Doug Ohlson’s Poker paintings are a notable series of works that begins with Untitled Abstraction, 1976—now at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art— and concludes with “To (Shelley),” 1977 in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums. They are a rich resource for understanding Ohlson’s development and his authority as an artist. Celebrated for his large scale panel paintings, Ohlson was famously included in the Museum of Modern Art’s canonical survey “The Art of the Real: USA 1948-1968” alongside his teacher Tony Smith, his creative inspiration Barnett Newman and several of his contemporaries including Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, and Agnes Martin. E.C. Goossen, the exhibition’s curator, claimed: “Today’s ‘real’…makes no direct appeal to the emotions, nor is it involved in uplift. Indeed, it seems to have no desire at all to justify itself, but instead offers itself for whatever its uniqueness is worth—in the form of the simple, irreducible, irrefutable object.” “The Art of the Real” established that a new, post-Greenbergian generation had arrived, but the show was not without its problems. Goossen downplayed the influence of the early twentieth century European avant-gardes, contending that: “Expressionism, even at its most abstract, continued many aspects of representational art, and constructivism, despite its purist look, was basically nostalgic in its search for meaning through traditional methods of composition.” By positioning “European” composition and refinement in opposition to “American” directness and anti-hierarchical im-pulse, Goossen ignored the possibility of transatlantic influence. “The Art of the Real” outlined an antagonistic relationship between American abstract art and its European predecessors that would go on to govern a great deal of art historical scholarship in the second half of the twentieth century.
In retrospect, Ohlson’s Poker paintings appear distinct from Color Field and Minimal painting and closer to the European avant-gardes than Goossen allowed. In 1967, a decade before he started work on the Poker series, Ohlson’s work was to be included in the Aldrich Museum’s upcoming show “Art of the Sixties,” drawn from the collection of architect Hanford Yang. However, Yang’s friend Donald Judd termed the painting “too romantic” and as a result the work was withdrawn from the exhibition. If Judd’s concern was that Ohlson wasn’t “hard-edged” or “concrete” enough, he was undoubtedly correct. Ohlson’s paintings, especially in the Poker series, with their peculiar palette, were calling for a greater sensuality, attentiveness to color and poetic feeling. One work with this seductive quality is Region, 1977. Semicircular fleshy tones of paint frame the otherwise lilac colored canvas. The subtle, pulsating pattern leads the eye toward its tranquil core. Another example is Open Hand, 1976-77, one of the earliest works in the series. Its title, in card-gaming terms, refers to revelation and exposure. For the most part, the painting’s action is kept to the edges of the canvas, where the viewer encounters three strokes of paint followed by seven daubs in three distinct colors. These dots and dashes are representative of a repertoire of characters, or some kind of encoding system created by Ohlson, which repeat across the series. While Open Hand doesn’t represent anything, it does seem to be trying to communicate with the viewer. It invites us, like Region, into its sensational, monochromatic central plain. With their emphasis on color, precision and balance—together with their muted palette—these pictures could easily be a nod by Ohlson to the influence of Jean Arp, for example, Arp’s Untitled (Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance), 1917, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Arp’s work would seem to be a suitable point of reference, especially given Ohlson’s decision to name the series after a game that involves chance and whose outcome is strongly influenced by randomizing elements. Although Goossen claimed that Arp had little influence on American painters like Kelly, “except for a few paintings based on Arp’s theories of chance,” we now know that Arp’s unorthodox methodologies became “the point of departure for [Kelly’s] ongoing exploration of color and form in the following decades.”
There is little question as to the profound influence Newman had on Ohlson, and it may well have been Newman’s meditation on ancient Egypt, Broken Obelisk, 1963-69, that led Ohlson to name two paintings in the series To (Shelley) and Abydos, 1977. Comparing these two exceptional works, almost identical in size, the sand colored canvas of Abydos evokes the desert landscape and the searing daytime temperatures of the modern-day city. In contrast, the deep purple hues of To (Shelley) chromatically conjure the frequent sub-zero night temperatures experienced in the desert west of the Nile. These paintings locate abstract art in a global and trans-historical context that reaches far beyond Goossen’s myopic assertion of national identity in painting.
Thankfully, no stigma is bestowed upon artists today who signpost their cross-cultural influences. Ohlson’s Poker series emerged at a moment when the world was becoming increasingly interconnected, through inexpensive air travel, the proliferation of international contemporary art exhibitions and art fairs, and the beginnings of the World Wide Web.viii In today’s globalized art world, the geographical parameters established by Goossen and others are irrelevant; and the crossing of borders and categories is welcomed. But while work that draws upon the history of painting and its processes is commonplace, this synthesis of past and present is not so easily accomplished. By deft of hand, Ohlson’s Poker paintings achieve a unique combination of rigor and sensuality, autonomy and resonance, which continues to command attention today.