David Ryan



Talking Painting

Talking Painting


Interview With Gunter Forg Karlsruhe 1997


David Ryan: Thinking back to the monochromatic paintings of the mid- to late seventies, you seem to have developed an aesthetic that contradicted many of the concerns of your contemporaries - the growing tendency towards 'Das Neue Wilden' at that time, for example. Was this a conscious attempt to re-affirm an abstract tradition within this context?


Gunter Forg: I started the monochromatic paintings when I was still studying at the Academy in Munich and this continued to be a concern until the early eighties in fact, at which point I stopped painting and did other things. I felt increasingly drawn to photography at that time and almost exclusively concentrated on this, sometimes combining these works with wall paintings. Later, in the ‘80s, I came back to painting, so it came full circle; in fact some recent paintings again reference these monochromes, so I guess that shows that they were an important starting point. The original monochromes explored different materials - wood, metals: lead, copper, etc. - to see how this changed the feel of them. I have also made sculptures - free-standing bronze sculptures, so together with the photography you can see that it is an expansive approach to materials: this is important. As for the figurative thing, you know, older artists have always informed what I do; somebody like Munch is incredibly important to me, and he is of course a figurative painter. so you could use all this to question whether it was an 'abstract' statement I was making, even back then. What I admire in Munch and other painters can lead to a 'free' abstract statement. In my own paintings you might sense a figure - but it is not explicitly a figure. Or another example is the series of 'masks' which depict human heads - but these are not portraits, not specific, they are reduced to some kind of essence; so on one level you could call this 'abstract' too.


DR: So it wasn't a reaction against that expressionist brand of German painting that was surfacing at that time: mythological, and figurative in a direct sense?


GF: Well, that wasn't so strong at the Academy at that time; in Berlin, yes. And of course I admired the work of somebody like Baselitz very much, but he, too, seems more complex. I mean he doesn't simply fit into that genre of 'Wild Painting'. Some of the works might appear completely abstract and the motif is often disrupted - the device of turning it around etc. - so although it might be a figurative painting, you can see it in an abstract way. Baselitz's handling of the materials, traditional though they may be, have certainly affected my own approach and some of the colour-field paintings I did in the ‘80s attempt to explore a contradictory clarity of form with an expressionist handling.


DR: Going back to the monochromes, how important was the example of Blinky Palermo or Richter?


GF: I think Richter is a good painter for sure; his influence for me comes and goes. Palermo was important for me as a student but only so much as Ryman or Kelly: Palermo has a lot to do with Kelly's work.


DR: What differentiates your own monochrome from these examples I've just cited is, for me, the amazing sensation of depth in these works; the colour would appear to suggest this....


GF: Yes...it's a question of the choice of the materials. Actually, often the earlier work was made only in one step. I often used the particular choice of material to get this deep thing - this feeling of depth.


DR: Many painters of your generation came to painting through a process of re-appraisal, as a means of escaping what, for many, had become the cul-de-sac of conceptual art. Are there any cross-overs here? Would it be wrong to see your approach as a conceptual approach to painting?


GF: Can you do this? Painting as concept? Somebody like Robert Ryman maybe comes close to this, whereby the parameters are laid out - only vertical strokes on this particular ground or whatever. But painting should give satisfaction and with pure concepts, you don't get this satisfaction...


DR: Even with Ryman you could say this?


GF: No, because Ryman has the concept to begin with, for sure, but the end result always goes beyond: it's always more than its starting point because of its physical manifestation - because it is a painting. There is also a sensibility, a sensuality. If you only have the concept and maybe, yes, you do a really good job with this concept, it will, however, never have the fullness of sensibility that good painting will have. Really, painting should be sexy. It should be sensual. These are things that will always escape the concept. I think painting is a resilient practice; if you look through the history of painting, it doesn't change so much and we always see it in the present. It is still now.


DR: Richter might also be an example of a painter having a strong conceptual base. He often denies this, I know, but....


GF: Well if you take the candle still-life paintings by Richter, I mean there are so many stories there; it is a painting that contains references to the history of the practice - both in the way its painted and on a symbolic level - the candle as both life and death, etc..


DR: Are you suggesting this gets in the way?


