“Not Believing In It Is One Method” Hans Ulrich Obrist in conversation with Albert Oehlen

24.02.20  |  Article by Hans Ulrich Obrist  |  Art, culture, interview  |  MM17 Click to buy


● HUO: Let’s start by talking about Spain. You have your place here in the Basque Country. How did this come about? ○ AO: I went to Andalusia at the end of 1987 with Martin Kippenberger and moved into a house there, where I worked for a year. Then I stayed in Madrid for a few years. Since then, I’ve always had one foot in Spain – I always had a place here and another somewhere else. ● HUO: You once told me that your transition to abstraction happened in Spain, in that year. Is that right? ○ AO: Yes, in Seville. It was just like that. I had the intention of becoming an abstract painter, but no idea how to do it. In Carmona, I made various attempts to go in that direction, and at some point it happened. ● HUO: What was the first abstract painting you made? ○ AO: Well, I started by naming the work with the big mouth — the lips with the teeth inside and the uvula, Abstract Painting Number One (1988) — with the idea that you can call something abstract if you no longer believe in the function of presentation or visualisation. Another was a mash-up of an American flag. I didn’t mean to refer to the flag itself, but to Pop paintings. I tried out various approaches towards abstraction, like painting something figurative or recognisable, but not believing in it; that was one method. ● HUO: Painting something, but not believing in it. To turn to your show at the Serpentine: you made a Rothko Chapel in Beirut for TRANCE (22 October 2018 – September 2019) at Aïshti Foundation, and for the Hamburg exhibition Hyper! A Journey into Art and Music (1 March – 11 August 2019) at Halle für Aktuelle Kunst, Deichtorhallen. Your interpretation of the Rothko Chapel for your upcoming Serpentine exhibition is the opposite to the chapel in Houston, but follows a similar idea. ○ AO: Yes, I’m approaching it from another side. It’s simply about the silence in the original Rothko Chapel in Houston. Back then, when I was there, you had this feeling of twilight, and these paintings in which the eye could barely find anything to hold onto. If any spiritual effect were to be achieved, my question would be how much auto-suggestion would be necessary? Because you often hear trivial music in the context of reflection. I wondered if one couldn’t also reach a meditative state while listening to violent music. ● HUO: By violent music, do you mean noise? ○ AO: It could be noise. I conducted some experiments on myself where I tried to create a lulling effect with different kinds of music. I thought about what it takes to achieve meditative states – with which music it’s possible and which not. With speed metal, and also with Electric Miles Davis, I experienced meditative states a lot. These results are of course only valid for myself. I came up with the idea of making a sort of violent chapel, without giving up on the desire for it to be about meditation. But I am not only referring to sound. The paintings should not fit into the cliché of having any calming features. ● HUO: You have this idea for very specific music where fragments will almost stochastically appear in phases and then disappear. Some visitors might experience the soundtrack and others not. Can you say something about this? ○ AO: I’m working with the Swiss band, Steamboat Switzerland, a trio: bass guitar, drums and Hammond organ. I know them via Michael Wertmüller, who for me is a genius contemporary musician, perfectly at home in the area between contemporary music composition, speed metal and free improvisation. Time has passed since these things were invented, but for a while there seemed to be an antagonism between them. Today, you can connect or switch between these musical forms. It’s not a gag anymore. Steamboat Switzerland works in that area. I like them.  ● HUO: They’ll contribute sound elements to the exhibition, which aren’t always audible. ○ AO: Yes, in varying lengths. ● HUO: How did the Rothko Chapel works start?  ○ AO: In that first project in Beirut, there are cut-out and glued paintings made from advertising materials. Everything is held together in the trashiest way possible. They have two levels. One is the advertising material with the slogans on it – like ‘Everything Must Go!’, or washing-machine commercials. That’s the level on which you can read the pictures and slogans. The other level is how it’s cut. Basically, you have these outlines taken from rioty Dalí paintings. You can recognise these figures when you focus on the cut outlines. You can basically see these two levels: the outlined Dalí pictures, and the motifs from the advertising material. It’s cut out and collaged. There’s a double layer of information, which is very colourful, and also very alarming through the Dalí motif.



