BY Jörg Heiser in Influences | 09 NOV 15
Featured in
Issue 22

Die Schmetterlingsratte

On the occasion of his major retrospective at Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, painter Daniel Richter discusses his influences, from painting to Pop music, with Jörg Heiser

BY Jörg Heiser in Influences | 09 NOV 15

Daniel Richter, Happy man, the hippie man, 2015, oil on canvas, 2.1 × 1.6  m

Jörg Heiser What were your early influences?

Daniel Richter As a young person, my thinking was influenced more by comics, illustrations and music than by painting. Later, I thought that the immanent prob­lems and the issues of permanent evolution on the one hand, and recognizability on the other, exist in both music and painting. Different types of music work on you in different ways, both consciously and emotionally. There are people who can’t relate to maudlin, pathos-laden music. I relate to it strongly – early Leonard Cohen, Scott Walker, Barry Ryan. This wallowing in pathos isn’t alien to me, as you can see in some of my pictures.

JH What about eclecticism and/or postmodernism?

DR The recent painting show at MoMA, The Forever Now, supposedly reflects the current ‘state of modern painting’. But if you ask me, knowledgeability, wit, distance and the highlighting of various codes were already present in Albert Oehlen’s work around 1992 or 1993. Albert says: ‘knowing me, knowing you’. It’s amazing that 20 years later this kind of painting is becoming established and is still considered cutting-edge. It was all there in Albert’s work: pixelated images made on the computer, the corresponding painterly gesture, the process of erasure, using modern media to present painting as a process of thinking and exploration. When I look at contemporary painting, I find it interesting and intelligent. But I can’t fight the feeling that I’m also being told how painting works, and the result is too clever for its own good.

JH What’s missing?

DR The element of surprise, the risky claim. Joyfully doing something you probably shouldn’t do. But if doing something you shouldn’t do is a calculated move, then precisely that becomes tiresome. There needs to be some added factor, like the daftness of a specific emotional state, probing one’s own insecurities, things like that.

JH Did music play a part in your new pictures?

DR Not in any immanent sense. Two years ago I started working on two new groups of paintings that differ in formal terms but that draw on the same method. It began with my decision not to paint with brushes but instead use oil pastels, palette knives, rollers, etc. I didn’t want to do it all mushy-gloopy, but as a sequence of distinct levels. And because the pictures were about physical phenomena, I listened to a lot of Holly Herndon, Arca, FKA Twigs, stuff by Ben Frost and DJ Koze – music where the digital, but also warmth and physicality, is clearly audible. I was aiming for the same thing in the painting: flatness, but one that gives rise to bodies. I wanted to abandon ideas of three-dimensionality, of simulated space.

Daniel Richter,Tarifa, 2001, oil on canvas, 3.5 × 2.8 m

JH What were you doing with these new pictures?

DR After my decision to stop painting with brushes, it was also a matter of including a trap. For one series, I started with horizontal bands of candy or sunset colours, and it looked like earnest, slightly ironic painting, referring to Mark Rothko, Morris Louis, etc. That’s unsatisfactory, of course. Next came an idea of flat physicality in hospital-like pastel shades, diluted with white. I would look out of the corner of my eye at pornographic images, mostly gay porn, on my iPhone, held at arm’s length, for about 30 seconds, and then paint the body constellations from memory. When I say pornographic, I don’t mean that you see a penis or vagina or anus, but the way bodies are twisted and stretched. And I did that using the palette knife. In the other series, I did the opposite, beginning not with stripes but smears, piling on the paint, moving it around with my hands, big gestures, scratching something away and then letting it dry. Over this tur­bulent background I placed rough approximations of historical maps: Poland, in 1941; its invasion by Nazi Germany, its invasion by the Soviet Union, displacement of Polish farmers, Ukrainian destruction of Jewry, etc. A conceptual approach, in other words, taking a very elevated and general angle, to put me under stress.

JH What kind of stress?