GF: No,... well,... I suppose that depends on the painter, it depends how well you do it. One painter might paint a car and it's banal, another might do it and it's a revelation. Warhol is an interesting example here, I think he was a good painter, a painter in fact. I say this because of his mixture of photography and the object. In German we differentiate between this and the process of painting; in the German language painting is what you do with a brush only. In Warhol, the choice of the colour, the form, the image, is very sophisticated, as is his use of methods such as silkscreen, which is used in a very painterly way.


DR: You may have already touched on this, but it has often been remarked that your work situates itself, or at least has done in the past, somewhere between Judd and Baselitz...


GF: Yes...it's a crazy thing to do in some ways. But it's in answer to those people who suggest that if you do this, then no way can you do that, you know, a dogmatic attitude. If you take a Judd box, no way can it be painted by a Baselitz. I want to refute this kind of attitude. It's not mixing it exactly, but finding the freedom to synthesise things. I mentioned Munch earlier, the kind of freedom that we get from his very late work is astonishing. He needed objects, a room or a figure, but the work isn't about these at all, it's about how can you go with painting to the edge...what is possible in painting. It's a free place that he found here. And it doesn't matter whether the subject is a tree or a figure, the painting goes beyond the subject.


DR: So that notion of synthesis is extremely important...


GF: Yes. It is.


DR: It stops things being boxed off?


GF: Well, I don't use it like Sherrie Levine for example..., to reduce something. I don't pick up a detail of a painting and re-do it; I'm not interested in that.


DR: The use of materials often seems very specific as you've already said - in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s - metals: copper, lead, leaf on wood etc.. What attracted you to such materials?...


GF: I like very much the qualities of lead - the surface, the heaviness. Some of the paintings were completely painted, and you only experience the lead at the edges; this gives the painting a very heavy feeling - it gives the colour a different density and weight. In other works the materials would be explicitly visible as grounds. I like to react on things, with the normal canvas you often have to kill the ground, give it something to react against. With the metals you already have something - its scratches, scrapes....


DR: A history almost...


GF: I'm not so interested in history in this way.


DR: Well, more of a personality..
GF: Yes, it already has a presence. Sometimes I would leave the lead in the rain and you would get these amazing oxidised grounds, quite beautiful. Not much had to be done on these works, the smallest intervention only sometimes. But I wouldn't be interested in painting such grounds, I mean that would be too much...[laughs].


DR: These interventions on a ground create a tension, and you would appear to often exploit this conflict within your work?


GF: Yes.


DR: Going back to Baselitz, we might say that Baselitz re-affirmed certain traditional approaches to painting and with this, repositioned certain traditional qualities of that practice; this might seem important to you as well?...


GF: Very much so, yes.


DR: I was wondering in relation to this, and thinking about the concerns of 'classical' modernist abstract painting, with its attempt to construct an objective 'language', whether you see yourself as utilising this seemingly 'objective' language and refiguring it in such a way as to inflect it with the individual and the subjective once more. To refigure it with an expressionist accent, so to speak....


GR: Yes, you could say this... but on the other hand, there are always mistakes made, in terms of practice and also critical reception. We inevitably see the works of the first half of the century in a very different way now... we have more distance and we can see the works from a more pluralistic vantage point. We can go beyond the rhetoric of much of the modernist manifestos.


DR: It is ironic that you have often been cited as a 'painter's painter' and yet you use a diverse approach to material: wall paintings, photography, bronze sculptures, etc.. What are the advantages of negotiating this wide range?...


GF: For me, it is a means of concentrating, of allowing my time to be used to its maximum. I travel a lot, I have studios in different locations, so it helps me to focus on one specific thing at a time, so then I switch from one medium to another, from, say, painting to photography. I think if there is a key to all this diversity, then it is architecture. That is the thread that holds all these things together. The literal space of architecture is shared with the wall paintings, the subject of the photographs is often this sense of space....


DR: Yes, and in the grid paintings, we often sense an exploration of internal / external spaces, where the space in one painting is reversed in another....


GF: They share this with the photos of windows - of real windows, often they look out on to nothing, they too have an ambiguity as regards the orientation of the space. This is a good example of how these works can feed into one another - the painting as a window, which has its basis in some of these photos.


DR: Following on from that, I'm intrigued by the way you have combined very formal abstraction with photos, often seemingly informal or intimate in their feel. Often they include portraits of women - that series, which includes a woman drying her hair. How did they come about?