“When you start getting into painting and you’re 11 or 14
or so years old, you have to like Dalí.”


● HUO: What is the reference to Dalí?

○ AO: When you start getting into painting and you’re 11 or 14 or so years old, you have to like Dalí. That’s obvious. In my generation, hippies and druggy people would have Dalí posters on their walls – he was their hero. There was a phase when this became too much and all humankind took a step back from Dalí because he was discredited as a showman. Many people who think they have good taste continue to reject Dalí because they think that the showmanship, money and success stand in opposition to quality. How do you get out of that? You can overcome this by thinking about it, the easiest way being to read his autobiography The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (1942). I believe that if you’re not convinced by then, you’ve missed the point. Have you read it?

● HUO: Yes, I love that book.

○ AO: It’s really big. I think if you can revise your own judgement, it’s the most beautiful thing that can happen to you.

● HUO: How does the chapel for your solo show in Beirut – the exhibition and music – relate to the mini chapel for the group show in Hamburg?

○ AO: They are done the same way. In the one in Beirut, the panels have the same size as the original Rothko chapel. Before I made these, I made some 250cm × 250cm test-pictures firstly as a technical test to see how the frames should be made, how stuff could be glued and how it appeared. There were six of them, and I presented these paintings in a box-like space.

● HUO: There’s a soundtrack to these six paintings. You sit inside this box on a chair and listen to a Holger Hiller soundtrack.

○ AO: Yes, that’s correct. I’ve been involved with Holger for a long time now. Around the time when I was studying art, we were neighbours. I believe he was at the arts college as well, in a similar environment. I’m not sure if he was also a disciple of Sigmar Polke, but I have a lot in common with Holger and some time ago we did something together. He produced ten musical pieces, and I made ten graphics as an edition. The original project was on vinyl, but he burned them onto a CD which we use for this project. He made a very precise counterpart to these collage paintings. For that project, and in general, he likes to work with samples. His views on the use of material pretty much echo what I did. He also processed music and sound that was generally present and he was unafraid of trash. In this box, you wear headphones and are buckled up on that revolving chair, and it becomes very narrow; it’s supposed to be a claustrophobic version of the chapel, like some kind of psycho tank.

● HUO: For one person – you can only be inside alone. The chapel for the Serpentine is completely different, in that it will comprise paintings made here in Ispaster in the Basque Country. You told me in our last conversation that their origin was this John Graham painting (Tramonto Spaventoso, 1940). Graham (1886–1961) was a modernist painter born in Russia, who has somehow been forgotten. There’s a strange amnesia about him. In your Fabric Paintings catalogue, John Corbett writes that you first read about him in a biography about Jackson Pollock. Can you talk about Graham? How did you come to that painting, and how did it trigger not only these new paintings, but also a whole line of older paintings that we’re including in the exhibition?

○ AO: The fascination with Graham came from a strange statement in this Pollock biography Jackson Pollock: An American Saga (1998) by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. These are the people who also wrote this super-boring Van Gogh biography, Van Gogh: The Life (2011). But the Pollock book isn’t boring at all; it’s extremely good. What I liked so much about this book was that they absolutely leave it open to interpretation whether they consider Pollock to be a bit of an idiot. They describe very nicely how the meaning of Pollock lies in the entire picture – so not as the single accomplishment of a genius, but also in relation to luck and the fortuitous influence of Clement Greenberg and others. And it’s all of these elements combined that result in the importance of Pollock; it’s not just the result of the efforts of a genius. Related to that, Graham played the role of mentor to Pollock, as an opposing and interesting figure. I find it so interesting that with Pollock’s work, something of enormous importance emerges as an objective final result, as something that’s there, no matter how it came about, which simply has an enormous meaning.

● HUO: It’s only a short phase, a sort of flare.

