‘[Oehlen] adopts the critical attitude of Conceptual Art, but articulates it not from the outside, but from the inside – from inside the painting itself’
Comprising two panels and stretching nearly four metres in length, Albert Oehlen’s Stier mit loch (Bull with Hole) offers a subversive commentary on the history – and future – of painting. Dating from 1986, a key year for self-portraiture in the artist’s practice, the work transforms the historically-loaded motif of the bull into a wry alter-ego. Pelted and pummelled with haptic drips and scrawls of pigment, the figurative beast confronts the world of abstraction, prophetically foreshadowing Oehlen’s embrace of non-representational modes two years later. Operating in an era that had declared painting dead, Oehlen conceived his early oeuvre as an irreverent tour through art history, dredging up outmoded painterly idioms in order to publicly explode them. Here, the bull – a motif handed down from Picasso – surveys the muddy waters of twentieth-century art: a panorama punctuated with witty references to geometric abstraction, Neo-Expressionism and landscape painting. Like the deer in Auch Einer (1985, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago), he stands as a symbol of the artist, caught at a crossroad between ways and means of painting. In Stier mit loch, Oehlen drags popular culture into the mix, quoting a British advert for a stock cube that, in reference to René Magritte, had cut a hole in the side of the bull. Where this original source had placed fine art at the service of consumerism, here Oehlen reverses the process, returning the motif to the realm of painting. The concept of art as ‘high culture’ is thus knocked from its pedestal: the surface becomes a pit of contamination, where abstraction is sullied by advertising and jewelled tones are besmirched by swathes of murky pigment. Precariously poised between conceptual and painterly realms, Stier mit loch captures the incisive, self-reflexive humour that defined the artist’s early years.
In close collusion with his contemporaries Martin Kippenberger, Werner Büttner and Georg Herold, Oehlen took to task long-held aesthetic standards, dismantling the established rules of painting in order to breathe new life into its development. The present work showcases the bombastic principles of so-called ‘bad painting’ that had catapulted Oehlen onto the German art scene a few years earlier. Its jarring palette may be seen in relation to his Farbenlehre (‘Colour Theory’) series, produced during the mid-1980s. These works mocked Modernism’s enshrinement of pure primaries by juxtaposing them with marbled brown swamps of paint – the net result of mixing these sacred tones together. Magritte’s Surrealism, too, is reduced to a punchline, ridiculed for its easy segue into the world of pop culture. Though purporting to reclaim the motif for ‘art’, Oehlen’s raw, anarchic brushstrokes only serve to alienate it further from the hallowed halls of tradition, demonstrating the spontaneous fusion of techniques that would come to define his abstract works. The bull from the original advertisement, wilfully mutilated at the hands of a logo designer, thus becomes a metaphor for Oehlen’s artistic process. Like the stock cube it once publicised, it is a processed trace: an art-historical totem in which the laws of painting are ground up and repackaged. The hole in its side becomes a window onto the future, inviting us to glimpse the chaotic bombsite upon which Oehlen would build new pathways for the medium.
Works from the Collection of Paul Maenz: ‘Art is to change what you expect from it’
Christie’s is delighted to present three works from the personal collection of Paul Maenz. One of the most influential gallerists of his generation, Maenz had a pivotal impact on the international art world during the 1970s and 1980s, introducing new waves of Avant-garde artists to both European and American audiences. His gallery in Cologne was instrumental in establishing the city as a new centre of cultural innovation, operating during a time of rapid change within the art world. Working closely with artists, curators and critics, Maenz gave voice to some of the most pioneering movements of the time: most notably Conceptualism, Arte Povera, Italian Transavanguardia and Neo-Expressionism. Driven by a deep belief in art as a force for cultural enrichment and progress, his gallery offered a new model for engaging with its contemporary forms at the dawn of the postmodern era. The artists represented here – Keith Haring, Anselm Kiefer and Albert Oehlen – offer a snapshot of this world during the mid-1980s, capturing the spirit of political subversion, painterly radicalism and restless creative optimism that captivated Maenz during this period. They are an apt reflection of a gallerist, collector and connoisseur who believed – after Seth Siegelaub – that ‘Art is to change what you expect from it’.
