Hailed by André Breton and others denizens of the mid-20th century avant-garde as one of the best Surrealist painters, the German artist Richard Oelze (1900-1980) is unfortunately under-known in the United States. Hopefully, this show of some two dozen major canvases and a selection of drawings will change the situation. The show must be seen in person to be fully appreciated. The textural nuances in the work are difficult to reproduce, and the haunted atmosphere that the artist conjures in each of these images seems to reveal itself only with intimate and sustained viewing.
Oelze lived in Dresden and studied at the Bauhaus in Dessau. But he blossomed as an artist after 1933, the year he moved to Paris and fell in with the Surrealists. His output soon reflected a kinship with works by Max Ernst and Hans Bellmer, but Oelze’s vision remained singular, eccentric, and obsessive. Drafted by the German army during World War II, he was captured and imprisoned by the Allies until the war’s end. After being released in 1945, he settled in northern Germany and resumed painting. Though impoverished and increasingly reclusive in subsequent decades, Oelze began to produce his best works, such as If by Another Beauty (1958), After the Narration of a Dream (1961), and Valley of Josaphat (1969/70), among the show’s many highlights. Over the years, he refined a type of baroque, quasi-abstraction in which inert landscape features, like rocks, trees, and shrubbery transmogrify into writhing, restless beings. It’s fair to say that Oelze’s work is well suited to the mood of the present moment. If there is such a thing as hopeful foreboding, this is it.