Insecurity Behind a Façade of Virtuosity
In the early 1980s, “the medium most often declared defunct, the most decorative and supposedly the most reactionary proved to be the most radical: oil on canvas.”[i] Today, an assessment of this kind would seem utterly obsolete. Painting has long become reestablished in the art market and in the art world, and apparently has escaped the crisis that had once been diagnosed in American art discourse, up to Douglas Crimp’s apocalyptic visions in 1981. A practice like that of Albert Oehlen (born in 1954), who since his beginnings has largely stuck to painting, has thus lost that kind of radicalness. On the occasion of the retrospective at Vienna’s mumok dedicated to the Krefeld artist, the question is once again posed: what is the relevance of Albert Oehlen’s painting beyond an ironic pleasure in working in a medium that had already been declared dead?
Chronologically speaking, the exhibition goes back to the year 1982, that is, to the time of the “Sauna Gang,” at the core of which were Albert Oehlen, Werner Büttner, Oehlen’s brother Markus, and not least the ultimate enfant terrible, Martin Kippenberger. The artist group, which despite their collective appearance and joint projects never gave itself a name, not only used a medium that was under fire as anachronistic, they also filled it with motifs of unsophisticated German middle-classness, sprinkling political incorrectness and bad humor into the mix, and interwove all of this with painterly discourses. Together with their provocative appearance, a mixture of aloof brashness and self-ironic humor, they knew how to generate attention and to set themselves apart from neo-expressionist German painting.
The works of this period, which shape the public image of Oehlen’s work until today, begin the exhibition in its comparatively small first part. Auch einer / Another One (1985), a belling deer head wearing a blue suit and a white shirt, not only forced into human clothing, but also into the picture’s format, and Selbstporträt mit Pferd / Self-Portrait with Horse (1985) are both works that in their figurative directness ironically attack symbols of German middle-classness or parody the naive, earnest image of the authentic, nature-bound, genuine artist. On view in the same room is a series of images in disgusting shades of brown, one of them entitled Ofen I / Oven I (1982). They represent empty niches in a room or allusions to vaulted halls and exposed brick walls that are virtually modeled from the arrangement of color surfaces.
The subject of these paintings, which—other than an oven—only reveal empty spatial constructions, seems to be perspective and the illusion of depth, but used in a deliberately negligent way. Through clumsy execution or consciously false perspective, there is always an ironic “this is not really meant seriously,” taken to the extreme by the mirror stuck to the canvas that with a blunt literalness “brings the beholder into the image.” What these early works all have in common is their usually flippantly presented, but seriously intended reference to discourses of painting.
Also dating from the early 1980s are the small format collages linking the room with works from Oehlen’s early phase with the second part of the exhibition. Elements like newspaper articles and photographs from illustrated weeklies or porn magazines are arranged on a background that is painted or treated with a spraying technique. The contours of hands and leaves or geometric lines stand out against the background of paint applied with a brush and a grid, creating a formal link to the masking tape pictures on the opposite wall, large format works on paper mounted on canvas from the years 2008 to 2013. They use greatly enlarged segments of advertising placed in a silhouette-like way and layered on top of one another, allowing individual figurative elements to set themselves apart from a garish world of images.
The tape works and the early collages have been combined in the show, which otherwise follows a rough chronology, to form a thematic group. Due to this curatorial decision to bring the late tape paintings forward, the break that 1988 signifies for Oehlen’s work is not marked in the exhibition. In an interview, Oehlen says about this period, “In the late eighties, I started to make an effort to be seen as a serious painter . . . It was more or less when I started making abstract paintings in ’88. . . . I had this reputation for being cynical and doing provocative things, and that’s really not what I was interested in.”[ii] If an engagement with painterly paradigms was palpable earlier on, now it was to be systematized and above all done seriously. Oehlen’s work reveals this change of mind. Clear motivic references have been removed; heterogeneous painterly markings result in a dense, complex visual field. Individual perspectival allusions remain as isolated fragments, thus generating a collage-like effect. The catchphrase that he uses for his abstract pictures is “post-non-representational.”
