Don’t miss “Siri Berg: Statements” at The House of Sweden, opening on March 5 and running until May 12.
Siri Berg: Statements
House of Sweden and the Swedish Embassy in Washington DC is welcoming the doyenne of Scandinavian artists in New York City, Siri Berg, for an extensive solo exhibition opening in March.
The show is the third in a series of retrospectives devoted to Berg’s work, which began with In Color (2016-2017) at The Shirley Fiterman Art Center, New York and was followed by A Life In Color (2018) at Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm, and brings another element to the artist’s work.
“The major difference this exhibit will bring,” says Curator Peter Hionas, "is the interplay of Siri Berg's paintings against black walls as opposed to white walls in the earlier exhibits. The interaction of color that will happen with the paintings for the first time being seen against black walls will be monumental.”
The exhibit will be staged in two distinct gallery spaces—light and dark—at House of Sweden, each space offering a different investigative look at the varied interests and aesthetic experimentations of Berg’s career as a painter, collagist, sculptor, colorist, and abstractionist.
In Alfred Nobel Hall, the gallery’s black walls will be adorned with a selection of Berg’s vintage and new paintings, dating back to 1967 and up to 2018. In the combined Fyra and Fem rooms, which are outfitted with light walls and an expansive northern window overlooking the gardens, a curated selection of Berg’s assemblage works, wood block prints, and painting studies will be on exhibit.
Siri Berg is a veteran artist who has exhibited around the world since 1970. Her works are hanging at the Guggenheim, the Jewish Museum, in Coca Cola’s board room and in the homes of private collectors.
She enjoyed abstract art from the beginning in a subdued fashion; the structure and color you will experience came later. When I ask her why she chose to paint in the abstract, the reply comes after some time of quiet reflection … “I didn’t want to make it my life to copy or reproduce reality, it simply didn’t feel as much of a challenge. While on a canvas or project, I lose myself completely in the creation itself, creating from the inside and out rather than the other way around.”
Three main bodies of work
Assemblages (made from found industrial objects or random leftover add-ons), collages (with Japanese woodblock printing) and paintings are what Berg is known for. Like life, her work often comes across as a journey—not always with a definite end, but more often with an end where it once began. Her journey in color seemed to reappear as a new beginning when we met in September and October of 2016.
There’s something zen about the person and her work. The art of Siri Berg is simple yet complex and very, very sophisticated—one review compared it to a bento box with beautifully arranged sushi. How ever you distinguish her work, it is abstract art at its most organized and elegant, and her sense of color is simply sublime. It rarely needs words—you love it or … you don’t. Whether you do or don’t is not really important. Her art moves your mind.
For Berg herself, art should be a multi-level experience. An initial reaction might be hate or love (or the worst case scenario: no opinion). Then, one can begin interpreting. The experience is determined by the viewer’s point of reference, background and experience.
But let’s go back to the young Berg for a moment—the one who left a turbulent Sweden and Europe in order to come to America in 1939.
“I wanted to grow up and was eager to go,” she says. “I wanted to become my own person.”
Though her mother didn’t much like the thought of young Siri crossing the ocean, the political situation worked in Berg’s favor. She left Sweden via ship from Norway to Baltimore—a journey that took 28 days.
“We played bridge the entire 28 days,” she says.
In America, a bus took her to Columbus Circle in New York City where her Aunt Henia was waiting for her.
“Thus the adventure was over,” Berg says with a smile. “And six months later my parents joined me in the U.S.”
In New York, Berg studied fashion and interior design, and her art fell by the wayside. She married twice and had two sons. When she was in her early thirties she began painting on a bridge table in the master bedroom of the apartment she shared with her family in Riverdale. When one son moved out, his room became her studio.
“I felt that it was finally my time to work with fine arts. In the early days, I relied on stories in order to work. I was inspired by Yeats, and I did work modeled after Arthur Schnitzler’s play La Ronde (“Der Reigen”). It is a play with 10 episodes, but since I’ve always been attracted to the number 7, I made it into seven visual episodes.”
Eventually Berg needed a studio of her own. Her stepdaughter told her it was time to leave Riverdale behind and get into the swing of things, so she urged her to move into Manhattan.
“I went searching for a studio,” Berg recalls, “but buying one was quite an undertaking in those days. And I remember thinking ‘what am I doing with the family savings?’ But I got my studio in 1981!”
This Soho studio is where she lives and works to this day. It’s an amazing space sparsely decorated with stylish furniture, including a couple Mies van der Rohe chairs and an old dalahäst.
The exploration of circles that evolved during the time of La Ronde morphed from colors into a series of black and white paintings that had put Berg in the international limelight for the first time in the late 1970s. She is also interested in religious mysticism, which led to a long stretch of work inspired by the Kabbalah and the 10 creative forces that intervene between the infinite unknown and our physical world. In the mid-1990s she started working in a more linear way with straight lines and bars, leading to the present period after 2002, which is all about color.
Berg also began teaching color theory at Parson’s School of Design—something she did up until only a few years ago.
“I liked teaching, which I did for over 30 years. It was very satisfying for me to watch a student and the transformation he or she went through during those 15 weeks, and knowing that I contributed to that change. Then at one point I felt I did not want to continue with the highly regulated side of being a teacher.“
Siri Berg no longer needs a story in order to work. Maybe New York itself is story enough; it certainly gives her energy, and her studio—as immaculately organized and beautiful as her art—is full of projects. Berg at present experiments with the more subdued grey, not just any grey but every nuance of the color, from Holland warm grey to cold grey and often back again. And the artist’s own hands and meticulous organization as always shape the colors. Pigment after pigment is lifted to create every subtle variation of grey that has yet to meet the eye.
“What I am doing today has evolved through the years,” she says. “But in the end it’s all about color, and I always have a goal and a method.”
House of Sweden, 2900 K St NW, Washington, DC 20007
By Ulf Barslund Martensson