THREE IMPORTANT WORKS BY ALBERT OEHLEN
Albert Oehlen is one of contemporary art’s most iconoclastic figures. Protégé of Polke, comrade of Kippenberger and enfant terrible of the 1980s, 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 revolutionary second wave of German post-war art. Refusing to conform to the aesthetic of purity that reigned within the academy, Oehlen’s unabashed collision of vastly eclectic visual registers was inspirational to the notorious Jung Wilde (young wild artists) with which he is frequently associated. From figurative to abstract, geometric to gestural, articulated through fusion, interruption, contradiction and negation, Oehlen’s oeuvre bears witness to a reinvigoration of painting through a fearless undermining of its age-old sanctity. Widely exhibited and universally celebrated, Oehlen was Professor of Painting at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf from 2000 to 2009. In 2013, alongside his inclusion in the 55th Venice Biennale under the curatorial eye of Massimiliano Gioni, a major survey of his career took place at the Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna, highlighting the rich and influential scope of his practice. This year, the Museum Folkwang in Essen hosts the exhibition Albert Oehlen: Talking About Painting, a selection of works curated by the artist at the site of his groundbreaking 1984 group show Truth is Work.
Born in Krefeld in 1954, Oehlen moved to Berlin in 1977, where he fantasised about new art forms whilst working as a waiter and decorator with his friend, the artist Werner Büttner. An important source of early inspiration was Jörg Immendorff, whom Oehlen had previously met at an action group, and whose penchant for the whimsical and ironic had a strong impact on the young artist. Oehlen’s radical artistic tendencies found keen expression in these early years and, having been officially charged for painting a mural on a local bookshop with Büttner, the two artists formed the tongue-in-cheek ‘League for the Prevention of Contradictory Behaviour’. This type of irreverence was to become a critical force in Oehlen’s artistic development, and was to define his important relationship with Kippenberger in subsequent years. In 1978, Oehlen studied painting at the Hochscule für Bildende Künste, Hamburg, under the tutelage of the legendary artist Sigmar Polke. ‘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’, Oehlen recalls. ‘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, http://www.pataphysicsmagazine.com/oehlen_interview.html [accessed 27 May 2014]).
Oehlen first met Martin Kippenberger in the late 1970s, but it was in the 1980s that the two developed a close friendship that drove the production of some of their finest work. Oehlen and Kippenberger were both represented by Max Hetzler in the formative years of his gallery, and together spearheaded the riotous group of artists known affectionately as the ‘Hetzler boys’. They ruled the Cologne art scene, engaged in loud and wide-ranging discussions and took the city’s night life by storm. ‘They were artists who took extreme positions and brought a sharp intelligence to bear’, recalls Hetzler; Oehlen himself remembers how ‘we spurred each other on and everyone wanted to wow everyone else ... we were euphorics’ (M. Hetlzer and A. Oehlen, quoted in S. Kippenberger, Kippenberger: The Artist and His Families, Berlin 2007, pp. 246 and 264). As Büttner explains, ‘it was all about who was quickest with the bright ideas ... We were a reaction to the terrible ’70s, when everything was so normal and black and white’ (W. Büttner, quoted in S. Kippenberger, Kippenberger: The Artist and His Families, Berlin 2007, p. 264). Competitive and motivated, Oehlen and Kippenberger combined uproarious public personalities and extreme prankster behaviour with a mutual dedication to reinventing the conceptual parameters of painting. They collaborated on art and music projects, exhibited and lectured together, shared a flat in Vienna and worked and travelled around Spain. ‘I’m never bored with Albert’, Kippenberger told Artfan. ‘He sees the whole panorama of your discoveries, the big picture, and he has one too’ (M. Kippenberger, quoted in S. Kippenberger, Kippenberger: The Artist and His Families, Berlin 2007, p. 276).
Oehlen’s practice is founded on the notion that the value of painting is located in its very process – an attitude encapsulated by his self-imposed term ‘post-non-representational’. As Christoph Schreier has written, ‘he 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). In this way, Oehlen’s work performs a critique of the medium whilst simultaneously indicating new directions for its continued development. The punctured, fractured explosive surfaces of his paintings bear witness to a rigorous – and vigorous – testing of the limits of the medium. ‘The formal encumbrances and annoyances that a work of art can endure define its dignity’, Oehlen has said (A. Oehlen, quoted in R. Beil, ‘Rotlichtbezirk: Vom Eros de Verunreinigung im Oeurve Albert Oehlen’ in Albert Oehlen: Selbtsportrait mit 50-millionenfacher Lichtgeschwindigkeit, exh. cat., Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne, Zurich, 2004, p. 36). Oehlen’s early works fulfilled this claim through devastating conglomerations of figural subject matter, but it was his move towards abstraction in the late 1980s that truly allowed the artist free reign in what has been variously described as his ‘exorcism’ of painting. By stripping away all standards, painting could become anything; by casting out any sense of obligation, new pathways could become visible. Oehlen’s experimental framework has allowed him to import images from advertising and commerce as well as elements derived from photography, collage, printing and, more recently, computer technology: all at the service of a once-isolated and untouchable medium. By taking a hammer to its pedestal, Oehlen carved a new space for painting in the postmodern world.
