ALBERT OEHLENby Terry R. Myers
Home and Garden
THE NEW MUSEUM | JUNE 10 – SEPTEMBER 13, 2015
CORBETT VS. DEMPSEY, CHICAGO | JUNE 13 – JULY 11, 2015
New York didn’t get the Albert Oehlen survey it deserved. Although there are plenty of strong paintings among the twenty-five or so included in Home and Garden at the New Museum, and for the most part they are installed to sufficient impact, this show short-changes Oehlen’s crucial relationship to the legacy of New York painting since the 1940s, without which he would be far less the critical painter he has been for some time. Leaving underwhelmed, my assessment was reinforced by a small yet potent presentation of works from 2011 and 2013 at Corbett vs. Dempsey in Chicago that collage silhouettes of Swiss cows onto canvases to make complicated paintings with no paint. The works in Chicago distill and extend the terms of the two most recent works at the New Museum, both Untitled (2009-11), representatives of Oehlen’s “Fingermalerei” (finger paintings) that put the look of New York School painting front and center with or without apology. (It’s not clear why the New Museum show doesn’t include any work made after 2011.)
Before I get into what I’m trying to get at, I want to be clear that I don’t think the artist is to be blamed for this missed opportunity. Surveys, as such, are often nasty business, and Oehlen’s production has been tailor-made to resist summation, clarification, and established (or the establishment of) historical frameworks. Moreover the virtual evidence of his concurrent exhibition at the Kunsthalle Zürich, called “An Old Painting in Spirit,” suggests more momentum is there, if only because of the inclusion of brand new paintings that look in pixelated reproduction like, yes, something new.
It doesn’t take a detective to deduce that my disappointment is with the curator. And while it may be old news for any of us who have put up with tired and repetitive rhetoric about painting since the late 1980s, at this point—well into the 21st century—I’ll admit to being surprised by reading this in Massimiliano Gioni’s essay: “It is ironic—if not downright depressing or, perhaps sadly illuminating—that one of the best descriptions of what life in the digital era feels like had to be captured in the old medium of painting rather than in some new, hyper-technological invention.” I’m not sure this is the most productive bias to have when organizing a show of Oehlen, given that he has dismantled it probably more than any other contemporary artist. Maybe painting never gave up its ability to provide some of the best descriptions of life. Like a killer pop song or jazz riff (more about this below), painting can embody or provoke contradictory attitudes all at once. Painting may be old, but it is not over the hill.
Since the beginning of his career Oehlen has provided plenty of bait for curators and critics who went all in against painting. As a student of Sigmar Polke’s in Hamburg at the beginning of the 1980s, he was well positioned to take up the terms of “bad painting” that had been established the decade before and produce early pictures that provide the triple insult of first making “bad” versions of “bad painting,” then giving them what they need to hide in plain sight amongst so-called new-expressionism (aping what I once heard Lari Pittman describe as “it’s my feelings painting” with a requisite brown palette and squiggles), and, finally then a half-hearted slap of self-portraiture. Self-portrait with One-hole Vase [Selbstportrait mit Einlochtopf] (1984) is one of two prime examples included here, and with the advantage of hindsight it sets up the enduring attitude of Oehlen’s work: representing himself as a hunched over pasty-faced puppet, it looks as if he was using his wooden finger to stick his doubts about painting in that damn vase. (I think this painting might also be a nod to Willem de Kooning’s The Glazier (1940), but I’m getting ahead of myself.)
From there, the exhibition jumps to five paintings from 1988, 1989, and 1992, when Oehlen turned to abstraction alongside his partner in crime Martin Kippenberger. These canvases are from the period when I was first introduced to Oehlen’s work (at Luhring Augustine in 1991), and seeing them here lined up on a wall my first thought was that they did not age well. When this body of work was first shown it held a certain interest with a peculiar range of painterly moves that managed to survive the brown (so much brown!) but a tentativeness has now overtaken them. Nonetheless they are critical to understanding the bigger picture of Oehlen’s significant achievements, triumphs that I think have everything to do with New York painting before the 1990s, ’80s, ’70s, etc. I could call this the de Kooning problem, but instead I think it’s an answer to some of the current thinking about painting overall.
In the catalogue, Gioni is joined by Mark Godfrey who, in his essay, makes it clear that he does know painting. However he only gives passing mention to de Kooning while stating the obvious: Oehlen’s path to abstraction was not like Mondrian’s or Malevich’s or Barnett Newman’s. I find this disingenuous when what Oehlen’s path is like is de Kooning’s. As John Elderfield’s impeccable 2011 MoMA survey demonstrated, de Kooning was as much a vulgarian as anyone who has followed him, willing to upend expectations again and again. That Oehlen has what de Kooning had does not mean that his work is lesser for having been “done” before in both attitude and form. Instead it provides solid evidence that some of the best things about painting really never change, and one of those things is that painting never stops being contradictory.
In 1963 Roy Lichtenstein said he wanted to make a painting that was so “despicable” that no one would want to hang it, and no doubt many at the time thought he had achieved just that. Three years later, John Adkins Richardson published an essay, now ripe for rediscovery, called “Dada, Camp, and the Mode Called Pop” in which he wrote about some black Jazz musicians who created “masterpieces of condescension”: “Because the performance of these ‘put ons’ requires great technical facility and inasmuch as they are done with good humor they are not offensive to anyone, least of all to the rare white man who comprehends their purpose.” Technical facility doesn’t really change, even if it looks or operates differently in various historical periods. It’s the attitude that is never able to be only one thing or stay the same over time, whether in the double-duty love/hate, authentic/fabricated strokes of a mid-1950s de Kooning (see my review of the MoMA retrospective in the October 2011 Rail), or the computer paintings that Oehlen started in the early 1990s.
The five computer paintings that come next in the chronology of Oehlen’s survey are the tipping point of his work overall, because it’s only after them that Oehlen becomes the “technician of freedom” that he proclaimed with authority and spot-on humor in his recent commencement address at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The constraints of the New Museum do achieve one surprise: they amplify Oehlen’s achievements as some of the super-sized paintings of the early 2000s are able to remain approachable and even intimate in perverse, perfect ways: Born to be late (2001), for example, is breathtaking here mainly because it remains inviting while being irritating and too much. It’s also one of my favorites because it has the perfect title to push back against the notion that painting has been, or will ever have to be, on the clock.
ContributorTerry R. Myers
TERRY MYERS is a Professor and Chair of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.