○ AO: Yes. It’s basically an appearance flashing up, mainly in the big, classical paintings that hang in museums, like the ones in the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In contrast, Graham as a person was very smart and good at expressing what he’d learned in Paris.

● HUO: Surrealism.

○ AO: Yes. First, he was a rather clunky Picasso imitator. Later he made a couple of fascinating and disturbing women portraits. Not only because they are cross-eyed.

● HUO: You bought one painting, which is the trigger for this whole exhibition – for the new work, but also for many of the older paintings that will be included. Even so, we’re not sure if we want to hang this painting in the exhibition.

○ AO: Yes. The trigger wasn’t my interest in Graham himself, but the painting. I’d found a black-and-white image of it in Dore Ashton’s book The New York School (1992). My first thought was that it was a really shitty painting. I found it spectacularly bad. It’s chunkily painted, possibly unfinished. The content triggers a certain depth, but without resolving anything. I am not interested in meaning. I am unable to read paintings and understand the meaning. It is alien to me. It has the appearance of wanting to tell you something extremely important.

● HUO : What is the message?

○ AO: I don’t know, but something is supposed to come across with this painting. There are connection lines and suns and triangular swastikas – three-armed ones. I don’t know what they’re supposed to be. They could also be running suns. They have the beards and glasses of very wise historical figures. I don’t know what to associate them with. I found it quite funny that I wasn’t able to make sense of it at all. I also didn’t want to. I thought it would be interesting to research what it could be through my own experiments.

● HUO: And that’s how the paintings emerged over the years?

○ AO: Yes. It’s some kind of vehicle for me. It’s like a construction kit of motifs. It’s actually one motif, but with various elements that are different in nature. It goes from the graphic to the picturesque. That means there are parts that prompt you to paint more, to become more plastic. Then there are others with a big letter and smaller text and a wooden bar. There’s a head with a pilot hat and goggles. But there could also be a third eye, rays and lines going into the depths, like in Dalí, or the wooden planks that we find in Jörg Immendorff paintings.

● HUO: This movement from the graphic to the picturesque is interesting. Your triptychs emerge from this. You always made big drawings – your show at Palazzo Grassi (April 2018 – January 2019) included large-scale black-and-white etchings. But here for the first time the graphic becomes picturesque – big drawings become paintings. There’s even a triptych that’s purely graphic; in another there’s a big drawing. Can you say something about this?

○ AO: The big drawings or things on paper I’ve made are inspired by Konrad Klapheck’s studies, which he always makes for his paintings. But Klapheck did them on canvas, which I haven’t seen before. Within this, I found a prompt: what if I made a charcoal drawing in which every crumb is controlled and goes exactly where I want it to go? That’s very different from the association you have with the charcoal drawing, where you imagine the wine-drinking, bearded, shaggy artist giving his inspiration free rein with abrupt movements. You always imagine charcoal drawings as dirty – at least from the last 100 years. λ

● HUO: But here they’re the opposite of dirty. It’s all so organised. I made a book with Klapheck in 2006 (The Conversation Series, Volume 3). It’s a very controlled order with him.

○ AO: Yes. There’s no impulsiveness with him.

● HUO: With you, it’s controlled as well.

○ AO: Yes. At least in the drawings. I bring the charcoal to the paper or canvas in a clean way. So it looks different from the usual charcoal drawing, because it becomes like painting. I clean while doing it. I manipulate. I erase. I edit it so that it’s completely controlled. Klapheck didn’t do that. When he corrects something, you can see that there’s a correction. That’s the idea, an aesthetic idea: to make a piece of art where the charcoal sits exactly there and frays or not as you want.

● HUO: That’s one part of the exhibition – these incredible charcoal drawings. However, there are also paintings. They’re triptychs as well. Can you say something about the genesis of this chapel for London?

○ AO: These big charcoal pictures are combined or fit together with large watercolours on canvas. Watercolours are also normally small, but here they’re made big. It’s nothing – I don’t have to praise myself for doing this. It was just fun for me to do it.

