At the beginning of the pandemic, mail became an event; it brought a little brightness from the outside world to days of isolation. And so when I received a surprise package from Gagosian gallery, I dropped everything to investigate. Inside, there were four catalogs from different exhibitions of Albert Oehlen’s paintings and a card from the gallery letting me know that the artist was sending them to me with his compliments. To this day, it is a small token that I treasure, keeping the books close at hand and the calling card posted above my desk as a reminder of how a simple gesture can change a mood and affect an outlook on life.
That Oehlen would send these books to me was not totally out of the realm of possibility; I had written him an email thanking him for some much needed support he’d given at the beginning of the lockdown, letting him know how appreciated his attention was, and how his gift had raised my spirits. And now that I know him a little better, this response to my thank you note seems perfectly natural and specific to Oehlen himself: short and to the point, letting his paintings, his actions, speak in place of words.
Since then, he and I have spoken a few times. I recorded a soundtrack with Chris Corsano for the English-language version of his incredible film, Artist, and I was lucky enough to talk to him via facetime about the direction of the music and little bits about our lives and work in general. He was always friendly and quiet as we talked, with the expansive Swiss countryside behind him and the plain white walls of my Brooklyn apartment behind me.
The Painter project wrapped up, and we fell out of touch as he and I both moved on to other projects. Even though our relationship never went beyond small talk and questions about the work we were doing together, I miss talking to Oehlen at times. I can’t explain it, but I think I get a sort of joy from his matter-of-factness and nonchalant dedication to something spectacularly deep and personal. And each time I see a new series of his paintings, I am affected by their psychic size, because I can sense the quiet presence and sly smile of the artist behind them.
This interview was at the top of my wish list for this issue, but it also was the one I was least convinced would happen. I was shocked when Oehlen returned my email within the hour, saying he would be happy to answer my request. I sent him some very abstract questions and waited. After about a week of silence, I realized that my proposed questions, which were very tenuously based on abstract ideas of time and speculations about the future of the art world, were not the sort that he would be predisposed to answer. I wrote back to him, admitting my mistake and promising a better set of questions if he didn’t mind starting over. His response was typically Oehlenesque: “Yes, I was just going to ask you for something more concrete.” I did my best, and in the end, he answered some questions from each set, even attempting to get into the more nebulous areas, always with the laconic conversational style I had been missing.
NWHow would you characterize your work at this moment?
AOThe paintings that I’ve worked on for the last two years are based on the idea of combining a certain manner of painting with variations of one particular shape. For the most part, the painting inside this particular shape sits on a yellow background. On a few paintings the “free” painting is the background, and the color field is inside.
NWIt seems like a simple concept—shape, color field, free painting—but the more I imagine it, the more sensitive and difficult it becomes to pull off.
AOI have to control the balance of the two levels. The idea doesn’t make the painting. It could easily go wrong.
NWHow do you define the “one particular shape”?
AOThe shape is a bit aggressive, depending on how I do it. It might be a cephalopod or a bust or a headless body with spread legs. It is futuristic, evil. I call them “Omega Men.”
NWWhat do you hope it communicates to its audience?
AONone of my works has a particular message. They can only represent my attitude. And they communicate what I have done, hinting at the process of their creation. That is what I like to see and understand in a piece of art. How did they do this? Why did they do this?
NWWhat epiphanies have you had to steer you to where you are now?
AOI get asked frequently (especially in rural regions) what my inspirations are. I answer that they come from my last work. Your question is more interesting. Something I see or read—or music I hear—can provoke thoughts and ideas. I love to think about decisions made: what’s the alternative, opposite, or exaggeration of it. There are artists that are inspiring me as a person. I like to read about them and understand their thinking. To a degree.
NWThe thing that strikes me about your work is that you express an idea, focus on it, and exhaust it before moving on to another idea. And that next idea may be something totally different.
AOI don’t agree that it is totally different. It looks different but my challenge is the same.
NWWhen you do a film project like Painter, or when you’ve played music with Red Krayola, do you feel like that opened up another direction for your visual art, or is it just a chance to express ideas in a different way?
AOIt adds something. Especially the movies. It gives something (false) to the public. That’s new for me. I am not wild about being in public, and this is a funny game. [Painter is a film in which an actor creates a painting based on Oehlen’s instructions, playing the painter. Oehlen only appears in one part of the film as an interviewer of this fictional version of himself.] I learn a lot. I see myself from outside, and it makes me think about my role and my painting.
NWWhen you’re working on a project, does it consume your energy, or are you already thinking of what’s next?
AOI often think about the next paintings. That doesn’t mean that I do what I think of, but ideas about what I could try are always on my mind.
NWKnowing that this is speculation, where do you hope to go in the future?
AOI hope to go on without making mistakes or wrong decisions. I hope to make good paintings.
NWDo you worry about making mistakes? Your language seems very self-assured. I can’t imagine that it is missing anything.
AOThere are always things that I am missing. The question is whether I should go for them or work with what I have. For example, a “real“ painter knows which color goes where. They pick or mix the color they have in mind with her brush and put it right where it belongs. And it stays there. I never worked like that. I know I could, but this is the challenge: should I learn [to paint this way] only because I haven’t done it so far? Probably, yes. Widening my repertoire could be good, or it could be a mistake. It could mean running away from the main challenge.
NWIn the same way that we’re talking about your own work and life, what kind of moment do you think we’re in as a culture?
AOIt seems like the world is shitty today. Democracy is attacked from all sides. When I talk with my children about problems in the world, I mostly end up telling them that democracy and people voting for the right cause could solve this or that problem. So simple. It’s funny that so many years of political awareness led to that.
As a teenager, I was a Maoist. Luckily, I didn’t take it too seriously. Now I recognize that many of the strategies, ways of arguing, etc. in the new-right movement are ones that came from the left of that era. It embarrasses me when I think of our mistakes and unfair actions during that time.
There seems to be a great confusion about what’s left and right at the moment. That is probably good. In the seventies long hair, traveling the world, rock music, drugs and being against the state (or system) would be associated with the left, and law-and-order would belong to the right. With law-and-order Bush Jr., Trump would be in jail. Instead, some tattooed individualists storm the capitol. Let’s think it over.
NWDo you have hopes for the future?
AOOf course I have hopes.
NWWhat do you see in the art world that is giving you hope?
AOThe art world is very political at the moment. That is good in that it helps us learn. If it helps politically is not clear. It definitely produces some (not all) really bad art and even tries to obstruct some good art.
NWDo you think much about your past? Is it important to you to examine what you’ve done or to think about the legacy past work might leave?
AOI don’t like to think about the past. Sometimes I have to.