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Meatball Curtain (for R.Crumb), 1969

Installation, 300 x 670 x 550 cm

In January, 1969, Jane Livingston telephoned Öyvind Fahlström to invite him to Los Angeles to tour corporations –primarilly the Container Corporation of America. Fahlström's response to our suggestion was prompt and positive.

"Very excited about possibility of working with industry for your show. I think Container Corporation would offer the most interesting opportunities.

1. ultralarge-and-light (laminated?) structures (flat silhouettes, to be assembed in different ways)
2. ultralight flat shapes floating on air-cushion
3. giant coloured plastic bubbles, changing shape depending on how much air is inflated

structures in self-disposing, decaying material ("wither away" automatically, gradually, different parts at different pace)

Now, my problem, as you know, is one of time and space.

1. first confrontation with company, March 11-12, or 12-13 (have to be in N.Y. by 15th) – (mail detailed project descriptions during spring)
2. see models, samples, etc. 1-20 September.
3. follow production, etc. 7-20 December
4. check finished works. 1-7 February (Unlikely alternative – might possibly spend vacation, August, in L.A. and maybe stay through Sept. 10th or so: maybe skip 3 or 4).

We brought Fahlström to Los Angeles on March 10. The next day, he toured the Container Corporation's Folding Carton Division and was shown examples of various diecut, flat containers – margarine boxes, for example, printed and repeated endlessly on sheets of board – and witnessed the machine processes of cutting, folding and assembling these containers. Fahlström's response to what he saw at Container was somewhat apathetic. (In a note from Sweden some weeks later, he said "Haven't worked out anything for Container Corporation – feel limitations push me into minimalist bag – which isn't mine (i.e., non-experimental minimalist).

Since it was clear that Fahlström was not immediately inspired by his view of this corporation, we spent several hours reviewing the list of contracted, still available corporations to determine what other companies he might visit while he was in L.A. We arranged a tour at Eldon, a toy manufacturing company, which failed to elicit much response of any sort. It seemed to us also that Heath and Company, which had joined with us in January, '69 as a Sponsor Corporation, might be of interest to Öyvind. Heath makes commercial signs. The materials and techniques required for this seemingly straightforward product are, to say the least, diverse. The fabricating of a Colonel Sanders or Fosters Freeze sign involves elaborately formed components of anodized aluminium, other sheet metals and plexiglas; if the sign revolves or is illuminated in its interior, mechanical and electrical systems are, of course, needed as well.

In view of Fahlström's past three-dimensional work, it was evident to us that Heath, more than a conventional steel or aluminium or plastics company, might at least offer him the opportunity to execute a tableau on a more extensive scale than would be remotely possible for him on his own, and with a greater variety of materials and colors and textures. Fahlström visited Heath on March 12 and was impressed by the craftsmanship of the skilled technicians who handsawed sheet metal into complicated shapes, and by the extensive plastic forming facilities. And it is impossible not to be delighted by the enormous yard surrounding the plant which is filled with a staggering array of gigantic, eccentrically shaped and fantastically colourful outdoor signs.

After touring three corporations, Fahlström had begun to limit his objectives somewhat.

"My idea was when I originally heard about A & T that I would get involved with huge companies with research programs or laboratories, so that I could propose something I've never done, without knowing what might come out. Like shapes that would float in the air by themselves, and expand or contract depending on the flow of air. Or another idea I had was to make a sculpture that would decay by itself by some sort of air or temperature action. Or the idea of a plastic fountain – you'd have some sort of plastic fluid that would come out like water and then coagulate and form shapes, and gradually it would become larger and larger. But then I visited two companies, a toy company and the Container Corporation, that were based on a multiplying thing according to a module. The point would be making molds or models, and then having a great many objects made from them. I did think for a while of having the Container Corporation make up sort of molecular models, geometrically shaped boxes that you could combine and let grow into a structure.

It should be noted that Fahlström's interest, at least conceptually, in making non-sculptural or non-graphic works dates back several years He was rather closely associated with E.A.T. in its early years. The March 18, 1968 issue of E.A.T.

"Fahlström and Rauschenberg want to float, suspended in air.
Control objects at a distance.
One or more floating forms following man that moves.
Activate objects at a distance with vortex gun, heat,
Balloons coming out of head. Like thought-balloons.

