Oli Sihvonen: The Final Years
“ 'Ages and stages,' Oli would say, as we drank another glass of Retsina, bitching, moaning and laughing about life’s ironies. 'Ages and stages' ”
– Allan Graham
The Black Mountain College influence came to Taos and to New Mexico with the arrival of at least twenty- two of its students. This exhibition focuses on one of them: Brooklyn-born, longtime Taos resident Oli Sihvonen (1921 – 1991), who attended Black Mountain College from 1946 to 1948. One of the relatively unknown and neglected Taos Modernists, Sihvonen’s geometric-optical abstractions reflect what he had learned from his mentor Joseph Albers. “Abstraction is the essential function of the human spirit” Joseph Albers declared in his teachings at Black Mountain. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Sihvonen stayed focused and true to these teachings. His entire body of work remained clean, objective and flat, with no gestural or emotional contrivances.
In Taos, Sihvonen continued his studies under the G.I Bill (1949 – 1950) at Louis Ribak’s Taos Valley Art School, seven years before he became a full time resident of Taos, with the support of a Wurlitzer Foundation grant. By 1950 he worked exclusively with abstract imagery. Many of Sihvonen’s paintings were large compared to those of other Taos moderns who rarely attempted to work much beyond five or six feet. There was little market for paintings on such a public, architectural scale in New Mexico at that time. The broader acceptance in the east of this large scale and the inclusion of his work in a major exhibit at MOMA led him to move to New York in 1967.
With the thoughtful input of Jennifer Sihvonen, daughter of Oli Sihvonen and Black Mountain College/Taos artist Joan Potter Loveless, it was decided that the exhibition would focus on the work Sihvonen created in the last four years of his life. The work in this exhibit has never been in public display and demonstrates that, to the end, Sihvonen kept a clear vision of his calling.
Sihvonen’s final years were spent living in a studio above a Chinese gambling establishment. Although he had suffered from a serious heart condition and was living on the edge of poverty, Sihvonen regained his health and began painting prolifically until his death in 1991.
This exhibition was organized by Jina Brenneman, Harwood Museum of Art Curator of Collections and Exhibitions.
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