● HUO: But it normally happens on paper; here, it happens on the canvas. The reference to Surrealism is interesting, too. Glenn O’Brien wrote that: ‘There’s no reason Surrealism should be finished any more than realism should be, or romanticism or bagism or fagism. Albert Oehlen is a Surrealist, practising very much in the Paranoiaccritical method as developed by Dalí, with post-cubist spatial displacement.’ And Surrealism also plays a role with Graham. He emerges from Surrealism. Surrealism also plays a role with Pollock. I knew Roberto Matta at the end of his life. I did long interviews with him. And Matta influenced them all. Matta influenced Graham, Matta influenced Gorky.

○ AO: Exactly.

● HUO: What does this exhibition have to do with Surrealism?

○ AO: Surrealism, for me, is the most interesting art style of the past century. I’m interested in that moment of Surrealism when artists, writers or whomever, approach this tool box. I don’t care about the frottage of Max Ernst or the importance of dreams, fantasy and the unconscious. I’m more interested in that point when Dalí comes up with something funny and claims that it comes from the subconscious. That’s what I admire. I want to approach that method. From what I’ve read about Surrealism, the most important books are Revolution of the Mind: The Life of Andre Breton (1995) by Mark Polizzotti and Dalí’s The Secret Life. I keep realising that this is also the origin of Conceptual art, and the most important forge of ideas.

● HUO: Surrealism as a forge of ideas?

AO: Yes.

● HUO: Can you say something about this new triptych, with these watercolours? There’s only one drawing. How did these motifs come to life?

○ AO: They all derived from this Graham painting.

● HUO: Including the figures?

○ AO: Yes. Well, they look completely different now.

● HUO: And those heads are from Graham, too?

○ AO: Yes. I found out after 20 years of research that the name of this painting is Tramonto Spaventoso (Terrifying Sunset). The sun sets in a sort of zigzag, not in an arch, with abrupt, criss-cross movements. On the right side of the painting there’s a mermaid. The pilot-like man is staring at her breasts.

● HUO: Can we discuss the decades of works connected to this Graham painting? Which works are most important to you?

○ AO: I can’t really say much about that. What’s nice for me about getting these pictures together is that they’re from different times and were always an opportunity for me to relax. I risked quite a lot in these paintings. I think that if you’re willing to look at my things, there’s a high entertainment value.

● HUO: Paradoxically, because of the restriction in this one painting, there’s a lot of freedom

○ AO: I think it’s become an entertaining story.

● HUO: There are always figurative elements.

○ AO: It’s always the same repertoire, which is being overstretched in all directions.

● HUO: Yes, in that sense it’s infinite.

○ AO: Theoretically, yes.

● HUO: I saw this exhibition of your grey paintings in 2017 (Nahmad Contemporary) in New York. It was interesting to see these grey paintings, made from 1997 to 2008, all together for once. The works that come from the Graham painting are not necessarily a clear group like the grey paintings.

○ AO: It’s connected more content-wise, not via the motif and the way it’s painted.

● HUO: In that way it’s different from the grey paintings.

○ AO: Exactly. Here you have the only motif that’s continuously present in a larger group.

● HUO: And the grey paintings are completed?

○ AO: You never know. But let’s say yes.

● HUO: With the Graham paintings, the restriction to one painting gave you freedom. With the grey paintings, it’s a restriction to one colour. How did that come about?

○ AO: It was super simple. I was thinking about Gerhard Richter, and about his blurring of black-and-white paintings. I simply wondered how it would be if you blurred in all directions. What happens then? I mean, Richter did that as well, although he’s a bit more systematic. With me it’s different. When I have a conceptual idea, I don’t realise it immediately. I look where I can gain something. And that’s the difference from Richter.

● HUO: So, you don’t work systematically?

○ AO: I also don’t stick to the requirements. I’m happy about the requirements, but I don’t have to stick to them if I don’t feel like it anymore. Now I’m telling all my secrets!

● HUO: That’s good. But you’ve also said that with the grey paintings, you self-prescribed, like a medical prescription, these grey colours as therapy to increase the longing for colour.

