Is Albert Oehlen Germany’s Greatest Painter of the 21st century?



Portrait Albert Oehlen

Source Code and Stress Test

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 GardenNew 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.



Home and Garden


New York didn’t get the Albert Oehlen survey it deserved. Although there are plenty of strong paintings among the twenty-five or so included in Home and Garden at the New Museum, and for the most part they are installed to sufficient impact, this show short-changes Oehlen’s crucial relationship to the legacy of New York painting since the 1940s, without which he would be far less the critical painter he has been for some time. Leaving underwhelmed, my assessment was reinforced by a small yet potent presentation of works from 2011 and 2013 at Corbett vs. Dempsey in Chicago that collage silhouettes of Swiss cows onto canvases to make complicated paintings with no paint. The works in Chicago distill and extend the terms of the two most recent works at the New Museum, both Untitled (2009-11), representatives of Oehlen’s “Fingermalerei” (finger paintings) that put the look of New York School painting front and center with or without apology. (It’s not clear why the New Museum show doesn’t include any work made after 2011.)

Albert Oehlen, Festnahme [Arrest], 1996. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 75 1/4 × 96 1/2 in.

Before I get into what I’m trying to get at, I want to be clear that I don’t think the artist is to be blamed for this missed opportunity. Surveys, as such, are often nasty business, and Oehlen’s production has been tailor-made to resist summation, clarification, and established (or the establishment of) historical frameworks. Moreover the virtual evidence of his concurrent exhibition at the Kunsthalle Zürich, called “An Old Painting in Spirit,” suggests more momentum is there, if only because of the inclusion of brand new paintings that look in pixelated reproduction like, yes, something new.

It doesn’t take a detective to deduce that my disappointment is with the curator. And while it may be old news for any of us who have put up with tired and repetitive rhetoric about painting since the late 1980s, at this point—well into the 21st century—I’ll admit to being surprised by reading this in Massimiliano Gioni’s essay: “It is ironic—if not downright depressing or, perhaps sadly illuminating—that one of the best descriptions of what life in the digital era feels like had to be captured in the old medium of painting rather than in some new, hyper-technological invention.” I’m not sure this is the most productive bias to have when organizing a show of Oehlen, given that he has dismantled it probably more than any other contemporary artist. Maybe painting never gave up its ability to provide some of the best descriptions of life. Like a killer pop song or jazz riff (more about this below), painting can embody or provoke contradictory attitudes all at once. Painting may be old, but it is not over the hill.

Since the beginning of his career Oehlen has provided plenty of bait for curators and critics who went all in against painting. As a student of Sigmar Polke’s in Hamburg at the beginning of the 1980s, he was well positioned to take up the terms of “bad painting” that had been established the decade before and produce early pictures that provide the triple insult of first making “bad” versions of “bad painting,” then giving them what they need to hide in plain sight amongst so-called new-expressionism (aping what I once heard Lari Pittman describe as “it’s my feelings painting” with a requisite brown palette and squiggles), and, finally then a half-hearted slap of self-portraiture. Self-portrait with One-hole Vase [Selbstportrait mit Einlochtopf] (1984) is one of two prime examples included here, and with the advantage of hindsight it sets up the enduring attitude of Oehlen’s work: representing himself as a hunched over pasty-faced puppet, it looks as if he was using his wooden finger to stick his doubts about painting in that damn vase. (I think this painting might also be a nod to Willem de Kooning’s The Glazier (1940), but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Albert Oehlen, Selbstportrait mit Einlochtopf [Self- portrait with One-hole Vase], 1984. Oil on canvas, 67 × 102 3/8 in.

From there, the exhibition jumps to five paintings from 1988, 1989, and 1992, when Oehlen turned to abstraction alongside his partner in crime Martin Kippenberger. These canvases are from the period when I was first introduced to Oehlen’s work (at Luhring Augustine in 1991), and seeing them here lined up on a wall my first thought was that they did not age well. When this body of work was first shown it held a certain interest with a peculiar range of painterly moves that managed to survive the brown (so much brown!) but a tentativeness has now overtaken them. Nonetheless they are critical to understanding the bigger picture of Oehlen’s significant achievements, triumphs that I think have everything to do with New York painting before the 1990s, ’80s, ’70s, etc. I could call this the de Kooning problem, but instead I think it’s an answer to some of the current thinking about painting overall.

In the catalogue, Gioni is joined by Mark Godfrey who, in his essay, makes it clear that he does know painting. However he only gives passing mention to de Kooning while stating the obvious: Oehlen’s path to abstraction was not like Mondrian’s or Malevich’s or Barnett Newman’s. I find this disingenuous when what Oehlen’s path is like is de Kooning’s. As John Elderfield’s impeccable 2011 MoMA survey demonstrated, de Kooning was as much a vulgarian as anyone who has followed him, willing to upend expectations again and again. That Oehlen has what de Kooning had does not mean that his work is lesser for having been “done” before in both attitude and form. Instead it provides solid evidence that some of the best things about painting really never change, and one of those things is that painting never stops being contradictory.

In 1963 Roy Lichtenstein said he wanted to make a painting that was so “despicable” that no one would want to hang it, and no doubt many at the time thought he had achieved just that. Three years later, John Adkins Richardson published an essay, now ripe for rediscovery, called “Dada, Camp, and the Mode Called Pop” in which he wrote about some black Jazz musicians who created “masterpieces of condescension”: “Because the performance of these ‘put ons’ requires great technical facility and inasmuch as they are done with good humor they are not offensive to anyone, least of all to the rare white man who comprehends their purpose.” Technical facility doesn’t really change, even if it looks or operates differently in various historical periods. It’s the attitude that is never able to be only one thing or stay the same over time, whether in the double-duty love/hate, authentic/fabricated strokes of a mid-1950s de Kooning (see my review of the MoMA retrospective in the October 2011 Rail), or the computer paintings that Oehlen started in the early 1990s.

