The history of abstraction seemed to be finished...
(A. Oehlen, "Bionic Painting, Albert Oehlen, Cologne, 2009, p. 257).
Albert Oehlen's decision to practice painting was prescribed by a critical detachment from the medium. Having embarked upon his artistic career in the late 1970s, a time when painting was thought to be obsolete, Oehlen came to believe that painting could be re-invigorated by the act of painting itself. In a manner similar to Sigmar Polke, Oehlen chose to engage the history of modernist painting directly, taking on its rules and precepts, if only to dismantle them. Following this strategy, Oehlen's approach to the medium has, throughout his career, come to be as dutiful as it is irreverent. As Oehlen explains, "For me, painting is just one of many possible ways of making art. So I can romp around in it. And now that I'm having fun with it, I can take its postulates very seriously." (D. Diederichsen, "The Rules of the Game: Diedrich Diedrichsen Visits Albert Oehlen," Artforum, November 1994, p. 71).
In the 1990s, Oehlen boldly raised the stakes of art-making, shifting his focus from the figurative to one of modernism's greatest legacies: abstract painting. Since then, his works have often resembled jumbled compendia of painting's styles and processes. In the present Untitled painting from 1993, Oehlen combines hard edge grids with gestural splashes, patterned imagery, swirls and streaks. Slow, ribbon-like lines commingle with dissonant smudges of paint. By presenting such a variety of diverse and often incompatible forms of visual information, Oehlen effectively dismantles the orthodoxies and restrictive policies that have historically dominated the field of abstract painting.
Critic and curator Hamza Walker describes Oehlen's canvases as "representing 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 colors 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" (Exh. Cat., Albert Oehlen: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, 1999).