Inger Ekdahl was one of the first women in Sweden who produced abstract art.
Inger Ekdahl was born in 1922 in Ystad. Her father was a military man. In 1943 she married Erik H. Olson and decided to become an artist. Her parents found it hard to understand how she could prioritise an insecure bohemian lifestyle above their safe bourgeois lifestyle. Up to that point Inger Ekdahl had worked at a lawyer’s office. From 1944 to 1946 she attended Isaac Grünewald’s painting school. She also briefly studied under Otte Sköld. As soon as the Second World War had ended Inger Ekdahl and her husband went south, in search of art on the continent. In 1947 they arrived in Zürich, and the following year they displayed their work in Verona. While in Italy they became inspired by Alberto Magnelli’s paintings which consist of abstract compositions of overlapping and balanced polygons.
The couple arrived in Paris in the early 1950s where they met Jean Arp and Victor Vasarely. Also in Paris at the time were the De Stijl artist César Domela and Michel Seuphor, whose ideas inspired Inger Ekdahl. Seuphor, who in 1929 had founded the artists’ group Circle et Carré, was a significant figurehead of the strictly abstract art which Inger Ekdahl found herself increasingly drawn to. Her paintings from that era, where drops of paint in dull hues are applied to form evocative shadowy effects, were well-received and were sold by the legendary gallery owner Denise René. René became a part of Inger Ekdahl and Erik H. Olson’s extensive Parisian circle of friends, to which Auguste Herbin also belonged. Herbin served as the couple’s link to the annual salon Réalités Nouvelles, where artists from all over Europe displayed their work. Inger Ekdahl was selected to display her paintings there in both 1950 and 1951. Her “new realities” made a significant impact on both the critics and the public. The salon quickly became a prestigious forum for the abstract art of that decade.
In Paris Inger Ekdahl and Erik H. Olson met many European pioneers of abstract art. They not only met contemporaries of Inger Ekdahl’s teachers in Sweden, Isaac Grünewald and Otte Sköld, but also younger artists who, like themselves, were looking for a completely new impetus, different rhythms and ideas. Some of them came from across the Atlantic, such as the Icelandic artist Nína Tryggvadóttir and her husband, the German-American doctor and painter Alfred L. Copley, known as Alcopley. They were heavily influenced by the new artistic form of expression which had been introduced by abstract expressionism in the USA. Inger Ekdahl also became influenced by this and began to investigate entirely new methods in her paintings. She covered canvases and sheets of Masonite in white, blue or black and then allowed varnish to run and drip off the bottom. The result resembled complex, intuitively emergent solar and star systems. Sometimes the threads of colour were more organised, akin to loose balls of yarn, spatters of contained ellipses and drops. Her wavy lines are just as free of the learned rules of artistic composition as bebop and cool jazz, the American jazz music which was so notable in Paris during the 1950s.
When the Ekdahl-Olson couple returned to Stockholm they lived and worked in an apartment which had a large tower room. This was both their studio and bedroom. Here Inger Ekdahl continued to experiment and often used a converted vacuum cleaner to blow paint onto her panels in specific directions, thereby obtaining results which were both directed and yet unpredictable. Once the paint had dried a new layer was applied on top of it. Her method was well thought-out and was actually quite distinct from her American colleague Jackson Pollock’s method of wandering back and forth across a canvas in a trance-like state whilst carrying a dripping paintbrush. Her paintings also attracted attention in Sweden, partly due to an exhibition she held with Rune Hagberg at Gummeson’s in 1959. Afterwards Moderna museet bought her painting entitled Gitter, 1958, for its own collection.
Inger Ekdahl’s contemporaries, including Rune Hagberg and Thea Ekström, Eddie Figge, Rune Jansson and Britt Lundbohm-Reuterswärd, have sometimes been called spontaneous artists as their creations originated by chance and on the spur of the moment. Inger Ekdahl actively sought alternative forms of expression, and yet her paintings reflect a good feeling for composition more than pure happenstance.
Inger Ekdahl worked methodically and her interest in optical effects and rhythm were certainly stronger than her attraction for the subconscious. Perception also plays an important role in her ink drawings from the early 1960s. They are based on the effect tightly drawn lines have on the eyes – an interest Inger Ekdahl shared with the Hungarian artist Vera Molnár. Agnes Martin, who called herself an abstract expressionist, was another artist who worked with carefully produced line-compositions at the time.
Inger Ekdahl’s fascination for lines and how they were perceived is clearly apparent in the form of expression that she developed in the 1970s, using strict geometrical shapes to generate effective optical illusions. These paintings, which Inger Ekdahl called systematic compositions, are based on repetition, where repetition creates fan-like patterns formed by a template. The shapes which are often in black and white or greyscale, challenge spatial perception as they can be perceived as either concave or convex. They fool the eye into experiencing bulk and three dimensions in a manner reminiscent of the optical challenges Bridget Riley introduced in her paintings during the 1960s.
When viewed at a distance some of Ekdahl’s systematic compositions seem to have a metallic shine in a way which resembles the grid-based paintings which Barbro Östlihn was working with at the same time. Repetition was a theme of the era: since the 1960s pop art had played and experimented with the effects of repetition, which had its roots in the older more concrete form of artistic imagery.
Inger Ekdahl, much like Barbro Östlihn, had belonged to a modernist circle outside of Sweden which paradoxically resulted in that both of them were not viewed as having been fully part of Swedish modernism. They were both also married to successful men who also shared the same profession – in Barbro Östlihn’s case her husband was Öyvind Fahlström.
Inger Ekdahl died in 2014. Her grave lies in the southern cemetery of St. Pauli in Malmö. Her surviving artwork was donated to Ystad art museum. Since 2015 the Eric and Inger Olson-Ekdahl stipend has been awarded annually to two artists whose work follows Inger Ekdahl and Erik H. Olson’s artistic footsteps.