Painters Eleven artist Oscar Cahén (1916–1956) is most often remembered for the way he used colour: like “a battering ram,” as a critic said in 1954. Small Combo takes colour itself as its subject matter: the scalding hot magenta-and-orange mixtures seem to jump off a background of midnight blues and blacks. But this is an illusion; in fact the cold, dark colours are the foreground, painted over Cahén’s trademark tangerine and rose. As one looks, the force of the colour makes the foreground and background exchange places back and forth, keeping the picture plane animated.


Oscar Cahén, Small Combo, c.1954

Oscar Cahén, Small Combo, c.1954

Oil on Masonite, 91.4 x 71.1 cm, private collection

Cahén was at the forefront of exploring the phenomenological effects of chroma, invoking joy, claustrophobia, sweetness, the sublime, hot, cold, or haunted feelings. In 1968 the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida, mounted a major exhibition of Cahén’s oeuvre, and an American critic described the show in terms of sensual satisfaction: “a visual bash, an orgy for jaded eyes, a veritable feast.” Said fellow Painters Eleven member Tom Hodgson (1924–2006), “I can’t think of anyone in any place, any country, any time who was a better colourist; I just thought [Cahén] was the best colourist anywhere.”


This Spotlight is excerpted from Oscar Cahén: Life & Work by Jaleen Grove.

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