DR The stress of how my claim to deal with these themes in my painting relates to the picture I want to paint. It shouldn’t be a picture that relies on a text. The last step in both series was to use pigment liner pen. In the series with the body constellations I used lines to redefine: at that moment, you can turn it into total abstraction, into unrecognizability – or use an outline to achieve the opposite. In the other series I used the pigment liner pen to cover up the background around the map outlines, to erase it. In both series, then, the picture was defined in an unforeseeable way by the last step. That was the trap. The trap would often snap shut and I had to throw quite a few pictures away. There’s no way you can make corrections, unlike with processual painting where elements are merged. But that was exactly what I didn’t want. I wanted to assemble the picture out of clearly distinct elements and obtain an organic picture at the end none­theless. The elements were not meant to emerge and relate to one another on an equal footing. À la: I paint a triangle, then I spray a diagonal line to the left, then I smear with my hands at top right, and then I make something between three-dimensionality, flatness, and a line as a quotation, and then maybe add a letter as a reference to language. And the result: Aha, ‘someone has been very clever!’ I was more interested in the opposite of very clever.

JH Did you look at contemporary painting with this in mind?

DR No, more classical modernist painting. Especially Philip Guston in the 1960s, before he turned to figuration. And Clyfford Still, a bit of Franz Kline. How they arrived at their results, their individual motivation, their lines of argument, isn’t important to me. I see the picture and for me it’s about the inter­-play of illegibility and transparency, gesture, composition, immediacy, stuff like that.

JH But doesn’t that make anxiety of influence inevitable?

DR No, because you can say: This is exactly what I want, too, but I don’t want to use any of these instruments or the formulas that make it work. It’s basically about the sound, the vibe, the soul. Which doesn’t automa­tically mean confirming familiar thought patterns. It’s about the dark spot – not the punctum, but maybe the stupid element of it: the fact that someone uses codes that I understand, too, but uses them in such a specific way that finally it can only come from the unconscious of that one person. That’s what interests me – and not whether someone is using the right system of reference in the right way. Why does certain music move me even though I can see through its errors or its lies? It has to do with my immediate needs and with a kind of painting that focusses not on mere depiction but on materiality and the relationship between opacity and transparency.

Jack Bilbo, Flirting, 1944,

from Jack Bilbo. An Autobiography, 1948

JH Do you systematically look for such criteria in the painters you mentioned?

DR No. I just try to find out where the vibrancy I find in such painting arises. The relationship between liquid paint, dry paint, thick paint, brightly coloured paint and a canvas that is rough or absorbent, where the paint sits on top, gets rubbed in, is thick and pasty or thin and runny: all of this taken together is why a picture interests me or not. Otherwise, the simple fact of dealing with an interesting topic would guarantee an interesting picture. But precisely that is not the case.

JH Returning to the question of vibe or soul – how does this manifest itself?

DR Anyone can play Cortez the Killer (1975) by Neil Young, but it will almost never sound any good. Everyone who covers a Nina Simone song fails. At the moment, loads of people are quoting and covering her. But beyond her ability to play piano, her connection with the Black Power movement, her depression and the way she transformed the blues into a barroom song and then into a soul song – beyond all this, her music is alive and pure Nina Simone. That’s just how it is. You listen to all this stuff and it comes across as tot­ally laughable compared to what she did. Her voice is not just a good singing voice; it’s the voice of a woman with a very specific life, a very specific modulation, a very specific kind of sadness, anger and self-immersion. Today, soul isn’t to be found in the retro niche with its perfect imitations, but in the hip-hop of people like Earl Sweatshirt or Guilty Simpson, because that’s the appropriate form. Funnily enough, Simone was capable of making mediocre songs her own, but the reverse is not the case.

JH How does this relate to looking at high modernist painting?

DR High modernist, great word. You stand in front of it and think: this picture works. It’s new, it’s right, it still works. For me it was also a matter of seeing if I could manage to ignore the claim that this can lead to mere quotation.

JH Do you need drama for painting?

DR I don’t know if I need drama. But I need stress. The confident type of light-footed painting – I can’t do that. I would say I have painted pictures with humour, but I couldn’t care less about the connoisseurial, masterful, subtly subversive approach – like Dries van Noten suits. JH In terms of music, some of the stuff we’ve talked about is quite obscure, but the art you’ve mentioned is all classic.

