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Albert Oehlen (B. 1954)
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Albert Oehlen (B. 1954)

Eine Prähistorische Hand II (A Prehistoric Hand II)

Details
Albert Oehlen (B. 1954)
Eine Prähistorische Hand II (A Prehistoric Hand II)
signed, titled and dated 'A. Oehlen 96 eine Prähistorische Hand II' (on the reverse)
inkjet, oil, acrylic and spray enamel on canvas
119 3/8 x 79 1/4 in. (303.2 x 201.3 cm.)
Executed in 1996.
Provenance
Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin
Peter Stuyvesant Collection, Zevenaar, 2000
Their sale; Sotheby's, Amsterdam, 08 March 2010, lot 109
Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin
Skarstedt Gallery, New York
Private collection, New York
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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

In Albert Oehlen’s Eine Prähistorische Hand II, a seemingly chaotic arrangement of lines is overlaid atop more orderly and regular patterns of color. Alternating bands of purple and white stripes along the left side of the canvas, a diamond pattern of two greens at the bottom edge of the painting, and patches of rainbow striping are interspersed among the diffused haze of spray paint and the graphic tendrils of a tangle of lines in red, yellow, purple and black. The painting’s title translates to “a prehistoric hand,” and it’s interesting to think of ancient cave drawings in the context of Oehlen’s Computer Paintings. The artist first turned towards using the computer as a collaborator in the making of his work in 1990 when he purchased a laptop, with its newly emergent personal computing technology. Then in its infancy, the computer was a clumsy and blunt tool, offering highly pixilated images that Oehlen capitalized on when translating the image from screen to canvas. He looked to both the ancient past and the immediate future to create a whirlwind composition of painterly gestures and marks that places different histories of painting together on one canvas.

Albert Oehlen came of age in the shadow of the last of the 20th century’s hero painters, those German Neo-Expressionism such as Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz and Sigmar Polke, whose canvases of epic scale and virtuosity tackled questioned the very stakes of responsibility and trauma as well as the convention of picture making and representation in the wake of the atrocities of World War II. In fact, Oehlen studied at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Hamburg with Polke until 1981. Together with a cohort of artists in Cologne that included Martin Kippenberger, Oehlen forged a new path for painting by engaging with unconventional techniques. In addition to using a computer to generate image, Oehlen has also employed finger painting and mass-marketed posters into his work.

While contending with the great artists of 20th century German painting, art critics Raphael Rubinstein and Martin Clark also locate Oehlen’s practice in conversation with Abstract Expressionism, especially the work of Willem de Kooning. Rubenstein wrote in The Accidental Abstractionist, “Like most great painters (and maybe all of them), Oehlen is keenly aware of what has been done before and how difficult it can be to open up new creative space. Refreshingly, he doesn’t simply plunder art history for stylistic options or knowing references, but instead seeks to understand, assimilate and, with luck, transcend past precedents. For the last seven or eight years, the historical antecedent that Oehlen has been contending with most directly has been Abstract Expressionism” (R. Rubenstein, “The Accidental Abstractionist,” Art in America, June 1, 2015, http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazine/the-accidental-abstractionist-/). Martin Clark concurred when he suggested that the source of Oehlen’s computer paintings lies in his relationship with Abstract Expressionism. In the catalogue accompanying Oehlen’s retrospective, I Will Always Champion Good Painting, Martin writes, “The template for these technological replicates is the florid gestural language of Abstract Expression, that celebration of nature, spirit, and the very stuff of paint itself. Abstract Expressionism is the apotheosis of painting intimate, physical relationship with the hand and the mind and the body of the artist. Working in the surrogate space of the scree, Oehlen occupies and animates these fictional—and entirely romantic—oppositions between man and machine. The results, far from being sterile or soulless (a criticism that is often misguidedly leveled at electronic music), are extraordinarily lyrical and beautiful works that are as ‘painterly’ as anything he has produced” M. Clark, “Abstract Painting Must Die Now” in Albert Oehlen: I Will Always Champion Good Painting, exh. cat., Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2006, p. 56).

Rubenstein explains how each of the computer paintings is, in fact, a unique object made through a highly-crafted process: “Although Oehlen’s embrace of the computer might suggest some ramping up of production, this doesn’t seem to have occurred. By 1996, his pace of painting had slowed down to eight or 10 canvases per year, even as his range of techniques multiplied. He began to employ silkscreens, digital printing, collage and spray paint as well as oils and acrylics, often on a single canvas; this hybrid practice has continued to the present” (R. Rubenstein, op. cit., n.p.). The irony of Oehlen’s paintings, especially one such as Eine Prähistorische Hand II, is the failure of the machine to live up to the promise of technology. It the end, the painting is dependent upon the need for Oehlen’s hand to imbue its surface with the frenetic sense of aliveness that best characterizes its carefully orchestrated chaos. This relationships between man and his tools, from fingers dipped in paint, to paint brushes and computers, guides the motivations of a painter thinking about his medium as an evolutionary journey along the span of human history.

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