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Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Art Evening Auction

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London

Albert Oehlen
B. 1954
UNTITLED
signed and dated 05 on the reverse
oil on canvas
180.3 by 150.1 cm. 71 by 59 1/8 in.
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Provenance

The Artist
Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Zurich
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2006

Catalogue Note

Works from the Collection of Idamae B. and James H. Rich

The collection of Idamae B. and James H. Rich is imbued with an adventurous spirit and intuitive discernment befitting of its collectors. The Riches always pursued an independent course of collecting that did not follow fashions or trends but rather remained true to their instincts, with thoughtful research and trusted advice along the way. Confident bidders in New York and London auction rooms, the Riches were equally as generous in sharing their love of art and their collection with their community. Their interest in Contemporary art dated from their attendance at the first Carnegie International in the post-war years, and the Riches were devoted and enduring supporters of the Carnegie Museum and other philanthropic interests in the arts and education. Idamae earned her B.A. in Art History at the University of Pittsburgh and was a member of the Women’s Committee at the Carnegie. James was an Honorary Member of the Carnegie Museum of Art Board, and they both welcomed tours of their collection organised by the Museum. Together they donated acquisition funds, as well as the brilliant Delaware Crossing by Frank Stella, to the Museum. The Riches demonstrated a wonderful receptivity and openness to artists who were not conformists and who embodied the boldness of late twentieth-century art. Each artist in the collection defied traditional norms – whether in genres or the materials and processes used – and the Riches matched the artists’ adventurous spirit with their choice of acquisitions. Sotheby’s is delighted to be presenting highlights from this distinguished collection across our June Evening and Day Sales, with a further selection in New York in September.

The greatest sculptural highlight of the Riches’ collection is by the American pioneer of the 1960s Donald Judd, who introduced industrial metals and pigment processes into a minimalist oeuvre that nonetheless evinced a magical sense of colour. This will be offered in our Evening Sale alongside a vibrant 2005 painting by Albert Oehlen that exhibits the influence of Sigmar Polke and other German painters who all focus on the process and material of art, while also maintaining a porous boundary between figuration and abstraction. 

The Riches shared a devotion to Pittsburgh's native son, Andy Warhol, who elevated silkscreening to the highest realms of fine art. Warhol’s avant-garde influence was felt worldwide, not least among the German painters in the Rich Collection, and his Self Portrait is amongst the notable selection of works to be offered in the London Day sale. In addition are two hallmark works by Wilhelm Sasnal, a dazzling painting by Peter Halley, a chromatically diverse gouache by Sol LeWitt, and a painting by the ultimate iconoclast Sigmar Polke, whose liberal use of diverse and experimental pigments and printing methods earnt him the sobriquet of “the alchemist” as he created his own unique and eccentric style.

Luscious colour is a spectacular aspect of this collection. The Riches’ eye seemed to gravitate to bright, vibrant palettes, none more so than the painting by Oehlen with its glorious hues and Neo-Expressionist aesthetic. In summary, the dynamism of the collection is a profound reflection of a marvellous and intrepid couple who have enjoyed assembling and living with art. It is an honour to present this collection to the art collecting community as a tribute to them.

Albert Oehlen’s Untitled is a robust and engaging painting that pairs a dazzling chromatic effect with a dense poetic concept. It is one of an important series of paintings that Oehlen made in the mid-2000s, in which he paired an idiosyncratic melee of figurative and abstract shapes against a white background. This was a new approach for the artist: “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” (Albert Oehlen cited in: Hans Werner Holzwarth, Ed., Albert Oehlen, Cologne 2009, p. 412).

Oehlen has habitually imposed rules and limitations upon his painterly practice throughout his career in order to spark creativity and instigate new series of work. He has limited his palette to three colours and worked in muted grisaille, as well as used computers and collaged advertising material; while in the present work, and others from its series, Oehlen deploys de Kooning-esque abstract and figurative motifs against bright white backgrounds. As curator Bonnie Clearwater has explained, the effect is beguiling: “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' in: ibid., p. 422).

Across the entirety of Untitled’s dramatic composition, isolated vignettes and moments of figurative depiction emerge from the background, only to be subsumed by passages of diaphanous colour. One can observe hands and arms, a blue hat, and a toppling Pisa-esque tower. All of these motifs are partially obscured and obstructed by various passages of paint, precluding their legibility or any sense that they might be linked. Oehlen uses figurative motifs but makes no attempt to link their form with meaning. To him, once you are engaged in painting – itself a perverse warp on reality – the tensions between abstract and figurative modes of depiction are immaterial.

In the 1980s, Oehlen’s practice was characterised by rebellion. Along with his perennial conspirator Martin Kippenberger, he undermined and undercut the German art establishment with every work that he made. By the time of the creation of the present work, he had progressed from this standpoint. However, at its core, there remains a seditious element to Oehlen’s work: “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). This work is a visually stunning example of Oehlen’s ability to create unexpectedly beautiful works of art through rejecting the pre-existing expectations and conventions of painting.

Contemporary Art Evening Auction

|
London