‘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
‘Somehow or other it’s fun, 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
‘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
‘The great achievement of Oehlen, Martin Kippenberger, and colleagues is the transformation of the function of taste in painting … an exploration of the boundaries that constitute taste, and a revelation of the arbitrary, abstract nature of the conventions that constitute the most aggressive form of cultural repression, the most secret and unspoken of agreements. The evidence is everywhere, in the celebration of excess, in the riot of the palette, in the too-muchness that is the spirit of the thing’ —G. O’BRIEN
‘I define a vocabulary of qualities that I want to see brought together: delicacy and coarseness, colour and vagueness, and, underlying them all, a base note of hysteria’ —A. OEHLEN
‘That picture by Pollock where he tried to regress himself back to infancy in front of the mirror. There’s Pollock, looking at his drunken face, and trying to imagine what he looked like as a baby, or as a small child. I think that’s absolutely great, it’s one of the things Pollock can be praised for. And it makes me wonder, what is the real self-portrait? The other one, the old one? The thing that’s always been there, and that you rely on even to make something different?’ —A. OEHLEN
‘[My style] has become slightly finer than the older self-portraits, where I was practicing more of an East German-style expressionism, as Penck once said about my first pictures. I wanted more resemblance, so did the fine work using glazing paint, and then let myself be carried along by that … 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 colour at once with one brush stroke’ —A. OEHLEN
‘Once a year you should make a self-portrait. But you have to have an idea, you don’t want to do the same thing again’ —A. OEHLEN
‘First you take a step towards ugliness and then, somehow or other, you wind up where it’s beautiful’ —A. OEHLEN
Among the select number of self-portraits that punctuate Albert Oehlen’s diverse painterly career, Selbstporträt mit Palette (Self-portrait with Palette) (2005) is unquestionably his masterpiece. Witty, subversive and rich in art-historical allusion, the self-portraits occupy a vital position within Oehlen’s radical reinvigoration of painting, representing unique statements that span the breadth of his practice. Selbstporträt mit Palette takes its time-honoured format as a mode for Oehlen to not only examine himself, but also, as is central to his work, to interrogate the very status of painting as a means of expression. Rendered in dramatic life-size scale, Oehlen wears a simple grey polo shirt and jeans, and holds only his brush and palette. He stands in a void of ink-blue and rich brown tones, conjuring the dark Old Masterly settings of Rembrandt or Goya. His face is realised with a careful treatment of colour and detail, bringing his features – five-o-clock shadow, clear blue-green eyes, parted ash-blonde hair – into sensitive relief. His gaze is averted from the viewer, caught as if lost in thought; he looks wise and well-practiced, trim and alert despite the signs of middle age. Crowning a career that has thrived through wrongfooting viewers and outplaying genres at their own game, this self-portrait makes a statement of penetrating honesty, placing Oehlen firmly within and behind the picture. He is both medium and message, himself and his work. The painter within the painting faces the world, armed with nothing but the tools of his trade. Oehlen’s trial-by-combat practice has toppled painting from its pedestal, and forged a new place for it in the postmodern universe: in Selbstporträt mit Palette he surveys his territory and emerges, ultimately, as a hero.
‘PUTTING MYSELF NEXT TO THE MASTERS:’ OEHLEN AND THE PAINTERS OF THE PAST
Aside from its clear compositional echoes of works by those ‘masters’ who have gone before him – parallels to his palette-wielding pose can be found from Van Gogh to Cézanne, Picasso to Freud – Oehlen’s technique in Selbstporträt mit Palette highlights his deliberate self-alignment with the painters of old. Oehlen has executed the work in oil on board, following the form of Rembrandt and others who painted themselves in previous centuries. Determined to engage with the tradition from within, he has also painted his own face directly from a mirror. As with all of his self-portraits, which began in 1982-83, this method marks a clear departure from his usual ‘post-non-representational’ paintings, which are born of abstract, imagined and second-hand imagery. ‘Somehow or other it’s fun,’ the artist says of painting from his own reflection, ‘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 the ears 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, ‘Self-Portrait with Open Mouth: New conversations about painting 2001/2002,’ in Albert Oehlen: Self Portraits, exh. cat. Skarstedt Fine Art, New York 2002, p. 78).
