Dick Bengtsson: Moderna Museet
Jones, Ronald, Artforum International
Dick Bengtsson painted his last swastika in 1972. It materializes in the four closing panels of the Domburg Suite, which he fashioned after Piet Mondrian's progressively abstract versions of a church facade in Domburg, Holland. The creditability of modern abstraction, as Mondrian and others conceived it, had long since reached its low-water mark: In 1964, Donald Judd declared, in "Specific Objects," that relevance had become a stranger to painting and sculpture; Roy Lichtenstein's Red Painting (Brushstroke), 1965, downgraded its emotional content to something reproducible at will; and with Joseph Kosuth's "Art After Philosophy I and II," 1968, the final undoing of modern art seemed at hand. While Bengtsson's verdict on modernism's upshot came a few years late, his retrospective shows that it was also more piquant and emotive than those current in New York in the '60s. As Domburg Suite successively turns from fair to foul, abstract lines a la Mondrian gather into an accusing Nazi emblem, the unambiguous icon of high-culture fascism. Emotions ran high in those ideological wars.
Furthermore, Bengtsson's use of the swastika, appearing in several paintings, including Landscape with Church, 1969, and Interior from Kumla Prison, 1971, poignantly rakes at Sweden's claim to neutrality during World War II. The gift of hindsight charitably amended Sweden's role to that of self-interested noncombatant, an assessment closer to, but still at arm's length from, full acceptance of the truth, and so Bengtsson's swastikas continue to provoke animosity. If his handling of the symbol initially registered as uncouth, if not to say unhinged, this retrospective confirmed that Bengtsson was as attuned to the international art politics of his day as he was to the unpleasant currents of national identity.
This exhibition also underlined Bengtsson's forays into appropriation, bootlegging tacky but popular sentiments (10 Years, 1971), and exercising po-mo tools for cultural critique ahead of schedule (The Picture-Wall, 1977). …