‘I always had a wish to become an abstract painter. I wanted to reproduce in my own career the classical development in the history of art from figurative to abstract painting’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in A. Stooke, ‘I Wanted My Paintings to Like Me’, in The Telegraph, 1 July 2006).
Bold and unabashed, Albert Oehlen’s Abstraktes Bild 19B presents a complex and highly-charged explosion of colour and gesture, form and texture that gives rise to anarchic image of disorientating visual breakdown. Rich gestural swathes of mahogany, umber, yellow, purple, white and black paint are coarsely thrust upon the canvas, detonating and dripping in rivulets across the surface of the picture plane. Showcasing Oehlen’s enduring penchant for wordplay and quotation, the present work is horizontally, vertically and diagonally emblazoned with the handwritten commentary ‘Eine neue Geschirrspülmaschine? Warum nicht? Wenn sie nichts kostet!’ (‘A new dish washer? Why not? If it doesn’t cost anything!’). Painted in 1987, Abstraktes Bild 19B belongs to a small series of conceptual works that is distinct for its exhilarating combination of complementary yellow and violet hues, and its appropriation of textual fragments ranging from Walt Whitman and William Shakespeare, to slogans from the revolutionary leftist periodical Situationist International. Situated at the cross-roads of Oehlen’s practice, Abstraktes Bild 19B testifies to the artist’s interest in the collision of text and image, and anticipates his transition away from the figurative compositions of his early practice. Formal geometries and linear shapes clamour for attention, yet ultimately refuse to define themselves. Ultimately, the work’s rich painterly bravura heralds the dawn of the unique abstract idiom Oehlen would embark upon a year later in 1988, triggered by his legendary trip to Spain with his comrade Martin Kippenberger.
Though the work’s seductively tactile abstraction is strikingly reminiscent of the dramatic compositions of the great Abstract Expressionists, in particular Franz Kline, Oehlen deliberately and provocatively contaminates the ‘purity’ of the gestural abstract ground with banal textual fragments in a manner that recalls Pablo Picasso’s appropriation of newspaper clippings within his compositions. Exemplifying the wit and irony for which he and his collaborators Werner Büttner, Martin Kippenberger and Georg Herold became infamous, Oehlen’s absurdist use of text demonstrates an affinity with the strategy of détournement, a subversive political prank of turning expressions of the capitalist system and media culture against itself, which was prominently taken up by the punk movement in the late 1970s. It is telling that Oehlen created Abstraktes Bild 19B in the same year that he functioned as guest editor of the literary, critical art theory magazine DURCH, in which artists, theorists and writers such as Jörg Immendorf, Guy Debord or Diedrich Diedrichsen approached the pressing issue of the function of art and the artist in bourgeois, capitalist society. ‘We were against bourgeois art’, Oehlen said of his early years as the enfant terrible of 1980s West Germany (A. Oehlen, quoted in S. O’Hagan, ‘Albert Oehlen: The Change Artist’, W Magazine, Art Issue, 15 May 2015).
At the same time, Oehlen also interrogates conventions of language and visual representation. Complicating the relationship between word and image, Oehlen does not provide a visual referent to the connotations of his textual fragments. Indeed, as the artist has insisted, the individual elements of his paintings should not be looked to for specific meaning, claiming ‘of course one interprets and there are references to everything, but I don’t want to create any meaning’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in R. Goetz, Celebration, Franfurt am Main 1999, p. 142). Tinged with the conceptual wit of Kippenberger and the subversive radicality of his former teacher Polke, this work testifies to Oehlen’s irreverent engagement with the historical clichés, narratives and techniques of painting, ultimately seeking new directions for its development in the post-modern era.