A day before the opening reception of his current exhibit Angström, the painter Norbert Schwontkowski welcomed Rail publisher Phong Bui to see a group of new paintings, on view at Mitchell-Innes & Nash in Chelsea until January 9, 2010, and to discuss his life and work.
Phong Bui (Rail): What was the impulse behind your first debut exhibit (We Make Any Size of Mirror), which was the first time I saw your work, in 2006 at the gallery’s other Upper East Side location? Instead of a solo exhibit like this current one, you installed 10 of your paintings along with paintings by Forrest Bess, Philip Guston, Picasso, and Alex Katz. It was half solo debut and half artist-curated group exhibit, which was unique but rarely done by any artists.
Norbert Schwontkowski: I must say that the biggest attraction for me comes from the paintings of Forrest Bess, which I first saw at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne in 1989. They were paintings of suddenness, paintings which just simply appear like a dream. I remember a painting with a leather saddle in the front and middle with many horses running behind. Another one with a group of eyes in the dark, all of which may appear at first idiotic, surrealistic, but at the same time so amazing because each of them is like an idea that comes to you in a certain moment and then leaves you and you don’t really know if it is a strong idea or not. But it’s a poetry that goes away and shines and is bright in the same moment it goes away. And this idea of painting, this idea of poetry, for me personally, is what I most identify with. I was very happy and proud to have his paintings next to mine. As for Guston, his was a painting of an old gas lamp, which seemed so strange in modern times, to make a painting of such an old instrument. But, similarly, there is a story about that gas lamp that needs retelling somehow. With Picasso it’s always enviable in that he had always painted with simple ideas, and that he could do so quickly, without much fuss.
Rail: In some strange way one can say that Picasso’s ultimate aim was to become the champion of kindergarten artists.
Schwontkowski: I know what you mean, because essentially painting always has to do with knowing nothing about the world. It has to do with the feeling of the world, you can see not only with your eyes, you can also see with your thumbnails. That’s why we desire to be innocent again like a child.
Rail: There’s also a similar appeal with Katz’s paintings, in which he was able to transfer his anxiety, which he often repudiated as a necessary substitute for his coolness, into a certain condition of time that the painting has to come into its being. There’s rarely going back and re-visioning.
Schwontkowski: You’re right. This is very different from how I paint. Maybe that’s because he’s a master, because when I do it, I always fail, and that’s why my paintings always end up more layered than I wanted them to be. But what I’ve always been attracted to in his paintings was never about the surface. It’s more about the simplicity of telling a story of a landscape or an empty street or a lighted window in a foggy night.
Rail: More so than you can relate to his paintings of the figure?
Schwontkowski: Yes. With the figure I feel the structure is more present. Even though he once said that the reason why he could paint his wife so many times was because that’s what he loves, which is very beautiful. But I prefer his landscapes and cityscapes. They’re more mysterious than they appear.
Rail: It definitely makes sense with your painting. Speaking of Forrest Bess, I remember reading a short essay for Bess’s retrospective at Betty Parsons Gallery in 1962 by Meyer Schapiro, which I thought was most memorable for three things. One, he describes Bess as a “visionary painter,” which Bess thought of himself as, besides “abstract primitive.” Two, he doesn’t paint from texts of poetry or religion, except from what he had dreamed or imagined. Three, he was never seduced by skill, technical dexterity, or the delight of the spontaneity of the hand.
Schwontkowski: All the things that make all of us jealous. It’s true. [Laughs.]
Rail: Can we go back to your early formation, to your early history? What sort of things did you do before arriving at your maturity so to speak?
Schwontkowski: I did so many different things, like short films, photography, and writing, which I like very much. The reason for that is I was bored with looking at hard-edge abstraction, naturalistic, or figurative painting, and so on. I didn’t care for the arguments that were going on about why they were this or that. All of a sudden, when I turned 30, everything came together for me with the idea that life is very short. And when you want to say something in one sentence, especially when you think that you yourself are a medium to say something about the world around you in a special kind of language, and when you have to concentrate on one material, in my case, I realized that I was doing too much of too many things. Then when I was 30 I started to concentrate. Then when I was between 35 and 40 I had the feeling that suddenly I was a painter for the first time.
Rail: What sort of film did you do?
