PRINT November 1994


Almost every work of Modernism . . . is the solution of a problem.
—Peter Szondi, Briefe, 1993

IT IS ONE OF ALBERT OEHLEN'S AIMS to demystify the process of painting. When he began his career, in the late ’70s, the “classical” rejection of painting that led to Conceptual art and other “critical” approaches to artmaking had become an institutionalized norm within the art world. Oehlen rejected this position as too mechanical, monocausal, and moralistic; though he had no interest in any sort of rappel à l’ordre, painting remained for him the definitive visual-arts medium, the determiner of art’s fate, even in its absence. So, partly inspired by punk rock and its critical relationship to traditional rock music, its way of using and destroying a given code at the same time, he decided to take up painting again, but from a critical vantage point. Furthermore, he came to believe that the various philosophies of painting (and of Modernist visual art in general) had not only created obfuscations and mystifications but had made of painting a too easy target—that by enlisting painting in the service of particular ideologies and foregrounding certain rudimentary problematics, they had obscured aspects of painting that would have been far more interesting to attack.

If painting was not in fact dead, the problem of readdressing it frankly, of criticizing it anew, had not yet been convincingly addressed. If Oehlen was to rise above the contemporary criticism of painting’s viability as a practice, he would have to work in the embattled medium—to create the object criticized. He wanted to do three things: to demystify the painting process, presenting it as a series of tricks and ruses; not only to present this critique but almost to “say” it, since he believes that painting functions like and indeed is a language; and to create objects that were clearly paintings yet that could speak without illusion, and without constant mystification. It was as if he thought post-Modernism desirable but not yet possible—as if the task at hand were merely to mend the holes that the Modernists had left open in their overly quick departure from the scene.

Meanwhile, an altogether different return to painting had taken place in Germany. Aiming not at critique but rather striving for “expression,” a primarily anti-intellectual, anti-theoretical, and extremely product-driven movement, arriving on the scene brandishing slogans like “Hunger nach Bildern” (Hunger for images) and “Neue Wilde” (New wild ones), was conquering the market. Oehlen was forced to navigate so as to avoid being confused with this other movement in painting. What those artists put forth as primary expression he saw as mystification demanding analysis. On the other hand, he knew that no art would ever entirely avoid evidencing characteristics that—not completely without reason, even if unintentionally—could be read as “expressive.”

In the first half of the ’80s, Oehlen, like friends such as Werner Büttner and Martin Kippenberger, was often less involved in painting than in other media: he was a musician, an author, and an organizer of various events—a horse-and-carriage race in Vienna, for example, in 1985. These projects saw Oehlen trying to transfer certain esthetic rules analogous to language into different media. But it soon became apparent that he was invested less in analyzing the rules themselves than in exhibiting their concentration within the medium about which he thought the most, even though semioticians traditionally locate it farthest from language: painting.

During the ’80s Oehlen lived in a number of European cities—Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Madrid, Vienna. Today he divides his time between Hamburg and Los Llanos de Aridane, a village on La Palma, one of the Canary Islands, where I visited him. After many years’ concentration on painting (his works have included computer-generated patterns and watercolors, and also mixed forms, such as carpets woven from his collages), he is working again in other fields: as a member of the rock band Red Crayola, and in the production of readymades and multiples—texts, for example, cowritten with Rainald Goetz, and packaged in white album covers. One of these is a cutout chapter of Althusser’s autobiography, its pages stamped “Nieder mit der bürgerlichen Kleinfamilie!” (Down with the bourgeois small family!). Another multiple parodies the poster for a Berlin exhibition of American Modern art in 1993: it is a target for hunters, an image of a wild boar. And Oehlen and Goetz have revised the list of artists so that now, with the exception of Jackson Pollock, it only includes women.

This fall and winter a retrospective of Oehlen’s work can be seen at the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg. There are also upcoming shows in Berlin, Vienna, Prague, and Columbus, Ohio. The following conversation took place at Oehlen’s studio in La Palma.

Diedrich Diederichsen

DIEDRICH DIEDERICHSEN: In the U.S., I’m often asked what Europeans like about your paintings, which Americans tend to see as no more than cleverly made abstractions. I’ve also talked to American artists—not painters—who know you personally and feel they understand your work, but these are isolated examples.

ALBERT OEHLEN: People who talk about “cleverly made abstractions” in relation to my work obviously have a vague, general notion of what abstract painting is that is inapplicable to the particular concerns of an individual artist in a particular work. People who know me have a better chance to get to know my interests. I don’t want to throw all American artists into the same bag, but in general you can say that they tend to work on one approach, to develop a trademark. Likewise, in the history of abstract painting you find each artist setting up a framework to explain why any particular painting had to look this way and no other. By contrast, 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 kind of legitimizing framework.

