THREE IMPORTANT WORKS BY ALBERT OEHLEN
Albert Oehlen is one of contemporary art’s most iconoclastic figures. Protégé of Polke, comrade of Kippenberger and enfant terrible of the 1980s, Oehlen’s wildly experimental impulse was a trailblazing force within the post-Punk generation. His cataclysmic dialogue with painting at a time when Minimalism and Conceptualism had declared it dead marked him out as a leading figure within the revolutionary second wave of German post-war art. Refusing to conform to the aesthetic of purity that reigned within the academy, Oehlen’s unabashed collision of vastly eclectic visual registers was inspirational to the notorious Jung Wilde (young wild artists) with which he is frequently associated. From figurative to abstract, geometric to gestural, articulated through fusion, interruption, contradiction and negation, Oehlen’s oeuvre bears witness to a reinvigoration of painting through a fearless undermining of its age-old sanctity. Widely exhibited and universally celebrated, Oehlen was Professor of Painting at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf from 2000 to 2009. In 2013, alongside his inclusion in the 55th Venice Biennale under the curatorial eye of Massimiliano Gioni, a major survey of his career took place at the Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna, highlighting the rich and influential scope of his practice. This year, the Museum Folkwang in Essen hosts the exhibition Albert Oehlen: Talking About Painting, a selection of works curated by the artist at the site of his groundbreaking 1984 group show Truth is Work.
Born in Krefeld in 1954, Oehlen moved to Berlin in 1977, where he fantasised about new art forms whilst working as a waiter and decorator with his friend, the artist Werner Büttner. An important source of early inspiration was Jörg Immendorff, whom Oehlen had previously met at an action group, and whose penchant for the whimsical and ironic had a strong impact on the young artist. Oehlen’s radical artistic tendencies found keen expression in these early years and, having been officially charged for painting a mural on a local bookshop with Büttner, the two artists formed the tongue-in-cheek ‘League for the Prevention of Contradictory Behaviour’. This type of irreverence was to become a critical force in Oehlen’s artistic development, and was to define his important relationship with Kippenberger in subsequent years. In 1978, Oehlen studied painting at the Hochscule für Bildende Künste, Hamburg, under the tutelage of the legendary artist Sigmar Polke. ‘Polke more or less tried to show us that he wasn’t able to teach us something in the classical sense, so he gave us a main lecture for every artist, which is to destroy a chair’, Oehlen recalls. ‘I couldn’t say what Polke’s influence was, but it’s his radicality. When you start to work as an artist everybody thinks about radicality, like how could you make the most shocking thing. And it’s not easy ... Polke is somebody who had a role in that; in a way he made very radical things’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in Pataphysics Magazine, 1990, http://www.pataphysicsmagazine.com/oehlen_interview.html [accessed 27 May 2014]).
Oehlen first met Martin Kippenberger in the late 1970s, but it was in the 1980s that the two developed a close friendship that drove the production of some of their finest work. Oehlen and Kippenberger were both represented by Max Hetzler in the formative years of his gallery, and together spearheaded the riotous group of artists known affectionately as the ‘Hetzler boys’. They ruled the Cologne art scene, engaged in loud and wide-ranging discussions and took the city’s night life by storm. ‘They were artists who took extreme positions and brought a sharp intelligence to bear’, recalls Hetzler; Oehlen himself remembers how ‘we spurred each other on and everyone wanted to wow everyone else ... we were euphorics’ (M. Hetlzer and A. Oehlen, quoted in S. Kippenberger, Kippenberger: The Artist and His Families, Berlin 2007, pp. 246 and 264). As Büttner explains, ‘it was all about who was quickest with the bright ideas ... We were a reaction to the terrible ’70s, when everything was so normal and black and white’ (W. Büttner, quoted in S. Kippenberger, Kippenberger: The Artist and His Families, Berlin 2007, p. 264). Competitive and motivated, Oehlen and Kippenberger combined uproarious public personalities and extreme prankster behaviour with a mutual dedication to reinventing the conceptual parameters of painting. They collaborated on art and music projects, exhibited and lectured together, shared a flat in Vienna and worked and travelled around Spain. ‘I’m never bored with Albert’, Kippenberger told Artfan. ‘He sees the whole panorama of your discoveries, the big picture, and he has one too’ (M. Kippenberger, quoted in S. Kippenberger, Kippenberger: The Artist and His Families, Berlin 2007, p. 276).
