Albert Oehlen - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 15, 2021 | Phillips

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  • 'Albert Oehlen long ago constructed the possibility of his own painting[…]  it looked like a dead end. What then? Give up and turn back? Or take a hammer and drive a tunnel through the solid amorphous mass before him?’ Albert Oehlen was one of the very few to take up that hammer. And when he started he struck mighty blows.' 
    —Anne Pontégnie

    Comprising twenty small canvases that roam puckishly from the figurative to the abstract and back again, Albert Oehlen’s Retrospektiv parodies the conventions of the large-scale major artist’s survey and old master traditions, while boldly announcing the young artist’s bold ambition. Executed in the early years of his career, this showcase not only brings together miniature representatives of Oehlen’s pre-1986 corpus – featuring references to his iconic Mirror Paintings series, his polarising Bad Paintings, important self-portraits, and early forays into abstraction – but also provides a fascinating blueprint of the prodigious output to follow.


    A compilation of this first, important phase of his career before he moved made a more concerted shift into abstraction at the end of the 1980s, Retrospektiv highlights the theoretical approach to painting taken by Oehlen in these early years, each series corresponding to a particular ‘problem’ that the artist had posed himself. Sampling from art history as much as from the artist’s own oeuvre, the survey of miniatures establishes a dialogue with old and modern masters alike. With a wit and irreverence reminiscent of French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp’s own miniature retrospective, La Bôite-en-valise, Oehlen deconstructs painterly convention; however, whereas Duchamp attempted to shut the door on painting by enshrining his earlier Dada Readymades as art objects, Oehlen blasts it open in his vigorous defence of the medium.


    Box in a Valise [Boîte-en-valise] From or by Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy [de ou par Marcel Duchamp ou Rrose Sélavy], 1963, Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio Photo © Photo Josse © Cincinnati Art Museum / Gift of Anne W. Harrison and Family in memory of Agnes Sattler Harrison and Alexina "Teeny" Sattler Duchamp / Bridgeman Images © Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021

    Beginnings and Bad Painting

    'Oehlen’s initial turn to painting in the 1980s was characterized by restrictions and impertinence. He concentrated on certain colours (mostly drab browns), hackneyed symbols (such as the mirror), and themes that were ideologically negative (like the self-portrait). These were tactical steps with which Oehlen […] drew painting into embarrassing situations'. —Achim Hochdörfer

    The young painter – who in fact did not have his first American major retrospective until 2013, came to prominence in the late 1970s as part of new wave of German Expressionists alongside his friend and fellow student of the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg, Martin Kippenberger. Cultivating an image as German art’s ‘Bad Boys’, the two applied a decidedly punk attitude to art-making during this period. Building on the Neo-Expressionism honed by fellow Germans Georg Baselitz and Anselm Keifer, Oehlen focused on the processes of painting rather than any specific subject, deconstructing his medium to its constituent elements of colour, line, and gesture. Always cutting against the grain, Oehlen ‘cultivated an almost obsessive passion for painting, at a time when others announced its death as an art form.’i Mastering and subverting classical canons of art in search of a new pictorial language, Oehlen started to work on his so-called ‘Bad’ paintings, where he cultivated a deliberate awkwardness and ugliness in his work through his treatment of paint, crude representation, and muddy palette to demonstrate the perceptual challenges that painting was capable of producing.


    Details of present work 

    Viewers of these early works responded with shock and confusion: the iconic work Selbstportrait Als Holländerin such a triumph of ‘Bad’ painting that even Kippenberger triumphantly exclaimed– ‘it’s not possible to paint worse than that!’.ii Referenced in Retrospektiv in the statue-like portrait of a woman with her recognisable traditional white Dutch cap, the image is based on a well-known photograph by Paul Outerbridge, The Dutch Girl, now forming part of the permanent collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. 

    A later small series of similarly disguised self-portraits pushes the boundaries of good taste even further, presenting the artist as an unsettling hybrid of man and beast. With a sharp blue suit and buttoned-down shirt, the performance of professional masculinity frequently adopted by Oehlen and his cohort is quickly undercut with the replacement of the artist’s head with that of an open-mouthed stag. 


    Young Oehlen and the Old Masters 

    'I posed the self-portrait as a problem for myself in my search for new levels of difficulty, precisely because there’s a huge historical apparatus attached to it, and because it makes you think of art, of seriousness and meaning. Putting myself next to masters.' —Albert Oehlen 

    Brought together in the 2001-2002 exhibition Albert-Oehlen: Self-Portraits at Skarstedt Fine Art, New York, these select early self-portraits wittily draw on painterly convention and Old Master traditions, conjuring the likes of Goya and Rembrandt in their presentation of a decidedly Picasso-esque Oehlen in striped shirt and side-parted hair holding a skull. Like the early 20thc master had done before him, Oehlen used the long-established tradition of self-portraiture as an exercise in self-examination and as a means of staging a dialogue with the great masters. More so than Picasso even, Oehlen’s early self-portraits also stand as a radical statement of his intention to define himself and his practice through the medium of paint.


