Richard Oelze: Paintings & Drawings from the 1950s & 1960sby Valery Oisteanu
Ubu Gallery March 15 – May 12, 2007
To enter the Ubu gallery is to be immediately surrounded by canvases full of embryonic forms floating through pre-human landscapes. The experience is, in the words of Andre Breton, “somewhat otherworldly,” and it comes courtesy of an artist as mysterious as his works.
Richard Oelze (1900-1980) was a native of Magdeburg, Germany, who joined the Bauhaus in Weimar, studied with Walter Gropius and Moholy-Nagy and then, privately, with Paul Klee. He became friends with Paul Citroen (of “Holland-Dada”) and, after several years in Switzerland and a divorce, left for Paris in 1933, where he became fascinated by the works of Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Max Ernst. Although his social circle included Dali, Ernst, Andre Breton, Rene Crevel, Tristan Tzara, Leonor Fini, Victor Brauner, and the art critic Mathilde Visser, not many people felt they knew much about him, other than that he was extremely introverted, had few language skills, lived in misery, and was addicted to opium.
On the lookout for the next genius, Julien Levy asked Mina Loy (who served as Parisian representative for his gallery in New York) to contact Oelze. According to Carolyn Burke’s Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy, “Oelze suffered from a number of ills: an inability to communicate (he spoke only German), poverty, isolation and semi-starvation.” He saw himself as a character by Kafka, and in fact he was a persona non grata in France as a German subject without residence papers.
Loy and Oelze likely had an affair, though it was probably anything but easy and more of a “mind fuck” than a physical one. Although younger than Mina by 18 years, he was, as she observed, “strangely pitiable in a premature old age.” Her novel Insel, written in part from notes made from their conversations, features a Oelze-like character who hates his own naked body and is afraid to go to a public bath; every time he is touched he reacts with an involuntary nervous tic. He seems to be able to manage sex only with black prostitutes, often in pairs (“his ebony wives and his ivory eroticism in appraising thighs”).
As a painter, Oelze practiced semi-automatism, akin to frottage (a technique similar to decalcomania, invented by Ernst), in which he randomly chose grains and textures and contours and painted them into a world of swirling chimeras and ghostly apparitions. Mina called him a “congenital surrealist.” His canvas “Expectations” (1935-36, currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art, New York), depicting 20 hat-wearing figures staring up at a very dark sky, remained in her apartment after he left for Switzerland, haunting her. “Whenever I’m in a room with it,” she wrote, “ I catch myself looking at that sky—waiting for something to appear.” The exhibit at Ubu is full of similar dreamscapes and strange accumulations of biomorphic creatures, mostly faces and eyes tucked deep into sockets, to form dilapidated structures as in “Troglodyte Wall” (1957, oil on canvas) or “Instead of Flowers and Blood” (1963, oil on canvas), an “installation” of bellybuttons and soft cheeks, sexual nooks and crannies.
The war caused a nearly 10-year break with work that began in 1940, when Oelze was interned, then drafted, then held as a POW. His renewed artistic search in the 1950s was a direct product of those lost years, featuring vaguely human silhouettes gazing at improbable landscapes, such as “At the River of Complaints” (1955, oil on masonite), and innumerable other works rife with smoking eyes and ethereal faces, all in geomorphic, drug-induced distortion. One of the most striking works here is titled “In One of the Fallowing Years (When Also of Another Beauty II)” (1967, oil on canvas), which depicts a female colossus staring at the viewer, small homunculus apparitions covering her body.
Oelze was represented in most of the important Surrealist exhibitions, starting with the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington in London and Fantastic Art, Dada & Surrealism at MoMA, both in 1936, followed by Marcel Duchamp’s First Papers of Surrealism (1942) in New York, as well as the international exhibits in Germany, Documenta II (1959) and Documenta III (1964) in Kassel.
Later in life, when he was 62, Oelze moved to Weserbergland and lived there in almost total isolation, but his work still turned up in numerous shows. With time he grew too weak to paint and too nervous even to venture out of the house. Toward the end of his life he received many recognitions and awards and was elected a member of the Academy in Berlin. He died May 27, 1980, one month shy of his 80th birthday.