‘I want art where you see how it’s made, not what the artist intended, or what the work means, but what has been made, the traces of production’
‘Oehlen has often used music as a metaphor for his working method. At the beginning of his career, it was punk that served as a model: paint, brushes and canvases were to be used as an old, beat-up guitar, a bass, and a drum set … Following the late 1980s, his interests migrated toward more intricate harmonies and dissonances, turning him into the Frank Zappa of painters. Ever since this shift, his paintings have been informed by an extreme eclecticism’
Spanning a vast two metres in width, Albert Oehlen’s Behandlungen mit Kleber (Treatment with Glue) presents a cataclysmic explosion of line, form and colour: a turbulent abstract panorama of collision and discord. Executed in 2002, it belongs to a series of works begun in the early 1990s in which Oehlen first introduced digital technology into his subversive painterly practice. Following the artist’s decisive turn towards abstraction in the late 1980s – a move that propelled him onto a new global stage – his computer-generated paintings brought a new level of conceptual and technical depth to his practice. Using a mouse and basic software, Oehlen created onscreen drawings which were then enlarged and printed onto canvas. As an artist who, since the earliest days of his practice, had fervently championed the aesthetic of so-called ‘bad painting’, Oehlen relished in the low-resolution, pixelated results of this process, frequently cutting and splicing the original design on screen in order to deliberately amplify the level of distortion. Produced in tandem with his more traditional abstract paintings, the works were often touched up with brushes and spray cans in order to soften the tangle of linear patterns. For Oehlen, whose irreverent disregard of stylistic boundaries had positioned him as the enfant terrible of the 1980s German art scene, these works marked a new experimental phase in his attempts to rehabilitate painting. ‘I want art where you see how it’s made’, he asserted, ‘not what the artist intended, or what the work means, but what has been made, the traces of production’ (A. Oehlen in conversation with D. Diederichsen, ‘The Rules of the Game: Diedrich Diederichsen Visits Albert Oehlen’, Artforum, November 1994, p. 71). Filtered through a gauntlet of digital and manual media, Behandlungen mit Kleber is a virtuosic embodiment of this statement.
Oehlen believed that the only way to carve new directions for painting was to dismantle it from the inside out: to pull apart its history and reconstruct its techniques. By consciously disregarding established visual codes, Oehlen subjected painting to a rigorous endurance test, stripping back centuries of aesthetic tradition in a bid to expose new, uncharted potential for the medium. It was during a now-legendary trip to Spain in 1988, accompanied by his comrade Martin Kippenberger, that Oehlen made the leap from figurative to abstract registers, thereby launching the free-flowing cacophony of forms and colours that would come to define his practice. Described by the artist as ‘electric mud’, Oehlen’s computer-generated works play an important role within this trajectory. Probing the relationship between hand and machine – a concept first interrogated by Andy Warhol, and later by Oehlen’s contemporaries Christopher Wool and Wade Guyton – works such as Behandlungen mit Kleber ask how digital media might shed new light on the power of painting. Discussing this strand of Oehlen’s oeuvre, Massimiliano Gioni describes how ‘new technological developments allow increasingly obsolete mediums to become more themselves and find their own specificity. The more that digital mediums clog our eyes, the more painting is finally free to be itself: it does not need to represent or present anything, it can just tune into this new digital noise and exists in all its vibrant variations’ (M. Gioni, ‘Albert Oehlen: Stupid as a Painter’, in Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden, exh. cat., New Museum, New York, 2015, p. 11). By allowing painting to contemplate a digital existence, Oehlen ultimately sets it free.