21 August

Albert Oehlen, the painter of pop culture exhibited at Palazzo Grassi in Venice


Like a free-jazz jam session, his canvases bring together a whirlwind of references, from pop culture to figuration to abstraction, blended in hyper-controlled chaos. François Pinault’s Venice museum is currently celebrating the work of German painter Albert Oehlen.

By Thibaut Wychowanok

"Ohne Titel" (2016) by Albert Oehlen. Oil, lacquer and paper on canvas, 250 x 250 cm. Pinault Collection. Albert Oehlen / FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, Bilbao 2018, photo: Erika Ede.

After Sigmar Polke in 2016, François Pinault is once again offering his Venetian palazzo to a German painter. For the past few months Albert Oehlen, 63, has been installed at the Palazzo Grassi, where over 80 of his canvases are on show until Januar y 2019 in an exhibition put on with the help of curator Caroline Bourgeois. Yet Oehlen is much less well known than Polke, among the general public at any rate. In France he’s only had two big institutional shows: in 2009 at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, and in 2002 in Strasbourg (even if the Villa Arson was showing him as early as 1994). But in 2015, when New York put on a big exhibition at the New Museum, an “Oehlen moment” seemed to be crystallizing. In March 2017, his Selbstporträt mit Palette [Self-Portrait with Palette] went for £2,965,000 at Christie’s London (about e3,365,000), doubling his previous record. The famous dealer Joseph Nahmad gave him an exhibition in November 2017, while his German gallery Max Hetzler followed up in March by showing new works and is planning another show in its Paris space this autumn. Need we add that Oehlen is also now a member of the Gagosian stable?


None of which has stopped him from being presented as a true punk. But looking closely at his canvases, it’s less a 70s-style rebellion than a well-mastered Postmodernity that meets the eye. His painting borrows from all over the place, going from one style to another: post-Pop, post-figuration, post-abstraction, post-new technology… One thinks of Polke, of course, who was his teacher, of Willem De Kooning, of Martin Kippenberger, who was his friend, of Brice Marden – a whole stratum of 20th-century painting is reconfigured in his hands.



Oehlen is still producing a whirlwind of disparate and colourful images, as though he were some compulsive-obsessive of deformation, reformation and reinvention of painting, both of its limits and also of its methods.

"Ohne Titel (Baum 9)" (2014) by Albert Oehlen, from his series of tree paintings, started in 2013. Oil on Dibond, 250 x 250 cm.

In the 80s, Oehlen became known for his corrosive figurative pictures like the famous Gegen den Liberalismus [Against Liberalism] (1980) – an ass at the top of a hill. (The guy certainly has a sense of humour.) Then his paintings became more abstract (although he prefers to use the term “post-non-figuration”) forming violent colour compositions with strokes, messy traces, and flat areas of saturation. In 1992 he changed tack again, moving on into the digital for his Computer Paintings which featured repetitive, pixelated black lines and forms, rather reminiscent of the Minitel. In 1997 he made his series of grey paintings; then came the Trees, restricted to black and one other colour on a white background. But then colour was allowed its way again, such as in his large Pop collages and montages from 2009 –10 which mixed logos and household products. Today Oehlen is still producing a whirlwind of disparate and colourful images, as though he were some compulsive-obsessive of deformation, reformation and reinvention of painting, both of its limits and also of its methods. 


With Oehlen it’s always a question of being over the top, of rules being immediately broken, of over-controlled chaos. Beyond that, the work seems irreducible to any description or categorization. The Palazzo Grassi show doesn’t take the risk of trying and instead prefers, more aptly, to mix periods. Oehlen’s painting consequently appears even more rootless and timeless, his Pop montages seeming as though they could have been done in the 80s, his recent Conductions from the 2010s recalling his Computer Paintings of the 90s. Behind the apparent chaos, everything is tightly mastered, all references seemingly cut off from their roots and taken out of context. Originally incompatible, they mix in Oehlen’s work to become nothing more than a surface – the impression of a spectacle of pure forms is what dominates. At the exhibition opening, Oehlen put on a performance with an actor playing himself and painting “in the manner of Oehlen” in the atrium of the Palazzo Grassi, which had been transformed into a temporary studio. The real Oehlen was there too, laughing heartily at the actor’s belching. Everything is thus pure construction. Everything is vain. This ironic distance seems to mark the limits of his painting; we may be temporarily fascinated, but are we moved?



Passionate about free jazz, but also electronic music, grunge or indie rock, Oehlen composes his canvases like musical scores.

Albert Oehlen, Ohne Titel (Baum 58), 2015. Albert Oehlen/Photo: Simon Vogel.

The hang steps in here, for it perfectly brings out the work’s principal quality – its musicality. Passionate about free jazz, but also electronic music (Plastikman), grunge (the Melvins) or indie rock (Dirty Projectors, Deerhoof), Oehlen composes his canvases like musical scores. A note or a motif recurs time and again in pictures from the same series, while improvisations attempt to derail the monotony that comes from this multiplication. Indeed the whole exhibition forms a great big free-jazz score in and of itself. Motifs can be found from one space to the next, but each time with nuances, improvisations or changes that are almost imperceptible in the general tempo, like infinite variations on a base motif or a techno track whose tiny changes in throbbing rhythm can only be felt physically in a state of trance while on MDMA. In the absence of drugs, the hang at the Palazzo Grassi show might just bring you that high.



Cows by the Water – Albert Oehlen, Palazzo Grassi, until 6 January 2019. www.palazzograssi.it