Barbro Östlihn was an artist and a painter. She was one of the most internationally successful Swedish artists to emerge from her generation during the 1960s.
Barbro Östlihn was born in Bromma, Stockholm, in 1930. Her parents were Martin Östlihn, who was a civil engineer, and Greta Östlihn, a textile art instructor. Barbro Östlihn studied at Konstfack (the school of arts, crafts, and design) during the 1948–1949 and 1951–1954 periods, and then at Kungliga Konsthögskolan (the royal college of art) from 1954–1959. In 1961 Barbro Östlihn moved to New York. There she took long walks of discovery through Manhattan during which she took photographs of the buildings and public spaces. She then began to produce new, large-scale paintings based on the photographs. These paintings testify to her sensitive eye for architecture at a time when the city was changing radically.
Barbro Östlihn’s paintings deal with surfaces whilst also clearly being related to the urban landscape of Manhattan. The paintings’ titles reference specific buildings and addresses in New York and are sometimes based on both famous buildings, such as her 1962 Chrysler building, as well as more unfamiliar buildings, such as 270 Water Street, dating from 1965. The painting titles sometimes relate to Barbro Östlihn’s own studio, initially located at 128 Front Street, near Wall Street in southern Manhattan, and then subsequently, after 1967, in the East Village. Meanwhile something else occurs on the actual painting surfaces – the micro- and macro shapes compete against each other and the artist’s headstrong and unique feeling for colour. Sometimes she expanded beyond her usual sphere of motifs, as in her 1965 painting Sunflower, which is part of the Robert Rauschenberg Collection. Her paintings from this era also include motifs from Stockholm, as in Slussplan 7 and Erik’s House, Lego, both also from 1965 which can be viewed at Moderna museet.
During her first years in New York Barbro Östlihn exhibited at the Cordier and Ekstrom Gallery and the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. Reputable critics, such as Donald Judd, Barbara Rose, and Dore Ashton, reviewed her work. Later her paintings were displayed at the Galerie Burén and Galerie Aronowitsch in Sweden and the Galerie Baudoin Lebon in Paris. In 1969 she participated in the Pop Art Redefined exhibition held at the Hayward Gallery in London. In 1983 she held a solo exhibition at Moderna museet.
When Barbro Östlihn arrived in New York in 1961, along with her husband the artist Öyvind Fahlström, the couple joined the neo-realistic pop art related artistic circles. The couple were close friends of Robert Rauschenberg, whom they had come to know as a result of the Rörelse i konsten exhibition held at Moderna museet in Stockholm earlier that same year. They were also good friends of Claes Oldenburg, a pop artist, and Billy Klüver, a Swedish engineer and researcher who worked with artists and who later established the Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T) organisation. Fahlström was invited, upon arrival, to take over the studio loft which Rauschenberg had just given up. Shortly thereafter he and Barbro Östlihn both lived and worked at 128 Front Street, where their good friend Jasper Johns was their neighbour.
In addition to her own work Barbro Östlihn also collaborated with her husband in producing his work, as they had already done in Sweden. The museum curator Björn Springfeldt has said that “extensively large white patches” would emerge if one were to remove the elements of Öyvind Fahlström’s work which had de facto been painted by Barbro Östlihn. The couple separated in 1975 and, just two weeks before Öyvind Fahlström died, they formally divorced.
Barbro Östlihn moved to Paris in 1975 with her life companion, Charles Dreyfus, and there she carried on creating paintings in the same vein that she had developed in New York, albeit with the addition of the likes of French parquet flooring to the house façades. In 1991 Barbro Östlihn was elected into Kungliga Konstakademien (the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts).
Norrköping Konstmuseum presented a comprehensive retrospective exhibition by Barbro Östlihn in 2003. Her work was also displayed at the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery in the collective exhibition entitled Seductive Subversion, Women Pop Artists 1958–1968, held at the University of the Arts and Brooklyn Museum, New York.
Barbro Östlihn died in Paris in 1995. She is buried in the Östlihn family grave at Norra kyrkogården (The Northern Cemetery) in Solna.