PRINT April 2003

’80s THEN

Albert Oehlen

ERIC BANKS: One of the things that strikes me about the way you came to artmaking is how incredibly collaborative your work was in the early ’80s.

ALBERT OEHLEN: That whole attitude came from feeling very independent, because we were opposed to the image we had of painting at the time. A big advantage for us—me, Martin [Kippenberger], my brother Markus, [Werner] Büttner, and so on—was that we didn’t know the Italian Transavanguardia artists and so forth from the beginning. They were a couple of years older than us. We heard of them when they became famous enough, as well as Schnabel and other Americans. So until then, we just saw ourselves in opposition to bourgeois art. We thought, we’re outside of this anyway, so we have to create our own scene and friendships and history.

Left to right: Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, Max Hetzler, and Werner Büttner, Folkwang-Haus, Essen, 1984.

EB: I know that a lot of what you ended up doing was almost to differentiate yourself from the Neue Wilde in very coded terms.

AO: We had nothing to do with wild painting. The situation then was a bit comparable to today in that a lot of young people got a chance to show their stuff in big exhibitions and there was enthusiasm everywhere. And we participated in all of them, because it was our chance to show, no matter how it would be interpreted. If we were undermining the premise or if it was about us and not the others, that’s something we didn’t have to decide. We just took the chance of being in the show. But the price you paid was that you really didn’t know what you were talking about. It wasn’t very precise. And I knew that there was some misunderstanding—either I’m in the show or the guy next to me is in the show because of a misunderstanding.

EB: When did you begin to realize that these misunderstandings were becoming prominent?

AO: Oh, right from the beginning. As soon as they put someone else next to me, I knew something was wrong. You know, they were enthusiastic about the Berlin group, the Moritzplatz painters. And they wanted more food. And so they looked to the second row and there we were.

EB: When you say “they” put you together, who exactly do you mean? Wolfgang Max Faust and the neo-expressionist, arte cifra/Hunger for Painting people?

AO: All of them. Anybody who made a group show or a catalogue or a book or wrote or edited a magazine article at the time.

Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen, James Dean, 1983, mural. Installation view, Buchhandlung Welt, Hamburg.

EB: Let’s talk about some other shows you were in, the ones organized by Kippenberger in Berlin and Hamburg and Jörg Immendorff’s “Finger für Deutschland” [1980]. Those shows managed a radically different approach in terms of the way you were positioned as an artist.

AO: Yes. It was mostly the same artists who made up all three shows. It was more about friendships or people who were close to us who we thought were interesting or just freaks. It was a bit of a freak show. And it was rather confusing to people—more confusing than constituting a real alternative to the idea of wild painting. We never were a group, we never had a name for ourselves and never had our own publications, like a magazine or a manifesto. We wanted rather to confuse people.

What I see clearly now is that especially in the shows that Kippenberger and I did together, as well as in a lot of our solo shows, we tried to avoid a definition of what we were doing. The collaborations were meant to say, “We don’t have to declare ourselves yet. Let’s use the time to experiment more and confuse people—so they can’t grab us and can’t get us.” A lot of the things that Martin and I did were meant to encourage each other to try something crazier. Instead of working on a career or standing for a certain kind of painting, we tried something new every day: This time we’ll make collages, this time we’ll make a sculpture, next time we’ll make only—I don’t know what. A wall painting or something.

EB: What was the most confusing thing you did?

AO: I don’t know, maybe all of it. When I look back, I don’t know if I wasted the time, but the chances and the possibilities, of course, they were wasted. A lot of galleries were unhappy with the stuff that they got from us. But I must say, we really took the difficult way, yeah?

EB: That’s an understatement. Still, that sense of not exactly being able to figure out what you were up to I think had much more to do with Kippenberger.

AO: He was becoming that all-over-experimenting guy. But then at the end, he worked on his self-image as a painter as well—and he made tons of paintings to establish his image as a painter. And I think on a wider range, an international range, our image on the whole was somehow “correct,” because when the shows were bigger and more important, the curators would make the correct choice. We couldn’t fool them.

Albert Oehlen, Morgenlicht fällt ins Führerhauptquartier (Morning light shines into the Führer’s headquarters), 1982, oil and lacquer on canvas with mirror, 71 x 110 1/4".

EB: It was impossible to be evasive at that point?

AO: Yes. But also, in the late ’80s, I started making an effort to be seen as a serious painter. I mean, I just wanted to bring other people to see what I saw.

EB: When would you date that change as having taken place? With the “FN” series of 1990?

AO: It was more or less precisely when I started making abstract paintings in ’88. Martin and I were staying in a house in Spain for a year. It was meant to be a time to think and experiment and make something new. He came up with some extreme sculptures that followed the three “Peter” shows and also with his self-portraits, and I came up with the abstract paintings. We were working like that for the whole year and testing things out on each other, to see if he reacts by smiling or looks bored.

EB: Boy, I remember the quote—it’s really sweet—where you said a smile from Martin was worth everything, in relation to your work.

AO: Yeah.

EB: So he really was your immediate audience.

AO: Absolutely. He’s one of the handful of artists who I spoke with about art, about my art, like with Werner Büttner in the early ’80s.

EB: Who else is in that group?

AO: Schnabel is one who can really speak about the intimate questions of painting. When we meet we look through our recent paintings, and he likes to hear my opinion, and of course I like to hear his opinion. He’s a real painter.

EB: What about conversations with critics and writers?

AO: Oh, no, not possible. We can talk about things that we’ve seen, but no. Some artists or critics have their politics and their problems and are very enthusiastic about these things that have nothing to do with painting. Like Immendorff. You could never talk about painting with him. He would talk about China and—I don’t know, revolution or something.

