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  • Overview

    'Qualities that I want to see brought together: delicacy and coarseness, color and vagueness, and, underlying them all, a base note of hysteria.' —Albert Oehlen

    In Untitled, Albert Oehlen presents the corporeal hybrid of a man and a beast. Set against an abstract white ground, the animal is depicted dressed in a shirt and suit, with its eyes and mouth open in stupefaction. Though pictures of stags were long an established part of German culture, with representations of roaring creatures frequently dominating living-room décors, the animal in Untitled seems to dig deeper into Oehlen’s understanding of the creative self, forming part of a wider body of work interrogating – and mocking – the genre of self-portraiture. Seen from this sardonic angle, Untitled is redolent of the French poet Charles Baudelaire’s 1859 poem The Albatross, comparing artists and creative figures to gauche, enervated birds railing against external restrictions. Contained within a large, rectangular canvas, the hybrid being in Oehlen’s Untitled similarly posits as an allegory for a creature under pressure, notably echoing the artist’s similar portrait of a deer in Auch Einer, residing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Recognised as one of the most innovative and significant painters working today, Oehlen was recently celebrated on the occasion of his major solo exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries, London, in 2019.

     

    Albert Oehlen, Bull with Horn, 1986, oil and resin on canvas, private collection.  Image: © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images. © Albert Oehlen. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2021.
    Albert Oehlen, Bull with Horn, 1986, oil and resin on canvas, Private Collection. Image: © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images. © Albert Oehlen. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2021.

    Between Tradition and Modernity

     

    Discussing the origins of his painterly practice, Oehlen declared that ‘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’.1 In these interstices between tradition and modernity, impasse and potential, Oehlen ushered a new approach to the medium, populating his canvases with traditional painterly elements, only to ridicule them thereafter. With Untitled, Oehlen’s satirical take on the genre of portraiture forms part of a wider questioning he undertook in the 1980s, whereby he would create self-portraits that deliberately identified with art historical tropes. Subjecting these to cynical subversion, he would, in his biting portraits of stags specifically, fuse the appearance of bestial creatures with his own likeness. With its expressive traits and its indexically ambiguous elements, Untitled is an exquisite example from this sequence of works — and one of his most figurative.

    'I want to make beautiful paintings. But I don’t make beautiful paintings by putting beautiful paint on a canvas with a beautiful motif. It just doesn’t work. I expect my paintings to be strong and surprising. When I see a painting that knocks me off my feet, I say "How could he do that? How did he dare?" That’s beauty.'
    —Albert Oehlen

    A Rebellious Crowd

     

    Particularly poignant in Oehlen’s depiction of its central animalistic figure is the artist’s commentary on his analogous status as an outsider. The comparison between Untitled’s stag and Oehlen himself extends a longstanding, universal allegory positing the artist figure as a lone being making one with nature, but also incorporates, more specifically, the unique position Oehlen assumed within the art world of his time, alongside his bombastic friends and frequent collaborators Martin Kippenberger, Werner Büttner and Georg Herold. Resolutely anti-establishment, the four artists would create deliberately termed ‘bad art’, whilst frequently wearing suits – an attire seldom associated with creativity – as an ironic gesture demonstrating the frivolousness of what was socially deemed ‘serious’. Artistically, they nonetheless continued cultivating their pictorial practice, all the while developing a conceptual flair that, in Oehlen’s case, was intensely and discreetly woven in the very subjects of his paintings. ‘[Oehlen] adopts the critical attitude of Conceptual Art’, explained Chirstoph Schreier, ‘but articulates it not from the outside, but from the inside – from inside the painting itself’.2  In Untitled, the monumental stag most serves as Oehlen’s conceptual quip: equally forced into a suit (a metaphorical straitjacket of social convention), the animal is left to gauge the clashing interiority of his persona.

     

    Opening of Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen's show Women in My Father's Life in the Erhard Klein Gallery, Bonn, 1983. Featuring Max Hetzler, Werner Büttner, Albert Oehlen and Martin Kippenberger, singing the miner's song "Glück auf, Glück auf". © Galerie Klein.
    Opening of Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen's show Women in My Father's Life in the Erhard Klein Gallery, Bonn, 1983. Featuring Max Hetzler, Werner Büttner, Albert Oehlen and Martin Kippenberger, singing the miner's song "Glück auf, Glück auf". © Galerie Klein.

    1 Albert Oehlen, quoted in Jorg Heiser and Jan Verwoert, ‘Ordinary Madness: An interview with Albert Oehlen’, Frieze, Issue 78, October 2003.
    2 Christoph Schreier, ‘Storm Damage – Albert Oehlen’s Painting as a Visual Stress Test’, Albert Oehlen, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Bonn, 2012, p. 71.

    • Provenance

      Galerie Bleich-Rossi, Graz
      Private Collection, Austria (acquired from the above in 1989)
      Sotheby's, London, 9 March 2017, lot 155
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Graz, Galerie Bleich-Rossi, Albert Oehlen, 11 April - 9 May 1989
      Prague, Galerie Hlavního Města, Nikdo nepomůže nikomu. Martin Kippenberger, Michael Kreber, Albert Oehlen, Jörg Schlick. Das Gute muß gut sein, 20 October - 11 November 1992, n.p. (illustrated)
      London, Lévy Gorvy, Ride The Wild: Oehlen, West, Wool, 2 October - 7 December 2019

    • Artist Biography

      Albert Oehlen

      Albert Oehlen is a German contemporary artist whose work explores the capabilities and failures of painting in the age of postmodernism. His deconstructed artworks reduce painting to a discordant mixture of its constituent elements—color, gesture, motion, and duration—and celebrate the resulting disharmony as an artistic expedition to the frontiers of the abilities of painting. Oehlen began his career in the art scenes of Cologne and Berlin, becoming associated with the Junge Wilde artists who sought to create works that defied classification and disrupted the artistic status quo. He has carried this sense of rebelliousness into his mature career with works that incorporate digital technologies as well as more traditional media. Oehlen’s paintings are marked by inherent, gleeful contradictions, always wielded with a cavalier confidence in the artist’s prowess – his uncooperative fusions of abstraction and figuration, for example, expose the inefficiencies of each art mode and explore the function of painting as much as its meaning.

      Oehlen has attracted critical praise befitting the innovative nature of his work, and he has been the subject of several major exhibitions at institutions such as the Mumok, Vienna and the New Museum, New York. He lives and works between Bühler, Switzerland.

       
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32

Untitled

signed and dated 'A.Oehlen 89' lower right
acrylic, ink, resin and drypoint on paper laid on canvas
200 x 125.5 cm (78 3/4 x 49 3/8 in.)
Executed in 1989.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
£150,000 - 200,000 ‡ ♠

Sold for £415,800

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 April 2021