Rudolf Stingel Reanimates an Icon of German Expressionism

The Tyrolean artist discusses immersive gallery experiences and his youthful adoration of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the muse behind his striking exhibition in Paris 

BY Angel Lambo AND Rudolf Stingel in Interviews | 25 APR 23

Rudolf Stingel’s latest works, an untitled series of paintings currently on show at Gagosian, Paris, tap into the maddening appeal of one of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s most recognized works, Fränzi vor geschnitztem Stuhl (Fränzi in front of Carved Chair, 1910). The image – a half-body portrait of a seated female figure wearing a faint smile – could have all the charm of the Mona Lisa were it not for her radioactive-green skin. Unlike her Italian counterpart, Fränzi gazes into the middle distance just behind the viewer, restless, never quite catching the eye. 

For the new series, Stingel painted a number of Fränzis imitating Kirchner stroke-for-stroke. Each image – almost four times the size of the original – bears the marks of the artist’s intuitive approach to abstraction. In some pieces the subject is disembodied, doubled or obscured by heavy layers of oil paint or gold enamel. In another work, the textural detail of a blue collar is magnified to fill the canvas. 

In true expressionist style, Stingel had the gallery walls painted and floor carpeted in vivid red. This intervention creates a throughline to the artist’s previous works, such as Untitled (1993) where he displayed an orange, deep pile rug at the Venice Biennale, and Plan B (2004), where he laid a floral carpet over the marble floors of the Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Terminal: these works expand the notion of ‘painting’. 

On the day of the show's opening, I spoke with the Italian artist about growing up in South Tyrol, the appeal of German expressionism and how his New York studio of almost 20 years – his inner sanctum – might be the real star of the show.

Rudolf Stingel, Gagosian, Paris
Rudolf Stingel, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Gagosian, Paris; photograph: Thomas Lannes 

Angel Lambo How did you come to know and love Kirchner?

Rudolf Stingel I discovered expressionist painting in my teenage years, that’s what really got me going. Kirchner moved from Germany to Switzerland [in 1917] and was hiding up in the Swiss Alps, which is the same environment I come from in German-speaking Italy. In high school I read his diaries and painted just like him. I basically thought I was his reincarnation.

AL Why did you choose Fränzi as the subject for this show?

RL Firstly, it's an iconic painting from the time of Die Brücke art group, which Kirchner was a part of. Secondly, my mother fed me with art books when I was young and there was one on Kirchner. I’m not sure if Fränzi was on the cover but it's probably her green flesh that attracted me. Afterall, it’s one of his most reproduced images.

AL The repetition of that central image in the exhibition reads like a series of studies, or visual notes, on some element of Kirchner’s practice. What were you trying to understand?

RS I wouldn't call them studies but they’re an approach. Expressionism is a process. You look at reality and you let it move through you. I’ve always thought this is the ultimate way of making art. I just got carried away with more contemporary art practices when I got out of the valley [in the Alps].

I kept repeating the one image because if every painting looks completely different, as a viewer, I would be overwhelmed. I wanted to create a serene experience, and for that you need to make things as simple as possible. I always thought it was problematic to hang a bunch of paintings on white walls. I prefer to create an environment that you can step in to, one that creates a different awareness. An experience that you can carry with you.

Rudolf Stingel, Gagosian, Paris
Rudolf Stingel, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Gagosian, Paris; photograph: Thomas Lannes 

AL As an exercise in expressionism how much contingency is there in these works?

RS I used a variation of the silk screen process combined with painting. The images on the screens are derived from photographs of previous works and snapshots of my dirty studio walls. And on these walls are remnants of chain-link paintings I did 10 years ago. I had no idea what parts of the image the screen was going to cover.

AL Are you saying it’s accidental that some of your interventions look like mountain landscapes? I thought this was a call-back to Kirchner’s time in the Alps?

RS People always see things in abstract work. If you want to see a landscape, I’m fine with that. What's interesting is that my previous monochrome, silver or gold abstract paintings are now dissolving and revealing something underneath; the landscape of my past – my memories. I didn't set out to do this, but this is one way you might like to read these paintings.

Rudolf Stingel, Gagosian, Paris
Rudolf Stingel, Untitled, 2022, oil and enamel on canvas, 2.7 × 1.9 m. Courtesy: the artist and Gagosian, Paris

AL You’ve lived abroad in the US for a few decades now. Was this exhibition an attempt to get back in touch with your German cultural heritage?

RL I am still connected to it. Back in 2002 I moved to Berlin for a few months in the middle of winter. This was when I was living in Los Angeles and had started to lose it. In LA you didn’t have to tie your shoes anymore because you didn’t see anyone – it was just the studio and the car. I lost touch with everything. The move really cleared out the California in me. It re-anchored me and took me back to my roots. 

I’ve spent quite some time in Berlin over the years, at times up to six or eight months. I had a studio in the old Postfurhramt [post office] that belonged to Daniel Richter and next door was Jonathan Meese’s studio, who also wasn’t around. That’s when I met Urs Fischer, who was working next door. We had both just got to Berlin. No one wanted to hang out with us, so we became great friends. I even shared my New York studio with him for a while. 

Rudolf Stingel, studio
Inside Rudolf Stingel's New York studio. Courtesy: the artist and Gagosian, Paris

AL In 1989 you published a step-by-step guide, Instructions, to making an ‘authentic’ Rudolf Stingel abstract painting, which led me to believe that you were quite open with the process of artmaking. But I was told that you only permitted photography of your New York studio for the first time this year. Why is the studio such a private space?

RS Nobody can come in [laughs]. My daughter and some friends, yes, but the studio is like another home. It’s a very private thing. I have a small team – there’s someone who prepares lunch and we sit at the table every day at one o’clock and talk about whatever people are obsessed with these days. It has been like this for 20 years with basically the same people. 

I first created this exhibition in my studio and even painted all the walls red. I usually do this to just try it out, live with it for a while and see the reactions of the people who work with me.

AL Having spent your career stress testing the concept of ‘painting’, what does this exhibition mean for you?

RS I know that I am still able to do a painting that looks like a Kirchner. But I had to ask myself why? Those paintings already exist so I had to do something else. I feel lucky that, as an artist, I can change. Usually, it’s dangerous to leave behind whatever recognizable practice you have developed. So, there must always be a common denominator if you do work like mine. I’ve always questioned everything: does this look good? Should I do this? What can I, as a 67-year-old white male artist, offer? I just hope that my work resonates.

Rudolf Stingel's exhibition is currently on view at Gagosian, rue de Ponthieu, Paris until 27 May 

Thumbnail and main image: Rudolf Stingel, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Gagosian, Paris; photograph: Thomas Lannes  

Angel Lambo is associate editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin.

Rudolf Stingel is an artist based in New York.