    Michiel Sweerts, Self-Portait with a Skull, c. 1660, Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, Ontario 
    Robert Capa, Pablo Picasso holding a skull in his studio in Paris, 1944 Photo © Photo Josse / © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2021 / Bridgeman Images © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2021
    Detail of the present work 

    Executed in a typical palette of muddy hues of muddy yellows, greys, and leather tans, the self-portrait included in Retrospektiv directly references the first of this series, including the abstract details behind the figure and Oehlen’s ‘Sebastian Haffner moustache’.iii Looking back at these early self-portraits later in his career alongside his more recent return to the genre in the early 2000s, Oehlen reflected on the intentions of his younger self as ‘an anticipation of the beginning of the path of the master.’iv


    These references to Picasso and the Old Master tradition are picked up and developed across Retrospecktive, notably in the roughly treated canvas featuring the animated animal skeletons. Referencing a monumental 1982 work, Black Rationality, this smaller version similarly picks up on the tonal palette and equestrian subjects familiar to historical painting but gives it a decidedly punk edge, splicing these visual references with nods to Picasso’s still lives from the late 1930s and 40s


    Pablo Picasso, Photo © Photo Josse / © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2021 / Bridgeman Images © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2021
    Detail of the present work 

     Pictorial Problem-Solving 


    Photo: def image, Courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin | Paris | London © Albert Oehlen. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2021

    Between 1982 and 1990 Oehlen worked on his Spiegelbilder or Mirror Paintings – a series of works executed in oils with mirrors attached to them. With playful references to Japanese ukiyo-e, Velásquez, and Duchamp’s Large Glass these works are simultaneously ‘paintings with mirrors’, ‘paintings with things attached to them’, and ‘room paintings.’v Complex painterly collages that engaged with questions of perception and looking as much as materiality faithfully reproduced in the present work, Oehlen’s Mirror Paintings touch on 1960s neo-Dada orientation to ‘things’ over images before radically reasserting painting’s power to explore perception and the orientation of the viewer.


    An interest in perception itself as one of the ‘problems’ tackled by Oehlen in these years underpins the deconstruction of linear perspective seen in the warping ellipsoids and geometric forms of the more abstract works. Orientating Retrospektiv at once towards the direction that his art would move in, this interest in perception and optics also refers back towards Duchamp’s early Dada experiments, as the more overt reference to Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel in the mannequin painting series referenced here suggests.




    In the late 1980s, Oehlen coined the term “Post-non-representational Painting” as a way of describing the basic conceptual approach that we see him surveying in Retrospektiv where he deftly deconstructs oppositions between figurative and non-figurative, figure and ground, colour and line. Oehlen once quipped: ‘I want an art where you see how it’s made, not what the artist means but the traces of production’.vi Retrospektiv takes this a step further, presenting the production not only of a diverse body of work, but of the making of the artist himself.


    Examples of Original Works in Public Collections 


    Albert Oehlen, Hey Mercy, 1983, Museum Brandhorst, Münchenhttps bpk | Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen © Albert Oehlen. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2021
    Selbstporträt mit Totenschädel / Self-portrait with a Skull, 1983, Grässlin Collection, Germany , Courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin | Paris | London © Albert Oehlen. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2021

     Collector’s Digest 


    •    Albert Oehlen came to prominence within the prodigious 1980s art and music scene in Hamburg. Along with his friend, Martin Kippenberger, Oehlen studied under Sigmar Polke at the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg.


    •    Today, Oehlen’s works are held in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain in Strasbourg, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, among others.


    •    In 2019 Oehlen was the subject of a major retrospective at London’s Serpentine Gallery and Speigelbilder at Max Hetzler, London Nahmad Contemporary New York. More recently, Oehlen has presented his provocative response to the Rothko Chapel in Houston with Gagosian across several of their sites simultaneously.

    i François Pinault, foreward, Cows By the Water, (exh. cat.), Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 2018, p. 23. 
    ii Martin Kippenberger, cited in Peter Schjeldahl, ‘Painting’s Point Man: Albert Oehlen at the New Museum’, New Yorker, 15 June 2015, online 
    iii Albert Oehlen, ‘Interview with Rainald Goetz’, in Self Portraits (exh. cat.), Skarstedt Fiine Art, New York, 2001, p. 50. 
    iv Ibid. 
    v Raphael Rubinstein, ‘Albert Oehlen’s Mirror Paintings, An Inescapable Contingency’, Albert Oehlen: Spiegelbilder, (exh. cat.), Max Hetzler, London, 2019, p. 13. 
    vi Albert Oehlen, cited in the press release for ‘Albert Oehlen: I will Always Champion Bad Painting’, Arnolfini, Bristol, 2006, online

    • Provenance

      Galerie Max Hetzler, Cologne
      Galerie Susan Wyss, Zurich
      Collection of Birgit Küng, Zurich
      The Estate of Birgit Küng, Zurich
      Galerie Nagel Draxler, Cologne
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

Property of an Important Canadian Collector



each signed and dated 'A. Oehlen 86' lower right; each numbered 1-20 on the reverse
(i-iv, viii-xi, xiii, xv, xvi, xviii-xx) oil on canvas board
(vi, vii) oil and mirror on canvas board
(xii, xiv) oil, paper and cello tape on canvas board
(iv, xvii) oil and collage on canvas board

(i, x, xii - xiv, xvii, xix, xx) 24 x 18 cm (9 1/2 x 7 1/8 in.)
(ii-ix, xi, xv, xvi, xviii) 18 x 24 cm (7 1/8 x 9 1/2 in.)

Executed in 1986.

Full Cataloguing

£1,100,000 - 1,500,000 ‡♠

Sold for £1,353,500

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

+44 7391 402741


Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe

+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 October 2021