The self-portrait was created during a period of the artist’s career dedicated principally to nonrepresentational series such as the Computer Paintings, the Grey Paintings, and the John Graham Remix works. Oehlen decided to make it in part for inclusion in a dedicated self-portraits exhibition at Galerie Bärbel Grässlin, and in part because he sees self-portraiture as “an inventory kind of task… Once a year you should make a self-portrait. But you have to have an idea, you don’t want to do the same thing again. The way I imagine it is, if at some time there’s a larger series of them, that this is really a development of ideas” (Albert Oehlen cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, Skarstedt Fine Arts, Albert Oehlen Self Portraits, 2002, p. 60). If the history of Oehlen’s self-portraits can be examined as a history of his ideas, then this work should be considered a unique breakthrough moment: the culmination of his self-deprecatory early works and the first in a series of three that also includes Selbstportrait mit Offenem Mund (Self-Portrait with Open Mouth) and Selbstportrait mit Palette (Self Portrait with Palette): three paintings of 1998, 2001 and 2005 that are today considered among the very best paintings of Oehlen’s oeuvre.
In the 1980s, Oehlen created self-portraits that deliberately identified with art historical tropes only to undermine and ridicule them. He showed himself with garbled features in pastiche not only of Picasso’s cubism but also of the tradition of self-portraiture in which one idealises one’s own visage. He pasted mirrors directly onto his canvases and painted his own face on top, crudely curtailing the traditional technique and subtly questioning the integrity of those who had previously looked from mirror to canvas and back again. He painted himself clutching a skull and holding a painter’s palette in bathetic parody of the classic Vanitas tradition, and as a rutting stag in ironic imitation of neo-Expressionist painters such as Helmut Middendorf, who Oehlen was at pains to usurp as leading artist in the contemporaneous German discourse. This cynical subversion reached its peak in Self-Portrait with Shitty Underpants and Blue Mauritius, which marks the early nadir of the artist’s self-regard. That he would show himself in such disarray and strife inverted the idealism of the genre and stuck a punk middle finger up at its historic practitioners.
There is overt reference to this earlier irony in the present work: one is drawn to the slightly cartoonish features, to the less-than flattering outfit, and particularly to the titular hands. In portraiture and self-portraiture throughout art history the hands have provided opportunity for aggrandisement: a chance for the sitter to hold a prop displaying some virtuous character trait; a chance for the artist to show their skill in depicting the most challenging part of the body to render. By contrast, Oehlen shows his hands not only spread wide and totally empty, but also peculiarly distorted with the right hand intentionally splayed beyond easy comprehension. The sting of Oehlen’s dissident youth has mellowed in the present work, but he is nonetheless happy to make a subtle dig at the motives and methods of his artistic predecessors.
Selbstportait mit Leeren Händen is palpably redolent of the work of Martin Kippenberger, who had been a close friend, collaborator, and artistic peer of Oehlen until his premature death in 1997. Oehlen and Kippenberger had met in the late 1970s and for the next two decades, they painted together, exhibited together, travelled together, and drank together. Along with Werner Büttner, they took the German art world by storm in 1984 with the epoch defining Warheit ist Arbeit exhibition at the Museum Folkwang. Later, they took The Alma Band – their jazz group – on tour to Rio de Janeiro and created collaborative works. They were punk musicians who didn’t need to learn instruments, and punk artists whose works deliberately rebelled against academic convention and contemporary taste. They were the undisputed champions of “bad painting” and together they inspired and cajoled each other into making their best paintings. After Joseph Beuys had solemnly decreed that “Every human being is an artist”, Kippenberger and Oehlen stood together to boldly remind us that “Every artist is a human being”.
To understand the nature of Oehlen and Kippenberger’s relationship, is to comprehend the raw emotion that informs the present work. In its appreciation, we are immediately put in mind of the series of self-portraits that Kippenberger made between 1987 and 1988, many of which showed him in oversized underpants styled after a famous photograph of Pablo Picasso: they share the sense of self-deprecation laced with dissident subversion that the present work engenders, and they feature comparable poses and outfits. The artists-cum-conspirators had been living together in Spain when Kippenberger created this series. That Oehlen refers to this fruitful period of their lives in the present work conjures a commemorative sense of grief. It also imbues the work with a mood of absurd bathos laced with sincere pathos that is more idiosyncratically Kippenberger than any possible visual reference. As recently as 2012, Oehlen was asked in interview what role Kippenberger had played in his art. He responded: “The greatest conceivable role, because to me he was the best artist” (Albert Oehlen cited in: Josephine von Perfall, Kippenberger & Friends: Conversations on Martin Kippenberger, Berlin 2013, p. 98). The present work can thus be read as an homage to Kippenberger, filled with references to his most celebrated series and characterised by an evocation of his trademark tragi-comic mood.
In this context, we can understand the sense of sincere pride that sits beneath the ironic mockery of this work. With multiple art historical references, Oehlen asserts himself and Kippenberger as rebellious heirs to the German painting and portraiture tradition: continuing where Dürer, Beckmann, and Baselitz left off. The emphasis of the hands in the present work immediately calls Dürer to mind, whose Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight is focussed intently on the left hand raised in pseudo-benediction. This painting is at the heart of the Alte Pinakothek’s collection and is overt in its sense of self-aggrandisement; little wonder that Oehlen chose to splay his hands in a diametrically opposed gesture. Max Beckmann was another of Germany’s most important self-portraitists, completing more than 80 in his lifetime. His largest and best, now held in the permanent collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, seems to have been a direct point of reference for Oehlen in the creation of the present work: it features the same mottled orange background and the same emphasis on a pair of engorged and prominently displayed hands. There is a marked difference between Beckmann’s dinner jacket and Oehlen’s grubby shorts, but even the outfit in the present work appears steeped in art historical allusion. For the shorts, in combination with the distorted face and head, spark a comparison with Georg Baselitz’s infamous Grosse Nacht im Eimer series: the obscene and distorted paintings that were seized for public indecency when they were first displayed in Berlin in the early 1960s. Oehlen asserts his role in this discourse with typical humour and idiosyncratic aplomb: the skill of Beckmann dragged through the rebelliousness of early Baselitz. Every detail of this dramatic and impactful self-portrait carries art historical import.
Selbstportrait mit Leeren Händen is exceptional amongst Oehlen’s self-portraits for its massive size, for the complexity and skill of its painterly treatment, and for its dense poetic concept. It is the most unique and engaging of the three self-portraits that the artist has created between 1998 and 2005 and more carefully finished than any that were executed during the 1980s. Oehlen appears empty-handed, grieving the loss of Kippenberger, and stylistically harking back to the time when the two had collaborated on countless projects as penniless artists tearing down the accepted norms. This work commemorates their relationship not only in pose and content, but most pertinently in mood: perfectly poised between absurdity and grief; the tragic and the mundane.
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