Reto Thüring Curator of Contemporary Art
Bäume 2004. Albert Oehlen (German, born 1954). Oil and paper on wood, two sections; 265 x 385 cm. Courtesy of the artist. © Albert Oehlen. Photo: Galerie Max Hetzler Archive
Reto Thüring, curator of contemporary art, spoke with us about Albert Oehlen: Woods near Oehle, the museum’s largest exhibition of a living artist’s work in its history. Opening in December, the exhibition highlights key series within Oehlen’s oeuvre alongside the works of other artists who have helped shape his outlook. It will be accompanied by an exclusive box set that reflects Oehlen’s singular approach to art making.
Cleveland Art: What makes Albert Oehlen such an important contemporary artist?
Reto Thüring: Oehlen began his career in Germany in the late 1970s at a time when painting (once again) had been declared dead. In the 1980s he became a seminal figure among a few artists who were crucial to its revival. Oehlen investigated the status and importance of painting, and pushed its boundaries in manifold ways—technically, formally, conceptually—offering different perspectives on what a painting can be and what painting can mean. Now there’s a younger generation of artists, painters working today, who are looking back to what that earlier group did—and to what Oehlen continues to do in the 21st century.
How do Oehlen and his art relate to the museum and its collection?
Throughout his career he has very consciously dealt with art history by working in the grand, long tradition of painting, most of which is represented in the CMA’s renowned collection. What Oehlen has done throughout his career is look back and forward at the same time—just as we, as a museum, must do. With the completion of our new building we have been reinvigorating our commitment to contemporary art, and the exhibition reflects this two-directional approach, making for a bold, timely statement at the end of the centennial year.
How will the exhibition reflect Oehlen’s groundbreaking and untraditional nature?
We really want to frame Oehlen’s work in a way that isn’t limiting but rather mirrors the artist’s complex layering of methods and concepts. The architecture in Smith Exhibition Hall will look like nothing we have ever done before. It will create an absolutely new experience for our visitors. Works by other artists—including a painting by Willem de Kooning and a sculpture by John Chamberlain from our collection—add another layer to an already complex narrative. There will also be a multimedia installation, including sound. It will be an intense but at the same time a kind of sprawling experience.
Untitled 1989. Oil on canvas; 240 x 200 cm. Private collection. © Albert Oehlen
This is a solo exhibition, but four others contribute as curators or writers. Why did you choose to break with tradition in this way?
Oehlen has been collaborating with different people ever since he began making art. In the 1980s he became identified with a group of artists that included Martin Kippenberger, Georg Herold, Werner Büttner, and his brother Markus Oehlen; they were engaged in painting and a lot of other activities. We wanted to reflect the importance of collaborative practices for Oehlen by including some of his closest friends and fellow travelers.
The four collaborators, if you will, for this exhibition include Christopher Williams, the foremost conceptual photographer of our time, who edited an anthology of texts and images specific to this show. It is included in the special box set the museum has published.
Julie Sylvester, a curator based in New York, contributed the idea of pairing two late paintings by Willem de Kooning with a seminal work by Oehlen called Strassen (Streets) from 1988—implying a shared sensitivity and poetry of line and color by both artists, one finishing up his vision and one just starting.
Diedrich Diederichsen is a professor based in Vienna and an important art critic who also writes extensively on music. Our conversation with him led us to include works by other artists who share an interest in the tree as subject matter, including Jackson Mac Low and Rodney Graham.
Also, musician and composer Michael Wertmüller collaborated with Oehlen to produce a new, exclusive piece of music that will play at intervals as part of the multimedia installation in the exhibition.
The accompanying box set is also different from what CMA visitors might expect.
In a way, the box set mirrors the layering evident in Oehlen’s work and in the exhibition. The set includes an exhibition catalogue and the book edited by Williams, along with a poster, a score, and a 45 rpm vinyl record with the musical piece produced by Wertmüller. The catalogue is also available separately.
Tell us about the exhibition’s title, Albert Oehlen: Woods near Oehle.
Oehlen is known for his playful titles. The last word, “Oehle,” obviously refers to his last name. “Woods near” alludes to the tree as subject matter, a thread that runs through the exhibition. It’s a subject that Oehlen has employed throughout his career, exploring the dichotomy between abstraction and figuration, and using the tree as a way to formally push his paintings forward and break new ground. There is an interesting parallel to the museum’s current Kara Walker exhibition—The Ecstasy of St. Kara—which also has a self-reflexive title. Both of these artists are very well established, so the reference to their names in the titles creates a kind of ambiguous allusion to their reputations.
Untitled (Baum 2) 2014. Oil on Dibond; 375 x 250 cm.
Collection of Larry Gagosian. © Albert Oehlen. Photo: Luther Schnepf