By Michael Brennan
I was in my late twenties when I met Doug Ohlson, a few years out of MFA, and just past my second one person exhibition. I knew Doug’s painting historically, from reading Gregory Battcock’s anthology Minimal Art, published in 1968, which included a ridiculously tiny, halftone, reproduction of Ohlson’s large, impressive, and important early painting, Sparrow’s Red Rose, 1966. This was something I studied closely. I saw a real Ohlson painting not long afterwards, large and horizontal, color blazing, through the window of his Soho gallery, on my way to Pearl Paint. I called Doug. My timing was fortuitous because he’d just broken his ankle—hence, Broken Ankle Bastard Ptg., 1994-95, and he hired me, over his dial phone, giving me a list of supplies to bring over to his Bond St. studio.
We fell into each other’s lives immediately. I was one of Doug’s assistants for a few years afterwards. Doug was a great friend and mentor to me. His presence marked a great, positive, turning point in my life. I learned so much from Doug about being a person and painter, but that’s not what I’m writing about right now.
Despite his broken ankle, Doug was quickly back on his feet. I worked with him on many of the paintings in this exhibition, but my role was minimal. Doug did all of the real work himself. I was mostly there as an extra set of hands to help out with two person jobs—moving larger paintings around the studio, stretching canvas across his colossal working stretchers, cutting finished canvases down from them, and stretching the paintings onto their final, presentation, stretchers afterwards. We stretched and restretched paintings a lot. Doug called this “fine tuning”. I mostly came by in the mornings, helping to set up for the day. Then we’d have a long leisurely lunch with stewed food from the Great Jones Diner, often talking about painting for a few hours. I left in the afternoon, and in my absence, Doug would do the real work of painting. I was always surprised by what I saw when I returned to the studio next. Doug was always preoccupied with painting. He kept all manner of painted color swatches, his own painted samples, around him at all times, endlessly considering their potential, adjusting their color, contemplating them, mixing color, painting, observing. Truthfully, that was the hard work behind Doug’s painting, and the secret of their great success. You’ll never find a stock color contrast in any Doug Ohlson painting. Paintings like Nemesis and Pairs bear the formal imprint of Barnett Newman’s Treble, 1960, but this was just a skeletal structure, something Doug would likely call a “color container”. It’s Ohlson’s unusual color combinations that animate these paintings, that creates their multidi-rectional musicality. Ohlson brought full orchestration to Newman’s singularity. Doug, who clearly had a fondness for symmetry, used to speak about the importance of intentionally alternating rhythm, bringing in a kind of arrhythmic beat, or stomp, once in a while to keep repeated forms from becoming static. This was a lesson in the use of asymmetry he formulated from studying Jackson Pollock’s Portrait and a Dream, 1953.
For me, a particular standout in this deft group is Prequel, 1994. Prequel hung about the center of Doug’s studio for a couple of years, facing outwards, as if waiting for another pass of paint. The simultaneous contrast here is extremely striking, with color flaring from every edge, internal and external. Prequel felt like a kind of portal, both solid and void, occupying the core of Ohlson’s spacious studio. Doug was a minimalist, but Prequel is extremely minimal even by Doug’s standards. Doug kept it around, ready, waiting, inclined, but he never reentered that painting. Another aspect of Doug’s genius was that he intuitively knew well enough when to leave something alone, a real indicator of maturity. Prequel is a singular as anything by Barnett Newman, but entirely of Doug Ohlson, perhaps containing a spiritual echo of Ohlson’s own mentor, Tony Smith. I’m happy to be haunted by its presence again.
This period in the mid-90’s was at the beginning of a great late surge in Ohlson’s painting. I’m not sure minimal, modernist, painting such as this could be properly appreciated, immediately, in that recent age of installation art, but like many artists of a previous generation, say Norman Bluhm, Mike Goldberg, or Joan Mitchell—so-called “Second Generation” Abstract Expressionists—Ohlson was making some of his best work outside of the historical era that had previously defined him. Doug made many of his best paintings in the 1990’s, and later. Let this current revisitation, this 2023 exhibition, begin an overdue period of reevaluation. When one is in the presence of Prequel, a title that suggests the story before the story, no dates matter.