First you take a step toward ugliness and then, somehow or other, you wind up where it’s beautiful.
A vivid, electrifying profusion of rich psychedelic color, elusive form and gestural movement, Albert Oehlen’s Die Pfeifenden von (The Whistlers of) is a thrillingly robust work that deftly captures the artist’s idiosyncratic practice. Executed in 2001, the monumental painting typifies Oehlen’s shift to large-scale abstraction after a 1988 trip to Spain with Martin Kippenberger, while epitomizing the artist’s distinctive push-pull dynamic of figuration versus abstraction. Across the energetic and visually complex panorama, nomadic representative shapes are swept and tossed by tidal currents of gestural abstraction: an overturned teapot, the visage of a wax doll, a femur, gloved hands. Soft washes of peach and umber belie tropic flashes of vermilion, tangerine, and cerulean, imbuing the cacophony of disparate elements with mesmerizing lyricism. Pushing his medium past its historical connotations to its breaking point, Oehlen challenges, examines, and revitalizes painting in a post-painting world. By employing the abstract idiom and aesthetic but never abandoning figuration, the fantastical Die Pfeifenden von (The Whistlers of) exemplifies what Oehlen playfully dubs “post-non-representational painting” (the artist cited in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds., Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Oxford 2003, p. 1164).
Oehlen initially became associated with the group of avant-garde German artists known as the Junge Wilde, the “Wild Ones,” whose paintings of the 1980s challenged traditional theories of line, color, and composition, and refuted clear categorization in favor of individual expression. Die Pfeifenden von (The Whistlers of) revives the ethos of Oehlen's earliest paintings with heightened fervor; grand in scale and epic in format, Die Pfeifenden von (The Whistlers of) embodies the essence of the artist’s ambition: “Qualities that I want to see brought together: delicacy and coarseness, color and vagueness, and, underlying them all, a base note of hysteria” (the artist cited in “Albert Oehlen: Interview by Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen”, Kaleidoscope, No. 24, 2014, online). The synthesis of disparate forms and tones calls to mind Kandinsky’s foundational forays into abstraction. Describing such variegation in Oehlen’s works, Alastair Sooke writes, “Most successful, though, were his large vibrant canvases characterized by violent clashes of color. They give an impression of visual chaos, with unruly brushstrokes clamoring for attention. But spend a few minutes in front of them, and you realize that the chaos has been carefully thought out” (Alastair Sooke, “I want my paintings to like me”, The Telegraph, July 2006, online).
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 together within mammoth compositions. 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 Hans Werner Holzwarth, Ed., Albert Oehlen, Cologne 2009, p. 422).
Across the entirety of the dramatic composition, isolated vignettes and moments of figurative depiction emerge from the background, only to be subsumed by passages of diaphanous colour. One observes a pair of gloved hands, a large upside-down teapot, a haunting head. All these motifs are partially obscured and obstructed by various passages of paint, precluding their legibility or any sense that they might be linked. To Oehlen, once you are engaged in painting – itself a perverse warp on reality – the tensions between abstract and figurative modes of depiction are immaterial. Oehlen explained: “The question ‘abstract or not abstract’, for example, is irrelevant to me. I have a whole series of forerunners in this opinion, for example Georg Baselitz, who turned the motif upside-down–a magnificent gesture, considered and courageous … Upside-down, the subject is still recognizable, but it doesn’t make sense, because it’s standing on its head” (the artist cited in “The Rules of the Game”, Artforum, November 1994).
Albert Oehlen occupies a key position in abstract painting in the 1980s and 1990s, and alongside befriended artists such as Christopher Wool continued a lineage of radical experimentation that spans from Willem de Kooning to Yves Klein and Gerhard Richter. Moreover, the experience of space, scale and colour are pivotal to Oehlen’s work, which challenges the viewer not solely to experience the immersive and expansive canvas, but to recognise forms within it. In other words, his paintings are not simply aesthetic or sublime. Oehlen explains: "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 cited in Alastair Sooke, “I want my paintings to like me”, The Telegraph, 1 July 2006, online). Elsewhere he declares: “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 cited in Exh. Cat., Bonn, Kunstmuseum Bonn, Albert Oehlen, 2012, p. 71).