The five computer paintings that come next in the chronology of Oehlen’s survey are the tipping point of his work overall, because it’s only after them that Oehlen becomes the “technician of freedom” that he proclaimed with authority and spot-on humor in his recent commencement address at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The constraints of the New Museum do achieve one surprise: they amplify Oehlen’s achievements as some of the super-sized paintings of the early 2000s are able to remain approachable and even intimate in perverse, perfect ways: Born to be late (2001), for example, is breathtaking here mainly because it remains inviting while being irritating and too much. It’s also one of my favorites because it has the perfect title to push back against the notion that painting has been, or will ever have to be, on the clock.


Terry R. Myers TERRY MYERS is a Professor and Chair of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.


June 8, 2015 5:00 p.m.

Albert Oehlen Is Like a Badger of Painting


Party Dreams, 2001. Inkjet print and mixed mediums on canvas. Photo: Courtesy Cristin Tierney Gallery

The New Museum’s tight two-floor, 27-work exhibition of Albert Oehlen gives ample evidence of the ways and whys this 61-year-old German artist is one of the most influential painters working anywhere today—a virtual freedom machine. Oehlen is like a badger of painting, a cross between a weasel and a small bear, fearlessly scouring painting’s possibilities, implications, and metaprograms, scavenging for sweet spots, weaknesses, ways to decode, remap, and break down the medium’s programs, surfaces, image depiction, markmaking, and brushstrokes. I love his work, but I am not even sure that I actually like it. I hear the liberating bells it rings, and revel in them. And yet his work almost always has the look of being messy and structurally delirious, with so many visual and coloristic cross-references firing at once that they become soups of incredible pictorial gibberish. Like they come at me too hard.

For the first eight years of his career, I think I thought of Oehlen as a strong second-string Kippenberger, Schnabel, Markus Lüpertz, or Polke type of painter — German, punkish, trashy, brash, tearing up painting in carnivorous ways. That was in the early 1980s, and I found him good and smart but not up to first-level ambition or admiration. I don’t think I thought about him again until the mid-1990s. Then he threw me for a real loop. His early work had been large, splashy mash-ups of figures, household objects, and abstract shapes in marshy fields of muddy color. Then, almost out of nowhere, and probably before anyone of his generation, in 1992, he began probing the significant surfaces and possibilities of digital imagery and the tools that make it. Employing a Texas Instruments computer and picture programs, along with spray-paint, silk screen, collage, and bushstrokes, utilizing mainly black and white — colors that are more ideas than real, as they don’t actually exist in nature — he suddenly developed a subspecies of painting all his own. So many other artists have now followed in his footsteps that it may be hard for viewers to grasp just how shocking this work looked at the time. At least it was for me.

Untitled, 2007. Oil and paper on canvas. Photo: Collection Cynthia and Abe Steinberger

When you get to the section of the show containing these, you’re seeing Oehlen finding something in painting’s inherent program, something that must have been there from the beginning — another level of abstract possibilities and endless processes, a way to almost paint against painting’s program, rather than making the medium adapt and absorb human needs. This opened 10,000 doors, to as many artists. Pause here to give Oehlen props — even if the works strike you as stark, too stripped-down, lazy, or the beginning of too many subsequent bad careers to name. Oehlen found a way to embed electromagnetic information into the spaces, surfaces, and materials of painting.

They struck me that way, too. As when I had relegated him to the second tier in the ’80s, in the mid-1990s, I saw these black-and-white works as too easy, thought the surfaces looked slapped together, and couldn’t process that lines were being made with a new device called a “mouse” and then transferred into coded files and reproduced onto the canvas. (Almost the exact resistances we see today to artists like Wade Guyton and Richard Prince.) I had no problem with an artist not touching his work — this was nearly 100 years on from Duchamp, and 30 years after Warhol. And yet I failed to see that Oehlen had bypassed then-fashionable critique theory and deconstructions of painting. Instead he was voraciously badgering the medium’s carcass, transforming, reevaluating, seeing that painting’s deepest structures contained the possibilities of adaptation, mutation, and growth while also redefining skill and beauty and maybe tools. The ways he was doing all that even now look radical and magical, like maps to other kinds of thinking, graphic worlds, and chains of non-symbolic meaning.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Oehlen also created large, allover abstract fields of reproduced images, pictures that looked swollen from bee stings, out of focus, about to erupt into visual nothingness. His colors became highly keyed-up, acidic, hazes of pink, purple, magenta. With little annoying bad-boy nihilism, these works seemed to take old-school Abstract Expressionism, Rauschenberg, and Rosenquist on pop-punk joyrides, all the while maintaining graphic-pictorial integrity and control. Again, I’m not even sure I actually like these paintings. Yet I see them as real signposts pointing in so many directions simultaneously that I see these canvases as compasses to wherever I allow them to take me.

For this, the curators of this show deserve a lot of credit. Not only because the New Museum has one of the worst spaces for exhibitions, but because rather than laying out a building-filling survey of an art star, they have chosen to give us two or three of these highly unstable crucial oscillation points in Oehlen’s career. The result is that you see through mastery and market thoughts, and glimpse an artist whose energy is hot like de Kooning’s but whose work is endlessly ironic, posed, utilizing ideas that others and probably he dismissed as useless, silly, stupid. That’s what I meant by calling Oehlen a “freedom machine.” We’re not just seeing silk screening, computer graphics, color, images, and the like; the deep content of this work is flexibility, openness, the willingness to abandon everything to see how much more the vessel of painting and even the self might hold, while at the same time making it all look as easy and sometimes as ugly as pie. Oehlen reminds us that first and foremost, all artists are or should be technicians of freedom that set other people loose.


Artists Q&A

‘Humans Will Have the Last Word’: A Talk With Albert Oehlen

Albert Oehlen photographed on June 8 at the New Museum.


A retrospective of Albert Oehlen’s work runs through September 13 at the New Museum in New York.

Bill Powers: I understand that in high school you papered your bedroom walls with cheap supermarket advertising.
Albert Oehlen: That’s right. When I was fifteen. It was my kind of protest. I was living with—what I considered—a bourgeois family.

BP: I heard you once made a rule that on half of a canvas you would use only expensive paint and on the other half very cheap paint.
AO: Yeah, I did these kinds of experiments a lot. It has an impact on your work. It makes things slower and you come to impossible results. You might put your paint in alphabetical order and say, “I’m only using A through K today.” It makes no sense, but you wonder what will happen on the canvas.

