Albert Oehlen

Albert Oehlen has pledged to reveal his own history of abstraction in this exhibition of paintings and drawings, “Abstract Reality.” Most ofthe paintings were made in 2008, but the “history” here is provided by a handful of paintings made since 1989. It is not easy to discern what kind of history Oehlen wants to convey, apart from showing that he has been making large abstract paintings for most of his career but has in recent works lightened his palette, begun to incorporate posters and other collaged elements, and turned from “bad” to “beautiful” painting. Indeed, in an interview with the curator of the exhibition, Anne Montfort, Oehlen confesses that beauty is his goal—and he seems to mean this in a straightforward way—but to just what effect such beauty is sought remains problematic. Whereas his early works are associated with those of his fellow ironists Martin Kippenberger and Werner Büttner, as well as his former teacher in Hamburg, Sigmar Polke, the artist’s recent paintings are more cosmopolitan in association, and in this exhibition most readily evoke the work of Christopher Wool, Cy Twombly, and Bernard Frize. The most recent painting, Ol’ Man Driver, 2009, seems to directly quote Wool’s use of roving, decentered linear structures and his combination of monochrome printed, sprayed, and painted lines. Other recent works such as FM 22, 2008, incorporate cheap advertising posters, stuck down and painted over with scrawls, washes, and finger scrubs of oil paint; the work belongs to the “FM” series, whose initials denote Finger Malerei, finger painting, and result in elevating their kitsch sources into something more mysterious and beautiful, belle peinture and dirty protest all in one. In their murky humor and sepulchral colors, Oehlen’s painting, of the early 1990s remind one quite strikingly of the paintings that Kurt Schwitters was making in the late ’30s, somber abstract interiors that visualized the fate of exile and immigration. This historical dimension is lacking in Oehlen’s new paintings, which instead appear to be mounting a protest within the language of painting itself.

Three groups of drawings from 1989, 1994, and 2009 were also on display. Whereas the earliest set recalls the nervous Germanic draftsmanship of Georg Baselitz, the most recent deploy a far more delicate collaged line. None, however, provide clues for the sources of Oehlen’s paintings—perhaps because there are none. Like Gerhard Richter, Oehlen has developed a mode of abstract painting that follows John Cage’s advice to “have nothing to say and say it,” but Oehlen, in contrast with Richter’s high-mindedness, insists on taking the low road. “Bad” German painting was in part a reaction to the long legacy of Bauhaus tastefulness and bourgeois classicism, and Oehlen was without doubt a master of this genre. Lass Spielen (Let’s Play), 1997, shows him at his most vulgar, producing a neon, spray-painted, abstract image of casual violence. Oehlen’s exploration of the vulgate and the vernacular continues to a certain extent in the recent paintings, but is updated by the use of whole, printed sources, including psychedelic posters, holiday advertisements, and charged elements such as the German flag and soft pornography. The result is a kind of cynical lyricism, a low beauty.

John-Paul Stonard