Portrait Albert Oehlen
Like almost no other artist, Albert Oehlen subjects painting to a stress test. For over 30 years he’s been tinkering with the medium’s source code: colour and paint application, lines and layers, titles and triumphs, disappointments and expectations. These elements are all played against one another and caught off guard. Daniel Baumann leads us through the work.
Networks were invented to facilitate communication between dissimilar systems, the media theorist, artist, and programmer Alexander R. Galloway wrote in Spike #39. One could say that art has an analogous function: it develops its meaning as a network linking thinking and life. What particularly struck me about Galloway’s article, however, was his description of software as existing in three distinct modes: source code, executable code, and interface. This got me thinking that the majority of so-called post-Internet art barely ever goes beyond the interface – that is, beyond a desktop-like appearance. This would explain why such art is always immediately recognizable even though it comes in many different forms: it is an art of the surface. Among the huge array of objects, texts, painted-over prints, and distorted scans, one can indeed find works that deal with source code and contend with the depths it involves. But it’s not so easy to tell them apart from all the rest. Similarly, at the beginning of the 1980s, it wasn’t immediately apparent how and why Albert Oehlen’s paintings were so different from the “wild” Neo-Expressionism that was everywhere at the time. Leafing through the catalogues and books focusing on German art from this era, one finds images of Oehlen’s work alongside paintings by Elvira Bach, Werner Büttner, Walter Dahn, Martin Disler, Georg Herold, Martin Kippenberger, Helmut Middendorf, Markus Oehlen, Salomé, Klaudia Schifferle, and Andreas Schulze – and the difference is not always so obvious.
Yet it would have been possible quite early on to see that Oehlen’s concerns lay elsewhere. Initial clues were offered by the titles of his paintings: among them Gegen den Liberalismus (Against Liberalism, 1980); Morgenlicht fällt ins Führerhauptquartier (Morning Light Falls in the Führer’s Headquarters, 1982); Treppenhaus Spezial (Staircase Special, 1984); and Selbstporträt mit verschissener Unterhose und blauer Mauritius (Self-Portrait with Shitty Underpants and Blue Mauritius, 1984). There is no mode of painting that can cover such a wide range of themes and non-themes, but that was exactly the point. Like Büttner and Kippenberger, or above all Sigmar Polke, Oehlen used such statements to push the subject matter and imagery of painting to the limits of its potential, as a way of demystifying the medium, undermining expectations and, ultimately, liberating art from the mission it was purported to have by collectors, institutions, and admirers of artists like Joseph Beuys or Anselm Kiefer. “So, what you had to do was to put an excessive amount of stress on the medium [painting], that’s how the real beauty comes out,” Oehlen explained in a 1991 conversation with Wilfried Dickhoff and the Austrian linguist Martin Prinzhorn, who was among the first to participate in the discussion of this strategy of making excessive demands.
In the exhibition catalogue for a show at Galerie Borgmann Capitain in Cologne in 1986, Prinzhorn gives an accurate description of how Oehlen’s art resists any simple meaning being ascribed to it: “For art criticism, that old game of allocating form and content is always central. No matter how complex it might be, it ultimately always aims at a form of ‘understanding’ that presupposes such an endeavour as a meaningful allegory or metaphor. The art we are discussing here does not allow for these kinds of interpretative mechanisms.”
As recently as 2005, American curator Bonnie Clearwater wrote: “Albert Oehlen is a difficult artist to pin down. This is deliberate on his part.” To this day, most of the writing on Oehlen is an attempt to do just that. This endeavour is confronted by a body of work that exploits contradictions and assimilates them into its underlying structure.
In addition, attempts to domesticate Oehlen’s work are made more difficult by the artist himself staking out a position in his writings and giving numerous interviews that turn commonly held ideas upside-down.
Until 1987, Oehlen made figurative paintings that didn’t differentiate between the sincere and the banal and primarily worked with a spectrum of greys and browns. In 1984 he introduced the three primary colours, blue, red, and yellow, as if the point were to think back to Mondrian. This is when he painted Portrait A.H. (1984), a large-format portrait of Adolf Hitler in primary colours – which still seems borderline today. Also around this time, Oehlen began experimenting with elements foreign to painting proper, incorporating stickers, metal signs, and above all mirrors into his paintings. He opened up the closed space of the canvas using the most banal means possible. In this way, Oehlen’s work feigns a conceptual approach that ostensibly provides an easy point of entry for people doubtful of painting’s value. Finally, in 1987, Oehlen produced a series of figurative works, each of which was titled Abstract Painting. What was originally intended as a dig at the traditional opposition of figuration and abstraction became a long-term engagement with abstract painting – insofar as this is still a valid term.
