The midcareer retrospective of the German painter Albert Oehlen (b. 1954) at the New Museum arrives with ample fanfare. Many regard Oehlen as one of the most important painters of his generation, and Home and Garden, organized by artistic director Massimiliano Gioni with curator Gary Carrion-Murayari and assistant curator Natalie Bell, is his first solo museum exhibition in New York. The title, suggested by Oehlen, refers to the idea of both interior and exterior spaces, a thematic thread that runs through the artist’s work, while also making a sly reference to decorating magazines. A more appropriate title might have been “The Great Outdoors,” since many of the oversized works look like fragments of grand mountainous landscapes rather than gardens. Oehlen lives in Switzerland and is an avid outdoorsman and hiker, facts that came as little surprise to me based on the twenty-five monumental works, installation piece complete with a bedridden painter, and lonely cuckoo clock that composed the exhibition.
One does not normally associate the New Museum with an old, dusty practice such as painting. The name alone implies an aversion to history, and this disfavor became even more apparent when I considered that the exhibition did not include any photos, preparatory studies, or sketchbooks, making the show feel more like a greatest hits compilation than a proper retrospective. Moreover, the works were not presented in chronological order but rather through contrasting and divergent themes such as irony and sincerity, or nature and culture. Because many of the paintings contain the same elements—silkscreened or printed images, computer drawings, collage, linear abstract patterns, drips, smudges, and gestural brushstrokes—it became difficult, at times, to separate one from another.
The constant element running through Home and Garden is scale, and my thoughts seemed to bounce off each enormous painting like a handball off the wall of a neighborhood court. With the smallest side of a single work coming in at a shade under five feet, the paintings had me craning my neck, wishing I had a ladder or perhaps an adjacent rock climbing wall to get a better view. A rock climbing wall best approximates the way we see much of Oehlen’s works, with their compression of pictorial space and hints of detailed information. We look hard to find solid places to grip our eyes onto as we read across the surface—a surface that, in most cases, welcomes us in the way a car windshield welcomes an insect on the Autobahn.
As the show opens on the third floor, we find Oehlen, in a Neo-Expressionist phase, grappling with the ghost of Pablo Picasso and the outdated act of self-portraiture in the two earliest works in the exhibition: Selbsportrait als Holländerin (Self-Portrait as Dutch Woman) (1983) and Selbsportrait mit Einlochtopf (Self-Portrait with One-Hole Vase) (1984). In Self-Portrait as Dutch Woman, Oehlen plants his tongue in his cheek as he quotes the pose, but not the breasts, of the topless young girl in Paul Outerbridge’s 1936 photograph The Dutch Girl, which was in turn inspired by Picasso’s 1905 Rose Period nude, La Belle Hollandaise. In Oehlen’s version, he reused one of his previous paintings of six vertical sprockets on a reddish ground and made it host to a shirtless self-portrait of him wearing the original model’s cap. He painted directly over some of the gears while keeping others exposed, allowing them to hover around the space like mechanical apparitions. In this painting and Self-Portrait with One-Hole Vase, we find that the young Oehlen does not align himself with the big stylistic shifts of the mature Picasso, but rather with the youthful Picasso of doubts and dreams, of the Blue and Rose Periods.
Many of the subjects in Oehlen’s portraits and self-portraits on the third floor appear disengaged from the viewer, as they are portrayed in profile with eyes askance. In the largely grisaille work Bad (2003), the profile head of the female bather surfaces and floats above a claw-foot bathtub in a haze of gestural swipes and cancellations, as the artist used nimble individual brushstrokes to identify light as it glides across the planes of her face. Such a deliberate show of virtuosity through manual dexterity is rare for Oehlen. A better example of his technique is visible in the rest of the painting’s surface, which is veiled in a wash of milky white paint and a varnish that appears to have been manipulated by the painter with a cloth rag or towel. With a swipe of the artist’s hand, the cloth object has moved from being a prop—the allusion to the towel—to a performer.
In 1988, Oehlen took up residence in a house in Andalusia with his friend and sometimes collaborator, Martin Kippenberger. The stated purpose was to afford both artists a chance to experiment in new directions, with each artist acting as a critic or foil to the other. Oehlen was trying to move away from the figuration of his early Neo-Expressionist series toward a more abstract language. While history shows that it is not uncommon for Oehlen to move back and forth between styles, he works sequentially by establishing a series of rules that anchor each body of work like tree roots—the tree being a common theme for Oehlen throughout his career. That Oehlen sought out the region of Picasso’s birth to exorcize this artist’s influence was dramatic, or perhaps a touch melodramatic, but effective. The collaboration brought to my mind thoughts of Georges Braque and Picasso roped together like a pair of climbers while struggling with Mont Saint-Cézanne in 1907, but the two artists I settled on as a more apt comparison were Johnny Knoxville and Steve O. of the Jackass franchise. In many ways, Oehlen and Kippenberger were their bad-boy art-world precursors, since they were trying to debase painting and make some of the worst work possible in an attempt to shock the patient—painting—back to life. In Untitled (1988), a lone tree awash in brown, ochre, and dirty whites appears in the center of the canvas only to be wrestled back to abstraction by a series of red pipe clamps attached to the branches, fanning out from the trunk and trapped in some petrified pictorial world.