Oehlen’s practice is founded on the notion that the value of painting is located in its very process – an attitude encapsulated by his self-imposed term ‘post-non-representational’. As Christoph Schreier has written, ‘he adopts the critical attitude of Conceptual Art, but articulates if not from the outside, but from the inside – from inside the painting itself’ (C. Shreier, ‘Storm Damage – Albert Oehlen’s Painting as a Visual Stress Test’ in Albert Oehlen, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Bonn, Bonn, 2012, p. 71). In this way, Oehlen’s work performs a critique of the medium whilst simultaneously indicating new directions for its continued development. The punctured, fractured explosive surfaces of his paintings bear witness to a rigorous – and vigorous – testing of the limits of the medium. ‘The formal encumbrances and annoyances that a work of art can endure define its dignity’, Oehlen has said (A. Oehlen, quoted in R. Beil, ‘Rotlichtbezirk: Vom Eros de Verunreinigung im Oeurve Albert Oehlen’ in Albert Oehlen: Selbtsportrait mit 50-millionenfacher Lichtgeschwindigkeit, exh. cat., Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne, Zurich, 2004, p. 36). Oehlen’s early works fulfilled this claim through devastating conglomerations of figural subject matter, but it was his move towards abstraction in the late 1980s that truly allowed the artist free reign in what has been variously described as his ‘exorcism’ of painting. By stripping away all standards, painting could become anything; by casting out any sense of obligation, new pathways could become visible. Oehlen’s experimental framework has allowed him to import images from advertising and commerce as well as elements derived from photography, collage, printing and, more recently, computer technology: all at the service of a once-isolated and untouchable medium. By taking a hammer to its pedestal, Oehlen carved a new space for painting in the postmodern world.
Through bombastic engagement with the historical clichés, narratives and techniques of painting, Oehlen’s work sits within the trajectory of so-called ‘bad painting’ that was rife among his contemporaries. Construed as a deliberate rejection of standard aesthetic values, ‘bad painting’ has been responsible for some of the most intriguing creations of the post-war period, not least within Oehlen’s oeuvre. Reflecting upon his practice in a recent interview, Oehlen claims ‘That’s the interesting thing about art: that somehow, you use your material to make something that results in something beautiful, via a path no-one has yet trodden. That means working with something that is improbable, where your predecessors would have said “You can’t do that”. First you take a step towards ugliness and then, somehow or other, you wind up where it’s beautiful’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in Monopol: Magazin für Kunst und Leben, Vol. 1, 2010). Interestingly, this type of approach has produced unexpected connections with a host of different artistic languages: the gestural intricacies of Cy Twombly, the painterly gestures of Willem de Kooning and the detachment of American Pop Art, as well as the German lineage of artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Asger Jorn and Georg Baselitz. Perhaps the strongest international connection is the American painter and printmaker Christopher Wool who exhibited with Oehlen in the 1980s at the formative stages of his own career, and who has been a similarly prominent driving force in forging new modes of expression for painting in the twentieth and twenty-first century.
‘I posed the self-portrait as a problem for myself in my search for new levels of difficulty, precisely because there’s a huge historical apparatus attached to it, and because it makes you think of art, of seriousness and meaning. Putting myself next to the masters’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in R. Goetz, ‘Interview by Rainald Goetz’, Albert Oehlen: Self Portraits, exh. cat., Skarstedt Gallery, New York, 2001, p. 48).
‘In Oehlen’s self-portraits you can always tell that he’s thinking. He perfectly captures that transparent, blank moment right before the Eureka of epiphany’ (G. O’Brien, ‘Indulgences: 95 Theses or Bottles of Beer on the Wall’, in Parkett, no. 79, 2007, p. 38).
Executed in 1984, during the critical early stages of Oehlen’s career, Frühstück Now (Self-Portrait) is a compelling work from the select number of self-portraits that punctuate Oehlen’s diverse oeuvre. Witty, subversive and rich in historical allusion, the self-portraits occupy a rare and significant position within Oehlen’s radical reinvigoration of painting, representing unique statements that span the breadth of his practice. Dialectically engaging with one of art history’s most time-honoured traditions, the self-portraits of the early- to mid-1980s coincide with Oehlen’s explorations of fgural presence in his work. In the present work, amusingly titled Frühstück Now (‘Breakfast Now’), the artist has depicted himself as a marble bust, cryptically paired with the Albanian fag and three spring onions, in an exquisitely burnished palette of russet and gold. Art-historical mirages abound, from old master portraits to modernist nature mortes to Germanic expressionism, from Diego Velázquez to Giorgio de Chirico, via Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon. Ultimately, perhaps, we are reminded of Oehlen’s close relationship with Martin Kippenberger, whose own mocking self-presentations are echoed in Oehlen’s sardonic re-casting of himself in a heroic sculptural form. Yet for Oehlen, self-portraiture was less about self-analysis than about confronting painting at its most basic level. As the artist explains, ‘I posed the self-portrait as a problem for myself in my search for new levels of difficulty, precisely because there’s a huge historical apparatus attached to it, and because it makes you think of art, of seriousness and meaning. Putting myself next to the masters’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in R. Goetz, ‘Interview by Rainald Goetz’, Albert Oehlen: Self Portraits, exh. cat., Skarstedt Gallery, New York, 2001, p. 48).