With his deft handling of oil paint, Oehlen comes closer to classical practice in Selbstporträt mit Palette than in any of his previous works. His style, he observes, ‘has become slightly finer than the older self-portraits, where I was practicing more of an East German-style expressionism, as Penck once said about my first pictures. I wanted more resemblance, so did the fine work using glazing paint, and then let myself be carried along by that … 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 colour at once with one brush stroke’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in R. Goetz, ‘Self-Portrait with Open Mouth: New conversations about painting 2001/2002,’ in Albert Oehlen: Self Portraits, exh. cat. Skarstedt Fine Art, New York 2002, p. 46). This careful layering process opens a previously unexplored area of painterly territory for Oehlen, and heightens the haunting statement of Selbstporträt mit Palette. The cavernous space in which he stands – a shadowy non-setting, swirling with deep earthy tones and midnight blues – evokes a sense of sublime mystery, even hinting at the pitch-dark mythic strain of Goya’s Black Paintings (1819-23). His finely conveyed features and the diaphanous definition of his clothes make him seem vulnerable against this encroaching emptiness, almost as if threatened by dissolution. His treatment of the paint on his palette reminds us, however, that he is in control. The bright daubs of pigment sit in proud, textural impasto against the palette’s smoothly-glazed flatness, a smear even adorning the thumb that Oehlen protrudes through its hole. Smartly blurring the line between abstraction and figuration, this detail affirms that Oehlen is quite literally in touch with his materials. He is in his element, fashioning a version of himself from the medium that has defined his life.
In this refined approach, Oehlen expresses his artistic maturity and moves on from the ‘East German-style expressionism’ of his early portraits. His delicate depiction of his own face establishes his position within a no less distinctly German lineage that reaches as far back as Albrecht Dürer’s S Self Portrait at the Age of Twenty-Eight (1500). Dürer’s bold, beautifully painted statement of intent – seductive, messianic, meeting the viewer with full-frontal gaze – set a new precedent in the self-presentation of the artist. It was both a display of his virtuosity and an expression of his singular personality. At a time when an artist’s depiction of their own likeness could help secure fame, patronage and further commissions, the self-portrait was a public image to be fashioned with care. Much later, Gerhard Richter’s 1971 Ohne Titel (Selbstporträt) (Untitled (Self-portrait) took this idea of the painter displaying his style to an extreme conclusion, presenting an abstract array of smeared brown and ochre brushstrokes that reveal no recognisable human figure at all: an apt vision from an artist who has long probed the problems of how painting can sustain its relevance in the post-photography era. The silkscreened visages of Andy Warhol are likewise in perfect concert with his professedly flat, affectless aesthetic. ‘If you want to know all about Andy Warhol,’ he once said, ‘just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it’ (A. Warhol, quoted in G. Berg, ‘Andy, My True Story,’ Los Angeles Free Press, March 1967, p.3). Like these masters before him, Oehlen is keenly aware that the self-portrait is a fictional construct to be manipulated at will, operating as mask, screen or disguise. While Oehlen’s averted gaze in Selbstporträt mit Palette withholds any definitive reading, it seems to present him as a thinker on the verge of breakthrough. Dreaming up constructed worlds to fill the blankness around him, he has only his paints, brush and palette to depend on: the same means by which he creates his own identity.