BP: Is that something you learned from Sigmar Polke? The need to experiment?
AO: This is stuff that just came to mind, but I did find out that other artists had similar ideas, yes. Like when Malcolm Morley makes an oil painting after a watercolor he did—he transfers it with these grids and is able to keep the aesthetic of watercolor, only done in oil. For someone who knows about painting you can see how that’s strange. I love this kind of thinking. Malcolm Morley has done a lot in that direction and has a kind of humor.

BP: Is humor something that you value in painting?
AO: I think it should be there anyway.

BP: People make a big deal about your use of technology in painting. Do you remember the first time you worked with Photoshop?
AO: The thing that was important for me was when, in 1990, I got a Texas Instruments laptop. I liked the pixelation. It was like a filter: take it or leave it. Then I thought the only way for me not to accept what was happening there was to hand-paint over it. This meant that I had the last word instead of the technology. And I liked the fact that I could call what I did “computer paintings.” Also, they captured a moment in history. They are time-stamped by the technology.

BP: And you were employing this technology in real time. There was nothing nostalgic about it as in, say, the Mario Brothers videos of Cory Arcangel.
AO: It really depends on what you want. I wasn’t trying to profit from the technology—in fact, quite the opposite. I made a fool of myself and of the technology. It was a struggle between us.

BP: In the end will technology overtake us? Like when Garry Kasparov plays the computer in chess, is it just a matter of time before the machines win?
AO: I don’t know if I can give the right answer, but I know the answer I want to be true: humans will have the last word.

BP: Has music directly influenced your art? I know John Currin will listen to horror music or bad heavy metal in the studio.
AO: I did a lot of paintings listening to Frankie Laine.

BP: That’s not very punk rock of you.
AO: It just put me in the right mood.

BP: Christopher Wool is a good friend of yours. What did you think of his recent show at Luhring Augustine?
AO: I loved it. When I first saw photos of the sculptures I thought he’d gone crazy. Then, when I saw them in person, I realized how smart they are.

BP: You made your fabric paintings in the early ’90s while living in Spain?
AO: Martin Kippenberger and I went to live in the Spanish countryside, but then we moved to Madrid because it got too boring.

BP: Can we talk about your relationship with Kippenberger? What did you admire about him?
AO: Technically he was far ahead of all of us. He could sit in front of a painting and work on it for hours. I could never do that. I’d step back, interrupt the process, but I saw myself as a real artist. Kippenberger was very disciplined and I liked his craziness. Also, I liked his feedback very much.

BP: So you guys would trade ideas?
AO: He would see something that I was doing and would respond to it, make something more extreme. I made funny self-portraits, then he made self-portraits, almost as an answer to me, a parody on it—like the thing with the swastika. Do you know this story? I painted a Rodchenko sculpture and he looked at my painting and said, “For the life of me, I can’t see the swastika in this painting.” He made a joke of it. If you were with Kippenberger, you had to take whatever he dished out. You might tell him about an idea you had for a new painting one night, and the next morning he would have made 20 of them. You couldn’t even be mad at him.

A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 24 under the title “ ‘Humans Will Have the Last Word’: A Talk With Albert Oehlen.”

Copyright 2016, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. 110 Greene Street, 2nd Fl., New York, N.Y. 10012. All rights reserved.


Albert Oehlen: ‘There’s something hysterical about magenta’

Fuelled by beer and speed, Albert Oehlen ran riot through the Berlin art world. He made intentionally bad paintings, worked only in grey, and was even anti-art altogether. Now’s he’s living the outdoors life in Switzerland – so why do his trees still look psychopathic?

A detail from Untitled (Baum 44), 2015, by Albert Oehlen
‘Alarming’ … a detail from Untitled (Baum 44), 2015, by Albert Oehlen. Photograph: Stefan Rohner/Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Albert Oehlen has filled the Gagosian Gallery in Mayfair with big paintings of trees. Oehlen’s trees are black, skeletal and deformed-looking, their thin curving branches extending beyond blocks of smeared magenta into pure white backgrounds. In some paintings, straight black parallel lines suggest the trees are standing on an autobahn and, indeed, their minimalism and bold colours would not look out of place on a Kraftwerk album cover.

In others, a single long line of black spray-paint trails across the canvas like a hurried graffiti scrawl – except that these are not canvases, but shiny, smooth, synthetic sheets of Dibond, a polythene-coated aluminium board more commonly used for advertising displays in trade fairs. “I like the stiffness,” says Oehlen, “It has this modern technological feel to it, and it’s actually much easier to paint on than canvas. I wasn’t looking for another surface, I just tried it one day and liked it.”

Untitled (Baum 46), 2015
Untitled (Baum 46), 2015. Photograph: Stefan Rohner/Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

This kind of accidental development is emblematic of Oehlen’s approach to making art, which is somehow both instinctive and cerebral. He paints in the long shadow of abstraction, abstract expressionism and minimalism, as if aware that the act of painting is a gesture of defiance in the face of history. When he talks about his work, it is often in a self-deprecating and mischievous way. It is almost as if he doesn’t take his vocation seriously, when in fact the opposite is true. Like his paintings, Oehlen is hard to pin down: elusive, I suspect, by nature rather than design.

“I don’t intend to be cryptic or difficult,” he says at one point, “I am like I am. I work and sometimes I get ideas and I pursue those ideas until I exhaust them. To me, it all fits together. It’s a continuous work for me – and of me.” As is often the case, his attempt at elucidation ends with a wry laugh. I have never encountered an artist who so effortlessly debunks the myth that to make art you must be a tortured soul. “I do struggle,” he says, “but mostly, I struggle because I have a lot of work to do. Often, I have one recurring problem: how to make a painting that is entertaining – to me and to everyone else. It’s a lot of effort, that one idea. It means I am often trying to do something that is impossible. So, yes, what I do is playful, but it is also work.”

