L: The space which inspires you always contains something ambiguous? Just look ‘The Night on Every Day’: Dark clouds gather on the left and the woman who has been divided into two creatures incarnates both areas.
K: Perhaps this is an essence of myself, so to speak. In my preparations for a new painting I often journey to and fro between the most diverse possibilities. Of course in the beginning there is always observation, which is rarely sufficient. Something similar to reflective thinking results from this process, which is often derived from a possible discontent anchored within me, which drives me, and yet which is insufficient to exist by itself, and which thus needs to be led into a third dimension, which can exist on its own – and this is the actual dimension of painting.
L: Obviously the internal tension of your pictures results from the visualization of something that is invisible, in other words the mysteriousness or dichotomy of our existence. We can – we need to discuss such conundrums – they only become real when they are solved in a dialog, but unlike crossword puzzles they become intensified through this process. Do you feel you enter a danger zone when you conceive and work on your paintings?
...at least two designs, which constantly call for anarchy within me by propagating an unfathomability, which neither exists in my paintings nor in my life
K: I don’t mind, I even like the idea that the observation entails a certain amount of work and effort, which might lead to danger. However, my danger zone when working on a new picture is my doubting. It is this doubting, this constant opposition that I feel in myself, which is the cause or perhaps the blame for the fact that my paintings are the product of at least two designs, which constantly call for anarchy within me by propagating an unfathomability, which neither exists in my paintings nor in my life. These paintings are serious, they are funny, but often they contain a sense of irritation. In themselves they don’t demand anything in particular, but if you want to understand them, you need to be willing to be at the mercy of their spectrum of meaning, just like being on a swing, which you can only enjoy if you go along with the movement. Otherwise you will become nauseated.
L: In other words, if you don’t subject yourself to this danger, if you don’t step over these borders, you won’t be able to enter the dimension of true painting, but will rather only brush on the surface of that which we call reality?
K: Isn’t all painting real? And if this is true, then we have to ask ourselves: What turns a picture into art and why is another picture mired in eternal insignificance? However, you might be quite right. Taking a risk or entering a danger zone as you mentioned before, this only exists for a painter if he does not repeat himself in his painting, but rather risks everything by giving it his all – even if this might result in failure! Thus, we come back to the topic of taking “risks” and committing acts of “idiocy”.
It’s true that I can imagine the picture that I am going to paint three or four years from now. But that is just a vague impression, which I cannot explain at this point. This is more of a conjecture than a cer-tainty. A conjecture of something that does not exist, but which might come into being, has driven me from the beginning. My main drive is my restlessness. I am also not pursuing a goal. As a result I still have the feeling at the age of forty that I’m at the beginning phases of my development.
L: Let’s turn now to your most recent work. Let’s begin with some paintings which I found downright shocking. ‘The Morning After’ (2006) – the title which inevitably evokes ‘The Day After’ (1885) by Edvard Munch – depicts a young girl only dressed in her underclothes, who is seeking help but not receiving it from a woman who might be her mother; to the right and a bit in front of them a man is kneeling who is looking at his hands, and whose facial expression has something diabolical about it. The viewers are actually forced to think of an incident of incest – aren’t they?
K: Obviously, in painting this work, despite its shocking elements, I did something wrong. If the viewer is forced to think in only one direction, then this applies even more. Yes, the man is kneeling on the floor and is looking at his hands. I don’t think there is anything diabolical about him. When I painted him, I made an effort not to stigmatize his facial expression. The apparent harmony of the mother-child relationship on the left side of the painting actually screams for a projected counter manifesta-tion, a polarization which is based on this man. It is probably this mother-child configuration that makes us see something diabolical in the man, because it is actually us, who wish to interpret him in this way.
And I admit that this suspicion might be reinforced by the lighting dramatization that has been executed. But the hard lighting does not hit the man from the left side, but rather comes from the right, and as a light source I painted that monstrous refrigerator. But why is this damned refrigerator placed there, which for some strange reason you can’t look into and which moreover seems to supply inspiration? A child is searching for protection, a man comes under suspicion and a woman almost seems to radiate even less energy than the refrigerator. In other words this refrigerator is important and without this monster I probably wouldn’t have painted the picture! Of course, the refrigerator, which could also be labeled a poison cupboard, could have been opened up a bit more. But I didn’t want to do that, since I am almost fearfully mistrustful of any kind of pushiness, which I cannot tolerate in other pictures, of course, and which I can least tolerate in my own work. That is why my paintings never contain any blood, let alone a corpse, since I prefer to create a suggestive background noise, a hovering insinua-tion.
