Interview by Ellen Alpsten
“The first time I see my art hanging and exposed is always a special moment.
This is the first time that these drawings have been displayed — the unknown environment becomes a known entity and almost a part of me. Their presence echoes in me and I hope that they echo in the viewers, too. My work takes place in a secret place inside of me. It is like the Garden of Eden, walled and jealously protected. I filter the external world and shape it to my image. Still, the impression the viewer has of my work is important to me: I feel for him or her, and their reaction to the room and my art.
The drawings have been a long time in the making. They can be everything — a sketch, a design or an impression that finds no expression in my larger paintings. They are like creatures looming on the sidelines of my creation. I actually have learned only lately to appreciate them as a witness of time passing and my own development. I still remember my first exhibition in 1992 at my Gallery Eigen+Art. I don’t think I sold a single picture, but that was not the point. I then for the first time had the impression of having arrived somewhere; of having arrived within myself. My work took shape and my voice found its strength. Yes, that moment coincides vaguely with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the German Reunification, but both events only had a marginal influence on my artistic development.
The drawings are very rarely a preparation for a next step in a large painting, but they have been companions along the way. Quite often they are rarities and exceptions in my work: I find different motives and different physiognomies in them then I might normally use. I have often been criticised for using a face of the Fifties, or of working somehow retrospectively. I refuse to be categorised and wish to stay in control of my art. I cannot and will not change my voice. It finds its expression through the tip of my brush or my pencil. It is like a fluid, the most tender and fragile of substances. What finally condenses on the canvas is highly subtle and in need of protection. Sometimes I am surprised by the result of my art. There is a figure, which appears again and again: it might be a revenant or a reincarnation. He finds his way on to my canvas subconsciously. Only when I look at the finished work I realise: here he is again. It is true, his is the face of a decade and that decade is the ’50s. What is the face of the noughties? I, or my brush and my pencil, have yet to discover it.
The drawings in my new book Schilfland. Works on Paper (Prestel) allow me a diversification of faces and of motives. My paintings can convey distance and a certain froideur towards the observer as well as for the protagonists of my art themselves. The drawings deviate from this. Some of them speak of warmth, and even of the desire to be close. Eroticism is normally not a drive that I allow to influence my art. I have that down with the other Pavlovian instincts. In my opinion, there is already too much licence everywhere around us. I tire of the omnipresence of sexuality or pornography in our society and in art. I am certainly not a prude. I just don’t think that you have to let strangers into this most private of gardens. Secrecy and discretion make its flowers blossom the richer and smell the sweeter.
After I stopped working as a professor in Leipzig in the summer, I could take a moment to breathe out again. For a couple of years I had been doing too much, too quickly. My work had become dark and brooding. Now, a couple of months into it, I feel as if a Gordian knot in my chest has been cut. I can concentrate again on what is essential. I might not be 25 any longer, but there is yet so much to do and the best is still to come. The drawings are like a chorus to my songs, be they in pencil, ink, gouache or water-colours. I can imagine doing many more of them. There are so many words in an expression. I find the inspiration for the drawings in many sources-poems, quotations and everyday images, which I digest and dissect. Just as in my paintings, I like the fact that they smell of life, of impressions and of the artist’s sweat. It is art in its fundamentals, isn’t it?
I work normal hours during the week, just like anybody else. Not quite nine to five, but almost. I never touch a brush or a pencil during the weekend and during those days I do not allow the flowers in my secret garden to grow higher than its walls. They can sprawl again on Monday morning. I trust the muse to stick around and be ready for work by then. I meet her for a tête-a-tête in my studio, which is off limits for almost everybody. The pause and the respite of the weekend have spring-loaded my creativity.Many of the drawings reflect this very moment, this freshness of creation and I am grateful for it.”
ALL IMAGES COURTESY GALERIE EIGEN + ART LEIPZIG/BERLIN AND DAVID ZWIRNER, NEW YORK/PHOTOS: UWE WALTER BERLIN