Klaus Merkel - Klaus Merkel Talks To Christian Matthiessen - Text for Two Speakers | Two Actors <|>
Christian Matthiessen: What would you like to talk about in general? About your work, about painting?
Klaus Merkel: I would say, about what painting can do. Painting is a special field in itself. I always say it is limited. I see that as an advantage.
Let’s start at a very simple level. Why does painting have to defend itself against the catalogue?
Barnett Newman’s attack has become famous. It claims the battle is aimed at the catalogue and, from his point of view, he surely means the copy-like character of reproductions. He feels the catalogue as such works against painting because the sublime, pure picture we see and are meant to perceive is destroyed by its reproduction. But I would like to intensify the issue for the present debate. Painting today not only has to defend itself against the catalogue, but it also has to internalize the catalogue in order to maintain its hold on pictures at all anymore. From my point of view a catalogue is thus the extension of the whole machinery of pictures and exhibitions as a consequence of pictures. The catalogue as such would then be something like the final container for pictures.
On the one hand, my “catalogue pictures” formulate precisely the distance between picture and reproduction and, on the other hand, they produce that very farness that generally comes from cataloguing. As soon as a catalogue has been treated like painting the pictures are free again because they no longer need their nostalgic reproduction. But the meaning for the pictures is then on a completely different level. They have to be taken down from their previously high standpoint to the lower level of the text. Through this transformation they lose everything they had before and are changed to the core. From then on they are actors, playing cards, currency, or text.
I’m assuming from the start that the pictures involved are not only the kind that are able to carry on a true dialogue, but also the kind that are only able to speak when they create their own discourse. That is only possible when the pictures have their own base, are able to formulate their own overall view. This framework, if consistently pursued, can, in the final stage, bring forth the picture as a generation.
Is that still painting? Is that still a picture?
Yes. Painting certainly. And a picture at best.
Or is it, through painting as a means, principally a contextual, conceptual piece?

We have to make a clear distinction at this point. What I mean is pictures are only able to make any appearance at all because they are contextually thought out to the very rim, a consequence of the fact that painting today is under tremendous pressure to become something. nevertheless, this is about pictures and not only about context. Otherwise I would place my emphasis elsewhere. I want it to work through painting because it has to be done; it’s not only a matter of the mind. The framework is fixed, even the construction of the picture is fixed, but a picture does not simply become a picture because you conceive it, but rather because you allow it to appear in a series, as on object, as a discovery, as something “new,” if anyone would even like to use this heavily laden term.

What does the audience see on these pictures?
I cannot answer that question. I don’t want to describe them right now.
What can the audience see at best?
They can see nothing other than that which comes across, so to speak, by way of a subjective mood. At the moment you see them, you do not perceive them to be the teller of a story or the assimilation of previously mastered attempts at abstraction. You can either perceive them with your body or you can reject them.
We are currently in a certain historical context that can generally be characterized as the postmodern era. The pictures exist within this theoretical context to the extent that they have to show knowledge of and contain all the progress of the modern era plus the deconstruction of the postmodern. The classic modern era is indeed much more old-fashioned. It worked out problems immanent to the picture as such, the issue of extension, overcoming perspective, all of the work-inherent issues pertinent to methods that the classical modern era achieved in contrast to modern painting. Your work doesn’t have anything to do with these questions of immanence, does it?
It has nothing to do with that, but it is readability you are talking about and readability is surely an art history issue. Readability is only of interest to a person who observes art from an art historian’s point of view. An observer, I assume, is not necessarily an art historian. He is either an artist or just a passer-by. I don’t address art historians. If anyone involved is an art historian, then it is I, the painter. What I find decisive is that a picture, through its achievement as a text in a chain of pictures, must carry meaning as the creation of a world, as a personal picture. I used to use the term “bastard” when talking about this very issue: a picture must undergo a type of mutation during this entire process in order to assert its personality. It’s not enough for pictures to provide references. At this point I would like to mention a concept by Doreet Levitte-Harten, who says that, in the end, pictures have a somatic character. The concept of somatics reaches levels beyond simple theory. What each observer actually sees is insignificant. The decisive factor is that I want to prove that the aspect that binds me to a picture lights up, an aspect that could be ancient, from the Middle Ages, for example, where I see certain bonds, in the language of pictures, and bonds which are not often found in the postmodern debate.
Medieval forerunners?
Yes, in certain cases I would say so.
Could you give me an example?
I have always referred to one very important artist, Nicholas of Verdun, who did an altar in the twelfth century, now to be found in Klosterneuburg, a cloister near Vienna. He worked so slowly that he produced, in ten years’ time, a change in style that stretches from Romanesque to Gothic. It is a very clear reflection of how long a process takes and how clearly the process can make a statement about a certain work. The time filtered by the process is a part of the painting, but in the end the process actually arises like phoenix from the ashes, not due as much to a conscious effort as to the way it supports itself with the task of fine-tuning the grammar of its work. What we value so very much today is that, via the loop it makes through time, something like an authentic work of art comes forth under extreme circumstances.
In a certain way, a gesture opposed to art history?

