Influenced by other German painters such as Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, Oehlen focuses on the process of painting itself. During the 1980s he began combining abstract and figurative elements of painting in his works, as part of a reaction to the prevailing Neo-Expressionist aesthetic of the time. In the following years, he worked within self-imposed, often absurd, parameters. He used only gray tones for his “Grey” paintings and limited himself to red, yellow, and blue for another series of what he calls “bad” paintings that included his infamous 1986 portrait of Adolf Hitler. In his paintings of the late 1990s, each piece consists of smears and lines of paint Oehlen brushed and sprayed over collaged imagery that had been transferred to canvas by the type of gigantic inkjet printers used to manufacture billboards. In Oehlen’s recent work, flat, figurative cut-outs-all the products of computer-aided design, and gestural strokes of oil paint trade places in the service of collage. In his recent Finger Paintings, color-blocked advertisements are an extension of the canvas, providing fragmented, readymade surfaces for Oehlen’s visceral markings, made with his hands, as well as brushes, rags, and spray-cans.
In 2013 ArtDaily described Oehlen as “one of the most influential, but also one of the most controversial of contemporary painters”. His paintings are also frequently compared with David Salle’s. However his work has not been met with universal approval. Philippe Dagen, writing in Le Monde about Oehlen’s 2011 exhibition in Nîmes, concluded that he was “of only limited importance. With about 30 canvases he reveals his system with absolute, but unfortunately appalling, clarity.” His paintings were devoid of “any form of expression or psychic density”. His 2007 painting, Loa, is now part of the UK’s Tate Collection.
For Albert Oehlen, the practice of painting and its inherent unpredictability is a subject in itself. The guiding principles of his method are impulse and eclecticism, while his tools are fingers, brushes, collage, and computer. He often begins by imposing a set of rules or structural limitations—restricting his palette or deliberately working at a slow pace—while challenging himself to approach each painting differently. He treats abstraction as either gesture or geometry, superimposed, in combination, or conflated with a figurative register, as in readymade posters covered in smudges and stains. Pictorial form is a trigger rather than an end in itself. The Galerie Max Hetzler gave Oehlen his first solo show in 1981. At a 2014 Christie’s auction in London, one of Oehlens self-portraits from 1984 was sold for $1.8 million, roughly three times its $670,000 high estimate.
Oehlen has shown work internationally in many exhibitions including I Will Always Champion Good Painting at Whitechapel Art Gallery in London (2006), Grounswell at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (2005), Provins – Legende at Museet for Samtidskunst in Roskilde, Denmark and Spiegelbilder 1982-1985 at Max Hetzler in Berlin (2005). In 2013 a retrospective of his entire oeuvre from the 1980s to 2005 consisting of over 80 works was held at MUMOK, Vienna. Oehlen’s work was included in the 2013 Venice Biennale.
Albert Oehlen was born in 1954 in Krefeld, Germany and currently lives and works in Switzerland. Collections include Museum of Modern Art, New York; Cleveland Museum of Art, OH; MOCA Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA; Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, FL; Broad Contemporary Art Museum, Santa Monica, CA; Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt; Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga, Spain; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Tate, London; Istanbul Modern; and Museo Jumex, Mexico City. Recent solo exhibitions include Secession, Vienna (2004); “I know whom you showed last summer,” Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, FL (2005);
Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy (2009); “Réalitéabstraite,” Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, France (2009); “Terpentin,” Kunstmuseum Bonn, Germany (2012); mumok – Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna (2013); 55th Biennale di Venezia (2013); Museum Wiesenbaden, Germany (2014); “Home and Garden,” New Museum, New York (2015); “An Old Painting in Spirit,” Kunsthalle Zürich, Switzerland (2015); and “Albert Oehlen: Behind the Image,” Guggenheim Bilbao (2017).