"Cows by the Water", curated by Caroline Bourgeois, is Albert Oehlen's (born in 1954 in Krefeld, Germany) first solo exhibition in Italy. "Right Mistakes" and "Crime pays" are excerpts from Jean-Pierre Criqui's essay "Words by the paintings," published in the exhibition catalogue.
<span class="alinea"></span>Legend has it that one day, during a recording session, Thelonious Monk—him again—suddenly stopped playing in the middle of a recording and let out, by way of explanation: “I’ve made the wrong mistake.” It is in fact rather uncommon for an improvisation or a fully successful interpretation, and it is obviously the same for a painting, to be like the arrow of the Zen archer striking the bullseye. Musicians make several recordings or engage with their producers in subtle montages. Like writers, painters delete, start over, become discouraged. “Of course, the temptation is always there—for everyone, I suspect, but certainly for me—to believe that if only you could get the hang of it, the picture would paint itself. How lovely it would be if you were delivered from despair by an idea that you only had to follow to the letter, an idea that no one understood [laughs] and that was never revealed. In reality, though, when you work on painting for a month, you spend thirty days standing in front of the world’s ugliest picture. In my work, I’m constantly surrounded by the most dreadful pictures. It’s true. What I see are unbearably ugly tatters, which are then transformed at the last moment, as if by magic, into something beautiful.”<sup>1</sup>
<span class="alinea"></span>Magic, if it is there, involves a lot of patience, even obstinacy, combined with a certain inclination for the development of methods or rules, about which AO has expressed himself several times. He sees this as going back to the period when he was studying in Hamburg with Sigmar Polke (whom Kippenberger and AO considered as the indisputable touchstone by which to test the artistic tastes of their interlocutors).<sup>2</sup> Polke as <i>the mother of invention</i>, so to speak. These methods are so many anti-methods in that they seek to promote the correct error, by definition unpredictable, in preference to any recourse to proven formulas. In a 1969 quartet of paintings, <i>Lösungen</i> (<i>Solutions</i>), Polke delivered in the form of a <i>reductio ad absurdum</i> the key to this heuristic principle, each of the nine canvases presenting examples of arithmetical operations (respectively addition, subtraction, multiplication, division), which are distinguished without exception by the falsity of their results. (Karl Kraus earlier: “Only he is an artist who can make a riddle out of a solution.”<sup>3</sup>) For AO, the abandonment of figuration at the end of the 1980s (images would return later in his works, but invested with a very different plastic role, much more detached from significance and reference) led to his proclaiming himself a “post-non-figurative” artist.<sup>4</sup> The use of the computer since 1992 (whether or not in association with the painter’s hand); the extension and renewal of procedures of collage and montage; sometimes also seemingly more limited decisions, such as those affecting the use of colors (the frustration at the beginning of the series of grey paintings that began in 1997<sup>5</sup>; the limitation to black and red on a white ground for the <i>Trees</i> series) or working method (the idea of slowing down his gestures as much as possible): so many ways to summon a happy accident that will transform Quasimodo into Prince Charming, and the meanly limited painting previously completed into a marvelous ruin, a thousand times more desirable in its singular imperfection.
<span class="alinea"></span>“I want to murder painting.” So said Miró in around 1925<sup>6</sup>. AO regularly evokes surrealism, for instance recalling how deeply he was struck by the Dalí retrospective presented at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1979-1980; but also, in a characteristic way, drawing attention to the <i>methods</i> developed by the surrealists. “I think method is a good word and I think the surrealists started that and I feel very much in their debt. I owe them, I belong there. […] If I think about abstract compositions, I think about surrealism and the conditions of it, like, what are the rules for it? How can I change them? How can I make them more complicated?”<sup>7</sup> There is also something of the surrealist spirit that lingers in giving the same title to two paintings that are quite different in appearance: a computer painting of 1997, one of those black-and-white grids that look like so many emblems of derailment (of a train, of the mind); a large (278 × 359 cm) canvas from 1999, very colorful and full of residual images. (Ah, yes, the title: <i>Son of Dogshit / Sohn von Hundescheisse</i>.) And in the idea of baptizing “Cows by the Water” a retrospective of paintings hanging on the walls of a Venetian palace. (It was already the title of a grey painting from 1999, <i>Kühe beim Wasser</i>. Unless I am very much mistaken, it is absent from this exhibition—Magritte had his “cow period,” which was not his least amusing.)
