New York

Albert Oehlen

Luhring Augustine / Skarstedt Fine Art

More than twenty years after Albert Oehlen's first solo show, in Stuttgart in 1981, these two exhibitions presented works that function as bookends to the painter's career so far. Like his collaborators Martin Kippenberger, Georg Herold, and Werner Büttner, Oehlen came on the German art scene at the peak of neo-expressionism, when Baselitz, Lüpertz, et al. were finally being “discovered” on an international scale after having exhibited in Germany since the ‘60s. From the outset Oehlen and his peers responded satirically to the older artists’ painterly excesses and self-importance, quickly establishing themselves as comedic foils to the new art-market darlings.

Yet like his former teacher Sigmar Polke, Oehlen maintained an informed dialogue with the history of the medium. Among his misbehaving colleagues he has been the most serious painter, an artist who has wavered between critically parodying and respectfully adopting traditional forms. In his early work Oehlen took on various unlikely guises, as could be seen in the Skarstedt show of self-portraits made between 1983 and 1985 (with one example from 2001, Selbstportrait mit offenem Mund [Self-portrait with open mouth], in which Oehlen bears an uncanny resemblance to Kippenberger). In most of these canvases the frail contours of the figure emerge from a murky backdrop of loose swirls and streaks of paint. The works appear to have been whimsically composed and hastily produced, conjuring an image of the young painter tippling at his easel. Whether the artist is depicted hugging a white horse (Selbstportrait mit Pferd, 1985) or posing as a Dutch woman amid industrial machinery (Selbstportrait als Holländerin, 1983), an awkward mix of the heroic and the pathetic is invariably achieved.

The new works at Luhring Augustine (all 2001) dearly demonstrate the distance Oehlen has traveled since creating his upstart self-portraits. His style has gradually shifted toward a more consistently abstract idiom, though he has frequently made use of found imagery. In www.painting.oe, for instance, an excerpt from a newspaper ad for the Teletubbies shares space with a photograph of a man posing as Salvador Dali. In Born Again on the 365th a picture of a plastic rat looms over segments lifted from comic books. Oehlen typically includes these low materials in a helter-skelter web of references to past and current masters, from the Expressionists to Gerhard Richter. The diverse shapes and collaged elements jostle over the ink-jet-printed canvas like digital graffiti, the stiff, pixelated lines serving to anchor the object in the technical present.

A retrospective account of both figurative and abstract modernist painting appears to unfold within the field of each canvas. Oehlen's latest images have the character of palimpsests, with the layers of blobs, smears, and drips rehearsing key moments in twentieth-century art. These references to a larger history commingle with Oehlen's own eclectic interests in popular and underground culture. His archaeological approach produces some lively paintings, but one has to wonder whether such a catchall presentation doesn't describe the medium as a closed chapter. As much as the collision of forms and technologies brings the work up to date, it also suggests the archival space of the museum. And it is well known that within these temples celebrating past achievements an effort must be made to resist ossification.

Gregory Williams