GF: There are several ways of viewing it. I mixed them up actually, they were not all portraits, some were architecture, etc.; you could view it as a kind of expressionistic handwriting, or functioning as a relief, a construction of space. It's not a question of disturbing one space, it becomes something else...or rather I want within my own activity for it not to become boring...I have to surprise myself. The connection is viewing the photograph as almost sculptural relief, the scale gives it an architectural dimension; they are readable as being beyond portrait scale. It's like a close-up, the same with the architecture; in fact I see them both as a kind of architectural photograph...yet they can also be seen in an emotional way, expressionistic even. If we think of the way we should look at classical photography, then it should be sharp, focused, the right angle or depth of field, etc.. That is one criterion for architectural photography that my work does not follow.


DR: Yes, I'm always interested in that relationship between very different surfaces and contrasting levels or means of representation. In one sense that is what you are describing here, but do you accept this as a kind of 'friction', a collision, or do you see it more as a situation of seeking a common ground between these differences?


GF: More the latter I would say. Yes, a common ground between these different means. But that doesn't rule out the exploration of contrast - it's a situation where these differences need each other. I'll give an example, I had some pieces in a large mixed show in Berlin recently and I didn't have time to go to the opening. It was only photo pieces I sent there....I asked a friend how it looked and he said, 'Good...but they made the mistake of putting your pieces in the photo section'. I could see that this could easily be a recipe for disaster, simply viewing them with photographs amongst photographs. These pieces belong with painting, then it works well and you get some kind of 'kick' and they make sense as images.


DR: So you are looking for those continuities that reveal themselves through a particular contrast?


GF: Yes. The photo works, as I said earlier, function more like a relief, like a sculptural element. They have a particular sense of size and scale and a relationship is figured to your own body in space, it's a very tactile thing. In painting you don't have this so much, in ordinary photographs you don't necessarily read them in this way. An object of course has it more, so my photo-works negotiate this displacement of object and space: represented space and actual space.


DR: You seem to be someone who deliberately references the work of other artists, and this is quite striking. We might sense Ernst Wilhelm Nay, Baselitz or the Americans such as Newman, Rothko or Still, and we often experience strange combinations within the one picture, combinations that border on recognitions. Do you exploit this at the level of a dialogue between unlikely participants?...


GF: Well, to an extent. I think if we take a broader perspective we could say that, fundamentally as soon as we engage with painting, we have the same problems that faced those at the beginning of the century or even before; problems around colour, form, composition. For example, with Clyfford Still, I am still extremely interested in how he articulates the relationship between one field and the next, or the 'zip' of Newman, we could make those 'zips' technically better, but that is not the point, of course. Newman uses this 'disturbed' quality of the bleed in a specific way. So I am often interested in how these particular solutions can be re-figured - I've made sculptures that reference 'zips', or paintings that explore quite jagged fields.


DR: But do these operate at the level of quotation? I think also the contradictory 'languages' can be quite violently contrasted....


GF: Well, normally it is not encouraged to put two things together. And let me put it like this; I'm not interested in doing a Sherrie Levine, if you talk about quotation. I was once in a discussion at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, it was a discussion about the artist's hand. Sherrie was there, Jenny Holzer and Alan McCollum. All of these people were talking from the perspective of critique of originality, of not doing their own work, and literally having assistants produce the work. I looked around and thought, 'What the hell am I doing here - why have I been invited?'. These were dead issues for me even then. I asked Sherrie, 'What is the point of all this, what do you actually mean by this? Do you want to have the same experience as the photographer or painter 50 years ago?' And she said, 'Yes...the same....'


DR: Well, it's an impossibility for one thing..


GF: Right, you can't possibly transport yourself back to another environment or time in this way...what does the Depression or Black Friday mean to us today? Something very different than if we were actually living through it.


DR: But to be fair, didn't Sherrie Levine see this gap between the original and its re-framing as a poetic space, rather than a cold conceptual strategy or a literal stepping into the shoes of the appropriated object?


GF: Can you have both ways? Well, maybe she was not in a good mood that day we spoke. [laughs]


DR: In connection with some of these issues, I was wondering about the more recent Grid paintings, which reference urban planning and Modernist architecture, and also the corresponding photo-pieces of classic Modernist architecture. It has been suggested that there is an ambivalence being articulated here about those achievements...ambivalent in the sense that you are both fascinated by High Modernism yet also urged to critique it?