Albert Oehlen
Neue Wilde no longer … ‘We wanted to be – pathetic words – new and provocative’: Albert Oehlen. Photograph: Oliver Schultz-Berndt

Oehlen currently lives and works in Buhlen, a small town near Zurich. It seems an oddly sedate base for a former enfant terrible of German painting, but the days of beer and speed in post-punk Berlin have given way to an outdoor lifestyle of hiking and skiing in the surrounding mountains. Back then, Oehlen was best friends with the hard-drinking Martin Kippenberger, and at the vanguard of the Neue Wilde movement. “We hung out together, we had fun, we got into trouble. We wanted to be – pathetic words – ‘new and provocative’. But, the flip side of that coin is that you can’t ask for success because you have set yourself up to be totally against the very idea of success.”

It all sounds like an impossibly faraway time, before the tyranny of the global market turned artists into unapologetic careerists. “I was even against art for a while,” he says, laughing. “Punk was in the air, but, really I didn’t belong to punk.” As a strategy, though, punk made sense to him. “It interested me because it asked the question – what happens if you work with something that you are not a master of and don’t control? That’s still an interesting question.”

It is one that has resounded though all of Oehlen’s work to one degree or another, not least in his constant adopting of often absurd-seeming rules and limitations. He once laboured on a series of paintings in which he only used shades of grey. For another series of intentionally “bad paintings” – including a garish portrait of Hitler – he stuck rigorously to red, yellow and blue.

Untitled (Baum 30), 2015
Untitled (Baum 30), 2015. Photograph: Stuart Burford photography/Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

He has an odd and wilfully dysfunctional relationship with what many might consider the most fundamental aspect of painting: colour. “For a long time, I just didn’t care about it,” he told me, when I visited his studio, which looks out over snow-covered rooftops to the mountains beyond. “I just put my paint on the palette and worked with what was there. Then I thought, what would happen if I did care about colour?”

It is this kind of approach that has led some critics to dismiss Oehlen as a chancer, while others, including a new generation of younger artists that includes Urs Fischer, Wade Guyton and Michael Williams, have found his punkish attitude and constant stylistic shifts a source of inspiration. In the mid-90s, he was ahead of the game in his use of digitally manipulated images for a series he called Computer Paintings. Before that, he made “smear paintings” using his fingers instead of a brush.

The Tree paintings first appeared in more messily abstract form some 20 years ago. “They are more simple and more complicated now,” he says. “When you place those black lines against a magenta background, something alarming happens. Magenta is a hysterical colour somehow. To me, they look like psychopathic trees – psychopathic human trees.”

He pauses for a moment. “But, I’m not really interested in what the paintings mean. People can interpret then how they want, but, for me, painting is about trying to get as far away from meaning as possible, which is perhaps the most difficult thing of all. Really, I am just trying to make something new every time. I’m an experimenter who can live with the contradictions and even the mistakes that experimentation entails. If we were talking musically,” he adds, “it’s definitely Frank Zappa, not Leonard Cohen.”

Albert Oehlen is at the Gagosian Gallery, London, until 24 March

Jun. 01, 2015

The Accidental Abstractionist

Albert Oehlen: Untitled, 2014, oil on wood, 82⅝ by 67 inches.

All images, unless otherwise noted, courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin and Paris.

1. Quoted in Susanne Kippenberger, Kippenberger: The Artist and His Families, trans. Damion Searls, Atlanta and New York, J&L Books, 2011, p. 246.
2. Ibid., p. 248-49.
3. Quoted in Jörg Heiser and Jan Verwoert, “Ordinary Madness: An Interview with Albert Oehlen,” Frieze 78, October, 2003, pp. 110.
4. Quoted in Susanne Kippenberger, p. 344.
5. Quoted in Valérie Duponchelle, “Albert Oehlen: ‘Je suis un alien très discipliné!’” Le Figaro, Nov. 25, 2009, My translation.
6. Ralf Beil has an interesting discussion about the relationship of Oehlen’s art to the fall of the Berlin Wall in his essay “Red Light District: On the Eros of Impurity in the Work of Albert Oehlen,” Paintings/Pinturas, Salamanca, Domus Artium, in association with the Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne, 2002, p. 30.
7. Quoted in Beil, p. 16.
8. “Interview: Alexander Klar and Albert Oehlen,” originally published in German in Albert Oehlen: Fingermalerei, Cologne, Walther König, 2010; English translation from Albert Oehlen: New Paintings, Los Angeles, Gagosian Gallery, 2014, p. 82.
9. Quoted in Duponchelle; Glenn O’Brien, interview with Albert Oehlen, Interview, May 2009, p. 108.
10. Quoted in Duponchelle.
11. Possibly Oehlen had in the back of his mind the title of Red Krayola’s 1999 LP Fingerpainting, a record to which he contributed electronic rhythm tracks. Since the 1980s, Oehlen has pursued musical experiments, releasing recordings under his own name, with his brother Markus as Van Oehlen, and, most extensively, with Red Krayola.
12. Quoted in Heiser and Verwoert, p. 106.
13. “Interview: Alexander Klar and Albert Oehlen,” p. 82.
14. Quoted in Heiser and Verwoert, p. 109-10.

The most important for us is to realize what is possible
and what is not.

—Albert Oehlen


IF YOU HAD TO cram Albert Oehlen’s career into one sentence suitable for a book jacket blurb, you might come up with something along the lines of: The unlikely tale of how an exponent of “bad painting” in 1980s Cologne became a major legatee of gestural Abstract Expressionist painting. Even for a longtime admirer of Oehlen’s work like me, the notion that he is among the most compelling inheritors of the legacy of Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell comes as something of a shock. This, after all, is an artist who made his name with paintings such as Morning Light Falls into the Führer’s Headquarters (1983), a big, garish expressionistic depiction of Hitler’s HQ, bearing several actual mirrors, into which Oehlen has inserted a giant painted swastika, and Self-Portrait with Shitty Underpants and Blue Mauritius (1984), where the artist, clad in the aforementioned soiled shorts, is portrayed examining a rare postage stamp held in a pair of tweezers.

