said I wanted to enroll in the program. This guy Harry Stinson, sculptor, was the Graduate Advisor and he said, well itís too late for that, but if you want to be a non-matriculant we have a new teacher who is just starting Ė Tony Smith Ė you can enroll with him. So I signed up and took the class that Spring.
The first night Tony went around the room asking everybody what they did. One guy was the director of the Hudson River Museum and others ran art departments in high schools, so I just hung back Ė I didnít know what to say. I was the last person, and finally he said, what do you do? And I said: well I guess I donít do anything. He said, well, why are you here? And I said, Iím a painter. He said, oh, so youíre a painter, well I never heard of you. After the class he said, Iím driving downtown on my way back to Jersey, Iíll give you a ride if you want. I said fine, and he said, but first I have to stop by 79th street and talk to Lee Krasner for a little bit. Is that OK? I said OK.

A.S. Did you talk to Lee Krasner too?

D.O. Oh sure. We spent quite a long time there, actually. I canít remember what the actual conversation was about. I donít know if it was about her work or Pollockís work. I was kind of flattered to be there.

A.S. So when did Tony Smith first see your work?

D.O. We were supposed to bring some work in to class. He thought it was way too French. It was somewhat rectilinear painting, done with a knife. It had a lot of paint on it, and he brought up Nicolas de StaŽl, and I think thatís part of why he said it looked French. But I cleaned up my act soon enough.

H.B. Did you continue to be Smithís student?

D.O. By the end of the term I was pretty down and out and I went up to Hartford to work in construction that summer. My father was ill, so that was one of the times I had to go back to Iowa. I came back to the city basically broke again. I was standing in line in September to sign up for class, and then I realized I didnít have any money. And Pete Busa came back in my head: ďIn my day we didnít go to school Ė we got to work.Ē So I left and got the train back downtown and that was the end of my graduate career.

R.S. But your connection with Hunter continued. How did that come about?

D.O. I had a friend in Tonyís class and she ran into him in the hall, and he asked where I was, and she said I was humbling down in the Lower East Side. And he said, well if he ever needs some work, Iíve got some things out in South Orange that could be taken care of. I started to work for him fairly regularly, a day or two a week Ė it was 20 dollars a day Ė but thatís how I got back in, through that.

M.B. It was through Smith that you met Barnett Newman. How did that happen?

D.O. Tony was going with his family to California for the summer. So he loaned me his Volkswagen Ė it was an old one Ė and I went down with [Robert] Huot and a couple of other people to the Maryland shore, on Chesapeake Bay. We rented a house there, but nobody stayed but me. I stayed there pretty much alone the entire summer. I did a bunch of paintings down there and when I came back I took a loft on Price Street. By the time I was working at NŤti Art Color Company so I had a little more money but not much. So I stretched them all up with my first paycheck. Tony said, got come slides taken of them.
I was working down in the cellar at Tonyís and Barney Newman came for dinner and Tony brought him down and told me to show him the slides. Barney asked if he could come by the studio and I said, well, of course. Shortly thereafter he came and brought Carroll Janic from the Janis Gallery. This was a time when things were just starting to get rolling. I mean, you could go to 57th Street on a Tuesday night and see every damn artist you wanted to see in the whole city. Unlike today where you go to 200 galleries. Then there were about four or five galleries you went to for openings and that was it.

H.B. What kind of connection did you have with Newman? Did you ever talk about the way you paint?

D.O. Oh sure, a lot. But he didnít function as a teacher, he was actually opposed to that. I guess he was the best kind of critic Ė he was engaged, encouraging. He wanted me to be the same with him.

M.B. How did you get started teaching?

D.O. Gene Goosen [then Chairman of the Art Department at Hunter] had heard about me and Tony brought him down to Fanelliís Bar. We had a drink and Tony said Gene is going to come up and see the paintings, which he did. Gene said to call him and I did, and he said Iíve got a couple hours [teaching] for you. But he said, donít quit your other job. He also said, Iím not really sure if youíre verbal enough to be a teacher. I said, what do you mean Ė I donít talk all the time? He forgave me that. Anyway, as it turned out, by the time I got there, in early February, I pretty much had at once a full schedule. So I just stayed on.

M.B. What about your first show?

