These career successes took place as Oelze traveled extensively across Europe. But in 1940, he was ensnared by World War II and drafted into the German army, where he served as both a map draughtsman and ground support for the Luftwaffe. He was later held by American soldiers as a prisoner of war until his release in 1945. It took several more years for Oelze to return to his artistic practice, which had been deeply affected by his wartime experience. In these post-1950 paintings, figures grow out of and collapse into each other, composed as they are of matter that exists somewhere between the animal, vegetable, and mineral. Most are in tones of sepia and gray, with shapes emerging and receding from billowing fog. Simultaneously bleak and lush, these works are the subject of an ongoing solo show at Michael Werner Gallery in London, which opens in New York on January 19th.
Oelze died shortly before his 80th birthday, painting until he was too weak to hold the brush. The Surrealist remained a recluse for the remainder of his life. “I’ve withdrawn into my own world,” he once said. “Painting is completely free from the bitter life experiences I went through in both wars. I don’t want to be in the limelight, I don’t want to be the one in the spotlight. I’d rather be the observer.”