Yes, although artistic work is, in this sense, never a product of art history. Of course, it cannot ward off art history and, nowadays, it is not only art history but also the problem of art systems that complicates the situation.

Fine, but you attempt through your work, which has a certain model character to it, to estheticize the objections that restrict painting. In other words, you try to step out of the shoes of a mere producer of work who enters the business of art, is subject to its rituals, from the exhibition to the reviews, the reception, art history including catalogues, out of the role of the restrained artist figure. You want the entire process within the final work to shine.
I believe that is the most essential trait a work can have in this day and age. In other words, if the consequences of the work do not come to light in the final piece, the work is invisible. What you describe as restrictions to painting constitute the manifestation of circumstances in which painting is found. This is where catalogue pictures begin. This subjective art is grouped together around a central theme and, at this level, enormous potential for the entire work comes into play. The theme, the segment forms a pedestal that reaches so far that, as long as it is there, you have to observe the entire work differently. Thematic grouping forces a change in view and makes comments on my pictures as a whole text, which they always were.
Do these catalogue pictures create some kind of order?
That is one thing they do. I think it is less a concept of order than a concept of structure that is hinted at. Sheer order would lead only to what is achievable, what is doable. That would simply be a linear way of thinking. This thematic grouping is ordered in a linear fashion; however, it also gets to the bottom of concepts in a way that a normal sequence of possibilities, of processes, of exhibitions could not.
Do the large paintings take on a sort of specimen character for the catalogue pictures? I mean, the catalogue pictures form a pedestal for the large ones. The large pictures thus could possibly become specimen copies for the catalogue pictures.
That depends on how you look at it. A conceptional artist may see it that way. It is, of course, always the other way around for a painter. It would become problematic if artists painted large pictures just so that they could be reduced afterwards. That would be a joke that would wipe out the system of painting. The decisive factor is this: the catalogue pictures add value to the system and I never feel tempted to produce the miniatures, the tin soldiers that are actually nothing more than models, in such a way that they could add anything at all to the large pictures in the way of quality. They are, in fact, painted down pictures. If you like, copied letters.
But they still draw away from each individual picture and towards work complexes and work as a model, even so far as to biography as a model. Biography as cartography, as you once said.
That idea is not mine. It is from Markus Brüderlin, who coined the phrase in light of the way I work. That is, to seldom show pictures as individual works, but rather in a sequence, like an accordion display, in a complex or a wall development, in groups or in sequences. The term is correct in the sense that it rejects development that is usually seen in a linear way and points to a particular spot which says: this person is interested in something else, in a continuation of the process and this continuation is produced through painting. You create a panorama of meaning and that is in itself the construction of a biography. Otherwise we always get hung up on gestures. Of course, you can produce as many gestures as you’d like and write as many short stories as you’d like in the art business, but it has become clear that you can do a lot on the outside, but on the inside you are only allowed to do less and less.
Why is construction of the biographical so important?
Because, due to the danger posed by your normal biography, you might slip into the dilemma of a subjective artist, an artist who always has something to say about God and the world. And then you’re in a hot seat. At first it takes you into a feigned authenticity, but then it gets you no further. You burn up and have at any case lost at this point. Nowadays authenticity, just like pictures, has to be broken twice before it can show itself at all. The further away you go from subjectivity, the more you know about your means, the more clearly you can see the shape of your non-discovery, the greater the distance between you and your original idea, the more pronounced becomes the spot, when you approach it in painting, that is able to assert itself and to appear as a picture. It is in this way only that subjectivity can be shown to its best advantage throughout the entire composition. I would compare this process with literature in a construct novel such as “The Man Without Qualities” by Musil. Or take Ornette Coleman’s music. There you find a link to my character, the authentic artist, who finds ways to deal with life and work in some sort of a model-like manner, like an organism. That is why this story must be constructed.
