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Galerie Nathalie Obadia, France
Private Collection (acquired from the above in 2003)
Sotheby's, New York, 13 November 2012, lot 69
Sotheby's, London, 17 October 2014, lot 5
Private Collection, South Africa
Private Collection, Los Angeles
Paris, Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Galerie Nathalie Obadia celebrates its tenth anniversary, 20 September - 10 November 2003
Executed in 2002, Albert Oehlen’s La Playa Nueva is a monumental tour-de-force of chromatic complexity. The delicate rivulets of paint counter thick brushstrokes within this painting, testifying to Oehlen’s life-long fascination with the matìere of painting. At the same time they demonstrate the cachet of excess and idiosyncrasy that has characterised his distinct and prescient oeuvre. Taking the artistic legacy of such artists as Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell into compellingly unconventional pastures, La Playa Nueva perfects the studied nonchalance of Oehlen’s earlier paintings. Whilst seemingly announcing itself with the tempo of impromptu gestural brushstrokes, the electrifying composition is in fact the achievement of a deliberate and methodological working method. Each drip, smudge and stroke that would otherwise be the product of improvisation is carefully painted, just as the anarchic composition is intentionally constructed to teeter at the edge of total dissolution. La Playa Nueva is an eloquent testament to Oehlen’s more recent embrace of the chromatic possibilities in painting: ‘I had always used colour - but not with my heart, my eye, or my aesthetic judgment. I just didn’t care about colour, and I was happy not to think about it. For about 20 years, I just put my paint on the palette and worked with what was there. Then came the moment when I thought, What would happen if I did care about colour?’ (Albert Oehlen, quoted in Sean O’Hagan, ‘Albert Oehlen: The Change Artist’, W Magazine, 15 May 2015, online).
Seen in tandem with other works created in the early 2000s, such as the seminal Selbstporträt mit Offenem Mund, 2001, La Playa Nueva points to Oehlen’s simultaneous pursuit of abstract and figurative painting. As Oehlen has notably explained in this regard,‘The question “abstract or not abstract”…is irrelevant to me. I have a whole series of forerunners in this opinion, for example Georg Baselitz, who turned the motif upside-down – a magnificent gesture, considered and courageous … Upside-down, the subject is still recognizable, but it doesn’t make sense, because it’s standing on its head’ (Albert Oehlen, quoted in ‘The Rules of the Game’, Artforum, November 1994). With La Playa Nueva, Oehlen appears to be pursuing a similar strategy of turning the motif on its end. The orange silhouette of a human figure at the bottom of the canvas hints at a landscape scene having been turned 90 degrees to the right. Viewed from this perspective, a beach scene begins to reveal itself – the quasi-abstract shape in the upper left begins to read as a tropical flower, while the linearity of the rivulets of blue paint indicates the horizon of an ocean. The painting’s title, which literally translates as ‘new beach’ but could also refer to an eponymous resort in the Dominican Republic, summons a tropical scene of languor that in many ways recalls Sigmar Polke’s Dschungel, 1967. By rotating the painting and complicating straightforward readings through an explosive cacophony of form and colour, Oehlen characteristically complicates any claims of representation. As such, La Playa Nueva powerfully underlines curator Martin Clark’s acute observation that, ‘Oehlen has painted himself into a position where none of his canvases can be described as either abstract or figurative … Oehlen’s sampledelic, synthesized practice extends painting’s vocabulary – its expressive, emotional range – whether intentionally or not. But it is his attitude – Punk’s lasting legacy – that ensures his work remains so restless and vital’ (Martin Clark, ‘Abstract Painting Must Die Now’ in Albert Oehlen: I Will Always Champion Good Painting, exh. cat., Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2006, p. 59).
Having studied painting under the tutelage of Sigmar Polke in the late 1970s, in the 1980s Oehlen was a trailblazing force within the ‘Hetzler boys’ – the anti-establishment cohort of artists, namely Werner Büttner, Georg Herold and Martin Kippenberger who all exhibited with Cologne dealer Max Hetzler. Pursuing a radical acceptance of the very medium that represented ‘high art’, but was also under fierce attack from Conceptualism and Minimalism, Oehlen threw himself enthusiastically into the practice of ‘bad painting’. It was, however, with his ingenious transition from figuration to abstraction in the late 1980s – prompted by his now legendary sojourn with Kippenberger in Spain in 1988 – that Oehlen truly found a way to attack the very bastion of painting from within. Emulating, but also transcending, the progression of twentieth century modernism, Oehlen sardonically labeled his efforts as ‘post-non-objective’. Continuously resisting any stylistic allegiances, Oehlen’s work by the mid-1990s pursued an unprecedented mash-up of seemingly incompatible aesthetics, vocabularies and materials – integrating banal words and images from advertising and working with outdated, underdeveloped computer tools, while ruthlessly pulling apart the art historical legacy of Cubism, Surrealism, German and Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Executed in 2002, La Playa Nueva represents a return to the sensual painterly pleasures afforded by his early ‘post-non-objective’ paintings, at the same time as it continues Oehlen’s fusing of figurative and abstract elements.
London Auction 6 October 2017