Lot 63
  • 63

Albert Oehlen

350,000 - 450,000 USD
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  • Albert Oehlen
  • Embraceable You
  • oil, enamel, and acrylic on canvas
  • 94 1/2 x 78 3/4 in. 240 x 200 cm.
  • Executed in 1994.


Luhring Augustine, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 2006


Chicago, The University of Chicago, Renaissance Society, Albert Oehlen, November – December 1995


This work is in excellent condition overall. There is a slightly raised horizontal crack located 1 – 2 ¼ in. from the left and 41 in. up from the bottom left corner. There is a network of stable drying cracks located in the bottom right corner. Under ultra violet light there are no apparent restorations to this work. The canvas is framed in a wood strip frame with a small float.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Embraceable You is a piercing insight into the work of one of the most important German painters of his generation. Rendered in Albert Oehlen's mature 'post-non-objective' style, Embraceable You draws on major themes in Oehlen's oeuvre, including his interest in music and the possibilities of painting. The rigorous gestures of paint and use of color are hallmarks of Oehlen's painting from this period, whose foundations rest upon Oehlen's rich knowledge of painters from Vermeer to de Kooning and beyond. Close inspection reveals that under the fervent brushstrokes and abstract markings, traces of an inverted figure are glimpsed and immediately call to mind the iconic paintings of Georg Baselitz. The use of an upside-down figure as a strategy to straddle realism and abstraction is intensified by Oehlen's brushstroke, as he directly engages both abstraction and representation to create tension in his work.

Embraceable You is part of a group of paintings whose titles are taken from Ornette Coleman compositions. Coleman is perhaps most closely associated with the Free Jazz movement and is seen in the history of jazz as both an innovator and an iconoclast, descriptors that are also often associated with Oehlen.  Notably, Embraceable You is a George and Ira Gershwin song that has been recorded by many artists over the years. An insight into why Oehlen would be enamored with Coleman's particular take on a classic is embodied in a mini-'manifesto' that appeared in the liner notes of Coleman's 1996 release, Sound Museum: ''The sound of this music is made from the way it's played ... All are expressed as equal information for the players to compose and improvise without any reference to a style which lies in the judgment of memory.'' (Liner notes of 1996 "Sound Museum," quoted in John Pareles, "Shedding the Weight of Theory," The New York Times, November 3, 1996).  Similarly, Oehlen's painting is indebted to expressive gesture and painterly attributes that reference powerful historic works of art in an original way. Bits of Willem de Kooning's Women and elements of Robert Rauschenberg's collaging of disparate imagery are suggested, but any reference is in service of a new and independent gesture in Oehlen's work.

Critic and Curator Hamza Walker has described Oehlen's canvases as "represent[ing] a chorus of contradictory gestures; figuration is set against abstraction, form against anti-form, the rhythm of pattern versus a meandering stroke, and a muddy mix of colors juxtaposed against vibrant pigment straight from the tube. ... Oehlen's paintings are always autonomous in so far as they have managed to eliminate through contradiction an allegiance to any particular style." (Exh. Cat., University of Chicago, Renaissance Society, Albert Oehlen: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, 1999).

Oehlen has said, "I'm not interested in the autonomy of the artist or of his signature style. My concern is, my project, is to produce an autonomy of the painting, so that each work no longer needs that kind of legitimizing framework." (Ibid). A student of Sigmar Polke while attending art school in Hamburg, Oehlen engaged with the social and political currents that rippled through Germany in the 1980s. Oehlen is often associated with the Neue Wilden (New Wilds or New Fauves), a name coined in the early 1980s and applied to artists who were interested in the power of painting and art making beyond the confines of Minimal and Conceptual art. It is not surprising that Oehlen rejects the Neue Wilden association.  His interest in investigating subversive and anti-authoritarian modes is tied to his stance against bourgeois art.

In 1989, Oehlen's work shifted from his early mode to the "post-non-objective" manner that characterizes Embraceable You and continues to be the main focus of his painterly works. The foundation of these canvases is built upon an image or reference point. In Embraceable You, that image takes the form of an upside-down, crowned figure whose torso appears to be bare. The figure is eventually subsumed by Oehlen's painting process of washes, slashes and geometric mark-making that overtakes much of the canvas.  What shows through the abstract layers of paint most prominently in Embraceable You is the inverted figure's upheld hand and fist. Interestingly, rendering hands was a point of friendly competition between Oehlen and his good friend Martin Kippenberger. Oehlen recalls, "The hands were a theme that we competed about. I once mentioned to him [Kippenberger] that I had heard that one could see from painted hands whether someone could really paint. We were standing in front of one of my self-portraits where the hands were really bad. He wanted to go one better." (Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, Martin Kippenberger The Problem Perspective, 2008, p. 94.).

Embraceable You combines elements of abstraction and figuration in a manner that is both enriching and confounding. More than merely representing an abstract image, Oehlen's Embraceable You pushes for a sensorial engagement that begins with a visual investigation that soon moves through the viewer's body with physical force. This experience of the work develops unique meaning for each viewer that is both rooted in and yet distinct from the painting itself. In this way, Oehlen's paintings are related to those by Francis Bacon. Both artists derive power from gestural mark-making that resists directing the viewer to a specific reading of the work. Thus, the experience of the gesture that exposes as much as it conceals invites an experience of the ineffable.