Throughout the 1980s, Oehlen was Martin Kippenberger’s main partner-in-art-crime, participating in public provocations and wildly offbeat projects (like covering a Ford Capri with brown paint and oatmeal) as well as producing an endless torrent of books and exhibitions. The duo were among the loudest members of what Susanne Kippenberger, in her biography of her brother Martin, calls the “Hetzler Boys,” an all-male cohort of artists who showed with Cologne dealer Max Hetzler. As Oehlen later recalled, “With Hetzler we made asses of ourselves and made everyone hate us. We climbed on tables and pulled down our pants—extreme artist behavior.”1 Imbued with a punk-derived insolence, and maybe influenced by the radical Maoist politics he had absorbed as a teenager in the early 1970s, Oehlen took up subjects and painting styles that were calculated to offend the German art establishment, often with imagery that tested the limits of its tolerance, its liberal ideals. The depth of Oehlen’s dissatisfaction with the status quo is revealed when he talks about how he and Werner Büttner met with disapproval for their friendship and solidarity with Kippenberger, whom many in the early 1980s saw as a drunken, attention-seeking clown rather than as an artist of substance. “We lost favor with some people too—art-lovers, gallerists, museum people—when we supported Kippenberger. He was unserious. They said, ‘Do you want to go with the monkey house or with us?’ I said I’d rather stay with the monkey house, thank you—or rather, that that was real art. Not the stuff you think art is.”2

Although they painted together, showed and made books together, traveled and caroused together and, on a few occasions, even lived together, Oehlen and Kippenberger were two very different kinds of artists. Their differences are not always easy to discern, but one place to look for fault lines is in their relationship to painting as a medium. Although the social attitudes expressed in their work and their subject matter often overlapped, Oehlen and Kippenberger diverged when it came to their painting sensibilities. Even at the time when Oehlen was creating scabrous works such as Self-Portrait with Shitty Underpants and larding his canvases with swastikas and painfully awkward figuration, his feeling for the physical effects of brush and oil paint was hard to miss.

Some of the differences between Oehlen and Kippenberger may stem from the fact that Oehlen was a slower painter, even in the manic mid-1980s. When they came up with an idea together, which, he says, they often did, “Kippenberger would churn out 60 pieces overnight, straight away, so that at breakfast the next morning I knew I could forget it.”3 Of course, Kippenberger was an immensely gifted painter, but I don’t think he ever fully shared Oehlen’s interest in its matière or in expanding its technical possibilities (something which became central to Oehlen’s work after 1989). I don’t know, for instance, of any 1980s painting by Kippenberger that is as heavily worked, or as luscious, as Oehlen’s Four Travel Bags (1981). Significantly, Oehlen has always been primarily a painter and a painter without assistants, while Kippenberger, who died in 1997, was an artist who made a lot of paintings but was perfectly willing to outsource the brush-on-canvas part of his work (even at the beginning of his career) and, as the years went by, was as engaged with sculpture and installation as he was with painting.

Perhaps it was precisely because of Oehlen’s attraction to the richness of his chosen medium, his capacity to indulge in sheer painterliness, that he needed Kippenberger—the master of the monkey house inoculated him against the temptations of conventionally “good” painting. As long as Oehlen was so closely linked to Kippenberger, there was no chance of his being sucked into the deadly orbit of Neo-Expressionist hacks, of settling for petty ambitions. Instead, he could stake out a zone for paintings that resisted stylistic pigeonholing, just as they defied assimilation into polite discourse. And what did Kippenberger gain artistically from Oehlen? I suspect that Oehlen’s gifts as a painter and his gradually emerging ambition to engage the legacy of 20th-century abstraction may have helped Kippenberger to push for more formal complexity in his own paintings and to find a balance between corrosive satire and painterly verve. There is a world of difference between the stylistic blandness of early Kippenberger paintings such as the 1976-77 series “Uno di voi, un tedesco in Firenze” (One of you, a German in Florence) and the kind of canvases he was producing at the height of his association with Oehlen.


IN EARLY 1988, Oehlen and Kippenberger rented a house/studio in the southern Spanish town of Carmona. Oehlen recalls that “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.”4 It also seems to have marked the end of his “wild years” and the start of his long residence in various parts of Spain. If the period 1988-89 marks a transition in Oehlen’s work, one has to ask if the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of Western Communism influenced his practice. Oehlen has dismissed the idea, telling a French interviewer in 2009, “I was in Spain when the Wall fell. I saw on TV the arrival of the East German cars, the ‘Trabis.’ I can’t say I was upset. I didn’t feel very German.”5 Interestingly, Oehlen refers to his 1988-97 abstract paintings as “post-non-objective.” The phrase is odd since you would expect an artist who had switched from figuration to abstraction to call his new work “post-representational” or “post-figurative” rather than “post-non-objective,” the term “non-objective” being a common synonym for abstraction. Oehlen’s odd terminology suggests that he wanted to escape the abstract/figurative binary, in order to make paintings in which one didn’t have to take sides, and in which content wouldn’t be equated with the presence or absence of recognizable imagery. This stance parallels post-1989 geopolitics, insofar as the postwar discourse around abstraction had been intimately bound up with the ideological debates of the Cold War, especially in West Germany where, as an alternative to the social realist styles imposed throughout the Communist Bloc, abstract art was widely seen as emblematic of the Federal Republic’s integration into the democratic West.6

As the 1990s progressed and Oehlen continued to work abstractly, he began to experiment with different materials and techniques. In 1992, he started his “Fabric Paintings,” oil paintings executed on pieces of commercially printed fabric stitched together and stretched like traditional canvas. In the same year he also first turned to the computer as a compositional tool. Although Oehlen’s embrace of the computer might suggest some ramping up of production, this doesn’t seem to have occurred. By 1996, his pace of painting had slowed down to eight or 10 canvases per year, even as his range of techniques multiplied. He began to employ silkscreens, digital printing, collage and spray paint as well as oils and acrylics, often on a single canvas; this hybrid practice has continued to the present.