Fahlström did in fact participate in E.A.T.'s Nine Evenings in October, 1966, with a performance work called Kisses Sweeter than Wine. The work incorporated film, videotape and sound elements, as well as "'snow bubbles' rising from the ground, people enveloped by ‘clouds'...", etc. The artist said in the catalog which accompanied Nine Evenings, "I think of it as initiation rites for a new medium, Total Theatre".

Despite Fahlström's longstanding involvement with a "technological/conceptual" esthetic, the major part of his oeuvre and that work which finally establishes him as an artist of stature, is graphic and sculptural. Fahlström is profoundly concerned with iconography in his work. Certain images appear again and again in variant forms; these images all have specific, symbolic meaning for him. Only by recognizing this obsession with a highly developed personal iconography, whose images are often taken from archetypically kitsch sources (popular magazines, posters, cinematic clichés) can one understand the importance for Fahlström, and ultimately for his A & T project, of a particular event which occurred during his brief visit to Los Angeles in March, 1969: Hal Glicksman showed him a series of ZAP comic books. The first issue of ZAP appeared in October, 1967; it was circulated as an underground publication, out of San Francisco, and featured comic strips by, among other artists, Robert Crumb. The first issue, No. 0, was to provide not only a full vocabulary of images for Fahlström, but the title of his work: Meatball Curtain (for R. Crumb). (Many images were derived from later issues of ZAP as well).

What happened, basically, was that Fahlström was introduced to ZAP Comix and the Heath sign company simultaneously; he went away, contemplated what he had seen, and decided to use these two resources, the literary inspiration and the means of transforming it into physical form, to make a work of art. A week after Öyvind returned from Los Angeles to New York, he mailed us a brief, scribbled note saying, "Hal, thanks for the guided tour! Also ZAP, most inspiring, might make Heath piece into a (or call it) Meatball Curtain... P.S. Will send Maurice project notes soon (on Heath idea)...

Fahlström sent drawings for the piece shortly thereafter. He indicated that some of the images he sketched should be fabricated of sheet metal, sprayed on both sides with enamel paint, and others made of plexiglas. The work was conceived as a complex tableau of free-standing objects.

It remained for us to reach an agreement with Heath to have Fahlström work there. He had decided to come in August to stay for at least six weeks. Our contact there was Assistant General Manager Jack Lloyd. We submitted Öyvind's sketches to him for consideration by himself and the president, Wayne Heath; they consented to work with Fahlström, and we confirmed the arrangement.

Fahlström arrived early in August to begin work at Heath. Despite a number of difficulties – having to do with finding convenient living quarters, working out transportation to and from the plant, and communicating effectively with responsible people once his work was underway – he worked efficiently and accomplished his work within six weeks' time with little direct intervention on our part.

"I worked with a lot of people, and I had all sorts of different – mostly positive – relations. In general there was a great deal of goodwill (on the part of) the people I actually worked with. But in the beginning, they felt that I was to fool around with some of their materials in some far away corner of the company and come up with some funny little abstraction or whatever. Gradually, then, it dawned on them that I had a plan, and I wanted to be involved physically as little as possible; I wanted it to be done by their craftsmen and with their machinery even though what they do and what they have is nothing terribly sophisticated in terms of technique. But I couldn't have done it myself, even if I had specialized tools.

I am not very good at talking to people and getting acquainted, but it was very interesting to talk to some of the men in what little time I had, because we had very short breaks and a rather disciplined life. But in the end I felt I was getting close to some of the people. The workers who were interested in the whole thing about being an artist and working this way, do things on their own now.

We asked Fahlström's whether anyone approached him and inquired about getting involved, without being assigned by his foremen to work on the project.

"No. No one did that because they do what they are told. So it was a matter of my manipulating foremen and a few other people, and sort of putting pressure on them... But after a while it became a sort of very organic thing, and ultimately very satisfying. Nothing was really organized for (my project), and there was really no time for it, but gradually they put in some time here, and one worker there, and another one there, and in the end it was done...

The workers enjoyed it. In a sense they appreciated my work as children. They didn't seem to feel conscious that the images might be prurient or pornographic – they just enjoyed it. They sometimes had suggestions for changes – like adding different colors. They started working on a sort of private artistic level.

Fahlström approach to the Meatball Curtain is based on "game theories" which have informed his work for several years.

