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£250,000 - 350,000 ♠
sold for £269,000
Albert Oehlen’s Amber presents the viewer with a dynamic, kaleidoscopic maelstrom of colours, marks, signs and brushstrokes. Painted in 1995, this picture reveals both Oehlen’s credentials as one of the enfants terribles of post-war German painting, and also as an artist fascinated with the potential, and pitfalls, of his own medium. This work is equal parts punk and Post-Modernism, a lively assault on the hegemonies that have been created in the art world over the decades.
The 1990s saw a seismic shift in Oehlen’s praxis. Turning away from the figurativism that had defined his earlier work, Oehlen careered towards progressively dissonant, abstract compositions of which Amber is a superlative, early example. This radical change mirrored the evolution painting through and beyond the Modernism of the twentieth century, but did so by adopting such rebellious gestures and anarchic pictorial chaos that the resultant painting appears to obliterate all the established aesthetic principles that had preceded them. In Amber, hints of figuration peek through the turbulent swirls and scrawls of the paintwork, for instance the stern of an old ship and the head of a battle axe in the lower left-hand corner. By contrasting these with the abstract, gestural application of oils which dominates the composition, Oehlen has in fact created a microcosm of the evolution of painting in the twentieth century. In Amber, the result is a palimpsest, with discernible signs, more formal areas and hints of geometric shapes contrasting with the vigorously-applied paints that finally dominate the surface.
Oehlen used the history of painting as a means of forging a new path in his own right, at a time when many artists were struggling with directions in which to take the medium. By invoking his predecessors, Oehlen purposefully misappropriated artistic convention, thereby liberating himself from its confinement. Amber represents Oehlen’s transcendence of aesthetics. Building layer upon layer, the figures and hues barely hang in balance as Oehlen pushes the capacity of painting to its absolute limit. His most accomplished works inhabit a distinct space – what he termed ‘post-non-objectivity’ – in which painting cannot be readily analysed as purely figurative or abstract, nor as a simple mixture of the two either. As the curator Martin Clark explains, 'it feels like his works have evolved into an entirely new species; brought into being like Frankenstein’s monster; cobbled together from the best and the worst bits of art history’s gaudy corpses.' (Martin Clark, "Abstract Painting Must Die Now", in Albert Oehlen, I Will Always Champion Bad Paintings, exh. cat., Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2006, p. 59).
Oehlen’s use of source material as a springboard for his compositions had shifted in 1990 when he began to use computer imagery as a basis for some of his works. In doing so, it was often the arbitrary nature of early computer graphics that intrigued him, with the stepped edges of the various pixels providing a contrast with the curves that they were supposed to delineate. Oehlen was dismantling the entire language of representation. In Amber, a parallel process is clearly at work, with Oehlen undermining and overpainting everything that might hint at legibility or open interpretation. However the artist’s own marks remain clear, and indeed emphatic. ‘I require of myself that my paintings be comprehensible,’ Oehlen explained in 1995, the year after Amber was painted.
‘That doesn't mean everyone likes them, or should. But even someone who thinks a particular work is an insult can still get close to it. I'm interested in very simple things. In the last few years, I've been particularly concerned with evidence - with not seeing anything in the painting other than what's actually there. Nothing is codified - a mess is just a mess. I want an art where you see how it's made, not what the artist intended, or what the work means, but what has been made, the traces of production' (Albert Oehlen, quoted in D. Diederichson, 'The Rules of the Game - Artist Albert Oehlen - Interview', ArtForum, November 1994).
£250,000 - 350,000 ♠
sold for £269,000
London Auction 5 October 2016