Edouard Vuillard, Woman in a Striped Dress, 1895, oil on canvas, 66 × 59 cm

JH In terms of music, some of the stuff we’ve talked about is quite obscure, but the art you’ve mentioned is all classic.

DR Yes, that was inevitable, as they’re the only ones I know; and because my new works pick up where they left off. I was interested in an extreme form of self-limitation: my paintings have always functioned via spaces and theatre and overloading, and now I start with just straight lines. For a long time, I didn’t know where this was leading, a phase of doubt. It took so long before something emerged where I thought: OK, that really might become a picture. Just switching themes is easy. To say: ‘from now on, I’m only going to paint squares’, then people respond, ‘ooh là là! Now he’s painting squares, and the day after tomorrow he’ll be painting copulating cows’ … that’s totally uninteresting. Instead, it’s about how I relate to the world, to the canvas, and that depends not only on a picture’s content but also on the means used to depict it. In all artworks, you look for a specific truth about this artist, something the artist himself may not realize, or something very specific that recurs in all of these works. You’re a chameleon, you can always recognize it, but sometimes it will be butterfly colours and other times the deepest darkest black. But you know it’s the same stupid animal. And that’s what you want, because otherwise you could just look at a butterfly and a rat. But a butterfly and a rat are two completely different beings, and they have meaning and coherence separately, but not together … so let’s cross a butterfly and a rat and we’ll get a painting chameleon and it’s called Daniel Richter.

JH And then, of all people, the butterfly rat refers to classics like Guston, Still and Kline.

DR These painters were just points of reference for recent pictures. The artists I admire are quite different. They are people who are like hybrids or marginal figures: imposters, liars, braggarts, traitors, dissidents, on the periphery. Although to an extent, that does apply to Guston. I don’t want to romanticize it, but for me the Jugendstil artist Heinrich Vogeler is such an adventurer: a cautioning idealist. Or Jack Bilbo. When I was in London with Tal R one time, we passed a second-hand bookshop with a huge book in the window: Jack Bilbo. An Autobiography. The book is from 1948, elabor­ately printed on five different kinds of paper – until the 1970s, it was probably the biggest art monograph published in the 20th century. And it’s all the most incredible boasting, but there is a kernel of truth. Bilbo was born Hugo Baruch in Berlin in 1907, the son of a theatre sup­-plies merchant. He went to America and had a career as a petty criminal. In 1932, back in Europe, he published a book called Carrying A Gun For Al Capone. It was basically a bunch of lies, but it sold well. In the Spanish Civil War, he fought with the Republicans. Because he spoke German, he spied on the Germans for the British. To facilitate this, he was officially declared dead. There really is a photograph of three Republican militiamen firing a salute over his grave. When Franco came to power in 1937 he went to London and opened The Modern Art Gallery in 1941 – at the time of the Blitz. As far as I know, he was the first to show Dorothea Tanning and the first to present an exhibition with only women artists. And he organized the only Kurt Schwitters exhibition in exile. After the war, he produced numerous catalogues; one of them was called Famous Nudes by Famous Artists and it featured work by Maillol, Picasso, Malevich, Bilbo, Schwitters, Bilbo, Picasso – and Bilbo. He wrote himself into art history the same way Kippenberger did. In the 1950s, Bilbo returned to Berlin and opened a bar on Olivaer Platz called ‘Käpt’n Bilbos Hafen­spelunke’ (Captain Bilbo’s Dockside Dive Bar). A proto-beatnik, a crazy adventurer and imposter – and probably an unbearable person. I have a weakness for this kind of thing.

JH And Heinrich Vogeler?