‘PUT YOURSELF IN THIS EMBARRASSING SITUATION AND GIVE IT A MEANING:’ OEHLEN AND KIPPENBERGER
Self-portraits do not reflect an unchanging reality for the artist, but represent specific moments of being. Rembrandt’s are a case in point. As a successful young man, he sketched himself as if cavorting in front of the camera, laughing, posing proudly with his wife Saskia, and even pulling comical faces; in his later years, having been through the hard times of bankruptcy and being made a widower, his self-images took on a more reflective tone and technique, studying the lines and hollows of his aged face amid dark, brooding interiors. Oehlen would insist, of course, that these features ‘are things that don’t really tell you anything about yourself.’ Even if it makes no Rembrandtian claim as a psychological window, however, Selbstporträt mit Palette represents a personal evolution for Oehlen.
In a career defined by iconoclasm and irreverence, Oehlen’s friendship with Martin Kippenberger played a crucial role. Kippenberger’s painfully honest and enormously funny self-portraits engaged bathetically with the role of the artist, casting him as drunk, jester, scoundrel, or depraved deity. Discussing these works, Oehlen declares that Kippenberger ‘did it exactly right. He worked according to the method we three had agreed on tacitly, that is Werner [Büttner], Kippenberger and I: don’t denounce anything; rather, put yourself in this embarrassing situation and give it a meaning, or define something. So, it wasn’t: hey, that looks like shit; rather: how would it look if I were the villain, or the ugly one, or the stupid one. And there these pictures are very precise and significant; in fact they’re especially good’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in R. Goetz, ‘Self-Portrait with Open Mouth: New conversations about painting 2001/2002,’ in Albert Oehlen: Self Portraits, exh. cat. Skarstedt Fine Art, New York 2002, p. 72).
As Martin Prinzhorn writes, ‘the “self” is only a quotation inside art which has a constructed meaning inside psychology. The paintings of Kippenberger make an illusion out of the concept of self-perception, which we only invent in order to be able to say something about us and others’ (M. Prinzhorn, in Martin Kippenberger, exh. cat. Max Hetzler, Cologne 1992, p. 59). This is equally true of Oehlen’s early self-portraits, which situated him with Kippenberger at the forefront of the ‘bad painting’ movement of the 1980s. In these paintings Oehlen worked decidedly in the Kippenberger mould, brashly deconstructing the genre’s traditional prerogatives. 1984’s Selbstporträt mit verschissener Unterhose und blauer Mauritius (Self-portrait with Shitty Underpants and Blue Mauritius) depicts him, as the title indicates, in an abject state examining a rare postage stamp. Selbstporträt als Holländerin (Self-Portrait as Dutch Woman) (1983) won the accolade from Kippenberger that ‘It is not possible to paint worse than that!’ (M. Kippenberger, quoted in P. Scheldjahl, ‘Painting’s Point Man,’ New Yorker, 22 June 2015). Both artists worked in an idiom of antiheroic self-abasement, but emerge victorious, even majestic, from these riotously inventive post-Punk self-images. Oehlen recalls that Kippenberger’s ‘were based on a very reasonable observation: what profit is there in presenting yourself as good-looking? None at all, for, either no one will believe you and you make yourself look ridiculous, or they won’t like you. But if you portray yourself ass-uglier than you are, both artist and painting benefit’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in A. Goldstein, Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective, exh. cat. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles 2008, p. 92).
Oehlen remembers of his time with Kippenberger that ‘we spurred each other on and everyone wanted to wow everyone else ... we were euphorics’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in S. Kippenberger, Kippenberger: The Artist and His Families, Berlin 2007, p. 264). Competitive and driven, the duo 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). In a sense, Oehlen’s continued engagement with self-portraiture can be read as a commitment to the memory of his late friend, an ongoing development of their personal brand of boundary-pushing mayhem. In its poise and polish, however, Selbstporträt mit Palette moves on from the achievements of his Kippenberger era, reanimating tradition from within to cast a new light on his practice.
