If ever there were an artist’s career deserving of upward assessment, it is surely that of the under-known hard-edge abstract painter Oli Sihvonen (1921–1991). Aptly titled “Energy Fields,” this exhibition of 40 years’ work seemed to emanate both light and heat. On first-time viewers, it had the effect of a fireball.
The astutely curated show, drawn from Sihvonen’s estate, offered a generous sampling of paintings from sequential periods in the artist’s career. There were clearly neither highs nor lows; Sihvonen worked with steady aplomb from the ’50s to the years before his death. Although he is sometimes designated a “Taos Modernist,” this Finnish-American from Brooklyn trained with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College after World War II, absorbing the Bauhaus veteran’s lessons in color and, indirectly, making a connection with some of the seminal figures in European early modern abstraction.
One sees the influence of Albers—as well as Russian Constructivism and Mondrian—in an untitled painting from Sihvonen’s 1980s “Ladder Series.” Here, a fragmentary vertical ladder motif, blue with diagonal brown stripes, buzzes against a background of differently angled diagonal stripes in black and red. Both form and color are carefully calibrated to produce a dynamic effect. Other paintings from the “Ladders” were on view, along with selections from his “Ellipse” (1960s) and “3 x 3” (1970s) series.
The late paintings are particularly exuberant. In a 45-inch-square untitled painting executed between 1986 and ’91, Sihvonen’s capacity to juggle complex forms and ecstatic color combinations appears full-blown. This major work enmeshes figure and ground, as two ladder forms in contrasting striped palettes are roped together by a madly whirling spiral in black and white. Possibly Sihvonen experienced, in such deliriously orphic compositions as this, synesthetic musical vibes-of jazz, one might venture. Here is a modern artist displaying a gift for sprezzatura, the quality seen in old masters who can pull off a stupendously difficult performance with total nonchalance.
Photo: Oli Sihvonen: Untitled, 1986-91, oil on canvas, 45 inches square; at James Kelly Contemporary.