Untitled (Tree 1) [Ohne Titel (Baum 1)], 2013
Oil on Dibond
378 x 250 cm
Private collection, courtesy of Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin/Paris
Photo: def image
© Albert Oehlen

"[Behind the works revolving around the tree motif is] The thought of what would happen if one interpreted the crazy, chaotic and disorganized formation of the branches as an analogy of the artist in front of the empty canvas, not knowing where his brushstrokes will lead. No detail is fixed, no aspect is fixed." [1] Albert Oehlen, 2015

In the course of his career, Albert Oehlen (b. 1954, Krefeld, Germany) has varied his style and materials, moving from figuration to abstraction, from oil paints to computers, or from canvas to aluminum. But despite the changes in his way of painting and the creative processes he uses, the depiction of trees has been a constant in his oeuvre from the 1980s to the present day.

Oehlen always likes to set certain rules for himself when making art. For his series of Grey paintings, he determined to use only gray paint; in the Bad Paintings series, he limited his palette to red, yellow, and blue; and his Computer Paintings are done in black and white.

Oehlen began his tree series in 1988 with a set of rules: the figures had to be vertical and situated in the center, while the lines should be increasingly narrow as they extended from the midpoint of the tree. [2] His early trees were more figurative, with defined shapes—clearly recognizable trunk, roots, and branches—painted in murky greens, grays, and browns.

Around 2005 the trees became more simplified, losing color and turning into black shapes against a two-tone geometric background. [3] Oehlen also began carefully applying paint to large aluminum-faced polyethylene panels, doing his best to leave no trace of the brush's action. By applying oil paint in this extremely clean, flat way, the artist managed to create trees that look like the digital products of design software. [4] As a result of this particular method, his paintings took on the appearance of advertising panels, even though they were meticulously hand-painted with oils.

From that moment on, Oehlen began to focus more on the development of the branches and roots. Inspired by the chaotic, disorganized formation of the branches and roots on some trees, Oehlen created a more intuitive, impulse-driven work. When he started painting his trees, nothing had been determined beforehand except the colors he would use for figure and ground, predominantly white and magenta.


Before looking at Oehlen’s work, take a pencil and paper and make a rough sketch of a tree. When you’ve finished, compare it with the artist’s painting. How are they similar? How are they different? How would you describe Oehlen’s tree? And yours? What are the clues in Oehlen’s work that tell you the theme of this painting is a tree?

Now look closely at the technique Oehlen used. Untitled (Tree 1) [Ohne Titel (Baum 1)] is hand-painted in oils on an aluminum panel. Observe the artist’s brushstrokes: Why do you think he painted it that way? What effect did he hope to achieve? Do you think he succeeded? Why? Why do you think Oehlen chose these materials? Do you think they’re related to his theme? How are they related? How do you think the support surface affects the work? How would it be different if he had painted it on another material, like wood, canvas, or a wall? What would be different?

Where do you imagine this tree might be planted? In the place you’ve imagined, what are the surroundings like? Would you like to visit that place? Why? What would you see, hear, smell and touch in that place? How would you feel? What time of day do you think it is? Would you climb this tree?


Paint your own tree

Inspired by the chaotic, disorganized formation of the branches and roots on some trees, Oehlen paints intuitively, letting his impulses guide him.

To begin your activity, cover a piece of cardboard with aluminum foil. You can use tape or glue to attach it to the cardboard. Once the foil is in place, paint the background of your picture with tempera paint. Choose a single color and mix the tempera with a bit of glue to make it stronger. Once the background is dry, paint a black tree (using tempera mixed with glue). Forget about the details: just follow your intuition when drawing the branches and roots. You can repeat the process several times. Experiment with different sizes and colors. Show your favorite works in class.

Music for your trees

Music has always been integral to the production and inspiration of Oehlen’s work. However, in recent years Oehlen has gone one step further, creating installations that combine real trees and branches with electronic music composed in collaboration with other artists. Some examples are Tree 3 (Baum 3), and Now: The Possibility of a Tree Fracking. [5] Observe these installations side by side and compare them with the painting Untitled (Tree 1). Working in small groups of 2 or 3 people, you can design and build an installation like Oehlen’s. To create it, you can use branches and other recycling material, and add lanterns, candles, or small lamps to create light and shadow effects.

For the music, you can choose a song that everyone in your group likes, or you can compose an original soundtrack using software that lets you make music with different sounds. You can even record your own voices singing or making sounds. You might like to experiment with this app:


  5. Now: The Possibility of a Tree Fracking and Baum 3



Hoy es arte, August 24, 2016
Now: The Possibility of a Tree Fracking. On Albert Oehlen’s New Untitled Work”
Max Hetzler Gallery
Daniel Baumann, “Portrait Albert Oehlen. Source Code and Stress Test”, Spikeart Magazine, summer 2015 Baker, “Los Angeles – Albert Oehlen: ‘New Paintings’ at Gagosian Gallery Beverly Hills through July 18th, 2014”, Art Observed, July 18, 2014
Cornelius Tittel, “Man wütet, bis es Form annimmt”, July 3, 2014
Robbie O’Halloran, “Albert Oehlen @ Gagosian, London / February 5–March 24, 2016”, The Glaze London
Gagosian Gallery. Albert Oehlen, February 5–March 24, 2016
Roberta Smith, “Review: Albert Oehlen, a Master of Disciplined Excess”, New York Times, June 11, 2015
Glenn O’Brien. “Albert Oehlen”, Interview Magazine, April 28, 2009
Artnet. Albert Oehlen.