○ AO: Yes, that’s right. That’s a side effect.

● HUO: Back then in New York, when I saw this exhibition, I asked myself, how did it come to an end, in 2008, this apparently infinite series?

○ AO: I didn’t feel like it anymore.

● HUO: It just ends?

○ AO: You do something different.

● HUO: But with this John Graham painting, it keeps giving you desire.

○ AO: That also went quiet for a certain number of years

“Surrealism, for me, is the most interesting art style of the past century.”

● HUO: How did it return? Did it happen suddenly? ○ AO: That was in Los Angeles. I’ve no idea how it happened. I didn’t know what to start, and then I thought, ‘Ah that! I’ll try it out. It’s certainly easy.’ ● HUO: What made you switch from oils to watercolour and charcoal in these works? ○ AO: In comparison to my colleagues, I have a relatively small studio. Which I like, but over a longer period, I’ve started to paint more and more fluently. Fluency with oil painting means more turpentine and more smell. At some point I got really mad. I didn’t want to smell it anymore. I also looked at oil paint suspiciously. Even worse, I developed a real reluctance. That’s why I did this charcoal and watercolour thing, because I didn’t want to smell that anymore. ● HUO: Not Serpentine, but turpentine!

○ AO: Exactly. I was in the middle of some large-format abstract oil painting. Suddenly I stopped, because I couldn’t bear to smell it anymore. I like having a reason for something. It’s nice. Because then you don’t need inspiration. You simply have a reason.

● HUO: Something we haven’t covered is the role of collecting. When I visited you for the first time in Gais, Switzerland, I realised that there’s a lot of art in your studio by students, colleagues, older artists, including a de Kooning painting. Can you say something about this idea of collecting and art made from art? ○ AO: Yes. Art is made from art. I feel that way. It’s nicer to own a piece of art than a share. Therefore I bought some when I had money. It began by trading with Kippenberger, and Werner Büttner. Kippenberger was a role model because he was so greedy. ● HUO: He was greedy for other art? ○ AO: He was greedy in every way. I understood how this supposed deadly sin could actually be a good thing. Somehow I realised that it’s fun. Then I began to acquire art pieces. It’s a gesture of trust towards the person you’re buying from. If it’s a young person, it’s nice, they’re happy. You can consider yourself smart and say they’re going to be really huge one day. It has many nice aspects. You can hang it on the wall and be pleased with it. Basically this happens when you see something of meaning for yourself. You consider yourself smarter than other people and ask yourself, ‘Why don’t they see it?’ It’s all lots of fun. ● HUO: In your studio in Gais, there was also an André Butzer painting. He’s a younger artist you’re supporting. ○ AO: You can’t call it ‘support’ because he’s an established artist but I got to know him very early on. ● HUO: And here in Santander, in the Basque Country, there are also works of younger artists in your studio. While this cycle for the Serpentine is being created, young artists are painting in your studio. You say that you’re often surrounded by artists. The studio isn’t very big. You don’t have many assistants. It’s not a factory. It’s an exchange of energy with artists. Can you say something more about that, because it’s quite uncommon? ○ AO: Well, yes. I like being alone in the studio. I always work alone basically. But every now and then I have people around who help me. I can put the paintings up myself. It’s no problem for me at all. I can carry them by myself. I can do everything. But sometimes I get mad and like to have people around to talk to. From their facial expressions, I can tell how they’re reacting to what I’m doing. I like that. It’s even better when they do something themselves. Then it’s not a situation where you pay someone to give you answers. It’s mutual. That’s especially nice. I hope it’s beneficial to them as well.HUO: Now that the chapel has been built, do you have any other unrealised projects?AO: No. I’m glad to have anything at all. One or two years ago, I thought, everybody has something they dream about, where they say: ‘I want to make the largest whatever, I need that museum or just I want more money.’ But I don’t have anything. There was a total emptiness. I thought, I don’t want anything, or need anything. I just want to paint the next painting. I don’t even have a series or a project in mind. Now, I’m happy to at least have the chapel.