In this day and age contemporary man suffers from hyper-reflection. And it is in art that many contemporaries expect to find relief from their ailment. Society demands too much hyper-reflection, and people expect to reach a certain point of authenticity in and through art, a point where they can finally experience spirituality firsthand again, an occurrence in which hyper-reflection is no longer required.
I think societal expectations are always very bad advice. Expectations for art mostly come from sources that do not have any direct connection to art through work. The type of painting that I deal with always, in the end, has something to do with an original picture. I find painted hyper-reflection uninteresting and extremely weighed down. But, conversely, it is true that no picture can exist without reflection. At this point it might be good to say a word or two about the type of reflection. To my mind this type of reflection only works if it is inherent in the piece, reflection through painting, with painting methods. Every kind of art that wants to claim to make a contribution to the active art debate must go through this process.
On the other hand, you don’t need to see the reflection in order to see what condition the work is in. This can be seen in particular in the works of the great artists. One painter I would always refer to here is Jan Vermeer van Delft. You wouldn’t guess by looking at any of his pictures that his painting is developed through models, that the whole thing is a construction in its time. Just as all of Dutch painting from the 17th century, in its interiors and genres, is merely the state of a hyper-reflected society. I see here a strong link to the present. I would like to split your question into two, one about the picture as an occurrence and one about the theory that requires the picture as its material. This is where I think it comes to the crunch. It is imperative to separate the two, and I would invariably decide in favor of the picture.
You still believe in the picture itself?
And your belief is related to somatics? But the objective status of existence is still “argument in discourse.” That is how it is received, circulated, regardless of how somatic it is.
But that is always the second level.
You maintain there is a somatic, a direct level. So you still have hopes of some sort of recipient, hopes of effect?
No, I wouldn’t say that. The pictures do not harbor hope of a recipient. However, he is there. The somatic, direct level is, for me, the only possible form of realization as a producer. Other wise you end up in arbitrariness. If I cannot decide why a picture is a picture, then I must quit. The question of whether it is good or bad, or, even better, right or wrong, is not reflected theoretically. It is reflected via the picture, that is the difference.
The catalogue pictures form a pedestal that the picture needs these days. May such pedestals be put on exhibit too, by themselves?
My catalogue pictures do not contradict artistic work; they have a different status because they illuminate a model-like scenery. But they are, of course, art, if we want to use that term here, and as such they process the aspect of painting stronger perhaps than the pictures themselves. The tack we have taken in our conversation is not completely insignificant: I mean the point where a concept automatically places itself above a picture as proof of a theory because the whole concept of material that we’re talking about is contingent on one question: Is it only material I am producing at all anymore, or, of what quality is the material I bring into the discourse? I think these are two levels that have to be separated. They are not compatible. They are mutually dependent but they do not share the same problem. The way this conflict is solved at any on time will always be the appearance of art. On the one hand, a theoretical viewpoint is easier because it simply has enough material at its disposal. However, this viewpoint starts at another level, the level of overview, the level I must maintain in my work and by means of my pictures. As a painter I am not allowed to generalize.
Surely our view is altered by the media society and, to a certain degree, you also react, in the aesthetics and in the somatics of your pictures to visual phenomena of our societal surroundings, to the aesthetics of products, to media aesthetics.

