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Albert Oehlen speaks about his career highlights

In light of his New Museum survey, Oehlen talks about his paintings and their pioneering references to digital technology

By Paul Laster
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A student of Sigmar Polke, Albert Oehlen is a painter’s painter. During the ’70s, he was part of a Cologne art scene that included Martin Kippenberger, and he proved to be a key innovator in the revival of painting, being among the first to relate the medium to digital technology. On the occasion of his New Museum survey, he singles out some of his career highlights.

Albert Oehlen, Self-portrait as Spring, 2006
Private collection

Self-portrait as Spring, 2006 

“I used wallpaper for background here, a kitschy scene of a garden in Tuscany that I really liked. There are two images of me: one where I’m popping out of a vase as a collaged figure, the other in which I’ve painted myself by a fountain, cooling off in the water. The whole thing is seasonal, but it’s also meant to be esoteric, so don’t ask me what it represents.”

Albert Oehlen, Saints and Fighters, 1997
Private collection

Saints and Fighters, 1997  

“I found a picture of this guy while searching the Internet for computer-generated images. I liked the idea of the beer can next to him to create a trashy aspect. I used a digitally printed background overlaid with silk screen, brushwork and spray paint. When you enlarge pixelated images, the pixels often look out of focus in a way resembling spray-paint.”

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Albert Oehlen, Bad, 2003
Jörg and Phillip von Bruchhausen

Bad, 2003

“I guess in a way Gerhard Richter inspired this painting—I wiped the color off the surface, much like he did with his blurred images. But his approach was meant to serve the representational function of his paintings, which were based on photographs. I, on the other hand, thought, Okay, what if I make the process the main thing? So pushing the paint from one place to another became the point.”

Albert Oehlen, Self-portrait as Dutch Woman, 1983
Collection Maurice Marciano

Self-portrait as Dutch Woman, 1983 

“This was probably my third or fourth self-portrait. I try to make each one as interesting and playful as possible. For this one, I was fascinated by a beautiful photo of a topless woman in a Dutch bonnet by Paul Outerbridge. So I appropriated it and substituted my face for the original. I used an earlier painting as the canvas, so the cogwheels were already there, and I decided to leave them.”

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Albert Oehlen, Untitled, 1989
Lothar Schnepf

Untitled, 1989

“I started making abstract paintings because I was no longer taking the idea of representation seriously. It was a dream that I had for some time. I felt that I was making the same transition in my life as art history had done—moving from figuration to abstraction. It came about quickly because I was at a lucky moment where I had the courage to do it.”

Albert Oehlen, Arrest, 1996
Stefan Rohner

Arrest, 1996

“In 1990, I bought a computer—a Texas Instruments laptop. It was an early model, and I got it because I liked the idea of connecting to advanced technology, even though I knew that I didn’t know anything about it, and I wasn’t sure how to use it. But I loved the idea of using a computer to paint even before I figured out how to do it. The irony, though, is that this painting is a computer image that was painted by hand.” 

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Albert Oehlen, Captain Jack, 1997
Private collection

Captain Jack, 1997

“This canvas has Photoshop gone wild! I tried every new filter and tool that I could. So I managed to create bands of color and windows of color. I messed around, playing with the imagery, which came from a picture of a toy mixed with a photo of Richard Pryor dressed as a doctor. The eyes are actually his. The title of the piece came from a stupid German dance music band.”

Albert Oehlen, More Fire and Ice, 2011
Courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine

More Fire and Ice, 2011

“This was the largest painting I’ve made to date. It’s a big mess of motifs, some of which I made with computer software called Poser. The composition goes in all different directions. I kept painting on it until I decided that I’d arrive at a nice abstract canvas. I kept thinking of Willem de Kooning while I was painting, so maybe there’s an aspect of his work in there.”

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Albert Oehlen, Untitled 2009–11
La Colección Jumex

Untitled, 2009–11

“I began with two advertising posters, one for a sports team and the other for a furniture store. Whenever I work on a background of images like that, I approach it as if I’ve actually painted what’s there myself and it’s terrible and needs fixing. So I’m not calling bullshit on the material like Sigmar Polke might have. I’m taking responsibility for whatever happens.”

Albert Oehlen, Untitled, 2005
Courtesy the artist and Galería Juana de Aizpuru

Untitled, 2005

“This is only the fourth time I’ve exhibited this installation, which is meant to represent a poor art student’s apartment. It’s somewhat biographical: There’s a self-portrait lying on the bed, covered with a sheet. There’s a record player and albums because music has always been important to me. And there’s also a piss pot next to the bed, though when I was a student, my money was too tight to buy one.”

See the exhibition

Albert Oehlen, CROPPED SPLASH
Courtesy the artist and Galerie Max Hetzler

“Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden”

Art Painting

Along with Martin Kippenberger, Oehlen was a principal player in Cologne, Germany's art scene during the late 1980s and early 1990s. They reviled Neo-Expressionism, the style that became synonymous with German art from earlier in the decade, and sought to challenge it, mainly by creating a style of painting that subverted the very idea of painting.

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