Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2005
Paris, Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Albert Oehlen, May - June 2005
Albert Oehlen’s series of Grey Paintings began in the late 1990s and enacted a self-imposed exile from colour for the artist. Up to this point he had grappled with an ever-expanding and increasingly unwieldy range of techniques, materials, and colours, often incorporating them all into a single work. His oeuvre was suffused with an atmosphere of deafening crescendo – each series and painting more diverse, eclectic, and discombobulating than the last. The Grey Paintings and Bronzekopie should be seen as a conscious reaction to this trend, the pure manifestation of Oehlen’s stated desire to achieve clarity in his painterly practice. In his own words: “I wanted to paint pictures that were even more colourful, and prescribed myself grey as a therapy to artificially increase my greed for colour” (Albert Oehlen cited in: Hanz Werner Holzwarth, Ed., Albert Oehlen, Cologne 2009, p. 378).
This conceptual approach to painting – trying to create works within a given framework of rules and limitations rather than creating with the sole aim of capturing beauty on canvas – is typical of Oehlen’s seditious approach. His oeuvre was formed in close collaboration with friend and peer Martin Kippenberger and although their work is aesthetically different, they were united in the thrust of their artistic endeavours: namely to push the boundaries of painting in the post-modern moment. Just as Kippenberger instigated such conceptual and experimental series of paintings as the Liebe Maler, Male Mir, in which he asked a Berlin sign painter to complete paintings based on his images, and thus subverted any notion of artistic touch or gesture, Oehlen, with the Grey Paintings limited his colour palette intentionally, thus confounding the fundamental artistic principle that any artist should be using any means available to make their work as beautiful or effective as possible. Both artists were vehement in their ambition to overturn established preconceptions of beauty in art. In Oehlen’s own words, “I am convinced that I cannot achieve beauty via a direct route; that can only be the result of deliberation… That’s the interesting thing about art: that somehow, you use your material to make something that results in something beautiful, via a path that no one has yet trodden. That means working with something, where your predecessors would have said, ‘You can’t do that.’ First you take a step toward ugliness and then, somehow or other, you wind up where it’s beautiful” (Albert Oehlen cited in: Exh. Cat., Bonn, Kunstmuseum Bonn, Albert Oehlen, 2012, p. 71).
Oehlen was also the parallel of Kippenberger in his practice of creating bodies of work that were directly linked to contemporaneous art history. With the Grey Paintings we think most readily of the precedent of Gerhard Richter. Bronzekopie bears a striking resemblance to the photorealistic paintings that Richter was creating in the early 1960s, with its composition similarly shrouded in diaphanous veils of translucent grisaille. We are also put in mind of the Grau series, instigated during the late 1960s. With these works, Richter was trying to negate any sense of creative choice and reject all artistic devices; the series was ultimately an exercise in anti-painting not entirely anathema to the emphases of Oehlen’s work. We can even adjudge that Oehlen was trying to recreate some of the impetus of Richter’s later abstract work in the creation of paintings such as Bronzekopie: “My Grey Paintings are about giving the picture a painterly treatment that has nothing to do with depicting a subject, but rather aims through the subject back toward the point of departure. Which was to produce a beautiful abstract painting. Richter paints his motifs in a kind of blurry motion that seems to originate within the viewer, who wants to look away but can’t. I want to drag the viewer head-on through the picture” (Albert Oehlen cited in: Hanz Werner Holzwarth, op. cit., p. 436). However, to observe these aesthetic and conceptual links to Richter’s precedent is not to assume that Oehlen was working in pure emulation of the elder artist. Indeed, it is more likely that he was following the example of his perennial peer Kippenberger, who famously turned a Richter Grau painting into a coffee table to create one of his artworks, thus enacting the total denigration and subversion of Richter’s indomitable example. Oehlen, like Kippenberger, was acutely aware of the hegemony that post-war masters like Richter held over the German and International art world, and was at pains to establish himself in the same vein.
Bronzekopie is a supremely engaging example of Oehlen’s idiosyncratic ability to create unexpectedly beautiful works of art through rejecting the pre-existing expectations and conventions of painting. It is aesthetically attractive, conceptually engaging, and acerbic in its references to the contemporaneous art discourse. If Oehlen set out to achieve beauty in painting via an indirect or unconventional route, then in the creation of Bronzekopie he was consummately successful.
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