‘We have circled and circled until we have arrived home again, we two’ (W. Whitman, ‘We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d’, from Leaves of Grass, 1855, quoted in German by the artist in the present work).
Rich gestural swathes of paint, articulated in loose geometric formations, create a vividly tactile surface in Albert Oehlen’s Abstract Painting IV. Painted in 1987, this work illustrates Oehlen’s move away from the figurative compositions of his early oeuvre towards the unique abstract idiom that would come to define the artist’s practice. Across the top, centre and right-hand side of the composition, Oehlen emblazes a lone poetic fragment: ‘aber Kreise haben wir durchmessen und bis wir wieder nach Hause gekommen sind, wir 2’ (‘we have circled and circled until we have arrived home again, we two’). Indicative of the artist’s penchant for wordplay and quotation, it is a translation of the penultimate line of the poem ‘We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d’ by Walt Whitman, taken from the controversial volume Leaves of Grass (1855). Oehlen’s enigmatic reference to this poem bears witness to his fascination with Whitman’s work, just as it had inspired other artists including the young David Hockney. Several of Oehlen’s works from the late 1980s pay tribute to the poet, whose anarchic tendencies have much in common with Oehlen’s own iconoclasm. Combining burnished tones of mahogany and umber with bright yellow, purple, white and orange, the work showcases the deliberately incongruous palette that characterised Oehlen’s fervent rejection of traditional painterly aesthetics within the revolutionary second wave of German post-War painting. Oehlen incorporates handfuls of oat fakes into his rich skeins of pigment, recalling his use of the medium in his controversial 1982 work Capri bei Nacht (Capri by Night), created in collaboration with Martin Kippenberger. Layered with visual and textual reference, it was this type of teasing compositional structure that drove Oehlen’s practice during the definitive decade of the 1980s; a deeply irreverent engagement with painting that ultimately sought new directions for its development in the postmodern era.
Oehlen’s wildly experimental impulse was a trailblazing force within the post-Punk generation. His cataclysmic dialogue with painting at a time when Minimalism and Conceptualism had declared it dead marked him out as a leading figure within the German art scene of the 1980s. It was through his abstract works that Oehlen was truly able to highlight the inexhaustible – and unexhausted – potential of the medium. Having conceived of his practice as a regenerative tour de force of the history of painting, Oehlen had always dreamed of a new abstract language, and it was during his trip to Spain with Kippenberger in 1988, the year after the present work, that Oehlen would devote his energies solely to this cause. Deliberately splicing and recombining elements from the history of abstraction, sardonically labeling his efforts as ‘post-non-representational’, Oehlen situates his practice within the trajectory of so-called ‘bad painting’ that was rife among his contemporaries. Construed as a deliberate rejection of standard aesthetic values, ‘bad painting’ took a hammer to painting’s pedestal, dispensing with stylistic allegiances and thereby allowing new pathways to become visible. Reflecting upon his practice in a recent interview, Oehlen claims ‘That’s the interesting thing about art: that somehow, you use your material to make something that results in something beautiful, via a path no-one has yet trodden. That means working with something that is improbable, where your predecessors would have said “You can’t do that”. First you take a step towards ugliness and then, somehow or other, you wind up where it’s beautiful’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in Monopol: Magazin für Kunst und Leben, vol. 1, 2010).