The self-portraits saw Oehlen experiment with new methods and techniques, adopting a more subtle approach to oil paint which he termed ‘glazing painting’. ‘You work with many layers of thin oil paint. You can model the subject of the painting by bringing it to where you want it very slowly, instead of putting down the right color at once with one brush stroke’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in R. Goetz, ‘Interview by Rainald Goetz’, in Albert Oehlen: Self Portraits, exh. cat., Skarstedt Gallery, New York, 2001, p. 46). In the present work, this use of paint results in an almost translucent quality, an exquisite layering effect that lends depth and radiance to the canvas. Oehlen allows delicate rivulets of paint to flow sideways across the picture plane in a manner that elegantly disrupts the vertical striations of the painting’s composition. There is a liquid, aqueous quality to the work, a palpable sense of fluidity; like the mirror paintings of 1980-1982, in which the viewer finds themselves intermittently reflected in fragments of glass, the portraits harbour a sense of impending revelation. As Glenn O’Brien has written, ‘In Oehlen’s self-portraits you can always tell that he’s thinking. He perfectly captures that transparent, blank moment right before the Eureka of epiphany’ (G. O’Brien, ‘Indulgences: 95 Theses or Bottles of Beer on the Wall’, in Parkett, no. 79, 2007, p. 38).
Determined to engage with self-portraiture from within the tradition itself, Oehlen painted his own visage directly from a mirror. ‘Somehow or other it’s fun’, the artist claimed, ‘but it’s very strange, because you don’t know your face in that way, you learn to define details. The curve of the bridge of the nose, you see if there’s a dent there or not. Suddenly you notice that they are rather small – these are things that don’t really tell you anything about yourself. You don’t ascribe meaning to them, but you define the face via wrinkles, the size of the ears, the curve of the nose, and such things. And in the end you know just those things about your face’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in R. Goetz, ‘Interview by Rainald Goetz’, Albert Oehlen: Self Portraits, exh. cat., Skarstedt Gallery, New York, 2001, p. 78). The transformation of his face into a sculpture in the present work, however, allows us to see Oehlen’s ironic impulse at work, self-consciously deifying his features in silver and gold. ‘I was also making fun of myself a little bit’, Oehlen has said of this tendency in other self-portraits. ‘But probably it’s a less painful way than the way Kippenberger did it (A. Oehlen, quoted in in R. Goetz, ‘Interview by Rainald Goetz’, Albert Oehlen: Self Portraits, exh. cat., Skarstedt Gallery, New York, 2001, p. 80).
Regarding the mysterious objects that loom in the background of the work, Oehlen has explained, ‘That’s the Albanian fag and spring onions. It probably refers to the half-hearted Maoism of my youth’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in R. Goetz, ‘Interview by Rainald Goetz’, Albert Oehlen: Self Portraits, exh. cat., Skarstedt Gallery, New York, 2001, p. 58). The art historian Robert Ohrt provides a measure of insight into this reference in an account that brings to mind the sardonically-titled ‘League for the Prevention of Contradictory Behaviour’, founded by Oehlen and the artist Werner Büttner in their youth. ‘Faced with this prevailing terror of the innocuous and a subculture that cultivated it, Büttner and Oehlen in particular rebuilt an apparently outdated arsenal of sectarian Maoist slogans and directives and from their party headquarters attacked what remained of a lost radicalism. They carried on a “virtual Maoism” that promoted the language of consistency by taking the false example of art; they demanded that painting be taken up again like an abandoned historical project’ (R. Ohrt, ‘For the Life of Me, I can’t See any Swastikas’ in E. Gillen (ed.), German Art from Beckman to Richter: Images of a Divided Country, Berlin 1997, p. 342).