Albert Oehlen (b. 1954)
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more
Albert Oehlen (b. 1954)

Music Always

Albert Oehlen (b. 1954)
Music Always
signed and dated 'A. Oehlen 94' (on the reverse)
oil, enamel and acrylic on printed fabric
94 5/8 x 78 3/8in. (240.5 x 199cm.)
Painted in 1994
Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles.
Private Collection, Los Angeles.
Anon. sale, Christie’s New York, 16 May 2013, lot 442.
Skarstedt Gallery, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
K. Reimer (ed.), The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago: 1990-2000, Chicago 2004 (illustrated in colour, p. 128).
Columbus, Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, Albert Oehlen and Christopher Williams: Oehlen Williams 95, 1995.
Los Angeles, Margo Leavin Gallery, Albert Oehlen, 1995.
Los Angeles, Margo Leavin Gallery, 25 Years: An Exhibition of Selected Works, 1995.
Chicago, The Renaissance Society at The University of Chicago, Albert Oehlen: Recent Paintings, 1995.
New York, Skarstedt Gallery, Albert Oehlen Fabric Paintings, 2014, pp. 40 and 68 (illustrated in colour, pp. 41 and 68).
New York, Skarstedt Gallery, Nice Weather, 2016.
Special notice

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Katharine Arnold
Katharine Arnold

Lot Essay

‘All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music’

‘… first you take a step toward ugliness and then, somehow or other, you wind up where it’s beautiful’

Music Always (1994) takes its title from a track by Ornette Coleman, Albert Oehlen’s favourite musician. The free-jazz trailblazer was notorious for his unorthodox approach to harmony, song structure and chord progression; his music, which often features extraordinary passages of collective improvisation and notes played ‘in the cracks’ of scales, revolutionised avant-garde jazz in the late fifties and early sixties. With its riotous explosion of form and colour built upon a background of printed fabric patterns, Music Always exemplifies the similarly freewheeling attitude that animates Oehlen’s own artistry. Five swatches of tablecloth or curtain provide the underlying theme. Graphic green and ivory stripes to the lower left meet undulating whorls of blue to the right; vertical and horizontal bars of dark blue, yellow, orange and white command the middle section; a design of concentric blue and orange circles can be seen along the canvas’ upper edge. Atop this vibrant patchwork, Oehlen conjures a kaleidoscopic miasma of oil, enamel and acrylic paint. Glistening fumes of beige and brown consume much of the surface, as if the work has been scorched at its centre. Spray-painted scribbles zigzag in the depths. Flashes of neon pink and green ignite. Paint drips vertically and horizontally. Oehlen improvises with the fabric’s printed forms and hues, sending a stripe careering off the canvas, or mutating a blue wave into a looping purple tendril; lines dogleg and swerve and connect and dissolve across the work’s surface, like fireworks gone haywire. Challenging, unruly and ultimately beautiful, Music Always epitomises Oehlen’s radical mode of painterly abstraction. Pushing the medium – with all its baggage of representation, colour and composition – to breaking point, Oehlen, as iconoclastic and influential as Ornette Coleman himself, at once undermines, critiques and revitalises painting in a post-painting world.

Music has always played a key role in Oehlen’s practice. As painting’s enfant terrible alongside Martin Kippenberger in 1980s Cologne, he was associated with the punk scene. He is a fan of acid house and techno, and ran his own experimental electronica label in the 1990s. He has worked with the psychedelic rock band Red Krayola, made album artwork for Arthur Russell and the Swiss noise trio Child Abuse, and referenced musicians as diverse as The Beach Boys, Frank Zappa and Frankie Laine. Free jazz, however, provides perhaps the most apt analogy for Oehlen’s abstract painting. ‘I see it this way: it’s the confluence of earnestness and ridiculousness that allows the artist to run riot’, he has said. ‘It’s comparable to a classic jazz soloist. He runs riot within his harmony and stretches it as far as it can go’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in ‘Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen in conversation with Albert Oehlen’, Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden, exh. cat., New Museum, New York, 2015, p. 102). Music Always displays a virtuoso performance, with Oehlen riffing on the rhythmic foundation of patterned fabric to reach a fever pitch of improvisatory invention. His vines and skeins of paint have an almost biological air, metastasizing from the forms beneath in an intricate clash of dissonance and melody. Oehlen’s use of a patterned fabric ground also gestures to the work of the eminent radical Sigmar Polke, who taught him at Hamburg’s University of Fine Arts in 1978. Polke painted on cheap, chintzy fabrics as part of his ‘Capitalist Realist’ critique of bourgeois consumerism, bringing down painting from its refined support of canvas to the kitsch everyday surfaces of middle class West Germany. Oehlen’s printed patterns play a less political role, and can be seen as part of a wider campaign to dethrone painting from its long-held cultural position of high seriousness and grand significance. The machine-printed motifs of Music Always are merely household ornament; much like his early experiments with computer graphics, Oehlen’s approach declares that painting itself has no more inherent meaning than decoration. His despoiled Daniel Buren-esque stripes may also figure a rejection of the cleanliness of Conceptual art. Nonetheless, Oehlen transmutes the prosaic, arbitrary systems of domestic pattern into something perversely rhapsodic: an ecstasy of boredom, a lurid dream at the kitchen table.

Oehlen turned to abstract work in 1989, after a year spent in Spain with Kippenberger, and recalls that with figuration ‘It just seemed obvious that there was nothing to win. I still don’t think that if you paint a person you can transmit something about that person. I don’t think you can communicate something about an experience or a situation’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in J. Samet, ‘Beer with a Painter: Albert Oehlen’, Hyperallergic, 8 April 2017). Abstraction offers no more opportunity for Oehlen to ‘transmit something’ than figuration, but it does provide an arena for play in which he can set his own parameters of baroque complexity, visual pollution and painterly ad-libbing. Here, he is free to try ‘to get as far away from meaning as possible, which is perhaps the most difficult thing of all’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in S. O’Hagan, ‘Albert Oehlen: “There’s something hysterical about magenta,”’ The Guardian, 5 February 2016). The track names on To Whom Who Keeps a Record, the Ornette Coleman outtakes compilation on which ‘Music Always’ was first released, read ‘Music Always Brings Goodness To Us All, P.S. Unless One Has Some Other Motive for Its Use’. This hint of sabotage and menace, of bending the rules and transcending tradition, reflects Oehlen’s approach perfectly. With freeform abandon, he poisons painting in order to resurrect it: if the medium is no longer a vehicle for ‘goodness to us all’, in Oehlen’s hands it can deliver excitement, confusion, repulsion, wonder, freedom, failure and triumph all at once.

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