The question “abstract or not abstract,” for example, 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. He didn’t have to break up or fragment the subject any more, as he had for a while; that’s a solution that every painter interested in this question has come to at some point. It was more important to eliminate this recurrent problem once and for all. Upside-down, the subject is still recognizable, but it doesn’t make sense, because it’s standing on its head. It isn’t destroyed or disintegrated, it’s simply devalued.

DD: But as Baselitz repeats this device from canvas to canvas, doesn’t it turn into something like a trademark, a nondialectical negation that might once have been witty but ultimately only guarantees its own recognition?

AO: On the contrary, repetition, and the gradual familiarization that comes with it, sets up a tension with Baselitz’s devaluation of the subject. He could have tried mixing it up, standing the paintings on their sides for a while, or all sorts of other bad ideas. Repetition is effective in Baselitz’s terms because his gesture of turning the motif upside-down is at the same time so simple and so completely stale. Repetition helps clarify his intentions.

DD: Is the abolition of the difference between figurative and nonfigurative art a first step toward what you have called the “autonomy of painting”?

AO: It’s a starting point. By “autonomy” I mean something quite simple. Today, it seems painting can’t happen without a reason. It’s no longer an “automatic,” reflexive way of making art. Yet when I read critiques of painting, I often have to struggle with the ridiculousness of the reasons people come up with. Most painters seem to be the stooges of their projects, becoming the servants of ideas like “changing visual habits” or “breaking up perception,” or of particular techniques, gestures, esthetic principles—justifications like that. By “autonomy” I mean doing without these absurdities.

DD: What’s so bad about having to justify your work? Or, what’s so good about trying to float “autonomously” above history? What’s left for the artist who tries that besides falling back into the old concept of “genius”?

AO: I know what you mean, and I want to make it clear that it’s not what I mean. I don’t want to be Picasso. I do like Picasso’s tyrannical attitude toward the rest of the art of his time, that certain arbitrariness you need in order to make something new. But I don’t intend or demand to be alone, or to work alone; I want to be in the center of something happening, which includes the possibility of being in a group. When I speak of autonomy I’m not talking about withdrawal.

DD: But when you talk about the tyrannical you ascribe it to the person, Picasso. When you speak of autonomy, on the other hand, you separate it from the person and ascribe it to the painting.

AO: Actually I apply both terms to art-immanent processes. I find Picasso amusing as a person but uninteresting as a model to work from. Even if we’re talking about the person I prefer someone like William Burroughs—he’s old enough to be invulnerable, and he represents a certain history without trying to justify it. I wouldn’t overestimate the importance of working models. When you’re trying to figure out what you can and want to do—which has to be more than just painting a couple of good pictures; you have to contribute to the dignity of painting—your models are simply a part of the overall frame.

DD: Can you explain “the dignity of painting” a little?

AO: Whether they’re good or bad, pretty or ugly, paintings should maintain themselves without excuses. No magic, no science, no excuses.

DD: No context? Do you recall those manifestos of Ad Reinhardt’s, lists of everything that has nothing to do with art?

AO: For fifteen years now I’ve been trying to throw things away, exclude things. It’s my principle to negate and reject virtually everything—illusion, emotion, the whole bag of technical tricks, the idea of us versus them—until I finally get to this perhaps illusory idea of autonomy.

DD: Then autonomy would be the opposite of everything on this list of negations. But can a painting that derives its power from negation regain a foundation through autonomy?

AO: It can’t. Autonomy is unimaginable. The idea of a decisive subject is a long-running absurdity in what we call art. I think art is really shit; on the other hand, I find the occupation of artmaking beautiful and correct—the individual’s possibility of pulling the wool over people’s eyes.

Given my history, my political past, my environment, etc., I should be a political and conceptual artist. But I’m not. The longer artists work, the narrower their path usually becomes, and the more possibilities drop by the wayside. I’m no different—I reject things too, as I’ve said. But other artists build schemes out of their rejections, then use those schemes to systematize and justify their subsequent work. They talk about clarity: the more schematic their work becomes, the more clarity they think they’ve gained. I direct this moment of clarity, this subtotal of decisions and rejections, toward the point I call “autonomy,” though you could also call it “negation” or “negativity.”

When other artists look at the same problems I do—artists I understand quite well, like Art & Language, for example—they come to conclusions like, For this reason we paint this way, or, For that reason we don’t paint at all. I might say, For the same reason they paint this way, I paint that way; or, For the same reason they don’t paint at all, I paint. It’s not so much that all those other possibilities are open to me and not to them: I face exactly the same problems. But I have another kind of logic, and then I reject that logic too, not because it’s stupid as such, but because to derive one’s process from one and only one avenue of questioning is valid only if one believes that what one does should be completely determined by that one question. I like Reinhardt, but at the point and for the reason that he decides to paint only black paintings, I paint the craziness that I paint.

