Private Collection, Spain (acquired from the above in 1996)
Sotheby’s, New York, 10 May 2012, Lot 471 (consigned by the above)
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Segovia, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente, Extranjeros: los otros artistas españoles, May - September 2002, illustrated in colour on the cover and p. 103, illustrated in colour
When the present work was executed, Oehlen had developed an ambition to engage with the legacy of twentieth-century abstraction, in particular Willem de Kooning. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the dynamic brushstrokes of radiating red and yellow intersected by hues of white and ochre paint in the present work. Bits of de Kooning's Women and elements of Robert Rauschenberg's collages of disparate imagery are suggested; having said this, any art historical allusion is in service of a new and independent gesture in Oehlen's work. By fully embracing elements and styles from the history of painting, Oehlen negates the reductivist conclusions reached by abstract painters of the early-mid Twentieth Century.
In Untitled, there is a significant coalescence of incongruous abstract layers and underlying figurative elements: through drips, smacks, smears and smudges of colour, we suddenly discern parts of hands and legs from what appears to be an inverted figure in the centre and upper part of the composition. Interestingly, rendering hands was a point of friendly competition between Oehlen and his good friend and collaborator Martin Kippenberger. Oehlen recalls that "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" (Albert Oehlen cited in: Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, Martin Kippenberger The Problem Perspective, 2008, p. 94).
Ever since his first paintings as a teenager in the early 1970s, Oehlen has employed subjects and painting styles that are deliberately aimed at confronting the existing establishment and testing the limits and tolerance of his audience. Similar to Kippenberger, Oehlen is not interested in creating works that are conventionally perceived as ‘good’ or ‘pretty’. Instead, he embarked on a path of experimentation that has produced some of the most radical paintings in recent history. As art historian Ralf Beil has noted: “With his strategies of the complication of painting, Albert Oehlen is working toward the maximum possible openness in his work. Everything is in perpetual movement, and must remain in the balance. Nothing may be permanently fixed. Constantly looking for new paths into and around painting seems to be the central objective of his always virtuoso anti-virtuoso vitality” (Ralf Beil, ‘Red Light District’, in: Exh. Cat., Lausanne, Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne (and travelling), Albert Oehlen: Paintings 1980-2004, 2004, p. 37).
Oehlen denoted this shift away from the early figurative output of the 1980s towards an entirely abstract mode as ‘post-non-objective’; a term that neither specifically references abstraction nor figuration, but hints towards the artist’s desire to avoid the traditional art-historical binary of the establishment. When Oehlen went to art school in Hamburg, he studied in the class of Sigmar Polke. Similar to Polke, Oehlen looked to transcend the dichotomy between abstraction/figuration and merge the two into one artistic language. Reflecting on this exceptional quality, 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 colours 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" (Hamza Walker cited in: Exh. Cat., University of Chicago, The Renaissance Society, Albert Oehlen: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, 1999, n.p.).
Masterfully displayed in Untitled via its gestural bravura and compositional complexity, the works from this period are a full testament to Oehlen’s artistic prowess. Combining abstract and figurative elements in a manner that is both enriching and confounding, the present work pushes for a sensorial engagement that begins with a visual investigation triggered by Oehlen’s unusual painting technique and his expressive mark-making. Deeply engaged with the history of painting while actively renouncing the continuation of tradition, Untitled displays the artist’s exceptional ability to understand, assimilate, and transcend past precedent in order to create works that suggest an entirely novel pictorial idiom.
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