<span class="alinea"></span>Under the same heading I would set the various eyes that crop up here and there in AO’s compositions. For example: <i>Untitled</i> (1989), an oil-on-canvas painting measuring 240 × 200 cm, where yellow dominates, <i>FN 33</i> (1990), <i>In the Side-View Mirror</i>, <i>Rivulet</i> (2004), <i>FM 23</i> (2008), and many others. What to do with all these eyeballs on an outing, arousing memories of a famous engraving by Odilon Redon devoted to Edgar Allan Poe and accompanied by the caption: “L’œil comme un ballon bizarre se dirige vers L’INFINI” (<i>The Eye like a Strange Balloon Mounts toward INFINITY</i>), what with this psychedelic poster, in which a winged eye with various appendages looks towards the viewer from a heavenly hole (Rick Griffin for Jimi Hendrix <i>et al</i>. in San Francisco in 1968)? Speaking of his computer-assisted compositions, which he then works on manually, AO says: “They are extreme ’all-over’ paintings. From time to time some specific element is accentuated, but then there’ll be something absurd, right in the middle of the picture. It’s the third eye, the Eye of God, so to speak.”<sup>8</sup> The eye that pursued Cain after he killed Abel, as in <i>La Conscience</i>, Victor Hugo’s poem for which François-Nicolas Chifflart, circa 1885, imagined a striking illustration, in which it seems that the poet gave his own features to the criminal?
<span class="alinea"></span>As the years go by, the Apollonian element has become more prominent in AO’s works—the Dionysiac, even the demonic, remaining a safe but less exploited resource. This is illustrated in series such as <i>FM</i> (for <i>Fingermalerei</i>, “finger painting”) and <i>Conductions</i>, where it is clear that the artist significantly tempers his tendency to immolate the whole painting (and sometimes the viewer as a bonus). It’s a question of proportion. No doubt AO has become cooler, in the cool jazz sense. It should not be forgotten that in 1995 he titled his solo exhibition at the Gesellschaft für Gegenwartskunst in Augsburg “Abortion of the Cool”, a term where we perceive a nod to Miles Davis’ pioneering record (<i>Birth of the Cool</i>), but that also signals that the heat threatens to be turned on at any moment. How—supreme contradiction—to master excess, to regulate its effects in the visual order which is that of painting? Highly perilous acrobatics, but worth daring: the culprit is always acquitted in art.<sup>9</sup>
1 — Jörg Heiser and Dominic Eichler, “Ordinary Madness. An Interview with Albert Oehlen,” <i>Frieze Magazine</i> n° 78, October 2003, accessible on frieze.com. <br/>
2 — “Following a self-imposed set of guidelines certainly gives you more momentum. Forbidding yourself certain things, believing in rules, is a good state to be in. That’s the way to develop as an artist, by giving yourself instructions what to do next. One rule could be: don’t stick anything to the picture surface. There are examples from art history where you can say: ’See, if he hadn’t done that, it would have been better.’ [laughs] But of course, everything you feel you should reject represents a form of temptation.’” <i>(Ibid.)</i> Here we recognize the stroke of genius of the notion of sin, original or otherwise, which has done so much for that of beauty. <br/>
3 — Karl Kraus, <i>Half Truths and One-and-a-Half Truths: Selected Aphorisms</i>, translated from the German by H. Zohn, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1986, p. 51. It is the word that served Polke as the title that is used: “<i>Künstler ist nur einer, der aus der Lösung ein Rätsel machen kann.</i>” <br/>
4 — A label that AO does not fail to take for what it is: “The term is certainly absurd. I passed from figurative painting to abstract painting and in this way I repeated the pictorial development of the moderns. But of course the context was different.” (Ralf Beil, “L’avidité de couleurs. Dix questions à Albert Oehlen,” catalogue of the exhibition “Albert Oehlen. Peintures/Malerei 1980-2004,” Musée cantonal des beaux-arts de Lausanne, 2004, p. 16). <br/>
5 — “I wanted to use even stronger colors in my paintings and I prescribed grey to myself as a therapy, to artificially increase my greed for colors.” <i>(Ibid.)</i><br/>
6 — Quoted in the book by Maurice Raynal, <i>Anthologie de la peinture en France de 1906 à nos jours</i>
, Paris, Éditions Montaigne, 1927, p. 34. <br/>
7 — “Albert Oehlen and Nigel Cooke in Conversation, London January 2008,” catalogue of the exhibition “Albert Oehlen,” Thomas Dane Gallery, London, 2008, pp. 2-3. <br/>
8 — “Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen in conversation with Albert Oehlen,” catalogue of the exhibition “Albert Oehlen. Home and Garden,” New York, New Museum, 2015, p. 99-100. <br/>
9 — As stated by the title of a posthumous collection by Giorgio Manganelli, <i>Le crime paie, mais c’est pas évident [Il delitto rende ma è difficile]</i>, translated from the Italian by D. Férault, Paris, Le Promeneur, 2003. On the same principle as these remarks is Adorno’s aphorism: “Every work of art is an uncommitted crime” (<i>Minima Moralia. Reflections from Damaged Life</i> (1951), translated from the German by E. F. N. Jephcott, London, Verso, 1974, p. 111).