It didn’t escape some critics that certain bodies of work Oehlen made in the 1990s (the “Fabric Paintings” and a group of gray paintings from 1997) evoked projects by two major German painters of the previous generation, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, the latter of whom had been Oehlen’s teacher in Hamburg. Oehlen has explained his intermittent making of gray paintings as a spur to using more color: “I wanted to paint even more powerfully colored pictures and prescribed the gray ones for myself as therapy so as to artificially heighten the craving for color.”7 I don’t doubt the artist’s explanation, but I also think that the gray paintings, like the “Fabric Paintings,” can be seen as evidence of Oehlen’s compulsion to struggle directly with art history. Rather than deprive himself of printed-fabric supports or all-gray paintings because such elements had been notably explored by other artists, Oehlen decided to utilize them in ways that were recognizably his own and might contribute to the history of the medium.

Like most great painters (and maybe all of them), Oehlen is keenly aware of what has been done before and how difficult it can be to open up new creative space. Refreshingly, he doesn’t simply plunder art history for stylistic options or knowing references, but instead seeks to understand, assimilate and, with luck, transcend past precedents. For the last seven or eight years, the historical antecedent that Oehlen has been contending with most directly has been Abstract Expressionism. The process began, the artist says, when he saw an exhibition titled “Action Painting” at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, Switzerland.

It was by no means my favorite type of painting; I merely thought I should give it a try, and since my approach is a deliberate, very slow way of painting and a very artificial procedure, it cannot ever be considered spontaneous or aggressive. Everything that played a role in action painting was intentionally left out, totally eliminated. My pictures were constructed. And then to be confronted with the term ”action” . . . after my work of the past twenty years . . . that was finally the moment when I was able to get somewhere with action. When I integrated it into my practice, it became a wholly different story than if I had simply charged at the canvas headfirst in 1988.8

So deeply immersed has Oehlen become in Abstract Expressionism that de Kooning now looms greater for him than any other artist. In 2009 he told a French interviewer that de Kooning was his “absolute master, a painter who was truly fascinating all through his life,” and when Glenn O’Brien asked who inspired him in the history of abstract painting, Oehlen replied, “It’s mostly de Kooning. I was fascinated by others, but the thing that lasts is de Kooning.”9

The “Action Painting” show also inspired Oehlen to start using a painting tool he had never considered. “I said to myself: ‘Which painting could one add to this hanging?’ That influenced my way of painting: I started to use my hands, something I found ridiculous and impossible before.”10 Although it was a departure in Oehlen’s work, finger painting had a well-known precedent in Gerhard Richter’s allover monochromes of 1972. Maybe that was one of the reasons that Oehlen had found it “impossible” before 2008. Something he saw in the “Action Painting” show must have suggested to him how he could try Fingermalerei in a way that wouldn’t be dismissed as Richteresque.11


FINGER PAINTING IS but one of the many ways that Oehlen has sought throughout his career to interfere with or detour around conventional approaches to painting. Again and again, this studio restlessness has helped him to avoid settling down into any formulaic style. Large oil works are sometimes painted on canvas supports that carry ink-jet printed enlargements of the artist’s digital drawings. On several occasions he has used one of his paintings as a film screen, projecting onto it the 1986 movie 9½ Weeks, starring Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger. Nor has he ruled out provocations that hark back to his Kippenberger years: Oehlen’s 2008 finger painting titled FM 9 features a toilet seat glued to the canvas. In the mid-1990s his writer friend Rainald Goetz challenged Oehlen’s emphasis on “clarity.” (“He told me that believing yourself to have achieved clarity was a stupid state to be in.”12 ) As a result, Oehlen started a new body of emphatically nonabstract work that he calls “computer collage posters.” Similarly, around 2008 he began affixing Spanish advertising posters to his canvases and painting over them with brushes and his fingers. As artistically successful as the poster paintings have been, I didn’t expect Oehlen to stay with them forever, and in fact in 2014 he unveiled a new mode: stark paintings on aluminum panels of black treelike forms against geometric shapes and white grounds. There is no finger painting, no “action” in sight: de Kooning seems to have left the room.

The presence of the posters, with their cheap, emphatic graphics guarantee that the painting won’t be “pure,” that the experience of looking at it will involve some kind of conflict, on the canvas and in the viewer’s mind. What are these works about? Is the presence of the poster just a way for the painter to have something to take off from, as when de Kooning would paint a big arbitrary letter shape so he wouldn’t be stuck with a blank canvas? Or is the artist trying to say something about high and low, about the interweaving of pop culture and fine art, about advertising and contemporary painting?

Ultimately, the effect of the paintings, the kind of experiences they offer, is far more subtle and rewarding than such crass binaries. But perhaps it is the very crassness of this initial juxtaposition, its blatancy, that permits Oehlen to venture into such complex painting territory, to do the amazing things with color, gesture, space and light that make the poster paintings feel as visually rich as some Baroque masterpiece. Recently my eye was caught by a striking resemblance—or so it seemed to me—between some of Oehlen’s poster paintings and the zigzagging yellow and purple satin garments in Anthony van Dyck’s 1632 portrait of the doomed English sovereign Charles I and his family. (Oehlen’s colorful schmears can also evoke passages in Cy Twombly’s paintings, but his compositions are wisely devoid of any Twomblyesque graffiti.)

In 2010 Oehlen explained his decision to start painting over posters:

It evolved slowly, and finally I would permit myself something that could have been misunderstood before. Back then [in the late 1980s and 1990s] it wouldn’t have worked. It would have been overpainting, which was already around. Overpainting always interested me, but there were already stupendous works that couldn’t be topped.13

Here, I think, is a wonderful glimpse into what has made Oehlen such a significant painter. He knows that the technique of “overpainting” holds great potential for his work, and he also knows that if he doesn’t approach it properly, if he doesn’t find an unprecedented relationship of ground image and paint, he will just be repeating what so many other artists have done before him. Patient, rigorous in his conceptualizing, and then, when the moment comes, absolutely free, as if he were the first one in the world to attempt the thing at hand, Oehlen is able to turn the anxiety of influence into the most personal of styles.