EB: Wasn’t Immendorff really the first person you talked to about art?

AO: Well, I knew him for a long time. We didn’t talk about art; we talked about politics. We were in political groups. But I was lucky in finding out that he wasn’t taking it too seriously.

EB: Taking what too seriously?

AO: The politics. I saw that his behavior was inconsequential, because he didn’t care that much. And that was perfect for me, because otherwise I would either have run away or—I don’t know what. The worst would have been if I had taken it too seriously.

EB: You left Düsseldorf and went to Berlin in the ’70s?

AO: Yes. I was living the student’s life—working and drinking—without being a student. Then later, toward the end of the ’70s, I moved to Hamburg. It was a very intense time of talking about music and politics and reading—free jazz and punk and literature. We were a group that met every night to drink beer and talk until it was time to go home. So it was a very good time.

EB: Back to misunderstandings. One of your earlier pieces that ends up being repeatedly reproduced in international art magazines—in Artforum, Art in America, Art News—is the Portrait of AH [1984], the Hitler portrait.

AO: Oh, shit, yes.

EB: It must have been weirdly damaging in terms of pigeonholing you as some kind of agent provocateur with nothing else to offer.

AO: I don’t regret having made that painting, but I didn’t expect it would be in the press so much. And no one said it was a good painting; they just reproduced it because it was extreme. That was a time where I believed that my thoughts were so logical. I had these ideas, like nothing means anything and this painting does not transport anything that has to do with Hitler and such—which is just wrong. Still, I was smart enough to avoid any provocation. When the picture was hanging in a show in Maastricht and an older man got mad about it, I simply took it down. Everybody was expecting me to fight for freedom for art and then it was just the opposite.

EB: I only bring it up to say that as you start to get written about, outside Germany at least, a lot of the other things you had to say in rather provocative terms about your approach to painting got clouded over.

AO: I had this reputation for being cynical and doing provocative things, and that’s really not what I was interested in. By the early ’90s, I saw it was absolutely necessary to show that I did take painting seriously, because otherwise I would have handicapped my own work if it had to deal with the “wrong image” all the time.

EB: Your first solo show was with Max Hetzler when he was still in Stuttgart in ’81?

AO: Yes. I did something with my brother earlier, but my first solo show was there.

EB: Why has Hetzler been so important as a dealer for you?

AO: Oh, it just happened. I mean, he was a strange guy. In the beginning, when we had another option, I decided on Max because I thought, “We don’t understand him; let’s go there.” I must also say that I could never make intelligent career moves because I don’t know about the galleries. I don’t even know which German galleries are the important ones, not to mention the American galleries. But I think I am in the right ones. We expected Max to be something like Michael Werner for us. And he didn’t want to do that. The whole group that was there at that time, like [Georg] Herold and Büttner and [Hubert] Kiecol and even Kippenberger and Förg—when Max moved to Berlin in 1993, he dropped some and then picked them up again. With most of them, he’s more or less doing something again. But he didn’t want to be the kind of gallerist who sticks together with a group of artists for life.

EB: It’s interesting that he made that change.

AO: I think it was around 1986 that he started showing American artists, first in a group show with Robert Gober, Jeff Koons, and Jon Kessler. We didn’t understand that, but of course it was a good move. At the moment when he showed them, though, we thought, “What is that?”

EB: Your solo debut in the United States was at Sonnabend in 1986. Was there a huge difference in showing in New York?

AO: The Sonnabend show was strange. Maybe I didn’t show the right stuff, maybe Ileana didn’t like it, or maybe it was unsuccessful. She never asked for a second show, and I don’t know if I sold anything. But I am in her collection.

EB: When did you first come to the States?

AO: I think it was for a group show with Metro Pictures—Büttner, Martin, and I.

EB: Did Metro see your work as somehow forming a dialogue with the “Pictures” artists?

AO: They must have seen something, because they showed our whole group. But I didn’t think about this.

EB: What kind of relation is there between the work you’re doing now and what you became known for in the early ’80s?

AO: I’m getting back to it, because normally when I begin something new I start disliking what I did in the years before. But that’s just a stupid psychological thing, and now I’m at a moment where I’ve started liking my own stuff again. Also, in trying to bring certain motives back into my paintings, I come back to the old stuff. I like it and I get the humor again from it. There was a time where I forgot about that.

EB: The project around the midcentury American artist John Graham that you’ve been working on seems to have a lot of humor in it, even if it’s oblique in a certain way.

AO: Yes, and I think that goes back to the very beginning and has something to do with the spirit of the earliest paintings.

EB: I saw the show you curated at the Kunstverein in Cologne last year which really went into the John Graham project. How has that work been received?

AO: It was a difficult show, because a lot of people are demanding figurative painting, and they’ve been asking for it for a long time. I don’t have anything to do with that, but in a way, some painters are serving this desire without wanting to. A lot of people with stupid intentions came and said, “I knew it; painting is back. Very quiet painting and figurative painting are back.” And that’s not what we wanted.

EB: But these are complex, abstract works, no less so than your own “FN” series or even “the critic sees” works before that.

AO: Yeah, I think the situation is now a bit like it was in the early ’80s. It’s full of misunderstandings. It’s almost the same, because everybody who paints wild and big and figurative gets a show now. In Frankfurt there was a large show of figurative and realistic painting, “Lieber Maler”—it’s actually still up. And the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung did something they almost never do: They put a full page of nothing but images in their feuilleton. Which was really extreme; it’s the same thing they did when the Berlin Wall was torn down. So they must be very happy about it.

Eric Banks is editor in chief of Bookforum and senior editor of Artforum.