Maenz was born in 1939 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. In 1958, following brief apprenticeships in both a department store and a printing company, he enrolled at the Folkwangschule für Gestaltung, Essen. The legacy of the Bauhaus movement was still very much present within the school’s ethos, and Maenz studied graphic design with Max Burchartz. During this period, the visionary Musiktheater im Revier opened opposite his parents’ house in Gelsenkirchen. Its commission programme, featuring works by Jean Tinguely, Yves Klein and others, exposed Maenz to exciting new art forms: ‘both the artists and a thousand blue sponges were at my doorstep’, he recalls (P. Maenz, interviewed in “Art is to change…”: Property from the Collection of Paul Maenz, Berlin, Christie’s New York, 2015, p. 9). Upon graduation, Maenz took a job as Assistant Art Director at the Frankfurt branch of the American advertising agency Young & Rubicam, subsequently transferring to their New York office in 1965. There, he saw the legendary exhibition Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum: a showcase of Minimalism that would have an important impact upon his early artistic tastes. He also founded the ‘Kineticism Press’ with the artist Willoughby Sharp: an art publishing initiative that foreshadowed his later commitment to catalogue production. It was during this period that Maenz bought his first artwork – a piece by Sol LeWitt, purchased directly from the studio. ‘Given that I only owned $200’, he explains, ‘the price of $100 seemed rather adventurous’ (P. Maenz, ibid.).
In 1967, Maenz returned to Germany, where he organised his first exhibition: a highly influential show entitled Serial Formations. Curated in collaboration with his friend Peter Roehr, it opened in May at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, showing artists such as Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd and Agnes Martin. Many of these artists had never been shown in Germany before: a coup that set the tone for Maenz’s ensuring career. He also organised the historic group exhibition 19:45 – 21:55 at Dorothea Loehr’s Frankfurt gallery, which lasted just two hours and included a number of ephemeral art installations. One of the participants was Konrad Lueg, who – under the name Konrad Fischer – would open his pioneering Dusseldorf gallery the following year. Shortly afterwards, along with Roehr, Maenz opened a 60-meter square shop called ‘Pudding Explosion’: a ‘psychodelicatessen’ selling an irreverent range of spiritually- and politically-charged items, ranging from incense sticks to Chinese newspapers. It was the first of its kind in Germany, and closed – despite profitability – as soon as it ceased to be ‘an alternative to the status quo’ (P. Maenz, quoted at http://archives2.getty. edu:8082/xtf/view?docId=ead/910066/910066.xml;chunk. id=ref13;brand=default [accessed 9 August 2018]).
By 1970, the idea of working with artists was beginning to seem more appealing. Cologne had recently launched its art fair – an invention which, according to Maenz, turned the world ‘completely upside down’. It was, for him, a cultural turning point: ‘a hermetic circle was broken’, he explains. ‘Access to modern art suddenly ceased to be determined by class, age, education, or wealth’ (P. Maenz, quoted in G. de Vries (ed.), Paul Maenz: Köln 1970-1980- 1990: An Avant-Garde Gallery and the Art of our Time, Cologne 1991, p. 242). Over the years, he recalls, Cologne would become ‘kind of a bridge between America and Europe – it was much more contemporary and much more alive than Paris or London … There came a point where if you hadn’t made it to Cologne you hadn’t truly made it as an artist’ (P. Maenz, 2018). Maenz took up residence in the city and, with his friend Gerd de Vries, set about establishing a gallery. Together, they began to contact artists who had rarely been shown in Germany, and launched their first exhibition – a show of Hans Haacke’s work – in January 1971. The gallery’s location, a backyard at Lindenstraße 32, was decidedly modest: ‘cold water, no cleaning lady, and lots of “inferior duties”’, recalls Maenz. ‘Today people might think of it as a sacrifice, but in fact we felt this condition contributed to a style. It wasn’t only that the spare and monkish existence had something purifying, or cleansing about it; around 1970, a whole new kind of gallery emerged all over Europe, a kind that had never been seen before. And the tension between the modesty of their appearances and their ambitions (which were anything but modest) was the actual climate of this new form of gallery. It was the end of post-war Bohemia. Paris was no longer an example to follow’ (P. Maenz, ibid., 1991, p. 236).
