Albert Oehlen is a German artist and former professor at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (2000–2009) now living and working in Switzerland. The artist's contemporary art practice has engaged with a myriad of sources, from the history of Abstract Expressionism to the methodology of Surrealism and the imagery of advertising. In the pursuit of artistic freedom and variation, he has utilised the brushstrokes of Expressionism as well as the technology of computers.
Graduating from the Hochschule für bildende Künste, Hamburg, in 1981 Oehlen quickly became engaged in the Berlin and Cologne art scenes. He became associated with Berlin's Junge Wilde artists, including Werner Büttner and Martin Kippenberger, who turned to a reinvigorated form of Expressionism, opposing Minimalism and Conceptual art. His work retains that fierce quality, with crowded compositions and highly expressive brushwork.
To create an aesthetically pleasing artwork is not Oehlen's concern. The artist has stated, 'If I have to decide whether to make a beautiful painting or a new painting, I will choose new every time.' The artist embraces so-called 'bad' painting with crude figures and jarring visceral smears of paint that challenge the viewers' perceptions and highlight the limitless combinations of forms achievable in painting.
Working within self-imposed constraints, Oehlen often reduces the medium of painting to its base elements of line, gesture, colour, and motion before recombining them in various disparate works that expand the boundaries of painting. In works such as Bleo (1995), brush strokes both sharp and linear, soft and fluid, share the same canvas, as do colours that are distinct and colours that are blurred into each other. Stylistic variations also abound, ranging from the almost geometrical approach of his paintings of trees such as Untitled (Tree 1) (2013), in which dense and thin lines are placed upon a white-to-pink gradated background, to the figurative work Self-Portrait Making Pottery (2012), which depicts a male figure holding a porcelain sink against an expressively applied background of hazy purple and orange. Self-Portrait Making Pottery also acts as a means of questioning the identity of the artistic figure. In works such as the 'Grey' paintings (1997–2008), the artist limits himself only to painting in grey, expanding the range of creative possibilities available by working within tight restrictions in the tradition of the Surrealists.
Since the 1990s, Oehlen has incorporated and referenced new technology such as inkjet printers and computer design programmes to produce artworks such as Party Dreams (2001). For works like Party Dreams, the artist brushes and sprays onto a collage of imagery that has been printed onto canvas by massive inkjet printers typically used to create billboards. Works such as Untitled (32) (1994), in which the artist draws in gouache, ink, Tipp-Ex, and pencil over a printed catalogue page, further confound the line between machine-made and man-made.
Over his career—particularly the past two decades—Oehlen has exhibited in galleries across Europe, the United States, and China.
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The New Museum's tight two-floor, 27-work exhibition of Albert Oehlen gives ample evidence of the ways and whys this 61-year-old German artist is one of the most influential painters working anywhere today—a virtual freedom machine. Oehlen is like a badger of painting, a cross between a weasel and a small bear, fearlessly scouring painting's...