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Albert Oehlen (b. 1954)
oil on canvas
94 1/2 x 78 3/4 in. (240 x 200 cm.)
Painted in 1989.
Galerie Peter Pakesch, Vienna
Private collection, Germany
Anon. sale; Christie's, London, 24 June 2005, lot 175
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
M. Prinzhorn, "Albert Oehlen," Fama und Fortune Bulletin, Winter 1990, p. 16 (illustrated in color).
W. Dickhoff and M. Prinzhorn, "Albert Oehlen im Gespräch mit Wilfried Dickhoff und Martin Prinzhorn," Kunst Heute, no. 7, 1991, p. 91 (illustrated).
Albert Oehlen: Malerei, exh. cat., Deichtorhallen Hamburg, 1994, p. 59 (illustrated in color).
J. Corbett, H. W. Holzwarth et al., Albert Oehlen, Cologne, 2009, p. 181 (illustrated in color).
Vienna, Galerie Peter Pakesch, Albert Oehlen, January-February 1990.
Cleveland Museum of Art, Albert Oehlen: Woods Near Oehle, December 2016-March 2017, p. 44, no. 9 (illustrated in color).

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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

One of the most important painters to come of age at the end of the 20th century, Albert Oehlen was at the forefront of a group of young artists who breathed new life into the venerable world of abstraction. Painted in 1989, Untitled is a large-scale and pivotal work, one of the first truly abstract paintings of the artist’s career and a classic example of his unique approach to painting. “I always had a wish to become an abstract painter,” Oehlen explained. “I wanted to reproduce in my own career the classical development in the history of art from figurative to abstract painting. But I wasn’t ready to make the change before 1988” (A. Oehlen, quoted in A. Stooke, “I Wanted My Paintings to Like Me," The Telegraph, July 1, 2006). By selectively choosing to route his own oeuvre through historical styles and into abstraction, Oehlen instilled his work with myriad influences while still remaining true to his individualism. Pieces like Untitled signal a major shift in the artist’s output, and helped to bolster and cement Oehlen’s place in the resurgence of painting during the 1980s and 90s.

Rendered in thick, smooth strokes, Untitled is a testament to Oehlen’s interest in challenging and subverting the then dominant Neo-Expressionist mode. Distinguished by strokes of plum, orange, and red, the delicate palette leans heavily on evocative smoky hues. A lattice of thin black lines on a light ground is visible through the colors on the left side of the composition, and the brushy application of paint shrouds the composition like a mist. More pronounced brushwork, and even some wholly enclosed shapes, offset the diaphanous nature of Oehlen’s overpainting and lend a palpable visual vibration to the work as a whole. Hamza Walker, describing the artist’s inclusive process, noted that his works include “a chorus of contradictory gestures; figuration is set against abstraction, form against anti-form, the rhythm of pattern versus a meandering stroke, and a muddy mix of colours juxtaposed against vibrant pigment straight from the tube ... Oehlen’s paintings are always autonomous in so far as they have managed to eliminate through contradiction an allegiance to any particular style” (H. Walker, “The Good, the Bad, the Ugly,” in Albert Oehlen: Recent Paintings, exh. cat., The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, 1995).

Having worked through a period of intense figuration, Oehlen spent a year in Spain with his friend and colleague, the artist Martin Kippenberger. In 1989, after returning from this eye-opening sojourn, Oehlen turned to abstraction, noting about his previous interest in portraiture: “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, April 8, 2017). Works like Untitled are typical of this period, and show traces of his formerly representational practice in their organic curves, sinuous lines, and planes of translucent color. By combining discernible forms with washes of muted color, Oehlen creates an undulating composition full of visual intrigue.

Born in Krefeld, West Germany, in 1954, Oehlen began to study painting in Hamburg at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in 1978. Among his professors, and perhaps his most influential teacher, was the artist Sigmar Polke. “Polke more or less tried to show us that he wasn’t able to teach us something in the classical sense, so he gave us a main lecture for every artist, which is to destroy a chair,” Oehlen recounted. “I couldn’t say what Polke’s influence was, but it’s his radicality. When you start to work as an artist everybody thinks about radicality, like how could you make the most shocking thing. And it’s not easy... Polke is somebody who had a role in that; in a way he made very radical things” (A. Oehlen, quoted in Pataphysics Magazine, 1990). This knack for radicality and artistic upheaval followed Oehlen into his early career as he and Kippenberger (along with Werner Büttner and Georg Herold) became known for their bad boy antics and subversive approach to artmaking. Railing against the established norms, Oehlen and his compatriots called for a reassessment of art in Germany post-WWII.

Never one to adhere to the prevailing stylistic currents, Oehlen is outspoken on his opposition to the perceived hallmarks of Modernism: primary colors, foregrounding the flatness of the canvas, and a more stayed approach to personal style. Nonetheless, in works like Untitled, it is clear that the artist is still interested in excavating the very core of painting and experimenting with the formal qualities inherent to its practice. There is a marked emphasis on the textural qualities of paint and how different colors and applications interact with each other. Even working with one of the most traditional mediums, oil paint, Oehlen notes that “the reason why I went to oil was mainly because I didn’t control it. I was looking for the insecurity of it” (A. Oehlen, quoted in G. O’Brien, “Albert Oehlen,” Interview Magazine, April 24, 2009). By embracing the structures of the dominant modes only to twist, mutate, and dissect them through a series of his own procedural models, Oehlen is able to form a commentary on the history of painting and offer suggestions for what the future holds.

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