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Contemporary Art

"Beguiling, Immersive and Explosively Coloured", Albert Oehlen's "Geigenbau"

By Lucius Elliott
With an exhibition of Albert Oehlen's work soon to open at London's Serpentine Galleries, Sotheby's upcoming Contemporary Art Evening auction features an important work by the German artist notable for its colour and vibrancy.

F rom an important series of works executed by Albert Oehlen at the start of the twenty-first century, Geigenbau is a superlative example of the artist’s idiosyncratic style.

Having painted abstractly since the start of the 1990s, the present series epitomises what Oehlen playfully dubs “post-non-representational painting”, using an abstract idiom and aesthetic but never fully abandoning figuration. Seemingly abstract shapes are set against a white background, encouraging the viewer to attempt to decipher and decode them as objects and figures. This was an entirely novel approach for an artist who never fears such radical changes: “I had never composed a painting; that was something I didn’t want to bother with. You grease the whole canvas evenly anyway. But now I’m starting to ask myself: why shouldn’t I also profit from the beneficial effect that a white background can have on the viewer”.

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Installation view of the present work at New York, Luhring Augustine, Albert Oehlen, 2004 Image: © Albert Oehlen; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York. Artwork: © Albert Oehlen. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Of course, in many instances there truly is nothing to decode and the shapes are simply abstract. Any recognition is reliant on the viewer spending sufficient time with the piece to truly see it, and even then, such is the nature of Oehlen’s practice that they can never be certain whether they are right or wrong in their deductions. An emergent head of hair towards the lower centre becomes a woman in profile, her right hand raised to the sky. A dark rectangle in the lower left emerges as a portrait, were the painting to be rotated anticlockwise; similarly, were it to be turned in the other direction, the abstract lines in the top right corner instead read as an incomprehensible sequence of wires and pipes, for an unknown appliance. Punctuating the composition, the arcing lines of brown and beige wood refer the viewer to the work's title, Geigenbau, meaning lutherie: guitar or violin-making.

Hieroglyphical symbols towards the centre of the canvas may remind the viewer of musical notations, and returning to the woman in profile, we question her role. Is she the conductor of this strange cacophony of colour and form, her baton raised to shoulder height? Or is she in fact the performer, bow in hand and violin tucked under her chin? The effect of this ambiguity on the viewer is beguiling, as is the transitory sense that one has successfully decoded some small part of the work.

As curator Bonnie Clearwater explains, “Not only does Oehlen introduce fragments of representational images in inconsistent scales, but he also varies the size of the abstract units in a painting: the relative size of each shape moves the viewer’s attention towards, away from, and across the picture plane in rapid succession. The figurative elements exist without dominating the canvas. At first glance, the paintings appear purely abstract. Only after the viewer has spent some time with these works do the figurative elements reveal themselves” (Bonnie Clearwater, 'I Know Whom you Showed Last Summer').

"I want to make beautiful paintings. But I don’t make beautiful paintings by putting beautiful paint on a canvas with a beautiful motif. It just doesn’t work. I expect my paintings to be strong and surprising. When I see a painting that knocks me off my feet, I say 'How could he do that? How did he dare?' That’s beauty"
Albert Oehlen

This is an essential tenet of Oehlen’s work. Unlike many artists of his generation Oehlen’s practice is not rooted in theory but rather in its capacity to interact with his audience. Like his perennial co-conspirator Martin Kippenberger, Oehlen demands a reaction, but unlike Kippenberger, who allows his audience to stop and delight in the ribald, ironic, pathos-ridden universe that he inhabits, Oehlen demands that they go one step further. The works are not simply aesthetic. He explains, "I want to make beautiful paintings. But I don’t make beautiful paintings by putting beautiful paint on a canvas with a beautiful motif. It just doesn’t work.

I expect my paintings to be strong and surprising. When I see a painting that knocks me off my feet, I say 'How could he do that? How did he dare?' That’s beauty" (Albert Oehlen cited in: Alastair Sooke, ‘I want my paintings to like me’, The Telegraph, 1 July 2006, online). Like the works of the great American Colour Field painters such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, the experience of space, scale and colour are pivotal to the work. However, Oehlen’s challenge to the viewer is not solely to experience the immersive and expansive canvas, but to recognise forms within it.

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Picasso, Pablo (1881-1973): Mandolin and Guitar. Juan-les-Pins, 1924 New York Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2019 Picasso Pablo/www.scalarchives.com

Beguiling, immersive and explosively coloured, Geigenbau is an eminent example from one of Oehlen’s most significant series of abstract works. Representing a return to pure painting after a lengthy period of experimentation with digital manipulation, Geigenbau epitomises the unique combination of spontaneity and control that characterises this series, which looks to isolate and present both figurative and abstract forms to the viewer. There is something anarchic and rebellious about these works. ‘Post-non-representational painting’ figures, as much as anything, as a rejection of prescribed and pre-ordained labels, and this indeed is a priority for Oehlen.

"I am convinced that I cannot achieve beauty via a direct route: that can only be the result of deliberation…"

In his 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).

An exhibition by Albert Oehlen at London's Serpentine Gallery will be on show from 2 Oct 2019 to 2 Feb 2020, and will include four new canvases specially made for the exhibition, as well as an installation that marks the beginning of Oehlen’s interpretation of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas.

Sotheby's is a proud sponsor of this exhibition.

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