Looking at these early examples of Oehlen’s work, one gets the sense that the act of painting was simply not active enough for him. Another element became necessary to take his work in a new direction: the computer. By 1992, Oehlen had embarked on a new series using a rudimentary computer drawing program, which has much less shelf life than say, the brush and palette, to create an abstracted pattern that would later be enlarged and silkscreen printed on canvas or paper as part of the ground. Once the computer designs were screened to the support, the work was manually altered with a brush and spray can. The ground acted much like blank sheet music for Oehlen to apply his painterly notes. The patterns were meant to represent a simplified pixilated reality—bricks, cloth, and tiles—filtered by a machine. Based on the marriage of the manmade and machine, Oehlen refers to the works as his first “bionic” paintings.
These earliest computer paintings are black and white and clearly some of the best works in the show. Visually, we use the stairs created by the computer program to climb the composition. It is during this climb that we bump into manual adjustments made to the printout with a brush and spray can. In Der vergiftete Asket (The Poisoned Ascetic) (1992), we see a rich array of stripped-down graphic patterns—from black-and-white check to woven thread to bricks—that float like islands surrounded by a series of crawling, intestinal black lines, a burst of a spray can, and a dollop of white paint. A strange alien-looking creature with antenna-like eyes appears to the right and quickly morphs into a figure of the type commonly associated with Joan Miró, such as those in Personages and Birds in the Night (1939). Oehlen’s variegated, interlocking pattern stands in for the natural, unprimed canvas weave found in the Miró.
Moving to the fourth floor, little could prepare viewers for the chromatic shock to the system that takes place in eight of the nine monumental canvases. The lone exception is Selbst als Frühling (Self-Portrait As Spring) (2006), a large, hideous garden landscape with a Claude Lorrain colonnade to the left and a fountain of youth to the right, behind which Oehlen pops up to greet us. In the eight remaining works on view, we see the artist “switch paintings” in a series of densely layered works with linear elements that switch back and forth between the handmade and the machine made, creating the overlay and underlay of a psychedelic subway map. The earthy, natural pigments have been replaced by a palette designed by Photoshop and applied by a printer in a cacophony of clashing colors so acidic that they not only burn the eyes and nose but leave a bitter aftertaste in the mouth. In Captain Jack (1997), a buoyant, inflatable, boiled-red crustacean with a Jimmy Durante nose, three eyes, gaping mouth, and more sneakers than the local Foot Locker ambles toward us. Luckily, as my initial reaction was to flee the room, the creature is held in place by a series of computer-drawn and hand-painted lines that bind the jovial giant to its painted arena. Yet this odd creature somehow managed to burrow its way into my subconscious like a waterborne virus designed in a laboratory by Paul Klee.
Heilige und Kämpfer (Saints and Fighters), also from 1997, presents a “bionic man” with his back to the viewer, his digitally generated right arm akimbo, and his head looking off into the distance of a computer haze. The figure assumes the pose of the man in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (ca. 1818), only now the natural world that once held this figure’s imagination has been replaced by the wires and pixels of the interior space of a computer monitor.
As I walked down the stairs connecting the two floors of the exhibition, time appeared to stand still when, in the small stairwell gallery, I was greeted by a cuckoo clock in the guise of a portrait painting—Untitled (2002). While the hands of the clock appeared frozen in time, the clock face came to life as the eyes shifted back and forth in rhythm inside the two eye sockets. The lack of direct eye contact with the viewer made perfect sense. I began to wonder if Oehlen liked or trusted painting at all. His argument—the case for painting—was made with as little a number of brushstrokes as I can imagine possible. Gioni’s catalogue essay, “Albert Oehlen: Stupid as a Painter,” seems to refute Oehlen’s belief in the transformative powers of the medium. But then I looked over my shoulder. I found a window opening onto the Bowery, not unlike the windows often found in the interior/exterior paintings of the German Romantics, particularly Friedrich. It was in this crawl space of the natural world that I began to see the show more clearly. Oehlen’s work nestled comfortably into the neighborhood. The litany of textures and surfaces outside the window could just as easily be found on the surfaces of his canvases. Whether it was the jagged line defining the honeycomb aluminum siding of the New Museum facade, which undulates like the steps of an outdated computer program, the repetition of the tar-covered roofing tiles, or even the spray of graffiti on the side of a building, one sensed that the Oehlen exhibit had leaked out of the galleries and into the fabric of the Lower East Side.
While many painters use their work to lead us to answers, such as the definitions of truth and beauty, Oehlen uses painting to lead us in search of questions. Themes or threads show how his works, while switching back and forth between seemingly divergent forces—many times on the same surface—are made of one mind, searching for freshness and relevance in the tired practice of painting. Oehlen’s painting retrospective at the New Museum proved that strange bedfellows can in fact make the perfect couple: Perfect as a painter.
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