Albert Oehlen is a contemporary German painter who works in an eclectic range of styles. Alternating between abstraction and realism throughout his career, his pieces often parody or imitate established painting models by exaggerating and distorting them through self-imposed experiments with technique.
Oehlen was born in Krefeld, Germany, and in 1978 graduated from the Hochschule für Bildende Künste. He was a student of Sigmar Polke, whose style he initially emulated.
A figure of Hamburg’s art and music scene in the 1980s, Oehlen’s work during the decade evolved from raw figurative paintings, to chaotic abstraction with vibrant color, to forcefully merged hybrids of the two. The artist has characterized the period as his “wild years,” during which he was closely associated with fellow painter and sculptor Martin Kippenberger and the Neue Wilde movement. The two collaborated on many projects and strongly influenced one another, both inspired by a punk culture that squarely aimed to offend the German establishment. An example from 1984, Self Portrait with Shitty Underpants, shows Oehlen in soiled boxer shorts holding up a famous blue stamp worth millions of dollars. The Neo-Expressionist brushwork mimics the style of many artists commanding enormous prices in the 1980s art market. In Oehlen’s words: “We hung out together, we had fun, we got into trouble. We wanted to be – pathetic words – ‘new and provocative’. But, the flip side of that coin is that you can’t ask for success because you have set yourself up to be totally against the very idea of success.”
In 1988, Oehlen and Kippenberger jointly rented a studio in Spain, a critical point in Oehlen’s career at which he began to paint abstract subjects and expand on the technical possibilities of his media. He’s said he feels that this was the moment when he left behind the chaotic days of his youth and began to paint with greater seriousness. While Oehlen would always remain dedicated to painting, Kippenberger would eventually come to focus on sculpture and installation works.
Within all of his variable styles, Oehlen is known for often using self-imposed parameters. For example, he used only gray tones for his series of “Grey” paintings, and later restricted himself to hues of red, yellow, and blue his “Bad” paintings. The latter includes an infamous portrait of Adolph Hitler, done in 1986, featuring wild brushwork, mirrors, and swastikas. Oehlen later commented that he regards the controversial work as a disaster and failure.
A slow and careful painter by nature, he went through a period of action painting, as well as using only his hands to create his “Smear” paintings. In the 1990s, Oehlen experimented with collages in which he painted over advertisements, and later created his “Computer” works by digitally manipulating images before including them on his canvas. Of his instinctive approach to art making, Oehlen has said, “I do struggle, but mostly, I struggle because I have a lot of work to do. Often, I have one recurring problem: how to make a painting that is entertaining – to me and to everyone else. It’s a lot of effort, that one idea. It means I am often trying to do something that is impossible. So, yes, what I do is playful, but it is also work.”
Although he continued to create art in the 1990s, Oehlen also pursued a career in music by developing the independent record label Leiterwagen and performing in bands such as Van Oehlen and Red Krayola. The label focused on electronic work. In both his visual art and music making, his innate commitment to experimentation has abounded, “Really, I am just trying to make something new every time. I’m an experimenter who can live with the contradictions and even the mistakes that experimentation entails. If we were talking musically, it’s definitely Frank Zappa, not Leonard Cohen.”
From 2000-09, Oehlen served as a professor of painting at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. He has had major retrospectives at the Museum Moderner Kunst in Vienna and at the New Museum in New York (2015). His work has also been shown at the Whitechapel Gallery in London; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the 2013 Venice Biennale. He lives and works in Bühlen, Switzerland.
Acrylic paint, ink, photograph on paper, spray paint and oil paint on canvas
67” x 122”