In His Latest Exhibition at Gagosian Hong Kong, Albert Oehlen Tries His Hand at Something New: Watercolor

For one of painting's great champions, doing something new is the only option.

Albert Oehlen, Untitled, 2019
Albert Oehlen, Untitled (2019). Courtesy of Gagosian.

Earlier this year, the German painter Albert Oehlen went to Los Angeles, and, without really thinking about it, decided to do something new. “I was in LA and I started to paint in acrylic and watercolors,” he said in a recently published interview with art historian Christian Malycha in Gagosian Quarterly. “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.” That chance-taking paid off: It resulted in 10 monumentally scaled watercolors on view at Gagosian Hong Kong this September. 

Albert Oehlen, 2019

Albert Oehlen, 2019

For those who have followed the arc of the German artist’s career, the fact that he is reinventing himself comes as no surprise. Oehlen has often set seemingly arbitrary parameters for himself to challenge the limits of expression within the infinite possibilities of painting. Over the past four decades, Oehlen has pushed the boundaries of painting by using computer aided design software to create abstract compositions and even forcing himself to forfeit his passion for color to work only in shades of gray.

The watercolors are part of this lineage of experimentation. Oehlen has returned to the rich palette he is known for, but with an entirely different texture: magenta, lime green, and royal blue are cast in passionate swirls and energetic dashes. At first glance, these works are totally abstract, but upon further inspection, one notices the geometric shapes and hard-right angles operate like doorways, calling to mind paintings from his 2018 exhibition, “SEXE, RELIGION, POLITIQUE.”

Albert Oehlen, Untitled, 2019. Courtesy of Gagosian.

Albert Oehlen, Untitled (2019). Courtesy of Gagosian.

Growing up in the Cologne art scene in the 1980s, Oehlen challenged the parameters of painting, but remained steadfastly committed to the medium. In a 2015 review in the New Yorker, critic Peter Schjeldahl called him “the foremost painter of the era that has seen painting decline as the chief medium of new art.

These new works may seem somewhat reserved compared to Oehlen’s bolder, earlier output. But in some sense, the reserve seems like his latest self-imposed limit. There is a tension borne of his desire not to over-correct, not to force his will upon the paintings—to let the watercolors be his partner in developing the composition.

“If the paintings are more colorful now, and brighter, I didn’t aim for that, but you know how it goes,” Oehlen notes. “And then I say to myself: “Oh my, that’s not so bad after all!” 

Albert Oehlen: New Paintings” is on view at Gagosian Hong Kong, September 12–October 26, 2019.

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