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Oli Sihvonen, #33

Oli Sihvonen
OLI SIHVONEN (1921-1991), first lived in Taos in 1949.

On a warm blue ground lie five diagonally compressed ellipses of identical size: three cold blue, one brick red, and one alizarin. Their careful spatial and color relationships push and bend the parameters of the canvas, and alter the viewer's balance and sense of personal space. 40

—Vivian Milford, 1983 [cite source]

Josef Albers's influence came to Taos with the arrival of one of his students, Oli Sihvonen, who studied with Albers at Black Mountain College, North Carolina from 1946 to 1948. For Albers, “Abstraction is the essential function of the Human Spirit.” 41 For Sihvonen, this meant that a work of art intended no representation of or reference to any other identifiable thing. A painting made in this manner included flat color, no romantic evocations, no gestural expressiveness, but instead a clean, pure, effortless look. In Taos, Sihvonen continued his studies at Louis Ribak's Taos Valley Art School in 1949 and 1950, seven years before he became a full-time Taos resident with the support of a Wurlitzer Foundation grant. By 1950, he was working exclusively with abstract imagery. Before the end of the decade, he was doing work such as Fenestra #2.

Not all of Sihvonen’s output was in paint. He made a group of sheet metal reliefs whose linear elements were were executed with a hammer and punch. Sihvonen's use of line was non-descriptive. He developed a similar idea in drawing by extending long intricate lines into what appears to be an endless pattern of springy, wiry forms covering the entire surface of the paper.

Sihvonen gained recognition outside New Mexico for a series of ellipses begun in Taos. He painted these elliptical shapes in clear, luminous colors. He described them as “ellipses in a surround. The environment is a surround—one is among, not in it.” [source?] In the series Dialogue, begun by 1962, he explored the relationship of forms within compositions (often in just two or three colors, as in Dialogue (Green/Violet), 1965)—the dynamic integration of forms. This approach was well-suited to someone who perceived the “surround.” Even here, where the work of a Taos Modern achieved its most extreme reduction, the influence of the natural environment remained. While the shapes in the Dialogue series represented no objects, Sihvonen speculated that the massive forms of mountains and the giant shadows cast gave at least a suggestion to his artistic course. 42

Many of Sihvonen’s paintings were large compared to those of other Taos painters, who seldom attempted to work in sizes much over five by six feet. There was little market in New Mexico for paintings on a public or architectural scale. The broader acceptance of large works in the East, and the inclusion of Sihvonen’s work in a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, led him to move to New York in 1967.

Edited excerpt from David Witt, Taos Moderns (1992)
#33, 1961
Pen and ink on paper
paper: 29 x 23 1/2 in. (73.7 x 59.7 cm)
Gift of the Lannan Foundation