During the reception for my exhibition in Cologne this year, Erich Franz posed this anxious question: Where do we stand as recipients if we can no longer concentrate on the individual picture? And he asks: Can painting testify to its elementary divergence, to its unity – not on canvas, but exclusively in mobile vision? A wonderful expression – mobile vision! The historical point of view really requires individual pictures. Today we have the added aspect that, from the point in time when you start working with a computer or see certain pictures in media, the phenomenon of the individual picture can no longer be sustained. That doesn’t mean that you should necessarily repeat media aesthetics in your work. But this changed view definitely has an effect on your work. The situation does not become any easier as a result, but the structure of thought in relation to pictures has changed radically. All of a sudden, you are faced with phenomena that work via mechanisms of perception that simply did not exist ten years ago, and that cannot just be easily fit into recent art history, for example, the conceptional picture, Minimalism, serial repetition, etc. You are, in fact, a troubled human being, and the question is: Do you leave your troubles behind - a plausible possibility even for a really authentic piece of art -, or do you let yourself get involved with your troubles?

In what way could you leave them behind?
Leave them behind by withdrawing, by, for example, working on one painting for twenty years. That would be one conceivable model.
You mean a sort of counter model to the artificial image?
The artificially authentic picture would be the more appropriate expression. That lies well within the realm of understanding at the end of this century. My models can be more intensely appreciated via mobile vision. By that I do not mean uncontrolled vision, but rather vision that wants to see it all, but is not necessarily capable of being unified in one picture. In principle, of course, vision breaks up. A similar phenomenon can be found in Cubism, where the surface suddenly shatters into umpteen facets, theoretically derived from Cézanne – but actually there’s something completely different going on. Cézanne is not interesting to Picasso, but more correctly to Matisse. Picasso is a phenomenon of the atomic age, the age of nuclear fission.
In early Cubism, but not later on.
Just in this early phase. I find it comforting that there has been a shift in viewpoints. I am glad I don’t have to choose the path of switching off, but rather the path of switching on, completely. The question is whether I’ll be able to do so in this fossilized medium. It is a true challenge for me.
Your statement about the fossilized medium of painting could be explicated using the concept “work”. You could come up with the following: Artistic work has a model character to it, as it were, a utopian, critical model character in relation to normal capitalistic work and normal capitalistic goods. If you follow up on this thought, you could say: artists are, in their entire working process, and in their understanding of their work, counter models, per se, opposing capitalistic work and capitalistic goods. On the other hand, particularly in the modern age, the craftsman-like traditions of painting have been systematically dissolved. Let’s take Andy Warhol’s Factory as a well-known example. Do you, with your painting, uphold the authenticity of the trade right in the middle of post-industrial society?
It is my aim to establish a claim that is technically more pre-industrial in character. This style is more workable for me than that of industrial reproduction. For myself I would prefer to introduce the term imitation at this point because reproduction, to my understanding, resembles a type of writing occupation practiced by the Chinese, who, for hundreds of years, developed certain shapes for plum trees and no longer need to invent a single picture. My attitude does not so much culminate in the criticism of goods, but rather asks the question, what actually changes? I am far more interested in an inner primitiveness in regard to objects that underlies all activity. The Chinese model of pattern books has the advantage that, over a long span of time, changes slowly take place. It is, as it were, a homeopathic, ecological path. You can only raise big carrots if you have gotten to know pests. In that sense, I believe that painters are still the gardeners among the artists. Painting should not spend too much time with the idea of expansion, but rather with how intensely it can organize itself on the inside. And in today’s world, that is quality. Material will always be consumed, but even in productive thought there is, at best and in the end, internalization if you see it as a formulation, as the intensification of text, as an implosion.
To the subject professional painter. Are too many pictures also being painted because a lot have to be sold? There is a wonderful analogy by Ad Reinhardt referring to prostitution: first you do it for love, then you do it out of habit, and then because you have to. He calls painters like that pickpocket painters, swindlers.
He is the first to have taken the next logical step and to have painted over his pictures with the pictures themselves. Better put, the motifs were painted over with themselves. If you take that thought further, it means the quantity of pictures is only interesting in application. I have to assign something to my pictures, so that they are always able to write my text. That is the non-commercial use of these phenomena. Thus, the logical consequence that, at some time, there will no longer be any originals. Not in the sense that there will be no more original paintings, but rather that the original of a picture will mutate into other pictures, and a decrease in the value of market originality will take place. Nothing more that devaluated pictures that characterize their own currency.
As Martin Heidegger would have it: Cultural policy is the zenith of Nihilism. What does the term “cultural policy” mean to you?

I understand that this question was inevitable. But it is, of course, just a result of the principle of popularity. Cultural policy means nothing more today than that you need an audience. In only the most seldom of cases have I witnessed thoughts on something like work. In other words, there is something like a shifting mass that, on the one hand, bestows value on meaningless things, and, on the other hand, constantly decorates existing things. What makes a lasting impression on me is that the only goal remaining is the creation of boxes, the hardware for the masses of art that take turns showing off to the appropriate audience. Cultural policy can only make decisions regarding money or certain results. The contradictory concept is that of collecting, a concept I would always call idealistic. Collecting requires you to step down from any political structure to a position where relationships are made, familiar, responsible relationships. Collecting as a utopian concept, from an assembly of things that are important, that generates an optical climate, that gives a name to a made-up place. That is something cultural policy cannot do.


© Merkel/Matthiessen 1993

Translated by Elizabeth Schüth 2001, Freiburg, Germany