In an exhibition as innovative and daring as the art it showcases, Albert Oehlen: Woods near Oehle is the most ambitious project devoted to the work of leading German artist Albert Oehlen ever presented in the United States. Developed by the Cleveland Museum of Art in close collaboration with the artist, the exhibition illustrates the depth and complexity of an artist who has been at the forefront of artistic innovation since the late 1970s. Albert Oehlen: Woods near Oehle features 45 works from the past 30 years and includes many new works. The exhibition brings together not only works by Oehlen, but contributions by some of his closest friends and other artists who have exerted profound influence throughout his oeuvre. Featured in the exhibition and the accompanying publication are curatorial, musical and written contributions by curator Julie Sylvester, artist Christopher Williams, and author and critic Diedrich Diederichsen. These help to illustrate and contextualize Oehlen’s diverse approach to art making. In addition, Oehlen and Swiss drummer and composer Michael Wertmüller have produced a new musical piece as part of a multimedia installation that makes its debut in Cleveland. Albert Oehlen: Woods near Oehle, a centennial special exhibition, is on view in the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Hall from December 4, 2016, through March 12, 2017.
Multifaceted yet highly focused, Albert Oehlen: Woods near Oehle explores Oehlen’s primary themes and artistic approach. Over the last four decades, Oehlen’s practice has been deeply influenced by various fields of cultural production including literature, music, film, and graphic design. The exhibition reflects this complex layering of methods, subject matter and view points, while also celebrating an artist who continues to have an immeasurable influence on contemporary art.
“We are extremely proud to organize an exhibition that features the work of Albert Oehlen, one of the most influential artists working today,” said William Griswold, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. “Oehlen’s interest in collaboration is an essential component of his practice, so the incorporation of works by his esteemed companions makes this a fantastic experience for our visitors, and the perfect show to lead us into our next 100 years.”
“To create a compelling narrative based on Oehlen’s seemingly inexhaustible artistic practice has been incredibly rewarding. The exhibition and the publication celebrate one of the most important painters of our time whose relevance to a younger generation of artists is immense,” said Reto Thüring, curator of contemporary art at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Albert Oehlen: Woods near Oehle features outstanding examples of Oehlen’s recent series of Baumbilder (Tree Paintings) as well as a never-before-seen suite of large etchings. The tree has reappeared as a motif in Oehlen’s work since the 1980s, providing a subject through which he has continuously tested the boundaries of figuration and abstraction. In the most recent series of tree paintings, begun in 2013, Oehlen elaborates on the subject that has captivated his imagination for the past 40 years.
In order to place Oehlen’s extensive body of work in a broader historical and cultural context, Curator of Contemporary Art Reto Thüring, together with Oehlen, invited the participation of curator Julie Sylvester and critic and author Diedrich Diederichsen—who have championed Oehlen’s artistic production from early on. At the suggestion of Sylvester, Albert Oehlen: Woods near Oehle juxtaposes two late paintings by Willem de Kooning with Oehlen’s seminal work Strassen (Streets) from 1988 as well as two more recent large-scale charcoal drawings. In these works, visitors will observe a sensibility and poetry of line and color shared by both artists, one whose career was drawing to a close and the other whose vision was still emerging. Diederichsen recommended the inclusion of works by three artists: Jackson Mac Low, Rodney Graham, and Harun Farocki. In all of these works in different media, the tree appears as subject matter, but more importantly, it represents a conceptual starting point for each artist’s consideration of representation and abstraction. Sylvester and Diederichsen’s contributions offer visitors a more profound understanding of Oehlen’s works and a path to appreciating his unique artistic vision.
Highlights in Albert Oehlen: Woods near Oehle
Untitled, 1988. Albert Oehlen (German, b. 1954). Oil on canvas; 200 x 200 cm. © Albert Oehlen. Private collection, courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin | Paris. Photo: def image
Trees and other plants were some of the first motifs that Oehlen painted at the beginning of his career, but it was only toward the end of the 1980s that the tree appears, as the artist says, “as a program for my work, not just a motif.” In two paintings from 1988, a leafless tree is depicted with all of the characteristics that make up a tree: roots, trunk, and branches that divide outward into tapered branches. In both images, however, there are also elements that run counter to the natural logic and order of a tree: branches that emerge from the trunk as straight geometrical lines, others that appear to lead back into the tree, and roots that shoot upward in curved lines. Both trees float freely on an undefined surface that is filled with expressive strokes and patches in tones of brown and green. In this seminal painting, six flat, white triangles further confound the viewer’s expectations. During the late 1980s, the subject of the tree became a vehicle for experimentation through which Oehlen navigated the fine line between abstraction and figuration.
The relationship to an art-historical precedent is nowhere as explicit as in Oehlen’s two series of paintings and drawings that concretely reference Tramonto Spaventoso, a cryptic, small self-portrait painted about 1940 by the Russian-born artist and influential mentor figure John D. Graham. Several of Oehlen’s images very clearly reference elements of Graham’s painting (which is in Oehlen’s private collection), while in other works it resonates as a distant echo. The John Graham series exemplifies Oehlen’s strategy of appropriation, which meticulously processes something or someone, “making [it] look and feel at home in an Oehlen painting,” according to art historian John Corbett.
