A determinant piece of good luck during my high school years – the early 1950s – was a class pass offering free admission to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, a privilege I availed myself of virtually every afternoon. This meant I was able to absorb the collections as Alfred H. Barr Jr., the famed founding director of the institution, had installed them – tightly organized according to country and style.
One work in particular stuck out like a sore thumb from Barr’s didactics – Richard Oelze’s Erwartung (Expectation), 1935-36. That piece, loaned to Michael Werner Gallery for this exhibition, is, in its droopy representationalism, quite different from the remaining paintings and drawings that were in the show, most of which dated to the late ‘50s and the turn of the ‘60s. A rather verdigris grisaille work, Erwartung depicts a group of some twenty-plus behatted observers (cloches on the ladies) all seen from the rear, except for one fellow – also hat-wearing – who turns to face the viewer. Is this a hidden self-portrait? The others peer expectantly at a lowering sky of troubled clouds – in anticipation of what? Germany’s drift into hallucinatory Fascism? Possibly, but unlikely given that Oelze chose to return to Germany from France during the glory years of the Hitlerzeit. Was he sympathetic to the regime? (No one seems to know.) He settled into Worpswede, an artists’ colony whose reputation was cemented at the turn of the twentieth century, when Paula Modersohn-Becker, a text-book Expressionist painter, moved there, lending the town some serious modernist cred. Soon enough, Oelze was conscripted into the army and then taken prisoner. By whom? (All this is unspoken in the catalogue essay, a silence reinforced by the artist’s extreme reticence regarding the biographical details of his life.)
“Whatever,” as the kids say. In making his paintings, Oelze seemingly took heed of Leonardo da Vinci’s suggestion in his famous notebooks that one should “stop sometimes and look into the stains of walls, or the ashes of a fire … in which, if you consider them well, you will find really marvelous ideas.” We call such discoveries pareidolia – the finding of familiar forms where none exist. Oelze’s work in this vin parallels Surrealism’s vaunted automatism and Salvador Dali’s “paranoiac critical” method, notably the Spaniard’s use of double imagery.
Eventually, Oelze developed a signature surface built up of small, tidal nudges, conflicting runnels of refined gesture, and curlicues. These aspects, over time, grew into impressive, highly suggestive compositions. Der Blick des Hundes (The Gaze of the Hound), 1959, and Kein Finger taucht auf im Gewӧlk (No Finger Revealed in the Clouds), 1967, are representative, displaying Oelze’s sensitive touch and his inclination toward tentatively revealed imagery. Often enough, the works inevitably suggest landscapes; indeed, in most of the paintings that were on view, a fractured palisade or ragged, cliff-like rectangle established an elemental horizon – an ur-landscape. An exemplary work in this regard is Statt Blumen und Blut (In Lieu of Flowers and Blood), 1963, within whose self-generating, cave-like cells mushrooming monsters return our gaze. Such paintings occasionally veer toward the grotesquely comedic – this sensibility recalling that of Paul Klee – and suggest affinities with other post-World War II Surrealists, such as the French-Yugoslav painter Miodrag Đurić, known as Dado.
In their near-belligerent self-deprecation, the works at Michael Werner revealed a pictorial ambition far greater that the unique, unmoored, and more famous Erwartung suggests. Oelze, it appears, is an artist about whom we still have much to learn.