DD: So the punch line of your negation is that the moment your various rejections demand a result, you negate that result.

AO: I’m not a born painter; I only paint because, of all the many possible ways to make art, painting was the one I always had the most ideas about. I come to painting out of the ’70s interest in democratizing high art. That lets me view painting with a certain disdain, or at least a lack of respect. For me, painting is just one of many possible ways of making art. So I can romp around in it. And now that I’m having fun with it, I can take its postulates very seriously. Unlike painters “born” to painting, I don’t have to believe in painting’s autonomy; but once I take painting as a game—and, even more, a game I know I’m playing I have to take that idea of autonomy a hundred times more seriously than they do. I need it as one of the game’s goals. And I have to take other rules of the game the same way. The artist’s “freedom” is the duty not to be boring. You have to put painting under stress, that’s what matters.

DD: What is the relationship between this “autonomy game” and negation? Is it that autonomy is an internal code that is invisible, that doesn’t appear on the surface, while negation is a visible working out of external ideas, which penetrate the interior and then are projected out again?

AO: Autonomy is not imaginable. Negation is the visible working through of inferences, misunderstandings, ideas to be criticized, and also your own mistakes. It’s not a principle, not a justification—it’s work. It means nothing else, and by the way, when I used the term just now, I was using it for the first time.

DD: You’ve said you’re more often friendly with artists in other fields than with painters—that you’re not so much a painter among other painters as an artist among other artists. The difference between you and them, though, is that painting has a long genealogy, while their practices and media are often only decades old.

AO: Yes, but if I have a favorite artist, or if some other art interests me and I take ideas from it, it often has nothing to do with painting. Genealogies don’t interest me.

DD: But people using other arts, from Conceptual art to pop music, often use languages that are more explicit, more obviously self-explanatory, than painting. You take relatively accessible input and transform it into a specialized code, which you then use to solve very general problems of art.

AO: That’s not entirely true. I require of myself that my paintings be comprehensible. That doesn’t mean everyone likes them, or should. But even someone who thinks a particular work is an insult can still get close to it. I’m interested in very simple things. In the last few years, I’ve been particularly concerned with evidence—with not seeing anything in the painting other than what’s actually there. Nothing is codified—a mess is just a mess. I want an art where you see how it’s made, not what the artist intended, or what the work means, but what has been made, the traces of production. In the ’70s an artist called Hetum Gruber did a piece called Ein Stück Blech, gezogen, geschoben, und geschlagen (A piece of tin, drawn, pushed, and hit). We always made fun of it, but I’m not so amused any more because now I’m doing exactly the same thing [laughs]. I’m not translating my insights just to prove something as systematically as Gruber was, my work depends more on preferences and moods, but it’s just as visible and demystified. If I utter the slogan, Garbage to the Center!, it’s still possible that a recognizable little dog will be lurking in the corner.

DD: You mean that you don’t think a conceptual or sociological exploration of a genre has to be presented in the kind of clean layout of, for example, a Lawrence Weiner.

AO: If you’re analyzing painting materialistically, if you’re making a sociologically oriented art, that doesn’t mean you have to present the results through right angles, charts, or any other formal, pseudoscientific, standardized method. One of the things I demystify is the belief in a clean layout. There’s a real instability in the immaculateness of most Conceptual art. The cleanly taped corners, the rectangular monitors—Joseph Kosuth probably thinks a lot about typography, and about the thickness of the glass in his frames. Conceptual art’s Achilles’ heel is the neatness of its presentation. I’m not interested in that whole cleanliness trip. It’s not in my nature to be that clean, and it’s not in the nature of anyone who can’t be that clean to think anyone has to be that clean. People who produce a certain fussy order, on the other hand, tend to try to justify why that kind of fussiness is necessary.

DD: Older Conceptual artists did end up involuntarily or accidentally estheticizing the philosophical or political ideas that motivated their work. But later generations have learned to avoid that trap.

AO: Yes, but it would be difficult to find examples of artists who avoid developing some recognizable identifying sign, a “handwriting,” to mark them off and individuate them for the sake of the institutions and the market. There’s a fundamental political truth that a painting is senseless and brings humanity nothing. It’s a product, which the existing social structure can use for its own ends, a product whose price isn’t identical with its value, etc. I don’t forget this when I paint a picture. Political or Conceptual artists tend to think they’re different, but why shouldn’t I make the same demand of them—that no illusions cloud the issue?

DD: You recently said that the discussion of abstract painting is incredibly underdeveloped—that it was as if nonobjective art had only come into being a few years ago.

