Photo © President and Fellows of Harvard College
Identification and Creation
Object Number
Doug Ohlson, American (Cherokee, Iowa 1936 - 2010 New York, New York)
To _________ (Shelley)
Work Type
Persistent Link
Physical Descriptions
Oil on canvas
sight: 142.2 x 137.2 cm (56 x 54 in.)
Inscriptions and Marks
  • Signed: on back: Ohlson/ 1977/ "to ________."
[Susan Caldwell Gallery, New York, New York], sold; to Henry B. Cortesi, New York, New York, gift; to Harvard University Art Museums, 2002.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Henry B. Cortesi
© Estate of Douglas Ohlson
Accession Year
Object Number
Modern and Contemporary Art
The Harvard Art Museums encourage the use of images found on this website for personal, noncommercial use, including educational and scholarly purposes. To request a higher resolution file of this image, please submit an online request.
Painting is oil on primed canvas, with unpainted edges and a thinly painted black surface, over which the artist has applied a slightly thicker layer of paint with a palette knife. The composition comprises a square of deep purple surrounded by various oblong/rectangular/squarish shapes in a subtly calibrated range of charcoal/brown blacks that read as a frame for this interior square.
"To_______( Shelley)" reads almost as a painting within a painting, a large square of deep purple paint, scraped with a palette knife in visible, discreet strokes is surrounded by a broad, painted "frame" constructed of varying rectangular and square shapes in varied shades of brown-to-charcoal black oil, again applied with a palette knife, but in much broader swathes. These painted rectangles stop short of the four corners, which are painted very thinly in a blacker black. The border has passages reminiscent of Rothko's stacked and blurred quadrilaterals, while the painting on the central square is far too textured to sustain the sense of dematerialization so essential to Rothko's surfaces. Ohlson maintains a taut push-pull balance between the contained and containing areas of paint, undercutting any sense of illusionism that a "frame" might suggest.

While Ohlson is by no means a key figure within late 60's painting, his studied, incremental development of a reductive, affective, colorist painting conflated a keen understanding of the late Abstract Expressionist painting of Franz Kline, Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko with a more constructive, minimalist-inspired and serial approach. Over the past 50 years, Ohlson has produced an impressive succession of paintings, at once expressive and cerebral. "to_______." is a dark and moody painting that animates its self-consciously constructed composition and carefully counterpointed surface textures with subtle, but highly affective color. Goosen refers to Ohlson's daily work on the farm in Iowa where he was born and raised in the Depression-era Thirties as possible source for his colors. He describes the skies Ohlson would have seen each day as metamorphosing from yellowish pink and green at noon to "red-orange sunsets that swiftly slide from purple to black." The deep purple and velvet blacks of "To_______(Shelley)" would seem to owe something to those skies: the colors are too idiosyncratic and implausible to suggest anything more cerebral.

This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of Modern and Contemporary Art at