Oswald Oberhuber

Museum Des 20. Jahrhunderts

This huge Oswald Oberhuber retrospective looked like a historical tour of art during the past 40 years. Just about all the styles, stances, and ideas propagated during this time are reflected in some way or other by this artist’s oeuvre. One cannot even claim that he simply places his personal stamp on the various aspects of the zeitgeist; rather, his personality keeps giving us the slip. Oberhuber may be present in each of his works, but never as an integral whole. One stylistic attitude after another reveals merely a single facet of an individual identity that never loses its fragmentary and ultimately inconclusive character, even in the totality of the exhibition. The artist’s theory of permanent change, which evolved in the late ’50s, and his refusal to form any personal style whatsoever combined here to produce an experience of intense flux.

By the late ’40s Oberhuber had begun his career with “informal sculpture”—wildly proliferating plasters and bronzes, which were initially tied to a highly abstract conception of nature. In the ’50s these were followed by a furious involvement with the most disparate materials: “rumble-tumble sculptures,” script pictures, plaster casts of car tires, etc. During the ’60s, Oberhuber turned to a new realism, drawing portraits of himself, often as a child, painting teeth à la Pop, and so on. The political upheavals of the period led to the production of environments and radical installation pieces. His creativity of the last twenty years covers a wide spectrum: biographical “feeling paintings” from 1970–71, done on huge canvases which hang loosely on the wall; pattern painting of the mid ’70s; private obsessions as ideas for exhibitions, such as Museum im Museum (Museum in a museum, 1978); new figurations, mostly paintings of animals, in the early ’80s; an involvement with “neo geo”; curious furniture sculptures; fashion design; and, last but not least, a painterly dedication to Michael Jackson. All these phases were well represented in this exhibition. A series of brand-new simple line drawings opened the show, leading to a large open space containing wooden sculptures and furniture sculptures from 1985–87. To the left, works from the ’50s and ’60s were surveyed in a free, rhythmic hanging that covered the entire wall; to the right, the works from the ’80s dominated. In the back one found the large, wooden Museum im Museum; other conceptual-oriented pieces from the ’70s were documented through drawings. Next to them stood the large-scale cloth painting Biography, 1972–73. This selection was not strictly chronological, nor was it based exclusively on quality. Instead, it was a compendium of five large Oberhuber collections, one public and four private, which were all weighted very differently.

Remarkably enough, the exhibition seemed lightly tossed, as it were, into the vast, open space of the museum. It looked almost aimless, devoid of the usual solemn hypertrophy accorded to the great masters of his generation. A sense of cunning, a happy-go-lucky mood, preserved the freshness of his old and new works, both of which evinced artistic qualities, a sense of dealing with history, that moved beyond the stigmatized individual work and asserted the liveliness and flexibility of Modernism.

Helmut Draxler

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.