"In my variable pictures the emphasis on the ‘character' or ‘type' of an element is achieved materially by cutting out a silhouette in plastic and sheet iron. The type then becomes fixed and tangible, almost ‘live' as an object, yet flat as a painting. Equipped with magnets, these cut-outs can be juxtaposed, superposed, inserted, suspended. They can slide along grooves, fold laterally through joints, and frontally through hinges. They can also be bent and riveted to permanent three-dimensional forms.

These elements, while materially fixed, achieve their character-identity only when they are put together; their character changes with each new arrangement. The arrangement grows out of a combination of the rules (the chance factor) and my intentions, and is shown in a ‘score' or ‘scenario' (in the form of a drawing, photographs or small paintings). The isolated elements are thus not paintings, but machinery to make paintings. Picture-organ.

The finished picture stands somewhere in the intersection of paintings, games (Monopoly-type and war games) and puppet theatre.

Just as the cut-out materializes the type, the factor of time in painting becomes material through the many, in principle infinite, phases in which the elements will appear. As earlier, in my "world" pictures such as Ade-Ledic-Nander and Sitting..., a form would be painted on ten different places on the canvas, now it may be arranged in ten different ways during a period of time.

The role of the spectator as a performer of the picture-game will become meaningful as soon as these works can be multiplied into a large number of replicas, so that anyone interested can have a picture machine in his home and "manipulate the world" according to either his or my choices.

The American comic-strip has served as a vital source for Fahlström's work since the early sixties. It is the nature of comic-strip art to portray sequences of events in time. The underlying structure of Fahlström's character combinations is founded on images distributed to imply both discontinuousness and a kind of alterable sequentialness. Forms and figure-images play upon one another arbitrarily, "in the same...way", he wrote in 1964, "a ball in a game by falling into a hole will give the value of 1000, whereas if it rolls past the hole it will give 0. There is nothing in the ball and the hole that necessarily relate them, nor that make a certain relation valuable".

The association of disparate elements to each other thus makes game rules and the work of art will be a game structure.

This, among other things, leads to presupposing an active, participating spectator who – whether he is confronted with a static or variable work of art – will find relations which will make him able to "play" the work, while the elements that he does not relate and in general his individual disposition make for the chance, the uncertainty that, when clashing with the "rules", create the thrill of the game.

It is not difficult to see how Fahlström was drawn to comic-strips as an inspiration for his own distributions of character-images, given his interest in the repetition of elements, and in sequentially ordered narrative, as a means of building "playable" tableaux. There is, however, a far more profound literary basis for his interest in popular comic-book art. Unlike Roy Lichtenstein, whose comic-strip paintings generally depict a single incident, or episode, and are presented as highly estheticized satirical statements – parodying both the form and the sentiment of Pop imagery – Fahlström's use of comic-strip figures is filled with complex mythological content. Fahlström sees in comic-strip art manifestations of deep-seated social and cultural fears, urges, myths – and uses this imagery in his work for much more than satirical intent. Certain images – for example, the rocket thrusting upward on its own trail of smoke, or the panther – recur again and again in his work. These are for him potent symbols, embodying political, psychological and literary attitudes.

To explicate the sources and symbolic content of each component of Meatball Curtain, or the work as a whole, would require a lengthy study.

"The title, Meatball Curtain, comes from Volume 0 of ZAP. It has a cartoon called Meatball by Robert Crumb, one of his best, most interesting ones which deals with a supernatural event. Meatballs fall out of the sky. People who are struck with a meatball, in this comic strip, are transformed to a level of – what would you call it – inner happiness. Revelation. It's sort of a parable of the idea of everyone – well, having an acid trip or some type of experience like that... On the cover of Volume 0 there's a great character connected to an electric wire and being like electrocuted by some sort of great insight or illumination... I've been looking a lot at the underground cartoon makers. They have a sort of exuberance and precision, and that extreme expressiveness of their outline... I would say sixty, seventy per cent of the images in this piece are direct outlines from Robert Crumb. I think it should be said that this work is an homage to Robert Crumb, to a great American artist...

I wanted my figures to have a sort of quality of exuberance and the energy of American life and the fatality and rawness of it and the sort of dumbness about it, too, and the animal-like quality which is very well depicted in Crumb's drawings, as well as the aspect of madness, the ecstatic factor.

