Albert Oehlen (b. 1954)
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Albert Oehlen (b. 1954)

...Loves Body (Erfüllung, Haupt, Einheit)

Albert Oehlen (b. 1954)
...Loves Body (Erfüllung, Haupt, Einheit)
signed and dated 'A. Oehlen 85' (lower right)
oil, resin and plastic collage on canvas
78¾ x 78¾ (200 x 200cm.)
Painted in 1985
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner.
Hamburg, Galerie Ascan Crone, Albert Oehlen: Farbenlehre, 1985, p. 17 (illustrated in colour).
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Katharine Arnold
Katharine Arnold

Lot Essay

‘[Oehlen] adopts the critical attitude of Conceptual Art, but articulates it not from the outside, but from the inside – from inside the painting itself’

‘In 1984 [Oehlen] introduced the three primary colours, blue, red, and yellow, as if the point were to think back to Mondrian … He opened up the closed space of the canvas using the most banal means possible’

Executed in 1985, Albert Oehlen’s ...Loves Body (Erfüllung, Haupt, Einheit) demonstrates his early attempts to subvert the time-honoured values of painting. Three primary-coloured boxes are emblazoned against a dark, marbled background; rivulets of yellow stream from the container on the left as if melting down the picture plane. Each bears a label – Erfüllung (‘compliance’, ‘implementation’, ‘execution’), Haupt (‘head’) and Einheit (‘unit’). Part of Oehlen’s Farbenlehre (‘Colour Theory’) series, the work is one of a number from this period in which the artist deliberately restricted his palette to red, yellow and blue: the foundational ingredients of painting. Throughout the series, his banal coloured boxes were emblazoned with words that invoked the grand rhetoric traditionally associated with the medium: Natur (‘nature’), Freiheit (‘freedom’), Auferstehung (‘resurrection’), Feuer (‘fire’). Parodying the work of Piet Mondrian, who embraced primary colours in his bid to return art to a new ‘ground zero’, Oehlen mocks the bombastic ideals assigned to these base hues. The labels in the present work conjure associations of subordination, order and regime; Haupteinheit translates to ‘master unit’, hinting at the overarching control exercised by these three innocuous colours. Throughout his career, the artist took delight in mixing the holy trinity of red, yellow and blue into a murky brown swamp – evidenced by the present work’s backdrop. Oehlen believed that in order to carve new directions for painting, it was first necessary to knock it from its pedestal: to take to task its methods, tools and assumptions. ‘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’, he explains. ‘… 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). In the present work, Oehlen suggests that painting – stripped of its sacred façade – is ultimately no more than a set of base pigments, animated by esoteric concepts, rules and ideologies.

Oehlen’s irreverent assault on painterly values found much in common with the work of his friend Martin Kippenberger. Represented by Max Hetzler during the formative years of his gallery, Oehlen and Kippenberger spearheaded the riotous group of radical young artists known affectionately as the ‘Hetzler boys’. Together 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). Their friend Werner Büttner has explained how ‘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). The present work, with its caustic wit and encrypted satire, takes its place firmly within this context. Both Oehlen and Kippenberger subscribed to the notion of ‘bad painting’ that was rife amongst their contemporaries: a deliberate rejection of aesthetic standards and practices. As Christoph Schreier has written, ‘[Oehlen] adopts the critical attitude of Conceptual Art, but articulates it 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 regard, the basic premise of the Farbenlehre may be seen to lay the groundwork for Oehlen’s later abstract paintings, which violently explode the visual codes established by the genre throughout the twentieth century. By taking a subversive stab at Mondrian – the father of geometric abstraction – the present work performs something of an exorcism. The foundational principle of chromatic harmony – the hallowed trilogy of red, blue and yellow – is exposed as a negligible set of boxes, labels and pigeonholes.

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