GF: No, I have nothing whatsoever against this architecture, on the contrary I am interested and absorbed by it. I'm not critical in this way....


DR: But it has often been read like this....


GF: That is a mistake, really a mistake. Its origins lie in a photo that I took in Italy of a building that was built by the Fascist party and someone wrote about the work that it was very critical because the columns were not vertical...[laughs]....My work has more to do with photography as an emotional vehicle, rather more like what Rodchenko did...rather than a simple-minded critique.


DR: An emotional response to the articulation of space that the architecture might set up?


GF: Yes. I generally respond because I think it is really good architecture. It is mostly architecture from the ‘20s to the ‘40s, so it does fit into the framework of classic Modernism, and many of the recent ones are Soviet buildings from the ‘20s.


DR: But this notion of critique, would seem to be a problem with recent criticism...in that it has to be a critique or nothing at all....


GF: For sure. This is an unhelpful attitude I think; it is a problem with art writing. On another level, I suppose more recently the status of photos has changed - some photographs have been collected together in book formats. I am working on architectural photos from Moscow and Prague for book projects.


DR: How would you differentiate these book photographs?


GF: Not at all in the taking of the photos, I don't let that get in the way. It's more a sense of how they are organised in the book format - a question of different presentation.


DR: Thinking about your output overall, one thing that strikes me is the tendency towards ruptures or breaks, rather than smooth or developmental continuity, to the point where one series might deliberately negate, or travesty even, the concerns of the preceding ones. I'm thinking here of the way the beautiful surface, or the beautiful brushstroke gets replaced by something really quite different....


GF: Yes, in the grid paintings you often don't get a brush stroke, the surface is scratched into or you don't get a sense of the mark starting or finishing on the canvas so it sets up a different kind of surface. I think it is important to do these breaks when the time is right. The reception of the work is always behind, so it hardly ever is perceived in the right sense or it is seen in the sense that if you change too much, then it can't be truthful or authentic work. This is nonsense of course; change is a central and key issue for an artist, I think.


DR: You've just described how one series might contradict another, but what about this notion of almost self-parody that you set up, where the form of one series is treated in a caricatured, almost self-mocking way?


GF: Yes, I have humour.


DR: It seems to be aimed at the high seriousness of, say, someone like Richter, with his statement, 'painting as a moral act'...


GF: Well, Richter is of a different generation. I think there seemed to be more of a contradiction between abstract and figurative modes of painting for that generation...when a painter crossed over from one to the other then it was perceived almost like they were a 'liar'. Of course, we don't have to view it like this today at all.


DR: Following on from this, how would your work connect with somebody like the late Martin Kippenberger, for instance, where 'attitude', rather than mode or style or even 'quality' in the conventional sense, was all-important?


GF: I like Kippenberger's work a lot, and we were good friends, but I think it depends on the kind of structures you use, the kind of structures that you are drawn towards. He found a particular way of utilising that natural humour and wit. Actually I was just reading the last interview with him, and the interviewer asks him about his attitudes, why he was so 'loud', etc., and he said, 'Oh, that was kindergarten - now I'm serious.’ [laughs]...I myself have chosen another way, perhaps I interpret this 'attitude' in another sense....The sense of break or rupture in the work is important for me, you know, you study artists you admire, then you have to make a break with them and then, of course, once you have established a reputation then you must fight with this, go against this. If you become too satisfied, then it's over. In one sense, what I'm describing is the normal way of an artist; you struggle to find your position, you then get shows, you have to deal with the marketplace and the critical context for your work and fight your position in all this, then the reputation brings other problems - your reputation can kill you. If you were simply to make stripe paintings all your career then it becomes complacent. With the Americans, Newman or Rothko, then it's different - they came to it very late and we are talking about mature careers of only about twenty years.


DR: Do you see the market now as too dominant or simply a reality that we, as artists, must accept and work with its structures?


GF: I think it's a reality. I thought maybe after the ‘80s, that the situation might change but it's still the same situation, except that it is not so strong as back then. Maybe young artists should change their strategy and not accept it, but they want it the same I think. Even those that play the game of pretending to be outside the system, can only do so with it - and in that sense it's a kind of foreplay before finally becoming fully embraced by the system of the market. It all gets encompassed by the galleries, by the big museum shows. The look of the work changes but the system doesn't.


© David Ryan Gunter Forg 1997