D.O. In the spring of `64 Barney Newman said take your slides to Janis Gallery, thereís a show in the formal tradition. I did, but it was too late: the catalogue has already gone to press. Barney said, youíd think that if I said something theyd listen to me, wouldnít you? Anyway, the director of Fischbach heard that Barney had supported me and came out and said, Iíd like to see those paintings sometime. I said, your place is really too small for me to show. He said, well, can I call you? And I said, I donít have a telephone.
I was just stupid and naÔve. I told Tony about this, and he said, show as much as you possibly can. Show in Woolworthís window if you have to! Donít do what Barney and I did, which is let it go too long it becomes too important to you. Just show all the time, every chance you get, and it wonít mean so much. I canít remember exactly what happened, but finally Marilyn Fischbach came down and offered me a show in Fall of `64.
That same Fall it turned out that Gene [Goossen] was setting up a show of his own called Eight Young Artists at the Hudson River School Museum. I had shown a couple works at Fischbach in the spring. So that played into Tonyís idea that you should show as much as possible, and he kept saying to me. Iím really glad that Geneís having this show, because now your other show wonít be such a big deal. It makes sense.

J.M. But your show at Fischbach, your first one man show, was a big deal. Do you look back on that as the beginning of something for you?

D.O. There was a time I remember in the early 70s when somebody, a student, said, ďGee, people can really make a living doing painting now.Ē And I thought, where on earth did you get an idea like that? I mean I grew up reading about Cezanne and Van Gogh. I didnít have any expectations. I knew how old DeKooning was before he showed and how old Newman was before he showed. When they asked me about a show I thought, Iím too young, Iím not ready to have a show. This was before I was disabused by Smith. I figured you worked, and then when youíre fifty or so, you get to show some work. There are a lot of artists who have done that. They didnít have any expectation of using paintings to have a show, to sell them and make a living doing it. I never had those expectations either.

M.B. By the time there was that MoMA show that Goossen curated [The Art of the Real, 1969] with a lot of Hunter people in it Ė the one that traveled to London and Paris Ė did you guys feel like you were at the epi-center of what was really new and exciting in painting?

D.O. Well, if that was the case, it went south very quickly.

M.B. I remember Sandy Wurmfeld lamenting that too. He said, we were all in this show and we thought we were all going to have MoMA retrospectives in a couple years, and then it just kind of changed. What happened?

D.O. The economy went to hell, thatís one thing, and there was the usual up and down cycle where realist painting came in strong, which the art writers grabbed onto like crazy because there was something to write about all of a sudden. And conceptual art was in there too, kind of cutting out the object per se, the paintings and sculpture. So there were all those factors.

A.S. How do you feel about the various digressions in the art world that youíve observed throughout your career? What do you think the sustainability of painting is?

D.O. I donít know if I can answer that question. I canít imagine a continuing fascination with manufactured images or things that constantly move. I think of a great Goya, some captured image like that with pizzazz and grace, and I canít imagine why that wouldnít remain appealing.

J.M. Letís talk about your paintings. Do you have any influences from music or poetry?

D.O. No. People have mentioned music before in relation to my work but I donít have any direct conscious contact with it. I donít really listen to music. Thereís a couple things that I like to listen to on occasion. I donít think they feed in to what I do at all. And the same with poetry Ė I steal titles and I enjoy poetry, but I donít see any direct relation to it.

R.S. What about how you title your work? You title everything. Why didnít you choose to identify your works the way others in your generation have: Number 1, Series 1, titles like that?

D.O. I like titles a lot. But thatís not even why I use them. Do you know where Pollockís Autumn Rhythm is?

R.S. Yes.

D.O. Do you know where Number 32 is?

R.S. (laughs) Point taken.

D.O. But I like that the title is a moniker Ė it identifies something. I know Blue Poles is in Australia, Autumn Rhythm is at the Met, Number 32, Dusseldorf. And where I got the titled, it just depends on what the time was.

H.B. Could you tell us about the Lost Twin [1996] paintings?

D.O. I read an article in The New Yorker about two studies Ė one was in Sweden and one at the University of Minnesota Ė on twins. It was found that there were more twins conceived but not born than was previously known. In the majority of cases, only one survived in the womb. They found out that the one who did survive often bears psychological trauma from that survival, as if they were missing something. It was a pretty interesting article.

H.B. So your titles come after your paintings?

D.O. I canít remember a time when they didnít.

H.B. When you did Fall 2001, did you have a concept of ďfallĒ when you were painting it?

D.O. No, not at all. What happened was I was stretching that painting the morning of September 11th, and had the radio on and heard what was starting to happen. A normal thought, I guess, would have been to call the painting ďSeptember 11th.Ē But then by the time it had gone through all the permutations of ď9/11,Ē ďSeptember Eleven,Ē ďAttack on America.Ē I thought, this is totally banal title now. Then, my old assistant Clinton Storm in Germany, wanted to see some slides and when I sent them I didnít have titles, so I just wrote the dates on. He wrote back and said, those are great titles. Fall 2001 makes sense. In a way, it was a fall. I donít have to pin it down to the day I started the painting.

