The Restless Vitality of Albert Oehlen: 'Die Pfeifenden von'

The Restless Vitality of Albert Oehlen: 'Die Pfeifenden von'

"I am convinced that I cannot achieve beauty via a direct route … First you take a step toward ugliness and then, somehow or other, you wind up where it’s beautiful."
Albert Oehlen

A vivid, electrifying profusion of psychedelic color, form and gesture, Albert Oehlen’s Die Pfeifenden von (The Whistlers of) is a thrillingly robust work. Across the energetic panorama, nomadic figurative shapes are swept and tossed by tidal currents of gestural abstraction: an overturned teapot, the visage of a wax doll, a femur, gloved hands. Soft washes of peach and umber belie tropic flashes of vermilion, tangerine, and cerulean, imbuing the cacophony of disparate elements with mesmerizing lyricism.

Executed in 2001, the painting typifies Oehlen’s vital push-pull dynamic of figuration versus abstraction. Pushing his medium past its historical connotations to its breaking point, Oehlen challenges, examines, and revitalizes painting in a post-painting world.

“Oehlen’s sampledelic, synthesized practice extends painting’s vocabulary – its expressive, emotional range… But it is his attitude – Punk’s lasting legacy – that ensures his work remains so restless and vital.”
Martin Clark, 'Abstract Painting Must Die Now,' in Exh. Cat. 'Albert Oehlen: I will Always Champion Good Painting,' Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2006.

Oehlen initially became associated with the group of avant-garde German artists known as the Junge Wilde, the “Wild Ones,” whose paintings of the 1980s challenged traditional theories of line, color, and composition, and refuted clear categorization in favor of individual expression. Known for his lack of allegiance to any single style, Oehlen had only moved into an abstract idiom in 1989, only to reintroduce figurative elements back into his painting by 1994. Oehlen has playfully dubbed his work “post-non-representational painting,” reflecting a reluctance to adhere to the abstract/figurative binary.

Albert Oehlen occupies a key position in abstract painting in the 1980s and 1990s. Alongside fellow artists such as Christopher Wool, Oehlen continued a lineage of radical experimentation that spans from Willem de Kooning to Yves Klein and Gerhard Richter. His synthesis of disparate forms and tones also calls to mind Wassily Kandinsky’s foundational forays into abstraction. The experience of space, scale, and colour are pivotal to Oehlen’s work, which challenges the viewer not only to experience the immersive and expansive canvas, but also to recognise forms within it.

left to right: Gerhard Richter, Cats, 1984, Private Collection © Gerhard Richter 2020 (0054). Willem de Kooning, Untitled XXV, 1977, Private Collection © 2020 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

"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."
The artist cited in Alastair Sooke, “I want my paintings to like me”, The Telegraph, 1 July 2006, online

Elsewhere he declares: “I am convinced that I cannot achieve beauty via a direct route … First you take a step toward ugliness and then, somehow or other, you wind up where it’s beautiful.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., Bonn, Kunstmuseum Bonn, Albert Oehlen, 2012, p. 71).

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