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Gagosian Quarterly

Fall 2019 Issue

Albert Oehlen:Maximum ChanceMaximum Control

The artist met with art historian Christian Malycha to discuss his newest paintings.

Albert Oehlen, Untitled, 2019, watercolor on canvas, 83 ⅞ × 72 ⅛ inches (213 × 183 cm). Photo: Jeff McLane Studio

Albert Oehlen, Untitled, 2019, watercolor on canvas, 83 ⅞ × 72 ⅛ inches (213 × 183 cm). Photo: Jeff McLane Studio

Christian Malycha

Christian Malycha is an art historian, curator, and member of the executive board of Kerber Artbook Publishers. Former artistic and executive director of the Kunstverein Reutlingen, since 2002 he has produced many exhibitions and publications on twentieth- and twenty-first-century painters and sculptors, among them Georg Baselitz, Albert Oehlen, and Franz West.

Albert Oehlen

Albert Oehlen’s oeuvre is a testament to the innate freedom of the creative act. Through expressionist brushwork, surrealist methodology, and self-conscious amateurism he engages with the history of abstract painting, pushing the basic components of abstraction to new extremes. Photo: Oliver Schultz-Berndt

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Christian Malycha The new paintings are quite unexpected!

Albert Oehlen By all means, I wanted a change.

CM You painted them in Los Angeles, right?

AO Yes, I was in LA and started to paint in acrylics and watercolors. These ten paintings evolved along the way. I didn’t intend to make anything new, though—it was an experiment, rather, and about the employment of different materials.

CM You wanted a change without knowing in advance where it would lead you?

AO The paintings deal with all of that, the whole development. You can see how I’m realizing the possibilities, and what interests me. You can see both ends of the spectrum.

CM The void and the abundance?

AO That’s basically it. And then there are the varying degrees of “mark-making” and “scrubbing about.”

CM Distinct signs or dissected planar textures. What role does the application of color play in this?

AO That goes hand in hand with your choice of material. The application influences your movements, and that’s where the real fun begins. The colors don’t differ so much in terms of density and radiance. Only if a color sways you to paint differently do things get exciting.

CM In the early 1980s, when you started out, your painting was hard and calculated, emotion was rejected. Looking at the new paintings, one might wonder whether you feel differently today. Is there a sensuous dimension?

AO No, that’s not a category I plan for. Still, things are always coming out that I take delight in, even though I didn’t necessarily intend them. If the paintings are more colorful now, and brighter, I didn’t aim for that, but you know how it goes. And then I say to myself: “Oh my, that’s not so bad after all!”

Albert Oehlen: Maximum Chance Maximum Control

Maya Oehlen and Albert Oehlen in Los Angeles, 2019. Photo: © Esther Freund

CM That’s what you can see. The color has enormous presence—it’s clear, it beams—but then again there are nuances and wry contrasts. It’s tender, and due to its transparency it takes on a marvelous depth, opening up the whole pictorial space.

AO What a pleasure to hear! I had no intentions with these paintings, everything just evolved the way it did.

CM Your brushstroke is immediately recognizable but the new paintings are completely different from the Tree Paintings, the Finger Paintings, and your collages. There’s no figure, no object, no writing . . . only color. You told me you’ve been thinking about some of your older paintings. What’s the tie-in? What were you looking at?

AO I didn’t look at anything, it just happened—there’s no conscious reference. But I suddenly just found myself back in the year 1995, 1996 . . . and just like back then, the new paintings arose out of a refusal of certain things: there’s no figuration and I wanted no composition, wanted to disable composition.

Albert Oehlen: Maximum Chance Maximum Control

Ernst Oehlen and Julian Oehlen in Los Angeles, 2019. Photo: © Esther Freund

CM No preconceived image, but bold gestures?

AO It would be impossible, for example, to execute these things by working from sketches.

CM There’s resistance in their openness?

AO For sure—they refuse composition.

CM You’ve said you see a “reluctant order” in these paintings—what does that mean? Gestures and movements of color carrying and escalating each other within the painterly process?

AO Exactly. A painting has to be “gathered up.” Nothing is intended but something happens. What evolves hasn’t been aimed for, it grows . . . while you’re struggling to prevent certain things. The painting takes a stance while you’re constantly rapping your own knuckles.

CM What part do chance and control play?

AO It’s an everlasting struggle. Brushstrokes, for example, almost never turn out how you wanted them to. The question is what you call chance. . . . Control may be the choice not to correct anymore, you see something you don’t get rid of. That’s no longer chance. How something ends up on a canvas is probably chance, but if it stays on, it isn’t.

I’ve always been looking for trouble. I’m just a “surfin’ bird,” looking for stress.

Albert Oehlen

CM With all their serenity, freedom, and openness, the paintings are astoundingly precise. That’s contradiction in itself, being both “free” and “precise.”

AO A while ago I read a book on how John Cassavetes made his movies. It was inspiring, or at least affirmative. Anyway, I got the feeling of some kind of kinship. He was very spontaneous while filming; only later, during the editing, did he come close to the real film itself. And there you have it: both maximum chance and maximum control. I thought, that’s it. I recognized the attitude and rejoiced. But there’s always the ordeal of the process. For Cassavetes it was extreme, and for me it is too. You’re searching for something without knowing what you’re looking for.

CM You could have made it easy for yourself, saying “That’s my painting” and being done with it. Instead, every time you start over from scratch.

