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

Untitled

Details
Albert Oehlen (b. 1954)
Untitled
signed and dated ‘A. Oehlen 89’ (lower right); signed again, titled and dated again ‘A. OEHLEN “O. T” 1989' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
98 ½ x 78 ¾ in. (250 x 200 cm.)
Painted in 1989.
Provenance
Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin
Private collection, London
Anon. sale; Christie's, London, 9 February 2001, lot 233
Private collection, Germany
First International Fine Art, Berlin
Private collection, 2010
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Literature
H. W. Holzwarth, ed., Albert Oehlen, Cologne, 2009, p. 167 (illustrated in color).
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Sale room notice
Please note there is an additional provenance line between First International Fine Art, Berlin, and the present owner:
Private collection, 2010

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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay


A major proponent of gestural painting and one of the outspoken voices of the German Neue Wilden (neo-expressionist) movement of the late 20th century European avant-garde, Albert Oehlen’s work melds powerful abstraction with a critical edge. Works such as Untitled are crucial to a broader understanding of the artist’s oeuvre as they signal a break from his early figurative work and overtly political actions, in favor of a more mature and fully realized painting practice. As Christoph Schreier wrote, “[Oehlen] adopts the critical attitude of Conceptual Art, but articulates if 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). By thoroughly questioning the trajectory of abstract painting in post-WWII Germany, Oehlen positioned himself as a beacon for more thorough introspection on the artform and its ever-expanding relationship to contemporary practice.

Combining hazy fields of color with meandering lines and patches of bright pigment, Untitled is a striking composition that exemplifies Oehlen’s turn to abstraction. A sinuous blue-black stroke weaves its way through the center of the canvas as it leads the viewer’s eye through varying fields of color. Starting in a sea of copper along the lower edge, the continuous line wander upward into the arrangement as it serves to connect disparate pieces of the whole. The right side of the work is overtaken by a ghostly field of white that abuts a red and purple central portion. Bleeding into areas of brown, green, black, and gray, these eye-catching elements are dominated by a yellow orb glowing in the uppermost left corner. There, the aforementioned line forks into a calligraphic tendril as it attempts to circumnavigate the disc but is ultimately consumed by its fiery presence. Hamza Walker has written about these interweaving textures, colors, and movements when he noted that Oehlen’s works “represent 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 cited in, Albert Oehlen: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, exh. cat., University of Chicago, The Renaissance Society, 1999, n.p.). Looking to go beyond established formal norms within the history of abstraction, Oehlen continuously works to breathe new life into his brush as he mixes a melange of tones in various forms.

Untitled was realized at a pivotal point in the artist’s career when he abandoned his earlier adventures in figuration and more anti-establishment protest art, in favor of more pure abstractions. Along with his friend and colleague Martin Kippenberger, the artist spent time in Spain in the late 1980s where he began to work out this nonrepresentational style. “I always had a wish to become an abstract painter”, he noted about this period. “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. In Spain I made myself free for the project” (A. Oehlen, quoted in A. Stooke, “I Wanted My Paintings to Like Me”, Daily Telegraph, London, 1 July 2006). However, even in his political artwork of the preceding decade, Oehlen was always concerned with investigating the formal properties of the work and new ways to work with the paint instead of just using the medium to relay a message.

Born in Krefeld, West Germany, in 1954, Oehlen studied in Hamburg at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in the late 1970s. One of his most influential professors was the artist Sigmar Polke, for whom Oehlen has expressed gratitude for introducing him to the ways in art could diverge from the traditional in favor of the subversive. He recalled, “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. 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 need for upheaval pushed Oehlen into cahoots with Kippenberger and the artists Werner Büttner and Georg Herold. The four became known for their pranks and affronts to the status quo as they called for an artistic reassessment in post-WWII Germany.

Drawing upon his youthful interest in anti-establishment practice and an exploration of how painting could exist in the late 20th century, Oehlen casts away the strictures of traditional subject matter and compositional components in favor of loosely-built structures that live upon the canvas. As art historian Ralf Beil wrote: “With his strategies of the complication of painting, Albert Oehlen is working toward the maximum possible openness in his work. Everything is in perpetual movement, and must remain in the balance. Nothing may be permanently fixed. Constantly looking for new paths into and around painting seems to be the central objective of his always virtuoso anti-virtuoso vitality” (R. Beil, “Red Light District”, in Albert Oehlen: Paintings 1980-2004, exh. cat., Lausanne, Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne, 2004, p. 37). Oehlen is not as interested in the finished product as in the continuous march forward. Looking at works like Untitled in the context of the artist’s complete practice gives one a brilliant snapshot of a moment in time. The painter fought through a particular visual problem and this painting is the result. The dynamic traces of Oehlen’s visual history and its continuous evolution are encapsulated for a split second and vibrate with energy as a result.

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