DR Vogeler travelled the opposite path. A leading figure of Jugendstil, he became an established artist early on. He was at the Worpswede artists’ colony near Bremen, a friend of Paula Modersohn-Becker. Vogeler designed the bibliophile book series published by Insel Verlag, aligned himself with Arts and Crafts, and designed and fitted out his own house. He was very successful but due to his experience in World War I as a war artist on the front, he developed justified doubts about the idea of the German grand nation and, conversely, a strong sympathy for the Communists. He allowed his house to be used as a children’s home by International Red Aid. He became a kind of Communist itinerant preacher who painted pictures in a style combining polyfocal Russian painting with Mikhail Vrubel. Between church windows and Bolshevik propaganda. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, he – in Moscow at the time – was sent to Kazakhstan, like many Germans who were not totally loyal members of the Communist Party – and he practically starved to death. Another figure I find interesting is Jan Valtin, who helped establish the Communist sailor’s union. He was a double agent for the Soviets and the Gestapo – because the Nazis were holding his wife hostage. He fled to the United States and published a book in 1941, Out of the Night, that is interesting above all because it describes conditions inside the Stalinist system, within the party. He became a key witness against the Soviet Union, and died an unpopular man.

JH Did this influence you in connection with left-wing debate since the 1980s?

DR Sure. What characterizes these figures is that they say: My own belief led to an act of betrayal. Sometimes it is pure egomania that makes people collide. I was part of the anarchist left-wing for a long time, and gladly so, but after 1989 the project was pretty much over as far as I was concerned. The opening of the archives in Eastern Europe was important to me less in terms of German history than because of the history of how dissenters were dealt with in the Soviet Union and of how the Soviet Union treated the Communist Parties in Republican Spain or in Italy. I no longer felt it necessary to defend that. Admittedly, others realized this sooner than I did, but they often had nothing to offer beyond resignation or conformity. With my decision to become an artist, the questions didn’t pose themselves afresh, but more precisely. Toeing the party line has never been my thing, so figures who refuse consensus offer more suitable points of orientation than those who are always on the right side and who say the right things with the right people.

Daniel Richter, Werden die Roten die Schwarzen schlagen?, 2015, oil on canvas, 2 × 3 m

JH Instead of a cadre, then, the role of the individual artist?

DR It’s not a role. As a painter, you paint alone. The decision to paint may also have to do with the need to spend a great deal of time alone with oneself. That’s neither especially romantic nor especially heroic nor genius-
like, it’s just the way it is. Like pedants deciding to become watchmakers. And if I want to make a 17-metre-tall sculpture dealing with the demise of the Soviet Union, but that can also be used as a playground in a public space, ecologically sustainable but using new materials and sponsored by BMW, then that, too,
is a different kind of artist. I am very much in favour of defending the romantic image of ‘the artist, in the face of all legitimate criticism.

JH But what happens the moment you exhibit your work?

DR The abstract painting I did in the ’90s was only of interest to specialists. And then I made the step to big history paintings and I thought the reception would remain roughly the same. And it was as if you start out playing like Ornette Coleman and then switch to playing like The Beatles. I thought I was producing reasonably intelligent reflections on history and media images, but fin­-ally people saw it as some great pathos-laden kitschy song. One that touched them, too. And to understand that, I had to think more about how other people’s art touches me. So now I’m interested in seeing how things will continue with pictures that are definitely different from those that went before.

JH In light of current events, are you tempted to return to history painting?

DR The urge to process a current media image is still there. But there has to be the challenge of approaching it in a new way. There are quite a few painters in my generation for whom what was once a valid approach starts to look like mental inertia due to constant repetition. Getting it right is good, but wanting to stay in the right forever is not. You just end up rehashing the same seven phrases.

JH And continually engaging with other people’s work prevents this from happening? Which important influence have we not mentioned yet?

DR The most important influence for me is probably the painting of the fin de siècle – Bonnard, Valloton, Modersohn-Becker, Munch, the young Kokoschka – with the rise of photography and direct observation of reality: people standing outside and painting what they see. This combined with introspection. At the same time, their composition was influenced by Japonism, by flatness in the best sense. These pictures are what encouraged me to start painting figuratively. And I suddenly realized that art and music from any period becomes contemporary art the moment it speaks to you.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Daniel Richter’s exhibition Hello, I Love You was on view until 17 January 2016 at the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.