Albert Oehlen - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session New York Tuesday, May 16, 2023 | Phillips

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  • “His pictures possess no unity of composition, only unremitting energy…. If Oehlen has a method, it is to recoil, stroke by stroke, from conventional elegance —strangling one aborning stylistic grace after another.”
    —Peter Schjeldahl

    In Albert Oehlen’s Vergessen auf Rädern paint in its various guises detonates across the monumental canvas in silky grisaille. Painted in 2005, this work is testament to Oehlen’s continuous, over three-decades long negotiation with the history of painting. The present example belongs to the artist’s discrete series of Gray Paintings, which, in a sly nod to Gerhard Richter’s seminal Tisch, 1962, feature built up, intricate compositions with blurred objects and figures. Compositional elements slip in and out of focus, veiled into abstraction by translucent brushstrokes. In Vergessen auf Rädern (which translates to “Forgetting on Wheels”), the black mass at center hints at the profile of an automobile or carriage viewed in motion. The object, peeking through more legibly at center, is witnessed as if suffused by the haze of memory. Previously held in the esteemed Ringier Collection, the present work was exhibited in the artist’s seminal exhibitions at Whitechapel Art Gallery, London and the Arnolfini, Bristol, as well as at the Kunstmuseum Bonn. Another example from the series is held in the collection of the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt.


    Oehlen’s Gray Paintings build on his pioneering abstract language of “post non-representational painting” that he pioneered in the 1990s, following his now legendary breakthrough in 1988. For Oehlen—who up until that time had worked in the neo-expressionist style of painting associated with the Neue Wilde, a loose grouping of artists including Jörg Immendorff and Martin Kippenberger—this decisive turn toward abstraction was both a formal and conceptual progression. “I wanted to start something new that I was dreaming of for a long time, which was abstract painting,” he recalled. “…In a way it was because I thought that art history went from figurative to abstract. And I should do the same. I should have the same development in my life as art history.”i

    “I wanted to paint pictures that were even more colorful, and prescribed myself gray as a therapy to artificially increase my greed for color." 
    —Albert Oehlen

    Rejecting the straightforward binary of abstract and figurative painting, Oehlen’s canvases began to instead adopt “a chorus of contradictory gestures; figuration is set against abstraction, form against anti-form, the rhythm of pattern versus a meandering stroke.” ii Created between 1997 and 2008, Oehlen’s Gray Paintings served as a counterpoint to his explosive, almost psychedelic, technicolor paintings. As he explained, “I wanted to paint pictures that were even more colorful, and prescribed myself gray as a therapy to artificially increase my greed for color.”iii


    Gerhard Richter, Tisch, 1962, Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge (loan from a private collection). Image/Artwork: © Gerhard Richter 2023 (0102) 

    Oehlen typically approaches his series with systematic rules, and here imposed limitations on color to hone in on the gesture and materiality of painting. While Oehlen’s embrace of the muted gray palette conjures the restraint of Minimalism, it more specifically plays into Gerhard Richter’s early monochromatic gray paintings. Vergessen auf Rädern vividly evokes Richter’s iconic Tisch (Table), 1962, which proved to be a turning point in Richter's career that set the stage for his conceptual painting practice (indeed, this work is the first painting listed in his catalogue raisonné). The central motif of the table, based on a photograph from a design magazine, is crucially overpainted by a gestural swirl—foreshadowing in equal measures the blurring technique of his later paintings and his continued oscillation between representation and abstraction.


    Richter famously drew on the ready-made imagery of post-war German consumer culture and his own archive of photographs, transforming them through a grisaille color palette. In reference to Richter, Oehlen notably remarks: “My Grey Paintings are about giving the picture a painterly treatment that has nothing to do with depicting a subject, but rather aims through the subject back toward the point of departure. Which was to produce a beautiful abstract painting. Richter paints his motifs in a kind of blurry motion that seems to originate within the viewer, who wants to look away but can’t. I want to drag the viewer head-on through the picture” iv

    “Grey is a colour—and sometimes, to me, the most important of all.”
    —Gerhard Richter

    The tension between figuration and abstraction in Vergessen auf Rädern recalls Richter’s own negotiation between the two modes. The genesis of Richter’s gray monochromes famously came from an act of negation when, in 1968, he grew disappointed with his photo-paintings and painted over them. In a moment that championed Conceptual, Minimalist and abstract art, Richter turned to the abstract monochrome while pointedly relishing in the sensuality of paint. While not necessarily emulating his predecessor, Oehlen’s sly nod sets the stage for his progressive departure.


    In Vergessen auf Rädern hints of figuration are set against a cacophony of brushstrokes. Colors and forms coalesce on the vast canvas with a deliberate nonchalance that belies its studied formal complexity. What at first appears to be quick-tempo, impromptu brushstrokes is revealed to be an achievement of a deliberate and methodological working method. Each drip, smudge and stroke is, in fact, carefully painted, just as the overall image intentionally teeters at the edge of dissolution. An electrifying composition, Vergessen auf Rädern viscerally exemplifies how Oehlen’s radical practice has reconfigured the possibilities of the medium of painting.



    Albert Oehlen, quoted in Glenn O’Brien, “Albert Oehlen,” Interview Magazine, May 2009, p. 106

    ii Albert Oehlen, quoted in Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden, exh. cat., New Museum, New York, 2015, p. 102

    iii Albert Oehlen, quoted in Hanz Werner Holzwarth, ed., Albert Oehlen, Cologne, 2009, p. 378

    iv Albert Oehlen in Hanz Werner Holzwarth, ed., Albert Oehlen, Cologne, 2009, p. 436

    • Provenance

      Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin
      Private Collection, Switzerland
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Berlin, Galerie Max Hetzler, Albert Oehlen, March 18–April 22, 2006, no. 8, n.p. (illustrated)
      London, Whitechapel Art Gallery; Bristol, Arnolfini, Albert Oehlen: I will always champion good painting/ I will always champion bad painting, July–November 2006, pp. 4, 75 (illustrated, p. 75)
      Kunstmuseum Bonn, Albert Oehlen, March–June 2012, pp. 18, 137 (illustrated, p. 18)

    • Literature

      Hans Werner Holzwarth, ed., Albert Oehlen, Cologne, 2009, pp. 452, 654 (illustrated, p. 452)
      Albert Oehlen, exh. cat., Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, 2009, p. 30 (illustrated)
      Roland Schappert, “Albert Oehlen,” Kunstforum International, no. 216, July–August 2012, p. 186
      Hans Werner Holzwarth, ed., Albert Oehlen, Cologne, 2017, pp. 308, 492 (illustrated, p. 308)


Vergessen auf Rädern

oil on canvas
82 7/8 x 102 1/4 in. (210 x 260 cm)
Painted in 2005.

Full Cataloguing

$600,000 - 800,000 

Contact Specialist

Patrizia Koenig
Specialist, Head of Sale, Afternoon Session
+1 212 940 1279

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session

New York Auction 16 May 2023