In the mid-1990s, Oehlen experimented with computer-generated drawings. Silk-screened onto the canvas and greatly enlarged, the digital drawing reveals its pixeled imperfection. Acrylic paint, applied sometimes with a brush, sometimes with a spray can, completes the all-over-structure. The result occasionally recalls a combination of Warholian and Pollockian paradigms, similar to what Achim Hochdörfer, the curator of this exhibition at mumok, remarked on the subject of the work of Christopher Wool.[iii]
The top floor is dedicated to two newer work groups, which, placed in a hall of their own with room for a generous hanging, are given great emphasis in comparison to the rest of the exhibition. The visitor is initially greeted by a happily smiling woman in a pink sweater advertising English courses for “young and adult earners,” seen on an advertising poster placed on a canvas with a white foundation.
Beneath the cheerful, foreign-language motivated “earner,” the word merde, shit, is written across the entire image in red. Paint is smeared across the collaged advertising and the otherwise blank spots of the large format canvas in several individual spots and lines: sometimes applied thinly, allowing the collage below to shimmer through, sometimes condensed into streaks of paint spread with brushes of various thicknesses or the fingers, pulled across the canvas in lines (and is that not a stick man with a brush in hand?). The colors take their orientation from the orange and white advertising and range from a bright and dark orange to a light pink and dark purple and their complementary colors: blue, turquoise, and green. As consciously and agreeably as the paints are chosen, their application seems all the more calculated. Looking at the series as a whole, the virtuosity and systematicity with which Oehlen sends up gestural painting becomes ever more clear. A whole spectrum of physical consistencies of paint material is present on the canvases. Covering, flat paints, paint that has condensed to form streaks, paint splatters, paint dripping downward, lines of paint with a recognizable flow, blurred lines, interrupted lines, overlapping series of color, unmixed paints, paint runs, and even a spray can have left their traces behind. Despite this polyphony, the composition maintains a balance between open, detailed sections, and dense, large-surface areas. The painterly marking spans the readymades from the advertising industry between it and the white foundation. Some of them very large or very loud, the collaged elements, however, appear again and again in their autonomy, for a moment destroying their integration into the painting. Even as empty signs withdrawn from their context that transmit messages without meaning, the advertising fragments command a presence. In so doing, a precarious balance is created between painting and its other, which is the result of a careful dosage of paint: garish advertising encounters thick, covering paints, while with more detailed, subdued advertising it remains thinly glazed and reticent.
Hanging next to these works are charcoal drawings on paper in a similar format. Swinging lines that take in the large format paper in light arches, ribbons, and straight lines, only barely touching some parts of the image, pulling past others in tight curves, or, blurred, forming small surfaces and thus varying its thickness. A demonstration of perfect excellence in drawing, where little is left to chance, when beside freely drawn lines a stencil is also used to create a perfect curve. Similar to the neighboring paintings, Oehlen plays with the impression of spontaneity, which, however, is based on conscious and systematic decisions. Oehlen controls and calculates the effect of each mark. Decades of experience in painting or drawing finds its use, nothing goes wrong, the overall impact is harmonic. The artistic practice of Albert Oehlen seems to have moved quite far from earlier mottos like “Das Wissen erweitern durch Scheitern” (expanding knowledge through failure).[iv]
The overwhelming presence of recent work in a retrospective exhibition has the effect that the visitor is tempted to examine the early work of the artist from the perspective of the current works. Based on the new work groups, the exhibition tries to force a view of Oehlen’s work that sees him as the serious discourse painter that he always wanted to be considered.[v] The curator of the exhibition, Achim Hochdörfer, also seems to be interested in freeing Oehlen from the label of the upstart, cynical “bad painting,” that has stuck to him since the early 1980s.
