C: So, the filling is up to the patient or the beholder?
K: Absolutely! Meaning always involves interpretations. Let's assume I knew more than the beholder, and, as the creator of my paintings, ventured to ascribe meaning to it, I'd be in danger that people would keep too close to my interpretations. That would be ridiculous, especially because I couldn’t get at the intellectual and spiritual jewels of my beholders, which only emerge from their own individual engagements with the artwork. Certainly, there are gold fillings among them.
C: But isn’t there also a not so small number of artists who think otherwise, who …
K: … who take their audience by the hand. I don’t want to have anything to do with such artists. When I take a few steps back from the canvas, I imagine the most sublime persons possible looking at my work, autonomous beholders. For this reason, I just vanish behind my work and shut up, after a painting has been completed.
C: But why not enter into dialogue?
K: Painting doesn’t really operate with language, but with pictures. In that context, language begins where the paintings aren’t strong enough, where they aren’t enough in themselves.
C: You've once said that the great artwork by, for instance, Jusepe Ribera or El Greco put you at a loss of words. And you also claimed that you'd very much like if after looking at a painting »silence« would befall the beholder.
K: Yes. That's what I said.
C: Could you comment on that?
K: What I meant was a silent pause that results from a contemplating gaze. This, of course, always presupposes that what is being looked at possesses the traits of greatness. The object of contemplation exceeds what words may say. Good painting is always in itself sufficient. That is all the relevant information that may spark such a reaction is contained in it. Whether it be my own life, my period, or the course of history itself – everything is contained within the painting. My paintings, therefore, are indicative of my relationship to art theory or literature and to almost everything. Not only what I read, but also how I read it, rapidly or slowly, all this impinges upon my painting. It enters into it like a sort of secret text, a hidden message, a symbol.
C: Before we shift from the artist's inner world to his external world, let's say that your paintings possess a certain privacy that comes across nonchalantly, but that is somehow also lurid. When contemplating your paintings by way of various detours, the outside world is revealed, a societal dimension emerges. Now, we could talk a great deal about the system that you make use of. Unlike many other artists, your painting works well without using superficial political layers or by invoking every external reference at hand. But how does the outside world affect the intimacy of your atelier?
K: Inside and outside. Those dimensions are complementary to each other. Without an image of the outside world, there isn’t an inward image either. To live also means to be moved by other things.
C: How am I to imagine this extraction?
K: Like the activation of the filter mode. Only in doing so, I remain less dependent on what you call the outside world. I mean I'm not built any differently than most other people. I also have my opinions on history. I have a lot of opinions. I'd even describe myself as political individual, somebody who is interested in what goes on in politics and the economy. But as an artist I need to try to keep these opinions or views at a distance.
C: Give me an example.
K: Well, not so long ago, I painted a figure form recent history for the first time in my career. It was Pope Benedict XVI, and I had great doubts about the project. You'll probably now ask, “why?” Because the biggest challenge in painting him was to make myself free from all my opinions regarding his person. I didn’t want it to be an exaltation of his figure or an unjust criticism. See, I'm not interested in being the decorator or caricaturist of my personal political views. This approach is in part also motived by my own desire not to be politically agitated when I look at paintings, but also by the desire to not be the collaborator of political agitation myself. This position is what agrees with my thinking, because I reject ideology. Instead as a painter I'd like to create a realm of possibilities in which there is enough space for the most diverse interpretations. And that's the hardest thing. Because art projects must be of a sublime nature, not just the document of a moment, else they won't survive the test of time.
C: Does that mean paintings are navigated via form rather than subject?
K: Exactly. For it is precisely the history of art that shows us how little it is shaped by ideas, but by forever new achievements of form.
C: What about making statements through artworks?
K: The painting – as I said – simply imparts information which may or could be formulated to statements by the beholder. But the statement is not made by the painter. It's made by the beholder. Those statements change over the course of time and also from beholder to beholder. That's why we admire the paintings by El Greco or Ribera, because we are constantly challenged by them. But if those painters hadn't found their form then we wouldn’t deal with them today – it's that simple.
C: In 1997 you said in an interview that you don’t believe the duality of content and form.
K: Yes—and I think that says it all. Look, there are people out there with incredible knowledge and education. They seem to have memorized entire novels, but as soon as they are asked to write their own novel, they fail. I like what the American John Dewey once said: »an ounce of experience is better than a ton of theory.« Because every experience can be verified: it is accessible and, therefore, more operational in our own actions. With respect to painting, this may mean that depicting an empty bottle may be more significant for the history of art than an entire panorama of the Thirty Year's War.
The Daily Routine of the Non-Private
C: May I ask you something personal, something private?
K: I haven’t got any privacy.
C: How so?
K: There is no separation between privacy and the professional realm in my life. After having worked as an artist for more than 25 years, my life has been structured by art and this has consequences in the most remote areas of my daily life. My life outwardly isn’t really interesting either. That's why I don’t need to veil it in secrecy.
C: Okay. That makes my list of discussion points a bit easier to work through. You live and work with your wife as well as your daughter, Nike in a former industrial complex that has now been converted to lofts at the heart of Leipzig. And if there isn’t a privacy sphere, then let me go right on to ask you about your daily routine. How do you begin your day?
K: With something ridiculous—with ten to twenty minutes of gymnastics.
C: Why gymnastics in the morning?
K: In order to be fit and flexible for my work.
C: Is painting so exhausting?
K: Yes, it is exhausting—sometimes more, sometimes less and occasionally causes perspiration. The physical exercise that I mentioned is more about enduring the hours in the atelier than being buff. And in order to stand, you simply need your knees, which in my case have been damaged by long years as an active soccer player. So, I do gymnastics in the morning, so that my handicap doesn’t turn into a hazard.
Spirituality, Faith, and Atheism
C: In an essay about your work, I talked about your dramatization of the turning points and thresholds of human existence. Looking at your work, I feel as though the numinous forces, the powers unseen are important in it. My question aims at the religious impetus in your paintings, because your paintings are not only documents of a yearning for the epic or the mythical, but also express a certain sense of sanctity. I know that you used to describe yourself as an atheistic Epicurean. But let me ask about your religiosity. What would you say if I claimed to have traced some sort of religiously motivated intent in your paintings?
K: If you mean a drive towards desire and speculation, then I'd be okay with what you said.