Schwontkowski: They were mostly experimental animation movies.
Rail: Were the drawings childlike or realistic?
Schwontkowski: They were in between. They were all touched by the idea of giving belief or trust to your own inner way of feeling your way through life. You could say that attitude in my movies did help me later in my paintings. I’m always feeling my way through things.
Rail: So it’s very phenomenological?
Schwontkowski: You could say it is phenomenological in a way, but it is not really split up into separate and identifiable categories, which never interested me.
Rail: You know, in some strange way, while talking to you just now I’m reminded of Silvia Bächli, who makes primarily drawings and paintings on paper. And there is a certain insistence on a kind of narratable story but there’s actually no beginning, middle, and end. Also there’s a certain kind of sensitiveness to the use of tonality, which is exquisitely sublime in that the white page, whatever’s left unpainted, is equally indispensable to the story as the painted.
Schwontkowski: The white paper, at least the way I read it, is maybe nothing other than the background of her subconscious for me. I always thought of it being a world without any attachments except for a few lines that appear on the empty page, which describe only one leg of the chair, for example, and that would be a whole story.
Rail: Right, with extreme economy.
Schwontkowski: Yes. But, at the same time, you’ll never know what is behind that story. You can never assume that van Gogh painted this certain way because he was a little bit mad. Or El Greco had problems with his eyes, therefore he painted strange, elongated figures, and so on. I mean there are artists who long for a solution, almost like a scientist with his or her scientific solution, which can resolve their pictorial problems, but in my case I’ve always been more interested in the side of the child or maybe the mad man as opposed to the wise man or the scientist.
Rail: So there is an element of time and space that accommodates the imagery, which comes out of the poetics of dreams on one hand and the poetics of phenomenology on the other. In other words, it’s either a lived or imagined experience rather than the abstract rationales that may or may not affect our measurable sense of space. And that sense of space can’t be applied to everyone. In talking about Bess, it’s very difficult not to talk about alchemy, which is a dirty word to academics. Most artists think of it as a transformation of organic and inorganic substances into something else. Similarly, Joseph Beuys had a deep interest in alchemy as well. He was aware of the tradition of German idealism that can be traced from Goethe, Fichte, and Novalis to Rudolph Steiner. Were you at all interested in Beuys?
Schwontkowski: I met Beuys when I was 20 or 21 years old, and I was then a very arrogant student. I think it was 1971 at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, while he was setting up his show, that I met him. I remember asking him all kinds of questions, like why do you put such strange instruments in your Volkeswagen van? And he was very nice. He tried to explain and talk to me very openly and it was just a chat between two people. And then later on I was very much attracted to his drawings and felt a close kinship to his poetic way of putting things together. He was very precise and had a very poetic way of explaining, so naturally his is very close to my idea, despite our totally different backgrounds and mediums. I’m aware of his idea of bringing arts and politics together, especially the Green Party, which has to do with his own anthroposophic ideas that are connected with Rudolph Steiner, but he even stole the handwriting of Rudolph Steiner. I was glad to have met Beuys three or four times in my life. However, I was only close to the spirit of the artist, never the man personally.
Rail: Let’s talk about your current paintings, in which the image gets immersed in more spatial depth, like the girl on the bicycle before the lake (“Alberta am Schwarzen See”), or the boy with two sneakers in his hand looking at the distant wave in the ocean (“Welle”). Other times, you would paint a figure right up on the frontal plane, with dramatic cropping where you don’t see her head or her feet (“Beauty Queen”). So there are two ways of negotiating space—one includes a certain depth, and the other is very flat and frontal. So there is a kind of spatial interplay in your paintings.
Schwontkowski: That’s true, and it depends on the image and the story that the painting can contain. That’s also the reason why the size varies.
Rail: Yeah, I can see that. Can you talk about your sense of color? Your muted palette brings to mind [Giorgio] Morandi and one of your contemporaries, Luc Tuymans. But unlike Morandi, who painted from life, and Tuymans, who paints from all sorts of mediated medias, from film, television, printed images, and so on, you paint mostly from your imagination.
