This lack of allegiance to any single style exists within Oehlen’s oeuvre as well as outside it. Renowned for his relentless invention, Oehlen had only moved into an abstract idiom in 1989, and by 1994 he was already beginning to reintroduce figurative elements into his painting, initiating the dialogue between figuration and abstraction that has characterized his work over the last twenty-five years. The abrupt pivot into abstraction was triggered by a transformative trip to Andalusia with perennial co-conspirator Martin Kippenberger in 1988. Unlike their disastrous trip to Brazil three years earlier, where Oehlen had left 10 days into a 3-month trip unable to cope with the potent combination of extreme heat and copious drugs, the trip to Spain was a triumph. In the artist’s words: “Spain was extremely productive … For me it was the start of my abstract paintings, a radical revolution in my painting, the decisive step in my development." (The artist quoted in Susanne Kippenberger, Kippenberger: The Artist and his Families, New York 2011, p. 344) This abstract period, which Oehlen playfully dubs “post-non-representational painting,” reflecting his reluctance to adhere to the abstract/figurative binary, is among the most successful of his career. (The artist quoted in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds., Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Oxford, 2003, p. 1164). These are not works that reflect an interest in creating works that are conventionally perceived as ‘good’ or ‘pretty’ – that is a merely a side effect of radical experimentation. As Oehlen explains, " 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.” (The artist quoted in Exh. Cat., Bonn, Kunstmuseum Bonn, Albert Oehlen, 2012, p. 71)
This desire to shock and amaze owes a debt not only to Kippenberger but also to Oehlen’s professor from his time at art school in Hamburg: Sigmar Polke. As Oehlen describes: “I couldn’t say what Polke’s influence was, but it’s his radicality. When you start to work as an artist everybody thinks about radicality, like how could you make the most shocking thing. And it’s not easy... Polke is somebody who had a role in that; in a way he made very radical things.” (The artist quoted in Pataphysics Magazine, 1990, online) Drawing on Polke’s atypical approach to medium and subject matter, Oehlen attempted to transcend the dichotomy between abstraction/figuration and merge the two into one artistic language, whilst also seeking to lampoon the pretensions of the artistic establishment. Like Polke’s seminal Moderne Kunst, Untitled sees Oehlen appropriate compositional elements from many of the great abstract painters in service of a new and independent gesture in his own work. By fully embracing elements and styles from the history of painting, Oehlen negates the reductivist conclusions reached by abstract painters of the mid-Twentieth Century.
Beguiling, immersive and explosively colored, Untitled is a preeminent example from one of Oehlen’s most significant series of abstract works. Hugely influential for a generation of contemporary painters, Oehlen’s works from the early nineties have also been foundation for his own oeuvre. One need only look as far as the artist’s most recent series of Baums to see the echo of the sinuous lines that weave their way through Untitled, or to the Computer Paintings of the early 2000s to discern the influence of Oehlen’s embrace of color. 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. As the artist put it in a 2006 interview: "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 quoted in Alastair Sooke, ‘I want my paintings to like me’, The Telegraph, July 1, 2006)
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