A thrill-ride through the ruin and rebirth of painting, Mission Rohrfrei (Down Periscope) (1996) is a spectacular, anarchic abstraction by Albert Oehlen. Compositionally, it relates to the artist’s ‘John Graham Remix’ series, recently the subject of his major show at the Serpentine Gallery, London, from October 2019 to February 2020. First exhibited in 1997, these works derive from Oehlen’s obsession with an obscure painting by John Graham, a largely forgotten figure who played an important role in Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist circles in mid-century America. Graham’s mysterious Tramonto Spaventoso (Terrifying Sunset) (c. 1940), which Oehlen first saw in a book about the New York School by Dore Ashton, became ‘some kind of vehicle for me’, he explains. ‘It’s like a construction kit of motifs’ (A. Oehlen in conversation with H-U. Obrist, in Albert Oehlen, exh. cat. Serpentine Gallery, London 2019, n.p.). The work features a moustachioed self-portrait, a busty mermaid, scattered symbols, and a structure of curious perspectival rays. Mission Rohrfrei sees Oehlen subject these ‘motifs’ to pyrotechnic dissolution. Graham’s profile lingers in lemon-yellow, distorted into a bottle-like shape common to the ‘Remixes’. Looping lines of green, blue, brown, magenta and black crisscross amid vivid washes of colour, running through hazy pallor to deep, fiery maelstroms that recall the ‘sunset’ of Graham’s title. Patches of gleaming silver meet bruised tangles of khaki, tangerine and purple. Oehlen has applied pixelated forms with an inkjet printer – linking the work to his revolutionary Computer Paintings, begun in 1990 – and painted variously using a spraycan, roller and brush, conjuring textures that range from hard-edged to vaporous. The work’s overlapping beams, filaments and flashes of hue create a distinct pictorial depth; there is a sense of system, of cables or powerlines inside a mechanism burst open to reveal its workings. Indeed, this is just what constitutes Oehlen’s practice at large. Undermining, critiquing and ultimately revitalising painting in a post-painting world, he dismantles his medium to expose its beating heart.
Mission Rohrfrei’s chaotic, explosive composition displays the artist in freewheeling improvisatory flow. Like a musician reworking a standard, Oehlen forges something radically, unrecognisably new by riffing on the structures of Graham’s painting. Oehlen himself has noted the parallels between his work and musical performance. ‘I see it this way: it’s the confluence of earnestness and ridiculousness that allows the artist to run riot’, he says. ‘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). That same spirit of ‘earnestness and ridiculousness’ is precisely what attracted Oehlen to Tramonto Spaventoso. He was fascinated with the idea that the talented, highly-educated Graham – a mentor to the relatively inarticulate Jackson Pollock, who would create work of real importance – could himself have created such a bizarre and impenetrable painting. ‘I didn’t understand it at all. I found it ugly and at the same time a vehicle for endless interpretation’ (J. Corbett, ‘Terrible Sunset: Albert Oehlen’s John Graham Remixes’, in H-W. Holzwarth, ed., Albert Oehlen, Cologne 2017, p. 230). The title of the present work highlights the absurdist edge to Oehlen’s project. Mission: Rohr frei! is the German name for the movie Down Periscope!, a zany Kelsey Grammer comedy set on a military submarine and released the same year this work was made. As with many of Oehlen’s titles – which often echo the lyrics of songs played in the background as he paints – this nod to a piece of humorous pop-culture creates a clang of incongruity, destabilising the received grandeur and seriousness of large-scale abstraction.
Oehlen’s post-punk iconoclasm is in full force in Mission Rohrfrei, overwhelming John Graham in a tumultuous, kaleidoscopic blaze. It is a feverish vision of painting gone haywire. ‘I define a vocabulary of qualities,’ Oehlen has said, ‘that I want to see brought together: delicacy and coarseness, colour and vagueness, and, underlying them all, a base note of hysteria’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden, ibid., p. 99). This manic energy doesn’t, however, in fact seem entirely at odds with the mythic, shapeshifting ambiguity of Graham’s work. Like Oehlen, Graham danced dizzyingly between styles and modes, making art of mysterious and mercurial impact. If Oehlen has dismantled Graham in Mission Rohrfrei’s cacophony, he has also in an important sense given him new life. As John Corbett has written, ‘An original exists, in dub reggae and techno alike, not only to be adored and enjoyed, but to be messed up, to be altered, to be smoothed over and zoned out and ridiculed and made into something completely different from – maybe at odds with – its former self. If there is anything to be learned from an obsessive relationship, it is not only through revering the object, loving and stroking and protecting it, but by breaking down and remaking it. For an underachiever like Graham, the Oehlen remix may eventually turn out to be his biggest hit’ (J. Corbett, ‘Terrible Sunset: Albert Oehlen’s John Graham Remixes’, in Albert Oehlen, ibid., p. 231).