‘Spain was extremely productive for us, 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).
‘Oehlen has painted himself into a position where none of his canvases can be described as either abstract or figurative… Freed from any notion of formal repetition, of content or theme, he is able to investigate, question, experiment and play in the plastic cosmology – the very material and matter – that constitutes and defines that universe… Oehlen’s sampledelic, synthesized practice extends painting’s vocabulary – its expressive, emotional range – whether intentionally or not. But it is his attitude – Punk’s lasting legacy – that ensures his work remains so restless and vital’
(M. Clark, ‘Abstract Painting Must Die Now’ in Albert Oehlen: I Will Always Champion Good Painting, exh. cat., Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2006, p. 59).
‘I see it this way: it’s the confluence of earnestness and ridiculousness that allows the artist to run riot. It’s comparable to a classic jazz soloist. He runs riot within his harmony and stretches it as far as it can go’
(A. Oehlen, quoted in ‘Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen in conversation with Albert Oehlen’, Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden, exh. cat., New Museum, New York, 2015, p. 102.)
With its clamouring collision of geometric forms and looping arabesques, Albert Oehlen’s Untitled presents a cataclysmic explosion of line, colour and gesture. Passages of silvery metallic paint hover upon a gridded underlay of peach, green, orange and blue, oscillating back and forth within our vision. Bold passages of impasto combine with smeared swathes and fragile rivulets of paint, obfuscating and contradicting one another as Oehlen drags, coaxes and plasters his infinite layers of oil, resin and enamel. Executed in 1989, and acquired directly from the artist that year, the work is situated at the dawn of Oehlen’s deep engagement with painterly abstraction, following his legendary trip to Spain with his comrade Martin Kippenberger. It was during this period that Oehlen began to 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). Within Oehlen’s radical overhaul of painting, 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. With its mesmerizing cacophony of disparate elements, the present work captures the ground-breaking euphoria of the artist’s most celebrated period.
A student of Sigmar Polke’s subversive approach to image-making, Oehlen marshalled his contemporaries into an exhilarating assault onpainting in a world that had declared it dead. Operating under the belief that one must broach ugliness in order to achieve beauty, Oehlen championed the aesthetic of ‘bad painting’, a deliberate rejection of conventional standards that pushed the boundaries of taste and technique in the 1980s. His abstract paintings played a distinctive and central 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 twentieth-century 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. As Massimiliano Gioni has observed, Oehlen’s approach ‘is not unlike that of a musician riffing on a set of standards: he plays different genres of painting…as a jazz musician plays through a series of classics’ (M. Gioni, ‘Albert Oehlen: Stupid as Painter’, in F. Malcolm (ed.), Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden, exh. cat., New Museum, New York, 2015, p. 13).
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, cultivating a finely-tuned balance between legibility and total dissolution. The highly-charged dissonance of form and colour is in fact the product of a deliberate, methodological working method, in which each drip, smudge and stroke is carefully choreographed into a heavily-mediated vision of chaos. Writing in the early 1990s, Oehlen explained ‘In the last few years, I’ve been particularly concerned with evidence – with not seeing anything in the painting other than what’s actually there. Nothing is codified ... I want an 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’ (A. Oehlen, quoted in D. Diederichsen, ‘The Rules of the Game: Albert Oehlen’, in ArtForum, November 1994). It was by picking apart the processes of painting in this way – unpacking its history, its gestures and its techniques – that Oehlen was ultimately able to forge new directions for its development in the postmodern age.