When I included Oehlen in my May 2009 A.i.A. article “Provisional Painting” it was because of these overpainted poster paintings as well as his earlier black-and-white computer paintings. At the start of the article I described him, Raoul De Keyser, Christopher Wool, Mary Heilmann and Michael Krebber as “artists who have long made works that look casual, dashed-off, tentative, unfinished or self-cancelling. In different ways, they all deliberately turn away from ‘strong’ painting for something that seems to constantly risk inconsequence or collapse.” One aspect of Oehlen’s work that made it look “provisional” to me was his use of basic graphic design software, with crude pixelation and obviously off-the-shelf effects. The situation of a gifted and experienced painter deliberately turning to a drawing tool that seemed to exclude all his skills was paradoxical, even perverse. That it resulted in unexpectedly compelling paintings forced me to rethink some fundamental painting issues, as did the exhilarating balance between virtuosity and defacement in the overpainted posters. (Rereading my brief description of these works in “Provisional Painting” I think that I didn’t do justice to their painterly lyricism.)

In “Provisional Painting” I connected punk to a particular approach to painting. Oehlen has some interesting things to say on the subject. He explicitly links his initial choice to become a painter to the ethos of punk. As he recalls in a 2003 interview:

What sparked my interest was a desire to be involved with the medium that quintessentially represented High Art but which at the time, in the late 1970s, was coming under fierce attack. Added to which, there was a general feeling of massive potential in painting, since so little was happening in that field. It was more or less a black hole. And it coincided with Punk, the feeling that one could use rudimentary means to revitalize the whole thing. There was no question of being intimidated by jibes like: “Go and learn to play an instrument.”14

Oehlen is then asked how he feels about the punk attitude now. Noting that it can be helpful in giving young people the confidence “they might otherwise have lacked,” Oehlen adds that “it soon becomes ridiculous.” Like any other originally iconoclastic, avant-garde, disruptive stance, punk inevitably turned into a codified style.

Something similar seems to have been happening among younger painters attracted to the painting mode I identified in my 2009 article. If a new generation of artists (and maybe an occasional contemporary) wishes to learn valuable lessons from Albert Oehlen, they will not find what they are looking for in any of his specific moves (compositional overload, playing high against low, mixing the digital and the handmade, inserting text into abstraction, etc.), although his brilliance as a colorist should be taken as a challenge by all chromophobic painters. Admirers should focus, rather, on his refusal, for more than three decades, to ever be satisfied with his own art, and on his equally sustained, equally demanding pursuit of a deep dialogue with art history.


Albert Oehlen


Albert Oehlen studied in Hamburg with Sigmar Polke, played a central role in a prodigious group of artists who came to the fore in the ’80s, and was associated with various movements and groups—some apt, some gratuitous. I would describe him with that popular health-food term free radical. Today, the German-born Oehlen lives and works in Berlin, Switzerland, and Spain. A retrospective of his work opened recently at Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, and he has a solo show running all this month at Luhring Augustine in New York. I interviewed him in New York when he came for the opening of a show featuring the work of his late friend Martin Kippenberger at the Museum of Modern Art. During the interview, we were joined by Oehlen’s friend and mine, the painter Christopher Wool.

GLENN O’BRIEN: Maybe this is a dumb question, but what made you want to be an artist in the first place?

ALBERT OEHLEN: Oh, I can’t remember the moment where I had this idea or made the decision, because I think I always had the feeling that I am an artist. My father was an artist, my brother’s an artist, so . . . [laughs]

O’BRIEN: Your brother is close to you in age, right?

OEHLEN: Yes, he’s two years younger and also a painter and a sculptor . . . He makes sculptures all the time. I think the moment where I would have made the decision—if I had made the decision—was in the late ’60s, early ’70s. Everything was still under the strong influence of the ’68 turbulences, and I was really shaken by that. One saw one’s role differently. It didn’t occur to me to make a kind of normal career, like learning to be an artist and becoming one. Because at that time, especially when you’re young and a bit naïve, a lot of things seem possible.

O’BRIEN: It seems like you were involved in a lot of groups, or certainly extended families of friends, who were doing things together.

OEHLEN: It was more extended families rather than groups.

O’BRIEN: I guess it was kind of like what was going on in New York around the same time. It was kind of a scene, and the same people were making paintings and making music and making films.

OEHLEN: Yeah, it was like that. It was friendships, and not much more. We were colleagues—I mean, fellow students.

O’BRIEN: Did you study alongside Martin Kippenberger?

OEHLEN: No, he was at the same school [Academy of Fine Arts Hamburg], but a couple of years before me. And our paths crossed at that moment. We moved in different directions. He, from Hamburg to Berlin, and I, from Berlin to Hamburg. But still we met . . . [laughs] maybe one day when we were both in the same city, and became friends.

O’BRIEN: You were in a band. Were you making music then, or did that come later?

OEHLEN: I never made music seriously. My brother was in a punk band at that time.

O’BRIEN: Which band?

OEHLEN: Mittagspause. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them. They were good.

O’BRIEN: That rings a bell. I tried to keep up with the Germans. I used to write for this German music paper—do you remember Spex?

OEHLEN: Yeah, of course.

O’BRIEN: I wrote for them, and I followed the German bands a little bit. I was a huge fan of Kraftwerk and Einstürzende Neubaten.

OEHLEN: Oh, yeah. [laughs] Well, that was a bit later. Markus’s band was very early. They tried to be the German Wire. I liked them. But I never played an instrument. Of course, I was part of some militant activities at that time and then later with Mayo Thompson, who was a friend.

O’BRIEN: You’re part of the history of Red Krayola, a band member, officially, even if you weren’t.

OEHLEN: It wasn’t really about music, but I was somehow involved—like talking, ideas . . .

O’BRIEN: There was a lot of funny stuff going on that was sort of the edge of music at that time.



