LONDON — Over every German painter of the postwar era, there has hung, like some filthy, impermeable cloud, the moral dereliction of the Third Reich.
Where to go from here? How to pick up the shattered pieces? How even to begin to believe that art could be permissible again as an authentic representation of the human condition after a second-rate amateur painter called Adolf Hitler had herded so many millions into the gas chambers?
Anselm Kiefer’s response has been to shoulder — and perhaps even to show off, as a means of absolution — the burden of the great German tragedy, in canvases large enough to crush any delicate-fingered string quartet. In the 1980s, a young painter from Leipzig called Neo Rauch stared hard into the fact that figuration must surely be dead at the roots, only to find, in time, that his talents forbade him to become an abstract painter.
If to be a modern painter meant embracing abstraction, he was doomed to be anachronistic. The human figure kept calling and calling, and eventually Neo Rauch heeded that call. Gerhard Richter became brilliant at everything. Nothing could be pinned on him because he was so able in every direction. Georg Baselitz, who hailed from a village called Baselitz close to a near-obliterated architectural masterpiece called Dresden, absconded to the West, and shocked the prudish by painting, in the early 1960s, the human figure looking malign and sexually degraded. Then he inverted the human form altogether so that meaning could drain away of its own accord.
Albert Oehlen was born in Frefeld in 1954, and came to maturity in the 1980s. He too faced similar challenges: what and how to paint. Oehlen has been a wild spirit from first to last. He embraces the idea of the inauthenticity of painting. Bad painting appeals to him too – he can learn from it. He also flirts with poor taste, amateurishness. To call him either an abstract painter or a figurative one tout court would be to speak two partial truths, and yet there are elements of both in his paintings.
His current exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London, a former tea room in Kensington Gardens – trees nod at the window; parkland stretches away as far as the eye can see; royals idle away their pampered lives in a nearby palace – feels a little like a prowling, snarling panther in a very well maintained gilded cage.
All the paintings in this show have emerged from a strange obsession. More than 20 years ago, Oehlen chanced upon a reproduction of a black-and-white image of a painting by the Polish-American artist John D. Graham (born Ivan Gratianovich Dombrowski) called “Tramonto Spaventoso” (“Terrifying Sunset” c.1940) in a book by Dore Ashton called The New York School (1972).
Graham had been an influential man in his day, but never well known as an artist. He had been a facilitator, a mentor, a helper, an encourager of others – Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, for example. This painting appealed to Oehlen because he could not even begin to understand what it meant. He thought it a fairly crass piece of work, painted chunkily, perhaps not even finished.
Its visual motifs seemed to beckon him though, no matter what they might or might not amount to. These consisted of the following: a portrait of a man with a lavish, black handlebar moustache, who is wearing goggles; a mermaid with finely upraised breasts, who appears to be making up to him; various representations of the sun, all childishly playful; three-armed swastikas; a giant black letter H; and the title of the painting itself, written horizontally across its middle, which serves to cut it in half.
This painting, with its bizarre corralling of visual motifs, has served as a tool box for Oehlen for almost 30 years. He has riffed on it, repeatedly. And many of these riffs are on display in this well-appointed London show for the next five months.
Oehlen is as fierce as he is wild. By which I am of course referring to the application of paint to canvas. He is also uncategorizable. He owes a debt to Abstract Expressionism, but the tactics of the Surrealists have informed his painting, too, but not with the kind of theorizing that Surrealism demands of painting — that it be the outward manifestation of the mysterious workings of the unconscious – nothing quite as poker-faced as that.
Oehlen admires how Surrealism playfully probes the nature of the real, as the critic Dawn Adès has written. His paintings are often uproarious with color: strokes on the slashing curve, jabs, tricklings, wheelings about, splatterings, splashings. Some are brushed, others sprayed on in a filmy cloud of, say, orange. These paintings are joustings, sites of energetic battle — with himself. All this violence feels like nonstop fun. He mixes charcoal with watercolor. The charcoal is clean-lined, unsmudgy. It is the watercolor that runs amok.
The Serpentine’s spaces consist of a suite of long, narrow rooms encircling a large, domed central gallery – this is where the tea would have been served, elegantly, poured in a long curve from a good height, one hand behind the back.
In this central gallery, Oehlen has re-interpreted Rothko’s chapel in Houston. Rothko’s chapel is a meditative space. Oehlen’s could be construed as something similar – and also quite the opposite. Giant triptychs almost overwhelm the walls. The paintings squeeze up against each other or hang slightly awkwardly, one jutting above the other. Nothing is too harmonious. Pulsing music comes and goes, courtesy of an ensemble called Steamboat Switzerland, recorded on a loop and piped into the room.
Once again the paintings are energetic re-mixes of “Tramonto Spaventoso,” but this time they are larger than ever. Those same motifs appear and reappear, but now Oehlen allows them more space to improvise upon themselves.
They stretch, they loosen. The mermaid looks more luscious and predatory than ever. The handlebar moustache blackens, elongates, and aggrandizes itself, drifting away from its customary place. We shift from hard, tight graphic lines to the spreading warmth of the lyrical. Some of the deformations of the human figure are straight out of Picasso at Boisgeloup.
The paintings may be violently improvisatory, but they are also walled in by this enduring passion to remake and to reimagine another man’s work — an impulse stirred by the excitement of acknowledging that he found it completely baffling.
Albert Oehlen continues at Serpentine Gallery (Kensington Gardens, London) through February 2, 2020.