‘SOMEHOW OR OTHER, YOU WIND UP WHERE IT’S BEAUTIFUL:’ OEHLEN AND ‘BAD PAINTING’
Through its bombastic engagement with painting’s historical clichés, narratives and techniques, Oehlen’s work sits alongside Kippenberger’s within the scheme of so-called ‘bad painting.’ Involving a deliberate rejection of standard aesthetic values and an often humorous excoriation of the absurdities of Germany’s postwar capitalist excess, ‘bad painting,’ not least within Oehlen’s oeuvre, has paradoxically been responsible for the revival of a medium that many had declared dead by the 1970s. Oehlen’s approach follows the precedent of artists such as his fellow ‘bad painter’ Georg Baselitz – there is perhaps an echo of his infamous Die große Nacht im Eimer (The Big Night Down The Drain) (1962-63) in Oehlen’s self-portrait – and the eminent radical Sigmar Polke, who taught him at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in 1978. As Werner 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). Reflecting upon his work 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 S. Frenzel, ‘Stress Findet Statt,’ Monopol Magazin, No. 1, January 2010, pp. 45-46).
The controlled resolution of Selbstporträt mit Palette seems to encapsulate this sense of beauty arrived at by unconventional means. It is like the eye of the storm, a point of serenity within the maelstrom of Oehlen’s wider practice. In Selbstporträt mit Palette, the chaotic ‘too-muchness’ so pervasive in Oehlen’s exploratory framework takes a back seat. He stands outside the new paradigm he has created, instead inhabiting the conventions that he has declared arbitrary. His subtle, painstaking painting establishes a distance from which he can reflect upon his medium, and – perhaps despite himself – upon his own contributions to its history, complexity, and validity.
In an interview about his self-portraits, Oehlen draws a revealing parallel between them and a self-portrait by Jackson Pollock, another artist who pushed painting to frenetic new frontiers. ‘Strangely,’ Oehlen says, ‘I have the feeling that my self-portraits are different from all the self-portraits by others. I forget that quite a few painters have had equally crazy experimental setups that led them to paint self-portraits. That picture by Pollock where he tried to regress himself back to infancy in front of the mirror. There’s Pollock, looking at his drunken face, and trying to imagine what he looked like as a baby, or as a small child. I think that’s absolutely great, it’s one of the things Pollock can be praised for. And it makes me wonder, what is the real self-portrait? The other one, the old one? The thing that’s always been there, and that you rely on even to make something different?’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in R. Goetz, ‘Self-Portrait with Open Mouth: New conversations about painting 2001/2002,’ in Albert Oehlen: Self Portraits, exh. cat. Skarstedt Fine Art, New York 2002, p. 70).
As with all of Oehlen’s statements, painted or verbal, there is more here than meets the eye. His question of what constitutes ‘the real self-portrait’ underlines the illusion of the real ‘self’ as a static or defined entity. If painting’s value for Oehlen lies in its process – in the work observing its own creation as a constructed art product, each brushstroke hovering between expression and commentary – Selbstporträt mit Palette sees him achieve a similar masquerade with his own likeness, presenting an image that shifts between self-fashioning and self-revelation. Roland Barthes declared the death of the author in 1967, asserting that a work and its creator are distinct from one another and should be studied separately. The enduring fascination of the self-portrait in the postmodern age seems to prove the difficulty of disentangling the two, and in this difficulty lies its attraction for Oehlen. ‘You paint yourself looking the way you feel,’ he says, ‘not as a “Vanitas” motif’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in R. Goetz, ‘Self-Portrait with Open Mouth: New conversations about painting 2001/2002,’ in Albert Oehlen: Self Portraits, exh. cat. Skarstedt Fine Art, New York 2002, p. 80). Perhaps, then, Selbstporträt mit Palette admits that he is present in his paintings, thinking, in all his evasion and iconoclasm, ‘of art, of seriousness and meaning.’ But is Oehlen a reliable narrator? How much of Oehlen is in this picture, and vice versa? A master of his craft, he reveals only what he chooses, and revels in the powers and paradoxes of paint.