"The large, dark blue figure has his hair stretched out like he was terribly scared – and in his hand there's a sort of stylized light bulb with a heart in it, which is from a Crumb figure. It denotes this moment of illumination or insight, the moment of truth, which is part of the whole Meatball series.

Then there are two more Robert Crumb cut-outs... There's one somewhat ambiguous figure – the man with the long nose who seems to be struggling with or holding a little girl with a bow in her hair, it might be interpreted as sort of an incestuous situation... And there's the lady diving down into a toilet seat, like someone looking for something, but being scared by something, or trying to hide. The interpretation would depend on how I assemble the figures when I set up the piece. I could assemble them in such a way that she would appear to be hiding from fear... One of the most important ones is the four dancing figures, four men that come closer and closer in perspective. The furthest one has a normal, or in fact larger than normal head. As they get closer, the head shrinks, and in the very largest, closest figure, with enormous plexiglas boots, you see that the head has shrunk to almost nothing. This goes back to an imagery or idea that appears in Robert Crumb's comics about the acid head as a person with a tiny head – it's like a pin point in many of his drawings. In this case I have modified the drawing of his where the characters actually have normally proportioned heads in order to add this dimension...

Then we have a pouncing, leaping panther, or actually it's a leopard shape, from a photograph in my last show at Janis. Then there's a green wave, with very light green foam, sort of stylized like a Japanese print; it's from a detail in a Crumb drawing, but greatly aberrated. The tallest shape, the yellow one which is a cloudburst, or vertical smoke coming from a rocket, that you see on top, very small, is also based on a photograph.

The division of colors roughly follows the simplified scheme of dividing the forces in the world, or the power structure, according to color as I did in all the pieces in my last show. Everything that has to do with the American sphere of influence is blue and variations of blue; the Third World would be green or brown. You might have violet as a sort of intermediary color, and yellow, red, orange for Socialist countries, China and so forth.


Ö.F.: No. They're just meatballs. A meatball is very plain and down-to-earth. It represents food – plain everyday sort of food.

The components of Meatball Curtain are all made of either heavy gauge sheet metal, saw-cut by hand, or vacuum formed plexiglas (the meatballs and smaller shapes – those which are inserted into slots, or affixed by magnets to the large figures – are plastic).

One of the most significant aspects of Meatball Curtain, as compared to Fahlström's earlier work, is the relatively bold and uncluttered nature of the figures. In this work, the silhouettes of the large forms, apprehended instantaneously when one sees the work assembled, before the eye is drawn to investigate detail, carry the weight of the esthetic experience. The expressiveness of outline, to use Fahlström's term in describing Crumb's comic strip style, becomes the ascendantly important visual element.

"What I wanted to do here was to avoid working in a great deal of detail as I have usually done in the past, with complicated outlines – black outlines indicating creases, and elaborate clothing details, etc. I wanted, rather, to simplify. In order to do this I had to choose pieces that were either single figures, or combinations of figures and objects that were expressive plus being understandable immediately, or if not, at least ambiguous in an interesting way.

It is tempting to attribute this change in approach, in part if not exclusively, to the environment at Heath in which Fahlström worked. He was constantly seeing the huge signs which lay about there, and it is the nature of sign images to rely for impact on bold overall or interior silhouettes. The image on the familiar Colonel Sanders bucket-in-the-sky, for instance, when observed at close range, cannot be read as a face; the configurations which form the eyes, the moustache, the lines in the cheek, appear to be just coldly shaped obtrusions of brown plastic against a curved field of metal. Whether or not this visual ambience alone stimulated Fahlström to increase the scale and eliminate busy detail in his work, the fact that he did these things is of great importance in terms of his artistic development: Meatball Curtain is undoubtedly one of the most successful tableaux he has made, in great part owing to its large size and its economy of interior visual elements.

Technical details

Original title:
Meatball Curtain (for R.Crumb)
Registration number:
Fahlström, Öyvind
Date created:
Date acquired:
MACBA Collection. MACBA Consortium
Object type:
Variable estructure. Enamel paint on metal, plexyglass, vacuum formed plastic, magnets and springwires
300 x 670 x 550 cm (height x width x depth)
MACBA Collection. MACBA Consortium. Long-term loan of Sharon Avery-Fahlström Collection
© Öyvind Fahlström, VEGAP, Barcelona
It has accessibility resources:

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Ignasi Aballí