Collage was a technique Oehlen was already employing in his early works, and has frequently appeared in large formats since the early 2000s. In the 2004 collage Bäume, which was part of the important 2004–5 exhibition Albert Oehlen at the Secession in Vienna, a painted tree interrupts the (appropriated imagery of) parallel rows of trees that frame opposite sides of a road.
Curator Ann Goldstein aptly remarks that Oehlen’s merging of the tree paintings with yet another element, the road, in some of his most recent works deliberately increases the viewer’s uncertainty regarding the origin and significance of the paintings. Oehlen offers no solutions with regard to meaning, even though the tree and the road, as readily comprehensible semiotic signs, demand to be interpreted. Instead, he employs the tree and the road as formulae. They become representative illustrations of the process of painting and of what occurs on the surface of a picture during that process.
Exhibition Boxed Set
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Cleveland Museum of Art has produced a boxed set, Albert Oehlen: Woods near Oehle. It includes a catalogue that features a scholarly essay by Curator of Contemporary Art Reto Thüring and plates of 28 works in the show, plus comparative illustrations, an anthology of texts and images edited by world-renowned photographer Christopher Williams, an exclusive poster, and a vinyl record with a new work by composer and musician Michael Wertmüller, reflecting Oehlen’s singular approach to art making and the collaborative nature of this publication.
The Albert Oehlen: Woods near Oehle boxed set can be purchased for $100.00 at the museum’s store, or online by visiting cmastore.org.
Special exhibition previews available:
Friday, December 2, 5:00–10:00 p.m., during MIX: Next
Saturday, December 3, 2:00 p.m., during a curator-led talk with Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen, curators and founders of the Zurich exhibition space Studiolo.
Exhibition Tours Wed/11:00 and Sun/2:00, January 4 through February 22. Meet at the atrium desk. Free.
Special Exhibition Preview: MIX: Next Fri/Dec 2, 5:00–10:00. As the museum’s centennial year comes to a close, look forward with two cutting-edge contemporary exhibitions. Be the first to see Albert Oehlen: Woods near Oehle with a special MIX preview. $8/$10 at the door. CMA members free. MIX is an 18-and-over event.
Explore Albert Oehlen’s work and lasting impact on contemporary art with explorations of the galleries led by curators, artists and more. All talks are free, no registration required. Meet in the exhibition.
Special Exhibition Preview: Sat/Dec 3, 2:00, Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen, curators and founders, the Zurich exhibition space Studiolo
Wed/Dec 14, 6:00, Reto Thüring, curator of contemporary art, the Cleveland Museum of Art
Sat/Jan 14, 2:00, Jordan Kantor, artist and writer
Wed/Jan 18, 6:00, Reto Thüring, curator of contemporary art, the Cleveland Museum of Art
Sat/Jan 28, 2:00, John Corbett, professor, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and co-owner, Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery in Chicago
Sat/Feb 11, 3:00, Reto Thüring, curator of contemporary art, the Cleveland Museum of Art
100 Paintings / 100 Years: 1915–2015 Sat/Feb 11, 2:00. Recital Hall. One painting per year, in chronological order, representing the span of 100 years. From Malevich’s Red Square to furniture sculpture by John Armleder with stops along the way with Vija Celmins, Stanley Whitney, Sadie Benning and Albert Oehlen, writer and curator Bob Nickas traces a century of painting as a matter of free-association. Following the lecture, join Reto Thüring, curator of contemporary art, for a tour of the exhibition. Free; registration recommended.
Yoga at the Museum
Sat/Dec 17, 11:00, North Court Lobby. Explore depictions of trees in all styles of art, including works in the exhibition Albert Oehlen: Woods near Oehle, then branch out into an all-levels yoga class in the atrium led by instructors from the Atma Center. Advance registration required. $20, CMA members $15. Limit 30 participants. Please bring your own mat.
Second Sunday Family Day: Colorful Creativity
Sat/Jan 10, 11:00–4:00, Ames Family Atrium. Bring your family to the museum and enjoy free art-making activities and programs for all ages. Play with color as we look at how artists use different shades and hues in their art. Free; no reservations required.
Art Stories: A Walk in the Woods
Thurs/Jan 19, 10:30–11:00. Join us for this weekly story time that combines children’s books, CMA artworks and interactive fun. Meet in the atrium at 10:30 to walk down to the exhibition together. Free; no reservations required.
Albert Oehlen: Woods near Oehle is made possible in part by a generous gift from the Scott C. Mueller Family and support from the Michelle and Richard Jeschelnig Exhibitions and Special Projects Fund and the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia.
Presenting Centennial Sponsor:
Supporting Centennial Sponsor:
The Cleveland Museum of Art is generously funded by Cuyahoga County residents through Cuyahoga Arts and Culture. The Ohio Arts Council helped fund this exhibition with state tax dollars to encourage economic growth, educational excellence, and cultural enrichment for all Ohioans.
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