For the next six years, Maenz continued to show primarily Arte Povera and Conceptual art, nurturing the careers of artists such as Giulio Paolini, Giovanni Anselmo, Salvo, Giuseppe Penone, Joseph Kosuth, Robert Barry, Art & Language, David Askevold, Daniel Buren and Victor Burgin. Siegelaub’s mantra – ‘Art is to change what you expect from it’ – became the official gallery motto. Fischer was the only other gallerist in Germany showing similar artists, and Maenz enjoyed a great deal of success, initially opening a second gallery in Brussels before moving his Cologne gallery to various new locations, each bigger and better than the last. ‘Our first exhibition space had two columns’, he recalls; ‘the next gallery had four; and finally it was a tall, splendid hall with eight tall, splendid columns’ (P. Maenz, ibid.). Maenz was a firm believer that a good gallerist should work in true collaboration with the artist, using the aesthetic philosophy of their work to guide its display and presentation. ‘We functioned as participants, not as a public’, he explains. ‘Together with the artists, jointly, we created the space in which their ideas would materialize for the first time … everything happened through the artists’ inspirations, flowing through their channels’ (P. Maenz, ibid., p. 238). A gallery owner, he believed, should have ‘some talent as a “translator” – that is, this ability to smell out the “argument”, so to speak, in the artist’s idea, and then to translate it into a form of presentation that makes it plausible’ (P. Maenz, ibid., p. 240).
By the mid-1970s, Maenz began to move away from primarily showing Conceptualism and embrace new artistic movements that were emerging internationally. One of these was the Italian Transavanguardia – an interest that gradually consumed the gallery’s operations, giving rise to the ‘Italian Year’ of 1978. During this period, Maenz exhibited works by artists such as Francesco Clemente, Giuseppe Penone, Luciano Fabro and Giulio Paolini. As the decade drew to a close, however, new voices were beginning to resound within his native Germany, sparking a fascination with what would loosely become known as ‘Neo-Expressionism’. In the shadow of Joseph Beuys, a younger generation was seeking new directions for art-making, liberated by the onset of attitudes that would later be termed ‘postmodern’. ‘I think that the late 1970s were actually the end of an era, with the so-called progressive modernity and their successive “isms”’, explains Maenz. ‘By 1980, it was clear: we had culturally landed in postmodern era. Young artists were no longer “against” something; rather they were simply “somewhere else”’ (P. Maenz, ibid., 2015, p. 7). In November 1980, Maenz mounted a pivotal group exhibition entitled Mülheimer Freiheit & Interessante Bilder aus Deutschland, which introduced artists such as Albert Oehlen, Werner Büttner and Georg Herold to the public. ‘Albert was intelligent, was bright, was critical and a very interesting person’, recalls Maenz. ‘I was fortunate to be able to buy a couple of paintings and have him in two group shows quite prominently’ (P. Maenz, 2018).