Schwontkowski: Rarely have I worked from photography. Maybe a few paintings, which were made from a group of photographs that I took from Afghanistan, but that was because it generated from a political idea I had. Otherwise, most of my paintings come from a dream, which is never fixed. It is more like the feeling when you are traveling on a train without a destination, or in the early morning when you just wake, when you are still in between a dream and the thoughts of what you have to do for the day—like what sort of shirt and pants you will wear and who you’ll see for lunch, and so on. Essentially, it comes from a moment when there is not so much control of your thoughts or what you could actually see. Your eyes are open and you think you can see whatever’s in front of you, but in fact there is something from this corner of your vision, which somehow melts together and becomes something you can’t identify whatsoever. I think this is the way poetry works, by allowing things to come together and bloom and become something else, something fresh and alive.
Rail: How quickly would the image arrive to your head? And once you saw the image, how quickly can you transform it into painting?
Schwontkowski: I always have a small sketchbook in my pocket, wherever I go. For example, I have an image in my head about a person who collects things, which I don’t know where it comes from. Whatever he collects, which you can’t tell, he brings something back to his castle. It looks like he has a shopping cart with all sorts of rubbish in it, and behind him there’s a man who advises him what to collect. I’d always wanted to describe this collector, but I also want to make him pretty, which is the opposite of what we normally think of a collector: a poor man who collects things that people have thrown out. There is this very beautiful text from Bruce Chatwin about the collector which describes him not really as an ill person, but as a very strange person. It has to do with all his deepest aims, with love, with sex, which gets substituted by various identifiable objects that he puts in his cart. And he’s a great person, so I want to put in something beautiful that would glorify him.
Rail: Like a halo—
Schwontkowski: A fancy halo, yes, something like that. I want to give him back his beauty, because he is a beautiful person. In any case the image came to me when I was bored, sitting by myself alone, having a beer and there was nobody to talk to. And most of the time that’s when I do my sketching of whatever image comes forth in my head.
Rail: So you would make a sketch first—
Schwontkowski: Then I would come back and I would feel very strange, partly because only a minute ago I thought that “This is the most beautiful painting I can make,” and then once I get home, it goes away suddenly. So you have to do it very fast, otherwise it’s not convincing.
Rail: I also noticed the role reversal between the collector and his so-called advisor in that the collector is more well-dressed than his advisor, who’s been painted out like a ghost.
Schwontkowski: Or just a shadow. He could actually be an angel too.
Rail: So how would you trust the painting to have the same power as the drawing or the sketch, in which you initially captured the image so quickly?
Schwontkowski: I try to paint as fast as I can before any form of control sets in. I believe in a very fast way of painting, mostly because I have a big mistrust when I’m in control. I believe more of the relation between brain, heart, and hand, that it’s alone somehow, that it’s not disturbed by your wantings, or aims. That’s, I think, when all the things from your own power come out. To be a painter is no more than believing in yourself as you are a special person in this world, nothing that has to do with the class system, although I was educated in a very normal, poor, working-class family, then got sent off to a monastery when I was a young child.
Rail: By whom and for what reason?
Schwontkowski: By my parents to become a Catholic priest. But it didn’t work because I discovered soon that I love women too much to live such a monastic life. Also, when you reach a certain point in your life, you’re more interested with what’s inside of you rather than the external things. I don’t know what had happened all of a sudden in me, but I felt there was some kind of light in me. Not an enlightenment or anything like that; it’s more of a change of situation, which says something about my way of being human, and nothing else.
Rail: In looking at that painting of a young man in profile with his two hands on both sides of his mouth, either shouting or whispering, which we can’t tell exactly in either case, yet his feet tiptoeing on the platform of earth are enhanced by various and unidentifiable vertical tubes that emerge like some organic form or what’s left of a tree trunk that has been cut off. Here we can’t really tell what it is that he’s trying to communicate. Neither do we care except that what really is compelling in the end is the void, which he is trying to fill with his voice and his whole body.
Schwontkowski: I usually am touched by any effort of searching for things that are in fact things one can find anywhere. For example, the painting of the prophet who preaches in the morning from the mosque, which has little to do with, from my side, any kind of these normal beliefs. I’m not a Christian any more than I am a Buddhist, or a Muslim, but I recognize that all these religions have one common source before they became organized powers: That is to bring together the heaven and the unknown above us and in between our normal lives. We are full of questions and thoughts and don’t really know why we are here, and this is what I felt as a young boy and that feeling never left me. What ultimately interests me is the question of life and death, and how all these paintings are connected, even if they are strange images of people, buildings, or something else that has to do with our existence, yet we don’t fully know how and why they are in there in the story.