AO: Yes. I wonder, for example, why compositional problems can’t be seen from a different point of view than the graphic approach. People sort out motifs, or speak of the work’s function, or place the work in history. Instead, why don’t they talk about a “good mood” or “bad mood” section of a painting, or about quick and slow parts?

There are so many questions people could be addressing. In some of my images, for example, you see a mess of lines, but you immediately recognize that some lines have been made in one way, others in another. In my computer works there are parts that have been made with a mouse, others by hand. You’re not necessarily aware of that immediately, but you register it intuitively—if you understand that a picture comprises various different parts. Instead, people usually demand “unity” in a picture. That’s natural, and I used to feel strangely satisfied when I made a “unified” painting. Most artists either want their paintings to originate in a single formal or chromatic world or go for the collage or shock effect. Now, though, I want nothing to do with either choice.

One reason for paintings’ unity lies in day-to-day things like natural size: you’re standing there every day with the same-size body, in front of the same-size picture, and your arm is always the same length. That’s why in my computer images I placed enlarged computer drawings and painted lines in the same image—not to create an illusion, or an effect, but to make sure you could see that two or three size relationships were coming together.

Another thing about abstract pictures is that there are only one or two clearly understood production speeds. At first I only had one—I wanted to paint fast, because I wanted to paint bad paintings. I thought I could do that all by myself. Then I was faced with competition from the neo-Expressionists, “wild painting,” which at least had the virtue of showing me what I didn’t want to do. If I had been the only wild painter, I might have stuck with it. But neo-Expressionism made it clear to me that painting fast is only an excuse. I thought, If this quick-looking swerve of paint is really what I want, why paint it fast? Why not paint it carefully? So I decided to focus on the production process, which allowed me to develop many more than just two speeds. And I got the idea of painting an abstract picture without having a vision of what I wanted to achieve in my head—of working as methodically as Velásquez, standing in front of the painting, just as close, with the same movements, except without any preconceived drawing or image. And then I saw the early abstract paintings of Philip Guston, which I believe were painted just that way. At least they could have been painted just that way.

DD: You describe your development as the successive elimination of false justifications for painting. But you don’t question the basic assumptions that art be presented to a gallery audience, in two dimensions, and so on.

AO: The idea of changing these basic assumptions suggests too much faith in democracy. Or, if you want to change them, you can choose other media, media that still allow for technical change, or where people still think they can satisfy desire. This, of course, is no longer the case in visual art. Try it and you get ridiculous results, or else a vulgar Pop art, which can of course be OK.

DD: But isn’t it futile to try to demystify a medium that is in any case outdated? Why don’t you just give up painting?

AO: I could, but before I do I want to have provided its last futile definition. I have this Blindman approach sometimes. Do you know that film? It has Ringo Starr as a blind gunslinger. As long as painting’s refutation can still take the form of painting, painting has not been refuted.

DD: Imagine a reader of this interview ten years younger than you, formed by more recent debates. Wouldn’t that reader say that although you’ve gone far in deconstructing painting (and art), there’s still a lot of estheticism in your work, as a kind of by-product?

AO: [laughs] I can’t do anything about that. No, beauty really can’t be avoided in painting, where people are so ready to find things beautiful.

DD: The reproach perhaps would be, Why does a room of your work still look like an exhibition?

AO: Because it isn’t didactic.

DD: Would it be didactic to choose another form of presentation, or even to question presentation in general?

AO: Yes, it’s the difference between showing what you want to do and doing what you want to do.

DD: But aren’t you then limiting the definition of art to its most conventional form, that is, as pictures in an exhibition?

AO: Anything else means wanting to serve someone, imagining a viewer whom one wants to show something didactically. People like Vito Acconci have already gotten rid of that. An exhibition is no more than a market of information, a date in one’s career, perhaps a reason to meet people.

DD: Then what is the “true” place of communication?

AO: Good question. Maybe there isn’t one. I once would have said the catalogue, or some other form that allowed one to know an image, as opposed to owning it. But then there’s the nasty recognition: to consider oneself a revolutionary, to consider oneself important—this has to be questioned too. One result of our program of demystification and disillusionment is the idea that this business isn’t really so important. So we can’t act pompous, as if we really believed that with a few tricks we could get rid of such fundamental relationships as those between institutions, exhibitions, and capitalism. We can’t do that—at least not through art.

DD: That might only prove, though, that we have to think about presentation. If it’s clear that art’s not so important, why use the pompous title “exhibition”? The paintings themselves say they’re not that important.

AO: They don’t say that, they consider it as a possibility.

Diedrich Diederichsen’s most recent hook is Freiheit macht arm, an essay collection published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne, in 1993. In the same year he also edited Schwarze Kulturkritik—Pop, Medien, Feminismus, a collection of African-American cultural criticism published by Edition ID Archiv of Berlin and Amsterdam.

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.