H.B. We were talking about the twin towers, and thinking that the viewer canít help seeing the twin towers in your forms. How would you respond to that?

D.O. I wouldnít. It would be their problem, not mine, because theyíre not there. Once, because I was reading James Fraserís The Tolden Bough, I was using titles from mythology. Another time, when I took the subway, the lettering on the floor supposed to say ďSTAND CLEARĒ but the only thing left was STAN CLE Ė ďstancleĒ Ė it doesnít make sense at all, but thatís what was left there, the rest had rubbed off. I used it. I like the idea of kind of residue, a surrealist way where you can sort of get an idea, but you donít quite get it. I take titles from anywhere. So there might be something there, but no twin towers.

M.B. Do you have mystical feeling about the paintings or is it for you more literal: what you see is what you see?

D.O. Well, Second Wind [1982] is 23 feet long. There were two separate canvases that joined, so theyíre each 11 Ĺ feet long. And for whatever reason, the left hand side was working pretty well, but the right hand side Ė well, I think the right hand side is still in the closet there. I got mad and stretched another 11 Ĺ feet one and put it up and started to work on it. It wasnít going to sell either, so I got mad again and I took a big trowel with a lot of black paint and just made a slash across the right hand side. And somehow it pulsed the whole thing together. Because Iíd given up and started again with the second canvas, I called it Second Wind. So itís literal.

H.B. How about the small studies? You have so many of them, how do they relate to your large paintings?

D.O. To some degree. I think of them as studio detritus. I test colors that way. I try not to think of them as sacrosanct or precious. That doesnít mean that if they work out I go on and make a painting from one of them. It always works the other way around. They work together with the bigger painting.
You know what I mean about not letting them be precious. Iím a great fan of very small paintings, though. I saw those small late Manets in a show in Paris last year. But the first small Manet I saw was quite a long time ago, a slice of watermelon in the Philadelphia Museum. And MorandiÖ! I love all those small paintings. Morandi Iíve known for a while. There was a Morandi show in Pietrasanta last summer. Incredible, over a dozen of them. I went to the show several times.

J.M. Are other artists important to you? Matisse?

D.O. Matisse is sort of a god, isnít he? Certainly to me heís a very large presence.

J.M. The early work of the later cut-outs?

D.O. For me, the early paintings, up to at least Bathers by a River [The Art Institute of Chicago, 1909-1916]. The cut-outs, they should give an older artist a kick Ė not a kick, but hope. Theyíre livelier, quicker, more joyful. He did them in old age, isnít that refreshing? Do you know the Bathers by the way? Incredibly powerful painting, although I canít figure it out. I donít know how he ever got the guts to do it. That View of Notre-Dame [1914] in the Museum of Modern Art, most of it is just sketchy. I donít know how he was able to quit on it. Maybe he just abandoned it.

R.S. Do you ever have trouble breaking away from your paintings?
D.O. Or pursuing. I think if you have pre-set notions, youíre probably in trouble. If you already have your mind pre-set, what youíre going to do as opposed to what youíve done, you could get in trouble. You should be able to stop anything you want to. Anytime Ė fifteen minutes, fifteen hours, fifteen days, anytime.
Ray Parker and Esteban Vincente came by the studio one day to have a glass of wine and look at paintings. There was this big painting on the wall and Esteban was very taken with it and I said, well, Iím gonna work more on it, and he said, youíre nutsÖ Well, itís here somewhere, face down (gestures to discarded canvases lining studio floor).

R.S. You did work on it.

D.O. I wrecked it!

A.S. What do you think the difference is between the vertical and the horizontal format in your work. Some people suggest that the horizontal is blatantly landscape, and the vertical implies figuration. Do you think those kind of analogies have any bearing on your work?

D.O. I think it makes absolute sense, but I donít think it applies to me in the least. I can think of three terms that the French use. One is a marine, which is this kind of shape (gestures horizontally), one is almost the same shape but vertical, which implies the figure. What Iím trying to get at is that this goes back to long, that itís a classical concept. Itís embodied in the stretcher. The vertical is more expressionistic, and the horizontal is more passive. I did grow up looking at the elongated rectangle of a photograph of the midnight sun, which I thought my aunt took. We had it over the couch, and I was fascinated by it.

H.B When you pick these very long horizontal canvases, do you have landscape in mind?

D.O. No. But writers do. Goossen talks about that: ďHe comes from a landscape area.Ē

A.S. People can see the long horizontal as a landscape reference, especially given where youíre from, but then because youíre putting those verticals in there, it seems like youíre dispelling that landscape reference.

