In Albert Oehlen’s Selbstporträt mit Offenem Mund (Self-Portrait with Open Mouth) from 2001, the artist has painted himself in a three-quarter profile with mouth slightly open and eyes staring straight, looking outside the plane of the canvas. The verdant green background offsets the shadows on the artist’s shirt, unbuttoned at the collar, and highlights the marks which defines his facial features. The artist has used himself as a subject of his own paintings since the early 1980s when he first came onto the art scene in Cologne. In paintings such as these, Oehlen is expressing an endless curiosity about the medium of paint, producing a diverse portfolio of styles and approaches. He is also exploring a great variation within the genre of self-portraiture itself. As New York Times critic Grace Glueck noted when Selbstporträt mit Offenem Mund was first exhibited in 2002, it hung next to seven other self-portraits that “meld[ed] figuration with abstraction while referring to the work of past masters, among them Picasso, Velázquez and de Chirico…the German painter Albert Oehlen makes spirited sport of Old Masterdom and art tradition.” Of the present work in particular, she wrote “a big, beautifully rendered likeness whose vacant stare seems occasioned by a profound immersion in the world’s weltschmerz,” from the German for ‘world-weariness’” (G. Glueck, “Art in Review: Albert Oehlen—‘Self-Portraits,’” New York Times, January 25, 2002).
The famed German author and playwright Rainald Goetz saw another face in Selbstporträt mit Offenem Mund. In a 2002 interview with the artist, Goetz described the painting: “In that picture I find that your expression, as I know it from you and also as it appears in the picture, has something astonished and concentrated about it, and not just sleepy. And also: listening” (A. Oehlen to R. Goetz, Albert Oehlen: Self Portraits, New York, 2002, p. 64). Oehlen responds with a characteristic dry humor, “I just thought I can’t breathe through my nose. Sometimes I look a little nutty because of that” (Ibid.).
Breaking away from the German Expressionist style with which the artist had approached his early self-portraits, Oehlen instead chose to build up many fine layers of oil paint to produce this work. He recalled, “At the time I posed the self-portrait as a problem for myself in my search for new levels of difficulty, precisely because there’s a huge historical apparatus attached to it, and because it makes you think of art, of seriousness and meaning. Putting myself next the masters” (Ibid., p. 48). By choosing this classic, traditional subject manner, Oehlen puts himself in conversation with a long history of artists painting their self-portraits, especially German painters. Before Northern Renaissance master painter and printmaker, Albrecht Dürer painted the first self-portrait noted in the art historical record in 1500, artists often painted portraits of royalty and prestigious members of society, but not themselves. Dürer’s self-portraits were revelations in his time, and mark a shift from the exalted subjects of the Italian Renaissance to the more humble, concerns of artists in the North including Germany. As Oehlen himself has said about this type of painting, “As a subject, a self-portrait is of course also something that you can paint as long as you’ve got a mirror, and everyone has a mirror in the house” (Ibid., p. 76).
Thus, Oehlen was drawn to the self-portrait for its humble, most elementary, ultra-classical, appeal. Instead of focusing on the content of the painting, by working in this genre, Oehlen can focus on the details of looking and painting. “It’s very strange because you don’t know your own face in that way, you learn to define details. The curve of the bridge of the nose, you see if there’s a dent there or not. Suddenly you notice that the ears are rather small—these are things that don’t tell you really anything about yourself. You don’t ascribe any meaning to them, but you define the face via wrinkles, the size of the ears, the curve of the nose and such things. And in the end you know just those things about your face. And that’s only from a particular perspective. If you turn your face suddenly you don’t see the curvature of the nose anymore. For this reason, I always have the view from the same angle, which I decided once was typical, though maybe it isn’t at all. Strictly from the front seemed too difficult, because then there are fewer points of reference. And a strict profile won’t work, then you don’t see anything when you look, you have to cross your eyes too much” (Ibid, p. 64).
In a career defined by iconoclasm and irreverence, Oehlen’s friendship with Martin Kippenberger played a crucial role. Kippenberger’s painfully honest and enormously funny self-portraits engaged with the role of the artist, casting him as drunk, jester, scoundrel, or depraved deity. Discussing these works, Oehlen declares that Kippenberger “did it exactly right. He worked according to the method we three had agreed on tacitly, that is Werner [Büttner], Kippenberger and I: don’t denounce anything; rather, put yourself in this embarrassing situation and give it a meaning, or define something. So, it wasn’t: hey, that looks like shit; rather: how would it look if I were the villain, or the ugly one, or the stupid one. And there these pictures are very precise and significant; in fact they’re especially good” (A. Oehlen, quoted in R. Goetz, ‘Self-Portrait with Open Mouth: New conversations about painting 2001/2002,’ in Albert Oehlen: Self Portraits, exh. cat. Skarstedt Fine Art, New York 2002, p. 72).
Oehlen paints his self-portraits alongside a dazzling array of abstract paintings that employ a wide range of techniques in their construction. The apparent disconnect from figurative to abstract style is the sign of a painter engaging the fullest range of the history of the medium. Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker describes Oehlen’s fascination with “American Action painting of the nineteen-fifties—a histrionic mode of pictorial rhetoric, superficially imitative of de Kooning, whom Oehlen cites as a hero. ...Oehlen’s variant—call it “reaction painting”—fights back toward the Master’s rigorous originality” (Ibid.). It is with the same studied understanding, irreverent humor, and desire to challenge the fathers of painting, that Oehlen paints his self-portraits.