Through bombastic engagement with the historical clichés, narratives and techniques of painting, Oehlen’s work sits 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’ has been responsible for some of the most intriguing creations of the post-war period, not least within Oehlen’s oeuvre. 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). Interestingly, this type of approach has produced unexpected connections with a host of different artistic languages: the gestural intricacies of Cy Twombly, the painterly gestures of Willem de Kooning and the detachment of American Pop Art, as well as the German lineage of artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Asger Jorn and Georg Baselitz. Perhaps the strongest international connection is the American painter and printmaker Christopher Wool who exhibited with Oehlen in the 1980s at the formative stages of his own career, and who has been a similarly prominent driving force in forging new modes of expression for painting in the twentieth and twenty-first century.
‘Spain was extremely productive… totally extreme, for me it was the start of my abstract paintings, a radical revolution in my painting, the decisive step in my development’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in S. Kippenberger, Kippenberger: The Artist and his Families, Berlin 2007, p. 343).
Painted in 1988, Albert Oehlen’s Untitled is a mesmerizing work from one of the most pivotal moments in the artist’s career. It was during this year that Oehlen embarked upon his legendary trip to Spain with his great friend and comrade, Martin Kippenberger. Occupying a house in Andalusia, Oehlen made a significant move away from the figurative canvases of his youth, ushering in the unique abstract idiom that defines some of his most captivating works. As the artist recalls, ‘Spain was extremely productive … totally extreme, for me it was the start of my abstract paintings, a radical revolution in my painting, the decisive step in my development’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in S. Kippenberger, Kippenberger: The Artist and his Families, Berlin 2007, p. 343). Though Kippenberger continued to pursue figuration during this period, the two artists had a profound motivational effect on one another, and the present work was exhibited in their joint show of 1989 – an exhibition that showcased the fruitfulness of their Spanish sojourn. Within Oehlen’s celebrated overhaul of painting as a contemporary medium, the abstract works became a sophisticated forum for the artist’s unabashed fusion of stylistic elements, producing canvases that implode their art-historical lineage with the sweeping confidence typical of the 1980s post-Punk generation. Here, minimalistic geometric patterning collides with wild painterly gesture in a palette of rich earthy tones layered with blue and gold. A dramatic blend of rawness and opulence, the work has been exhibited in some of the artist’s most important retrospective shows, including those held at the Whitechapel Gallery, London (2006), the Kunstmuseum Bonn (2012) and the Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna, last year.
Like Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke before them, Oehlen and Kippenberger cultivated a symbiotic relationship that spurred each other along their own creative pathways. Rebellious ringleaders to their unruly group of peers, the two shared exhibition spaces, co-authored publications and collaborated on a wide variety of creative projects from sculpture to music. ‘It was like we were engaged’, said Kippenberger, recalling their spontaneous year-long retreat to Spain (M. Kippenberger, quoted in S. Kippenberger, Kippenberger: The Artist and his Families, Berlin 2007, p. 276). Oehlen himself reflects upon the period as one of intense creative exchange. ‘It was meant to be a time to think and experiment and make something new. He came up with some extreme sculptures that followed the three “Peter” shows and also with his self-portraits, and I came up with the abstract paintings. We were working like that for the whole year and testing things out on each other, to see if he reacts by smiling or looks bored’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in E. Banks, ‘Albert Oehlen talks to Eric Banks’, in Artforum , April 2003).
A student of Polke’s subversive radicality, Oehlen marshalled his contemporaries into a euphoric assault on painting amidst the clinical purity espoused by the current trends of Minimalist and Conceptualist art. Through irreverent engagement with painting’s historical and technical clichés, Oehlen opened up startling new directions for its development. The abstract paintings played a distinctive and carefully-meditated role in this trajectory. ‘I always had a wish to become an abstract painter’, he has stated. ‘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’, in The Telegraph, 1 July 2006). The present work engages in vivid dialogue with the history of abstraction, referencing the gestural exuberance of the New York School alongside allusion to the geometric surface patterns of European Modernism, incongruously layered on top of one another with the conceptual wit of Kippenberger. In this regard, the work recalls Hamza Walker’s description of Oehlen’s canvases as ‘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, ‘The Good, the Bad, the Ugly’, in Albert Oehlen: Recent Paintings, exh. cat., The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, Chicago, 1995, http://www.renaissancesociety.org/site/ Exhibitions/Essay.Albert-Oehlen-Recent-Paintings.88.html [accessed 26 May 2014]).
For Oehlen, the works produced in this focused period of creativity in Spain, away from the distractions of the city, represent a move towards artistic maturity. ‘In the late ‘80s, I started making an effort to be seen as a serious painter’, Oehlen has said (A. Oehlen, quoted in E. Banks, ‘Albert Oehlen talks to Eric Banks’, in Artforum, April 2003). The present work, rich in its gestural vocabulary, is a testament to this statement: the brashness of his youth is tempered by a keen critical eye and a true commitment to the continued exploration of expressive possibility in painting. Oehlen’s sharp intellect and experimental fair are brought to bear on a work that occupies an aesthetic category all of its own.