Whilst Oehlen and his contemporaries sought to free painting from its historic shackles, Anselm Kiefer used it as a means of addressing Germany’s recent past. Kiefer would show many times with Maenz over the following decade, and the two developed a successful working relationship. ‘Kiefer was a very precise artist, very critical, very strategic’, recalls Maenz. ‘... To work with him was absolutely fascinating. For me this was new territory because he would approach subjects that were not at home in German art – the German-Jewish drama of the twentieth century. To find a language to deal with that was not easy for him but not easy for anyone else, and that was exactly what fascinated me. For us painting was taboo, content was taboo and being very German was also taboo – and Kiefer was all this, 150%. And that was the challenge – once we worked our way into Kiefer’s concept and got to know him better as a person, we ended up representing him until the very last day of the gallery – he had the final show in 1990. It was a very good relationship and a very successful one’ (P. Maenz, 2018).
Despite his focus on German Neo-Expressionism during the 1980s, Maenz also looked to its transatlantic counterpart. In 1984 he hosted Keith Haring’s first solo exhibition in Germany. By this stage, he had moved into an impressive new gallery space at Bismarckstraße 50: a former factory whose interior had been renovated by the architect Thiess Marwede. For the exhibition opening, Maenz created a kind of performance space that reflected the artist’s theatrical impulses: Haring drew his snaking graphic patterns over the walls of the gallery, as well as onto the body of a semi-naked man, who circulated the exhibition and posed in front of the paintings. ‘I had never seen anything like that’, recalls Maenz.’He would start on a huge wall in one corner, and ended with an all-over wall painting without any preliminary drawing, without correcting anything, and it was like the “pattern” had fallen from heaven ... To me Keith’s work is magic … We were very happy to celebrate his 25th birthday – that was the opening night. So we rented a gay discotheque – much to the surprise of many Cologne art lovers who had never been to such a place, and they loved it. We had belly dancers, we had a big birthday cake ... people were queuing outside and it went until the next morning. It was fantastic. It is one of the magic things about Keith’s art – it makes people shine. There is something liberating about his art – at the same time you feel this man is extremely serious’ (P. Maenz, 2018).
Maenz’s contributions to the Cologne art scene were not limited to the art that he exhibited. He cultivated a wide network of clients, nurturing and advising collectors as well as forging relationships with museum directors and curators – notably Jean-Christophe Ammann, Zdenek Felix and Rudi Fuchs. In preparation for exhibitions, he frequently exchanged works with other gallerists – including Leo Castelli, Ileana Sonnabend and Marian Goodman – thus establishing important international dialogues between the European and American art scenes. He also formed friendships with critics such as Germano Celant and Wolfgang Max Faust, both of whom contributed to his gallery publications. Every January the gallery published a Yearbook, documenting all exhibitions of the previous year. Maenz also participated heavily in art fairs and forums, variously exhibiting his artists at Art Basel, Art Cologne and Documenta. After making the decision to close his gallery in 1990, he continued to cultivate links with the wider art world, most notably donating his private collection of paintings, sculptures and drawings to the Kunstsammlungen zu Weimar for its opening in 1998. The works that remained in his personal collection represented, he claimed, ‘my own biography- aesthetic “headwaters”’ (P. Maenz, ibid., 2015, p. 13).
Throughout his career, Maenz repeatedly challenged the idea of a gallery as a self-fulfilling entity: its sole purpose, he believed, should be to serve art in the purest, most engaged form possible. ‘If a gallery identifies its purpose as following the course of art, it will neither adhere to any artistic “styles”, nor will it ever stand still’, explains Maenz. ‘Its nature is related to the nature of art itself, and that means change’ (P. Maenz, ibid., 1991, p. 238). As categories of image-making exploded throughout the 1970s and 1980s, responding to waves of social and political change within the wider world, the idea of the gallery as a restless critical platform became more vital than ever for art’s continued evolution. ‘Art is subversive by nature’, said Maenz. ‘“Subversive” here doesn’t mean a call for political rebellion; but rather art as the visible proof, so to speak, of an independent spiritual world beyond the practical one … Art holds open the idea of an alternative to everything that exists. Art keeps the power of imagination alive. And that’s why we need it’ (P. Maenz, ibid., p. 240).