D.O. I donít know, it just comes out of the way Iíve worked. I stopped using the vertical bars at one point, because I didnít want it to beÖ didnít want it to look designed. I just wanted it to be about as dumb as it could be.

H.B. So you donít want your paintings to look consciously balanced?

D.O. No, uh-uh. I like to throw in a little wrench.

H.B. That reminds me of the Americanís anti-balance versus the harmony of European artists. The minimalists were against that kind of balance.

D.O. Well, I donít really want to be anti-European.

A.S. Minimalists, like Judd in the way he described Barnett Newmanís paintings, really relished how they set themselves up against the Europeans, because European painting is so much about illustration and American painting at that time was completely anti-illustration. But you donít seem to jump on that train at all. I mean your work is anti-illustration in one way, but then in another sense itís not.

D.O. Any time you put two colors together thereís going to be some kind of illusion. Itís pretty hard to avoid. A lot of those minimalist paintings you might be talking about are pretty flat, one-color paintings. Now the other part about the Parisian thing is that the painting is made to look good. If you compare a Pierre Soulages and Franz Kline you know what Iím talking about. The Soulagesís are beautiful like frosting on a cake, but Kline has a totally different feeling.

J.M. How would you explain the relationship between the older hard-edged work, like Four [1966], and the recent Fall 2001.

D.O. Itís back to what I was saying a while ago about how I always liked the idea of being able to stop when I wanted to. In some of those earlier paintings you really had to follow through. Four wouldnít be as strong if it were sort of brushy in some parts. I had to follow through with it to the conclusion of the concept. Whereas Fall 2001 is closer to something where I can stop any time I want to and not have to follow through.
Itís trying not to have the painting be a slice of life, or yard goods. You canít just roll it out and cut it off whatever you want, or stretch it out. Also, yeah, I like the breath that comes from ďmemories.Ē I like those memories.

H.B. How do your summers in Italy affect your painting? Did you change your colors?

D.O. Yeah, a bit. A lot of the color over there, I donít know how to put it on yet. I only know how to take it off. I had a whole wall of canvases in my studio over there and I had almost all the colors of the walls of Pietrasanta on those canvases. But I had to put on the pigment and rub it down with cloth and alcohol to get the colors. Because the sun hits it and the rain hits it, you get the color by rubbing it off. This (pointing to Contra Bass) would be fairly close to one of the colors on the walls over there.

R.S. These three paintings [Fall 2001, Winter Light and Contra Bass] were all done this year, here in your New York studio. Do they still carry the imprint, the memory, of Pietrasanta?

D.O. Oh yes.

H.B. Have you seen any painting in Italy that influenced you?

D.O. I made a trip there in the early 80s specifically to look at Caravaggio and Piero Della Francesca. And then I went back later and did a little bit more, but not enough.

A.S. Were you combining that black and yellow before you went to look at the Caravaggios?

D.O. Iím not sure. Honestly, I donít remember. Iím my own warehouse-man, my own shipper, my own art packer. I donít want to be my own art historian. I really donít care. I had a great time looking at the Caravaggios and the Pieros.
Once when Tony Smith and Pollock were driving out to Springs on Long Island, Pollock said to Tony, you look at every building we pass. Tony said, yes, yes I do. Pollock said, Iím that way about painting too. So I think I look at everything to do with painting. And, I steal what I can.

J.M. Your colors are very different from other abstract painters Ė the colors are really your own. How do you choose them? Whereís that palette from?

D.O. How are they different?

J.M. Well, theyíre not based on Albers. I donít see Mondrian. You take a green and put it right next to orange Ė itís slightly off from what Iíve seen in other paintings.

D.O. Iím not really sure (stands up, goes over to Contra Bass). This color is a pthalocyanine I used in Roussillon [1997] in a totally different way, and I thought I would try and use it again here. So that set that up. This one Ė what would you call it wine? Maroon? Ė I thought it would take to that color, and I hadnít used It before in that way, so I tried it out. You notice that this bar right here has no relationship to anything else, except as modified color. So I took that idea, which I like because it seems out of place, and used it over there (points to Buff, 2002). Something that could be thought of as a mistake I purposely introduced into the next painting.
One time, when I was in school, I had a canvas that was basically all on the warm side, and my teacher was saying I should introduce some cooler color. And I said, why? I remember he said, well, thatís the way of nature, thatís the way we see things.
My palette is really pretty simple, itís warm, cool, and value adjustment. For a color theory thatís not a lot, but itís what Iíve got.