Gunnar Okner

Installation view, Konstruktiv Tendens 1996

Installation view, Konstruktiv Tendens 1996

On Gunnar Okner's paintings

During the late seventies and early eighties, Gunnar Okner has come forward in a series of exhibitions showing an exceedingly consistent style of painting. Above all you recognize his almost totally monochrome surfaces which are usually, in one way or another, divided vertically and only now and then horizontally. This is a kind of painting which most people see as extremely advanced aesthetically I believe many actually look upon it as American late modernist painting. I can imagine that concepts like monochrome, opaque, minimalist or fundamentalist painting have been mentioned, in order to put Okner's work into some kind of context. But although there are similarities, none of these labels really applies to Okner's painting.

His pictures are not totally monochrome. Rather they have been constructed adding layer upon polychrome layer, which certainly ends up giving you an almost monochrome sense of color but which actually consists of a very subtle play of colors which in some of Okner's paintings virtually vibrates. Okner's paintings also are not entirely opaque. They do not present an impenetrable surface. Rather they appear as more or less transparent, conveying a feeling that light is entering from behind. This means that one also gets the sensation of a space in the picture oscillating between the surface and a deeper beyond. In other words the paintings hint at a fictitious space in the picture which, even though reduced, contradicts the credo of opaque painting. Okner's paintings also are not minimalist. His coloration is restrained. The color is being applied to the entire canvas over and over again, with a fine sense of space.

Although the artist's desire does not leave traces as obvious as in a strongly expressionist painting, he is felt to be there. Even though his subjective presence is subdued, you might want to call it a controlled wish to express oneself. Okner's paintings also are not fundamentalist. Okner does not carry out basic artistic research along the lines of fundamentalist painting. In the belief that all painting is already virtually covered by a multitude of meanings and myths, one's interest has been directed toward the basic material that constitutes a painting. The idea is to start all over again. There is, in other words, an interest in the minutiae of painting, where the color material, the canvas and the frame become building blocks in a new pictorial universe. All in all, Okner's paintings contain a dimension which is hot entirely concrete but rather transcends the concrete position of painting.

There is still a hint at something illusory. This play at external reality is not difficult to interpret. In Okner's paintings nature is still present, represented by natural light, alluding to an organic pictorial space. This relationship to the landscape which is deeply imbedded in what we call the Nordic experience means of course that Okner, in spite of many similarities, is quite a long way off from late modernist American painting. This, however, is not entirely true. Rather I would trace Okner's aesthetic credo back to us color field painting which constitutes the transition between abstract expressionism and a more conceptual relationship to art which characterizes color-field painting.

This may appear as a strange equation. What relationship could there possibly be between the Nordic experience of nature and an American tradition? It turns out, however, that this seemingly unreasonable equation is not as much of a problem as it might seem at first sight. There is indeed a link between these two traditions, as Robert Rosenblum pointed out in his book Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition (London, 1975^). Rosenblum points very convincingly out an intact connection link between Caspar David Friedrich and American abstract expressionism. Here Barnett Newman is the key figure. He is the link between abstract expressionism and color-field painting. This also means that he is the connecting link between abstract, impressionism and its very personal renoering of contemporary chaos, where a romantic attitude towards nature constitutes a therapeutic romantic point, and the emotionally more reserved attitude of color-field painting.

In his famous pamphlet The Sublime is Now, Barnett Newman makes use of the English philosopher Edmund Burke's principal work. Inquiry into the origin of the sublime and the beautiful (1757) to characterize his own attitude to art. Burke divides the matter of aesthetics into two concepts; the beautiful and the sublime. Burke conceives the beautiful as the cultivated landscape while the sublime represents the unfathomable beauty of the wild. The sublime corresponds to the feeling you may have facing a high mountain, a raging storm or an ancient monument where you are dwarfed by history, In other words, these are phenomena where we would use the Swedish word, "storslaget" - grand. This latter category constitutes the basis of romantic Elan.

Barnett Newman only uses the sublime as a concept. With him this concept is not primarily related to the wish of expressing oneself and the romantic projection of the artist's psyche in nature. Newman makes use of the concept of the sublime to describe a relationship to nature where man feels infinitely small and insignificant, either in comparison with the enormous mysterious powers brought forth by nature or in comparison with the eternal perspective of history, in this way, the sublime appears as something super-human which in spite of all does have a relationship to man's predicament. In the case of Barnett Newman, this rather humble attitude towards the unfathomable grandeur of nature was more in tune with contemporary attitudes of the late fifties and the early sixties than were the romantic exaggeration and ego-expansion of abstract expressionism. In Barnett Newman's paintings the sublime category is represented by an arcaetypical formal element, a vertical layer which functions as the connecting link between heaven and earth, ie between matter and spirit.

In Gunnar Okner's painting there is a return to a personal experience of nature. However, this is not the highfalutin expressiveness of abstract expressionism using wavy lines and a glowing play of colors. Instead Okner uses a restrained stroke which is much better suited to our contemporary emotional aloofness. The vertical division of the surface is very obvious in many of his paintings. Here this formal element looks almost like an ideogram connecting Okner's work with that of Barnett Newman's. It is a way of postulating a tradition. Apart from that this metaphor representing a super-personal level is being used in a more trivial or at least more secularized manner in Okner's paintings. His vertical or occasionally horizontal stroke functions as a device dividing the painted surface and thereby also as a connecting link which brings one's attention back to the surface of the painting.

In other words these strokes function as an element expressing a distance which makes any interpretation of the paintings as an expression of a romantic holistic vision impossible. It may seem strange that the main road to the Swedish wilderness in Okner's painting is via Barnett Newman, but it goes to show that it is difficult or well-nigm impossible to relate today in a authentic way to nature without layers of concepts and myths which are very diff icult to disavow. Cultural distance, however strange this may seem, offers more credibility than those traditional expressions which we ordinarily label authentic. In Gunnar Okner's paintings you can't avoid noticing that it is possible to relate to nature in a less complicated way which takes account of its eternal shifts and changes as a matter of course. This may be due to Gunnar Okner's own close relationship to nature.

This does not mean, however, that he takes nature for granted, as something which simply exists. His paintings portray every-day experiences of nature's eternal cycle of life and death as the Great Mystery In this way the metaphysical dimension is still there, with no connection to the ballast of romanticism. This is a strangely consistent attitude in a time and age when romantic projections once again begin to enter the realm of Contemporary Art.

Bo Nilsson, 1990


Born 1920 in Voxtorp, Sweden.
Lived and worked in Småland, Sweden.
Passad away 2009.

After finishing his art studies in Malmö, he had his first one man exhibition in the early fifties.
Since then Gunnar Okner has had many exhibitions at Swedish galleries and museums.
In 1985 the film "Meet the Painter Gunnar Okner" by Roland Odlander was shown on the Swedish television.