Oehlen claims that his behaviour and artistic practice as a young artist were also an attempt to break into the temple of painting. In 1988, something went missing as part of this process and hasn’t returned since: perspective. Kippenberger’s 1986 exhibition “Die Perspektivenscheisse” (The Perspective-Shit) at Gerald Just in Hannover already signalled that something was in the air. In 1989, the same year as the fall of the Berlin Wall, many people did indeed lose perspective. In Oehlen’s case, it was replaced with layering: the pictorial space, which had previously been structured hierarchically with foreground, middle ground, and background, began to spread across the picture plane and stack up in multiple layers. This gave a new prominence to colour as a material as well as to the role of line.
In 1991 Oehlen began making drawings on the computer without knowing too much about the technical details. The resulting images were printed out, silkscreened onto large canvases, and worked on some more with paint. The computer-drawn lines became monumental, raising questions around the nature of materiality. While the digital offers no resistance and can be modified at will, paint insists on a life of its own: its sheen varies, depending on the way the light falls; it drips or is too matte or thick in all the wrong places. There is a certain arrogance to its materiality – a quality foreign to the digital, which is so endlessly compliant. In the following years, Oehlen conducted further experiments with the digital, working through various possibilities for drawing and colour, and creating invitation cards and posters that look as if Photoshop were having a bad dream. Oehlen then continued to broaden his territory, especially in the late 90s, with a series of grey paintings in which he adopts Gerhard Richter’s famous blurring technique. As in Richter’s works, this process resulted in images that both suggested a lot of associations and were formally elegant. One might think that such an effect is inevitable: blurry grey is always a big hit. This would seem to support Walter Robinson’s theory of “zombie formalism”, which claims that contemporary painting is dominated by work that refers in more or less covert ways to art (like the work of Christopher Wool or Albert Oehlen) that is well established on the market.
After the turn of the millennium, Oehlen’s practice expanded at an even faster pace. This period saw the emergence of collage, such as that shown at the Vienna Secession in 2004; collage on paintings, as shown at Galerie Max Hetzler in Berlin in 2011; paintings on collage, as shown at Gagosian in New York in 2014. He has also made large pictures by gluing advertising posters on top of one another; finger paintings; large charcoal drawings; and, since 2014, paintings on aluminium Dibond that depict the dark silhouettes of trees against a red and white background. Trees first appeared in Oehlen’s work in the late 80s; now, 25 years later, they have been given their own extensive series. According to Oehlen, the tree works well as a form because it is both abstract and figurative, while allowing for flatness and depth, detail and mass, density and line. As a structure, it engenders connections through the image, as well as obscuring it and partitioning it. And it is powerful enough to hold its own against the layers of red and white. These paintings have a somewhat monstrous quality. They are astonishingly cold and harsh, and leave a striking impression of irreconcilability.
The details are fantastic: the matteness, the sheen, the brushstrokes, the fade-to-white, the traces of glue, the spray paint particles, the lines. Above all: the lines. If anything, these lines are the content of Oehlen’s work.
They invite the viewer to look closely, to study the application of paint, the edges, sections, and progressions. Standing in front of an Oehlen painting is like standing in front of an idea. These paintings cancel out the division between form and content, figuration and abstraction. Whether they are good or bad or wrong, they are aware of their particular depth, but it has nothing to do with perspective. Instead it has everything to do with the details – they are the source code from which the image is produced, which is also what breaks down the system of painting. It’s in the details that a space opens up, space that is also time – the time one takes to look, without ever being seduced, without ever being instructed, without ever being tickled by tricks, without having to love. For me, these paintings bring to mind Jean-Luc Godard’s recent films, which have a sense of distance that is hard to match. These pictures are like an Internet protocol that enables the very possibility of exchange.
Translated by Bonnie Begusch
ALBERT OEHLEN, born 1954 in Krefeld, lives in Switzerland. EXHIBITIONS: Home and Garden, New Museum, New York (solo); An Old Painting in Spirit, Kunsthalle Zürich (solo) (2015); Fabric Paintings, Skarstedt Gallery, New York (solo); Variations: Conversations in and around Abstract Painting, LACMA, Los Angeles; Die 5000 Finger von Dr. Ö, Museum Wiesbaden (solo); Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles (solo); Galerie Max Hetzler, Paris (solo); do it Moscow, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moskau; No Problem: Cologne/ New York, 1984–1989, David Zwirner, New York (2014); mumok, Wien (solo); La Biennale di Venezia; Albert Oehlen / John Sparagana, Studiolo, Zürich (2013). REPRESENTED BY Gagosian Gallery, New York; Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin/Paris
DANIEL BAUMANN is director of Kunsthalle Zürich.