Rail: You mentioned van Gogh earlier, who also had strong religious aspirations. And however he failed in his spiritual search, he was able to convert all his anguish and aspiration into his work—and the profound longing to perceive nature in such animistic view, like that of Brueghel, where everything is treated with equal weight and significance, which is a Far Eastern view. That gets painted similarly in the paintings. In a few of your paintings in the exhibit such as “Rocks,” “Polar,” especially in a painting entitled “Hinter den Hugeln,” in which one sees a group of people, some are singular figures standing or on horses while others are a grouping of both. However, they’re distributed equally on top of these mounds, which spatially is very near to the way things are seen in the East. Is that a fair observation?
Schwontkowski: That’s true. I’ve always been attracted to Eastern philosophy, which affects the way space is seen, ever since I was a young man. I think it’s a much more generous view of man and nature. I just am tired of conforming so rigidly to the Western hierarchy, and of being so self-critical.
Rail: Are you saying you don’t believe in the editing of your work?
Schwontkowski: I have no solution for this question, because I’ve always tried to push myself to produce as many paintings as I could. And at a certain point I can’t see my own paintings. I become blind to my own paintings, which is good, because it salutes me while protecting me from getting big in my head. So I think it’s much better just to stay cool, you know. For example, once I finish a painting I put it away right away, because if I continue to look I’ll get very lost. What’s worst sometimes is that it can be a shitty painting, but I may think it’s really good because I have looked at it too long. It’s like what the German philosopher Ernst Bloch had said, “If you stare long enough in a dark field, you will always see something.” This condition can happen when you look too long at a painting, and think or say “This is great,” or whatever, so I don’t want all this. That’s why I put them away and then maybe after two or three years I may have a quick look. But the painting that I haven’t seen for 20 years would be much easier to tell whether I like it or not.
Rail: In one painting the title, “30 Seconds,” seems to suggest how long it took you to make the painting. It’s fairly easy to detect the two different layers of paint: the bottom is more textured and darker, which is revealed by the scraped profile above the lighter grey color.
Schwontkowski: You’re right. That painting can be read that way because it was done by two movements of hand.
Rail: So you do have a good sense of timing in terms of how you negotiate the different time that each painting requires. Though even with the bigger and more complex ones, at least the way the surfaces are being accumulated, each layer is painted very quickly and it tends to synchronize with the image, therefore giving this sense of urgency and freshness.
Schwontkowski: Most of them have their own life. Some come to birth very quickly, others take a long time. What I would often do in the beginning is to give a painting an atmospheric ground, so as to set up a mood or temperature, which usually is controlled by the unconscious. Then from there the drawing will follow at the same time the paint is being applied.
Rail: You also mix your own paint.
Schwontkowski: And I usually mix the pigments right on the canvas, as if treating them like pastels, with linseed oil.
Rail: Do you also use marble dust or other agents to give an extra body to the textural surface as well as the different glossiness and matteness?
Schwontkowski: Yes, I use marble dust, and also some copper, gold, as well as other pigments, partly because I was very poor 20, 25 years ago, so I would buy inexpensive pigments and mix them on my own, which gradually developed into my own happy solution.
Rail: It’s your own alchemy.
Schwontkowski: I suppose so, because I’ll never know when those copper pigments turn into green, or other chemical changes that may happen to other pigment.
Rail: That’s why I thought of the two paintings, “Der Erfinder der Tricolore,” which is basically a self-portrait of an artist mixing his own paint in the studio, and “Artist,” the artist who gets to perform his magic with the brush after having mixed his own paint.
Schwontkowski: I never thought of them that way, but I’m glad you did. For me, they were the two paintings, which I felt was my attempt to solve the problems between abstraction and representation.
Rail: Oh, yeah. That’s true. Last question: How did you survive Neo-Expressionism in the 80s?
Schwontkowski: I don’t know. [Laughs.] I was aware of what was going on at that time with big paintings and all the glamour and money involved with it, but I knew I had to go my very own way. Even when I didn’t sell my paintings I always felt gifted, so that made me happy. Later I started to sell my paintings, which was better, but not a big change.