But as serious, perhaps non-ironic painting, the latest group of works raises several questions. On the one hand, the strong presence of the artist subject, with virtuosity and verve leaves behind a trace on the canvas, and thus emphasizes the subject-referentiality of painting. This “suggested physical link to the artist subject,[vi] has recently been the target of much criticism, especially that of Isabelle Graw. While the clique around Oehlen and Kippenberger made fun of the image of the artist that was shaped by a cult of genius and authenticity, now it seems as if Oehlen himself had come to approach that very image. Furthermore, the works, by including readymade visual material and marking it with paint, seem to want to once again prove the extendibility of the painting apparatus and to pointedly illustrate its capability to absorb the real world of images. The superficial claim that would accompany this is the invulnerability of painting: what threatens to subvert it is appropriated.
But it would be overly hasty to leave things there. For, as John Kelsey said about Oehlen’s collages of readymade visual material and painting, “The paintings never seem to depart or finally distinguish themselves from collage, or from the persistence of the readymade image.”[vii] One reason for this lies in the vulgar aggressiveness of the visual material used, and in the more recent work its mere size. In this way, the readymade pictures encounter painting at eye level. Contrary to the first appearance, they do not allow themselves to be appropriated by the paint, but remain foreign bodies on the canvas. In the failure of the attempt to appropriate these foreign bodies, painting itself is subverted, its own status becomes increasingly unclear. It begins as the gestural trace of an overly present artist subject, but then approaches the advertising fragment, the empty signs devoid of all context, the readymades, and remains somewhere lost among them. This unclear status, which contains a deep insecurity vis-à-vis painting in general, is not expressed by the painterly gesture itself (nothing was could be farther “expressing himself” for an artist socialized in the “sauna gang”) but only becomes recognizable on second glance behind the virtuosic façade. And it is in this quality that the continuity of Oehlen’s oeuvre inheres. We never get what things look like in the first moment: behind the irony, a serious engagement with the context of his own creation, behind the loud appearance of the authentic painter subject a reflective questioning of his own possibilities as a painter, and behind the virtuosity a painting with a diffuse status that remains strangely invulnerable.
Albert Oehlen. Malerei
June 8th - October 20th 2013 at mumok - Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Vienna
Museumsplatz 1, A-1070 Vienna
[i] Albert Oehlen in 1991 in a conversation with Wilfried Dickhoff and Martin Prinzhorn, quoted in Helmut Draxler, “Grundmythos und Kausalzusammenhang: Materialien zur Historisierung der ‘Bande,’” in: Malen ist Wahlen: Büttner, Kippenberger, Oehlen, exh. cat., Kunstverein München (Ostfildern-Ruit, 1992), 8.
[ii] “Albert Oehlen Talks to Eric Banks,” Artforum (April 2003).
[iii] Achim Hochdörfer, “A Hidden Reserve: Painting from 1958 to 1965,” in: Artforum, (February 2009).
[iv] Büttner, Kippenberger, Oehlen und ein Werk von Herold: Wahrheit ist Arbeit, ed. Harald Falckenberg (Essen, 1984), 29.
[vi] Isabelle Graw, “Das Versprechen der Malerei: Anmerkungen zu Medienunspezifik, Indexikalität und Wert,” in: Isabelle Graw, Peter Geimer, eds., Über Malerei: Eine Diskussion (Cologne, 2012), 35.
[vii] John Kelsey, “Collage and Program (Rise of the Readymetal Maidens),” in: Kelsey, ed., Rich Texts: Selected Writing for Art (Berlin and New York, 2010), 56.
Albert Oehlen. Malerei, mumok, Wien, June 8th – October 20th 2013
Photo: Lena Deinhardstein
© mumok/Albert Oehlen
English Courses, 2008, (Oil and paper on canvas, 270,4 x 310 x 4,3 cm)
Untitled, 2011, (Oil and paper on canvas, 260 x 400 cm)
Private collection Courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin