“I’m not interested in the autonomy of the artist or of his signature style. My concern, my project, is to produce an autonomy of the painting, so that each work no longer needs that legitimising framework.”
—Albert OehlenBursting with bright, bold colours, its surface animated by an unbridled, kinetic energy, Ascension encapsulates Albert Oehlen’s restlessly inventive approach to painting, and the subversive spirit that has characterised his work from the 1980s to today. The work is utterly absorbing, its densely layered surface rapidly shifting between more complex structures and thinner washes of paint. Psychedelic in its visual effects, this interplay of more clearly defined shapes with softer, mutating forms that appear to consume each other as our eye shifts across the canvas brings the work to life in glorious technicolour. Alongside the transitions between sprayed, dripped, and more conventionally painted passages, Oehlen’s fluctuating tones here also play an important role in mediating the spatial complexity of the work, darker passages and matte textures counterpointing the glossy, luminous bursts of neon yellows and hot pinks to powerful compositional effect. A cacophony of contrasts, Ascension exemplifies Oehlen’s unique pictorial language in the early 2000s and its combinations of ‘delicacy and coarseness, colour and vagueness, and, underlying them all, a base note of hysteria.’i
Legacies of Abstraction
In its treatment of surface, pictorial space, painterly gesture, and vibrant colour, Ascension engages with the radical legacy of 20th century abstraction, while showcasing the artist’s restless experimentalism and unique pictorial idiom. Recalling in particular the all-over experiments pioneered by Abstract Expressionist artists in the middle decades of the 20th century, this painting belongs to an important body of work that radically developed the abstract language of ‘post non-representational painting’ that Oehlen pioneered in the 1990s. Rejecting the straightforward binary of abstract and figurative painting, Oehlen’s canvases began instead to adopt ‘a chorus of contradictory gestures; figuration is set against abstraction, form against anti-form, the rhythm of pattern versus a meandering stroke’.ii A keen student of art history, Oehlen has been vocal about his attraction to modes of mid-century abstraction, developing an especially deep and long-lasting interest in Willem de Kooning’s gestural mark-making. Like de Kooning, Oehlen’s painting during this period moved towards a radical openness, refusing fixity as a principle, and instead exploring the formal possibilities of treating the canvas as a space perpetual shift and change.
It was during an extended period in Spain with friend, and fellow ‘Hetzler Boy’ enfant terrible Martin Kippenberger in 1988-89 that Oehlen first began to consider the possibilities that abstraction might open up for his practice, a pivotal moment representing, in the artist’s own words, ‘the start of my abstract paintings, a radical revolution in my painting, the decisive step in my development.’iii Tongue-in-cheek, Oehlen also is quick to point out the teleological aspect of this kind of thinking, as if ‘art history went from figurative to abstract […] And I should do the same.’iv
While Kippenberger was known for the rapid execution of his works, Oehlen continued to develop a slower kind of painting in these years, taking obvious pleasure in the specific qualities and technical possibilities presented by his chosen medium. The two spurred each other on though, sharing ideas, exhibitions, homes, and painterly problems as they refined their distinct approaches. The inclusion of a hand curled around what looks like the stem of a rose, just discernible beneath the layers of acid colour and flurry of painterly marks perhaps references this important and deeply collaborative friendship, the rendering of hands being something of a running joke between the two artists. As Oehlen explains, “The hands were a theme that we competed about. I once mentioned to him that I had heard that one could see from painted hands whether someone could really paint. We were standing in front of one of my self-portraits where the hands were really bad. He wanted to go one better.”v
In the late 1970s Oehlen moved to Hamburg to study at the Hochschule für bildende Kunste Hamburg under renowned painter Sigmar Polke, synthesising the school’s atmosphere of experiment and avant-gardism with the raw aesthetic, anti-establishment attitude, and shock tactics associated with the punk scene at the time. Polke’s treatment of pattern, depth, and surface, as well as his experimental approach to a range of different materials including wood and fabric, acted as provocations for the young Oehlen, who later explained ‘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. [...] Polke is somebody who had a role in that; in a way he made very radical things.’vi
During the 1990s Oehlen too would experiment with the use of a textile ground in his Fabric Paintings, works whose fractured surfaces allowed Oehlen to advance his inquiry into pictorial depth and surface, while complicating notions of the role played by the artist’s hand in the act of creation. Continuing to advance these material or mechanical interventions, Oehlen also embarked on his Computer Paintings during this period. Using a rudimentary, early iteration laptop, Oehlen confounded distinctions between the handmade and the technologically produced, transferring the computer’s pixelated images from the screen to the canvas as he continued to home his abstract idiom. Generating fascinating and rapid transitions between form, tone, and texture, Oehlen also expanded the tools used in his practice, applying paint using a range of brushes, spraycans, and rollers as he continued to probe the paradoxical flatness and depth of the picture surface.
One of the most important artists working today, the significance of Oehlen’s work on an aesthetic as well as conceptual level continues to be emphasised, with major publications and important retrospectives held at Whitechapel Art gallery, London, the Palazzo Grassi, Venice, and the Serpentine Gallery, London held in recent years. With the rise in new media and ever-shifting digital horizons, Oehlen’s work is more relevant today than ever before, and his influence continues to be felt amongst a generation of new, emerging artists. Engaging with the history of painting as it involves new technologies, Ascension is a provocation, pushing the fundamental painterly principles of form, colour, and gesture into new territory for the 21st century.
Under the tutelage of Sigmar Polke at the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg and the mentorship of figures such as Jörg Immendorff, Albert Oehlen emerged from the Neue Wilde German art movement of the 1980s. On the back of the Neo-Expressionist debate, and in the context of the fall of the Berlin Wall alongside the end of the GDR in 1989, Oehlen sought to liberate abstract art and did so through his revolutionary “post-non-representational” style.
Examples of Oehlen’s work are held in major international collections including The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Collection in London, and the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, amongst others.
In 2018, he was the subject of a major career survey at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, which was then followed up by another retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 2019. In the Serpentine exhibition, Oehlen introduced the first of a series of installations created in reaction to the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Always showing a keen interest in emerging technologies, Oehlen has most recently been experimenting with the aesthetic possibilities of Virtual Reality.
i Peter Schjeldahl, ‘Albert Oehlen: Painting’s Point Man’, The New Yorker, June 2015, available online: ii Hamza Walker, ‘Albert Oehlen: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly’, in Albert Oehlen: Recent Paintings (exh. cat.), Chicago, 1999, online. iii Albert Oehlen, quoted in Raphael Rubinstein, ‘The Accidental Abstractionist’, Art in America, 29 May 2015, online.
iv Albert Oehlen, quoted in Glenn O’Brien, ‘Albert Oehlen’, Interview Magazine, 24 April 2009, online. vMartin Kippenberger The Problem Perspective, (exh. cat.), Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2008, p. 94 vi Albert Oehlen, quoted in ‘Interview with Albert Oehlen’, Pataphysics Magazine, 1990.
Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin Alfonso Artiaco, Naples Phillips de Pury & Company, London, 6 February 2007, lot 12 Private Collection, California Acquired from the above by the present owner
Naples, Alfonso Artiaco, Albert Oehlen, March 2002