...this decision would not simplify our lives at an existential level
L: Another work ‘At the End of Impatience’ (2006): A young girl, wearing only underpants is lying on a rumpled bed; prompted by the title of the work the viewer makes the association of a first sexual contact – the same girl is standing to the right, separated from her counter-image, almost like a soul separated from its body, which is brooding about what has happened to her: the embodiment of mel-ancholy and perhaps of injury. The doppelganger motif especially enhances the solitude of the scene. To ask you a direct question: do you believe that our longing for togetherness only intensifies our soli-tude?
K: I believe that is a fine observation, that the doppelganger motif can clarify our solitude. As you know, I have been pursued by this doppelganger concept for some time now – I would say for about ten years. It often appears and in this rather small picture “Am Ende der Ungeduld”, it has almost been taken to the extreme, since everything seems to be doubled in this work. And despite this, I think a heterogeneous picture has been created. But to come back to your question: I’m not sure if I as a painter can satisfactorily answer your question, which might also be seen as a thesis. In any case solitude is a well-known state for me, since it characterizes my life as a painter. The only thing that is important for a human life is that solitude is a desired state and that it doesn’t become your undoing. The studio is my retreat, my reservoir, my private church if you will, since I would otherwise find everything to be just too much and life could overwhelm me. That is simply necessary for my existence. As a philosopher, Mr. Lorenzen, you will have similar feelings. I don’t think that a person becomes a philosopher, for instance, or a painter because one continually tries to populate the solitude that is inherent in all people. On the other hand paintings, writings and so on, are ways to communicate which allow you to enter into a relationship with other people. Jean Paul has said this very well: ‘Books, novels are thick letters to friends’. One might complete this sentence by saying: ...friends that you haven’t met yet.
Mr. Lorenzen, you were drawn to philosophy as I was to art. Both of us made this decision in the knowledge that this decision would not simplify our lives at an existential level, but would have the opposite effect of making it more complicated. That was completely clear. We made a conscious deci-sion to live a life burdened with more anxieties. Or do you believe that when I first started to study art back in 1992 in Leipzig there was anybody left who was interested in painting? Furthermore: deciding to become a painter in the time directly after the East German wall fell was considered to be insane in the eyes of many people. If you walk through this same academy today, you will quickly realize that another wind is blowing. And yet I am still happy that I entered the Leipzig Academy at that time and not today. Granted, that time was full of humiliations because nobody was interested in my paintings. However, on the other hand this situation was important since it toughened me up by forcing me to drive my own projects forward. That’s why present-day Leipzig would not be a good place for me to study painting.
L: The ambivalence of our existence is expressed in all of your pictures. There is a ‘great bestiality which rules inside all of us’ (Interview, 1997), the longing for the opposite – and for you especially, the longing for the ‘inner joy’ which art imparts to the viewer and surely most strongly to the painter through the process of painting itself: ‘Art is always joy, whether I represent something joyful or something tragic’ (Interview, 2003). Do we come closer to the ambivalence of life if we comprehend and feel that it simultaneously consists of joy and sadness, neither existing without the other, that each even requires its opposite?
K: Recently, and this almost goes back to the question of solitude, I was walking around in the woods without a particular destination in mind. Suddenly I came across an older man, whom I though was just wandering around as I was. When we came closer to each other I could see that he had these strange earphones in his ears and was listening to music or whatever. It seemed that he wasn’t able to hear the rustling of the leaves or the chirping of the birds. Either consciously or unconsciously he had denied himself the chance to enjoy the peacefulness, not to speak of the silence, of the surroundings. I thought to myself that this state of graceful peace might be something intolerable for him. You can’t just turn on the lights when you go to the movies. And yet, apparently for this man, as it probably is for more and more people, the knowledge of the mutually arising dualities which touch the founda-tions of the world are contemplated less and less or not at all. Incidentally, I have also noticed that there are certain films which have become old-fashioned because they are slower and more difficult to view, more difficult to consume. This comes to my attention especially when I lend films by Angelo-poulos say or Wenders or Jarmusch to friends or acquaintances for them to watch and they can only appreciate these films in the rarest of cases. And if they are watched, then not with the necessary concentration. Perhaps our viewing habits are changing due to the internet and television – I don’t have any idea. On the other hand a discrepancy opens up for me because I feel more clearly than ever how important a slowing down of pace is for my life and for my work.