(design/edited Leo Edelstein and Yanni Florence)
Pataphysics Magazine Interview with Albert Oehlen
from the Blue issue

Albert Oehlen: I was always interested in the transportation of meaning, and I tried to find out what’s possible with that. When I started I was a kind of left-wing radical and I was interested in transporting this meaning-like making propaganda. I always liked the work of Immendorff; he did this thing too and he seemed to fail very early, but he continued doing it, and this was a very interesting thing for me. I couldn’t repeat this experience but I had his experiences in mind when I started with my things. I experimented by trying to glorify something in the painting or trying to criticize. I saw very early that this failed and I wouldn’t like the result. But I thought that I had to do it because as an artwork the result would be good; if I had the feeling that it wouldn’t work, I thought I had to prove that it doesn’t work. I thought this was good enough to do. The question is: what is the frame? what shall it be? what is the real subject of the work? Then you can say, ‘OK now I’ll paint Stalin,’ but you haven’t really painted Stalin, you did something else because you cannot find out if you were trying to praise or criticize him-there are more than two viewpoints. I started with this idea and I still have in mind that it’s absolutely not clear what the picture is saying-this is a big problem.

Pataphysics: Do you want your images to be clear?

AO: Yes, but this wish is determined by the above-mentioned problem. It should always be visible in my paintings that this wish is present-otherwise my art would be funny or even satirical. Once the painting does not say anything, this does not mean that my general attitude towards clarity has changed, only the result turns out to be quite complex and no ‘solution’ in a folk-psychological sense has taken place. But the intention is the same and there is no reason to change it. On the other hand, this intention should not lead to idealization, which on this level would always mean decrease in content.

P: In relation to your belief that artworks function ‘either to glorify or criticize,’ how do you position your painting of Hitler done in 1986?

AO: This Hitler painting is a very big failure; it really is a disaster somehow, but it was meant as that. It was meant as an extreme point of content and the extreme point of painting. This idea of the three basic colors was meant to make it very artificial and the subject Hitler was meant as a maximum of content and association. But these two aspects together were meant as something that doesn’t work, and this picture has failed so much that it just looks like an ugly, wild painting. It was the result of an experiment where I wanted to prove that propaganda doesn’t work, and it really didn’t work.

P: Is it possible for painting today to ‘oppose’ failure?

AO: The idea of ‘failure’ is connected with the historical context. Art always seems to give answers in the historical perspective; glorifying or criticizing or simply advertising ‘failure’ is a strategy to oppose such concepts by blocking them and by not playing around with them and changing their meanings.

P: How do you see your painting of Hitler in relation to Keifer’s images of Fascist architecture?

AO: I have a doubt I can really say something. Kiefer deals with speculations. With misunderstandings. And, of course, Kiefer knows he is clean-he knows he is not a fascist. I try to prove that these are misunderstandings-for example, I don’t believe in symbols. Symbols are, in practice, never used as independent global units. The idea of ‘openness’ with respect to symbols is-in most cases-a lie. The truth is that pigs always want to deal with things in their own language and that is why they need symbols. Even if symbols work in their language in a way which seems to be independent and precise, they are only vehicles of the intentions of the language in question. At the same time they deny this, because the viewer learns to deal with the symbols-they learn the language and believe it is their own language.

P: Do you see any relationship between the recent events in Berlin and your work of the past decade?

AO: No, I don’t see a relationship. The main moving in my consciousness is that I started with very big intentions-I used art for propaganda, for saying something-and now I get more and more disappointed by seeing that that’s not possible, and I try to blame the art on it, of course. This shouldn’t sound like I’m unhappy with the art or with the politics, but I think if the relationship between art and reality is that way, then I want to prove that it is that way.

P: What defines beauty in art? Can art be beautiful if it is a lie?

AO: I can find something beautiful if I understand the idea and if I think there’s the right thought behind it. To lie in art would be a misunderstanding-it would be taking art for something that it isn’t; for example, to try to use it. This is the main lie, the main misunderstanding, in art, that you can use it as something to pleasure the eye as an organ. This idea is really a thing that is around. Or the thought that you could enjoy art, really directly enjoy it…

P: In relation to this how do you see the series of carpets you exhibited in 1987…?

AO: This is a good example because this is absolutely about failure. This is about the misunderstanding of using art because it’s artwork that you really use because you run around on it and you step on it. They were collages and they all have critical texts on them; they’re phrases that are supposed to be critical but they are platitudes. They don’t say much, they just say things like : ‘Be young, be radical’ or ‘Don’t fall asleep’ or ‘The yell against hunger’-all these stupid things that don’t say anything.

P: Is this the same with the phrases on your more recent paintings?

AO: These things are kind of the opposite; these are optimistic phrases. These are phrases I took out of poems by Walt Whitman and some of Guy Debord. I found phrases that have the same sound and the same meaning.

P: What was the importance of your experience as a member of Sigmar Polke’s class in the ’70s?

AO: We were quite alone there, and I had only one friend in this class who was Georg Herold. Polke more or less tried to show us that he wasn’t able to teach us something in the classical sense, so he gave us a main lecture for every artist, which is to destroy a chair. This is the only thing I can remember. Then he showed me a film he made, and told me about his travellings in Australia… I couldn’t say what Polke’s influence was, but it’s his radicality. When you start to work as an artist everybody thinks about radicality, like how could you make the most shocking thing. And it’s not easy. Today it should still be possible, but it’s very difficult. Polke is somebody who had a role in that; in a way he made very radical things.

P: Do you worry about where your work is presented?

AO: No. I decided once that I shouldn’t care about that because I’m not this kind of artist, like some Americans who have control over everything that happens with their work and place it in special collections. But I can’t care about that, I cannot control it. I feel I have to make one good picture after another and this should be my work.

P: You’ve said that you attempt to avoid making errors. How do you trust yourself enough to be able to judge what is and what isn’t an error?

AO: There are two kinds of mistakes. The one mistake is the ‘bad’ picture. Of course, I’ve made pictures that I don’t like or like less than others. The other mistake is the positive mistake where I say I can afford this mistake because this is not the meaning of the picture. I like these mistakes or these errors but with them I try to prove that the subject or the concept of the picture is on something else-in this case the mistakes are good. For example, in the beginning I made horrible mistakes in the classical sense of painting just to prove that I wasn’t interested in this.

P: Formally, what is the importance of composition in your recent work?

AO: It is a composition of the ingredients: content = stubbornness and motive = why am I doing this. But at the end there is no problem of composition because ‘the thing’ is, what’s happening in the middle of the picture and reverse.

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