Albert Oehlen: Maximum Chance Maximum Control

Albert Oehlen, Untitled, 2019, watercolor on canvas, 83 ⅞ × 72 ⅛ inches (213 × 183 cm). Photo: Jeff McLane Studio

AO That’s true. It really is—

CM Is this a perpetual present?

AO I have the feeling that my paintings, that my art altogether, is pretty much in line with my time, that I’m contemporary. Strangely enough. That conclusion took me quite a while. I’m not flattering myself; I could be dreaming of being ahead of my time, or classic. But I’m not dreaming about anything, I’m reckoning or supposing that I’m in line with my time. Without asking for it or idealizing it, I think that’s how it is.

CM From the very beginning, you’ve questioned any given image.

AO I’ve always been looking for trouble. I’m just a “surfin’ bird,” looking for stress.

CM And still everything comes together?

AO I hope that everything makes sense. But I don’t have to make sense, I just make paintings.

CM Earlier paintings: self-assurance or self-bewilderment?

AO That’s funny, I was just talking with Carroll Dunham about the same thing. For him it’s exactly the same. Somewhere in your past there’s always a period you don’t like, you don’t understand why you painted these paintings at all. But it shifts—five years later it’s a different period you’re doubting. Therefore, self-bewilderment, but not consciously sought out. Personally, I could work very well without ever looking back, but for your exhibitions you’re doing it constantly.

CM Are the ’90s reassuring for your new paintings, then?

AO I’m not sure whether the ’90s paintings might not even be the current period . . . and nonetheless I situate myself close by. Might be possible.

Artwork © Albert Oehlen

Albert Oehlen’s studio, Ispaster, Spain, 2019–20. Photos © Esther Freund

Albert Oehlen: Terrifying Sunset

The artist speaks with Mark Godfrey about his new paintings, touching on the works’ relationship to John Graham, the Rothko Chapel, and Leigh Bowery.

Carrie Mae Weems’s The Louvre (2006), on the cover of Gagosian Quarterly, Summer 2021

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Summer 2021

The Summer 2021 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring Carrie Mae Weems’s The Louvre (2006) on its cover.

Albert Oehlen and Mark Godfrey

In Conversation
Albert Oehlen and Mark Godfrey

Albert Oehlen speaks to Mark Godfrey about a recent group of abstract paintings, “academic” art, reversing habits, and questioning rules.

Albert Oehlen: In the Studio

Albert Oehlen: In the Studio

This film by Albert Oehlen, with music by Tim Berresheim, takes us inside the artist’s studio in Switzerland as he works on a new painting.

Installation view, Albert Oehlen, Serpentine Galleries, London, October 2, 2019–February 2, 2020.

In Conversation
Albert Oehlen and Hans Ulrich Obrist

Hans Ulrich Obrist interviews the artist on the occasion of his recent exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries, London.

The cover of the Fall 2019 Gagosian Quarterly magazine. Artwork by Nathaniel Mary Quinn

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Fall 2019

The Fall 2019 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring a detail from Sinking (2019) by Nathaniel Mary Quinn on its cover.

Cows by the Water

Cows by the Water

At the Palazzo Grassi, Venice, a career-spanning exhibition of paintings by Albert Oehlen, entitled Cows by the Water, went on view in the spring of 2018. Caroline Bourgeois, the curator of the exhibition, discusses how the show was organized around the artist’s relationship to music.

Portrait of Sir John Richardson, New York, 2005. Photo: Janette Beckman/Getty Images

The Art of Biography: Sir John Richardson’s “The Minotaur Years”

Pepe Karmel celebrates the release of A Life of Picasso IV: The Minotaur Years, 1933–1943, the final installment of Sir John Richardson’s magisterial biography.

Georg Baselitz working on Madame Demoisielle weit weg von der Küste (Madame Demoiselle a long way from the coast)

Georg Baselitz: Pulling Up the Image

In celebration of five recent projects related to Georg Baselitz, Richard Calvocoressi, Max Hollein, and Katy Siegel speak with the artist and look at his prolific career.

Galerie Patrick Seguin, Paris

Patrick Seguin

Andisheh Avini speaks with the Paris gallerist and publisher about his passion for architecture, design, and art.

Installation view of Urs Fischer’s Untitled (2011) in the exhibition Ouverture, Bourse de Commerce – Pinault Collection, Paris, 2021. Artwork © Urs Fischer, courtesy Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich; Bourse de Commerce – Pinault Collection © Tadao Ando Architect & Associates, Niney et Marca Architectes, Agence Pierre-Antoine Gatier. Photo: Stefan Altenburger

Bourse de Commerce

William Middleton traces the development of the new institution, examining the collaboration between the collector François Pinault and the architect Tadao Ando in revitalizing the historic space. Middleton also speaks with artists Tatiana Trouvé and Albert Oehlen about Pinault’s passion as a collector, and with the Bouroullec brothers, who created design features for the interiors and exteriors of the museum.

Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977, long-term installation, western New Mexico. Artwork © Estate of Walter De Maria. Photo: John Cliett, courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York, and © Estate of Walter De Maria

Light and Lightning: Wonder-Reactions at Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field

In this second installment of a two-part essay, John Elderfield resumes his investigation of Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977), focusing this time on how the hope to see lightning there has led to the work’s association with the Romantic conception of the sublime.