L: Real (or now: postmodern) philosophy investigates this connection as does painting, this simultaneous existence of bestiality and joy and attempts to bring both before the inner eye in an intellectual outlook, as one used to call it. And now, if you will allow me to make a suggestion, why don’t you and I take a look at your ‘Nike’ pictures (2006). The first one looks like a variation of ‘At the End of Impatience’. The young, practically unclothed girl appears exhausted and is lying on an armchair in a pose which almost forces the viewer to become a voyeur. ‘Nike II’ might be a representation of her doppelganger. She is cuddling against the armrest almost as if it were a human being; and yet, there is no connection between this child-woman and the piece of furniture: she rejects it in exactly the same way as she does her mother (only upon closer examination do you realize that the body, head and arms of the girl make no impressions upon the leather material of the armchair). If you view the pictures again, a feeling of eerieness arises. And it is just for that reason that you feel, at least I do, something like emotion in view of the self-abandonment of this body.
What a mixture: In this abandonment, this unconcern with respect to coldness and strangeness, a strange beauty arises, which is not abolished due to the admixture of lasciviousness, almost of ob-scenity. – I feel inspired looking at these pictures and believe I can perceive something of the joy you spoke of; but I am – almost – forgetting my question, which is: Doesn’t the creation of such a proximity between beauty and coldness (which do not offset each other in an ostensibly higher synthesis!) create the basis for a current, post-modern aesthetic? And moreover: What would you consider beauty to be today, in our post-modern age?
K: I’m pleased to hear whenever a viewer senses something of the joy that I feel when I painted a picture. And I’m even more pleased that your joy did not appear immediately, but rather upon a second view-ing. Yes, my daughter Nike, whom I painted in the two pictures possesses a sacrosanct beauty. But you can’t produce great paintings with such innocent purity alone. We then return to my inherent doubting, which finds expression either consciously or unconsciously. Just as it generally gives me trouble, Mr. Lorenzen, to render an account after the event of what I once painted, because first of all each picture created is often too complex to be able to explain it exactly, to be able to represent the motivating forces plausibly. On the other hand this would also mean rendering an account of a largely non-rational process, which is what painting is after all.
L: Let me ask you again: What does beauty mean to you today?
K: The Zeitgeist has gotten used to the idea of viewing beauty as an absolute value in an isolated way. There won’t be many people who recognize a motif of beauty in the simultaneous proximity of warmth and coldness in the two Nike pictures, which you have just described. If, for instance, coldness is claimed to exist in a picture, the concept of beauty is often filtered out, so to speak. On the other hand if you look at a picture by Corinth, let’s say the work ‘Cain’ (1917) or Ribera’s ‘Ixion’ (1632), you can easily grasp that these two works stand out due to a certain aggressiveness. They are tremendous in the truest sense of the word and impress the viewer with an apparent ugliness. Neither of these painters found their place by consciously painting something ugly. They painted these works since both the state of ugliness as well as beauty speak from within them. Following this impulse, these painters were able to create great art.
Consequently, ugliness is something which absolutely needs to be added to the idea of beauty. If this correspondence between these polarities is entirely missing, the result would be kitsch – consisting of beauty alone or of ugliness alone. The decisive point is basically an intellectual requirement. Of course painting will always be measured according to the soundness of craft. That has always been the case and will always remain the case. But craftsmanship alone won’t do it, because, as we already know, art does not arise from skill alone.
On the other hand if you contrast Corinth’s and Ribera’s work, for instance, with the work of two cel-ebrated contemporary painters such as Alex Katz or Norbert Bisky, whose dazzling works are in great demand among quite a few collectors who pay enormous sums for them, you suddenly get the feeling that you are looking at carnival paintings, because these mediocre painters create works in which any resulting interaction involving the nature of beauty is either underexposed or entirely missing. This is true for both the composition as well as the execution. All art strives for beauty. Of course, these two contemporary painters strive toward beauty as well, even though it must be established here that nothing can arise out of nothing. I would think that real beauty seldom comes alone, it absolutely requires an opposite.
L: Could that be a great goal of painting today, to search for the conditions and possibilities of a new beauty and to depict them?
K: I’m afraid I won’t be able to answer that. Every picture by a painting artist is always an expression of its specific beauty. Your question can only be answered in time, since while an artist may have access to a framework of composition, the conditions for this are presented by society on the one hand and by art history on the other. Therefore, we are not as free as we believe. But during the course of our lives we have at least the chance to liberate ourselves. And that is something!