E. Dybsky / V. Kirchmeier, 11 November 2002
V.K.: Kandinsky once said that there was no need to create new abstract art: one had only to see already existing art as so many combinations of form and colour.
E.D.: This is the first time I’ve heard that quote. But yes, I realized even as a student that that’s how I saw it. I would put it differently, though: when I look at a work of art, the first thing I notice are its qualities as a work of art. As to the ideology, the moral, choice of subject and so on – those come later, and tend to be forgotten in time. So I’ll be reminiscing with someone, a fellow artist, say, about a painting we’ve both seen. The other person talks about how the figures are concentrated in the right part of the painting, about what the people in the picture are doing. Meanwhile I’m thinking about how the colours are being deployed, how a dense rhythm has been achieved. Come to think of it, that is ideology, as far as I’m concerned.
Any other ideology has been discarded from art, to the extent that the word “avant-garde” is beginning to sound like a military term again. That leaves us with an ideology of the material, the medium. We aren’t talking about progress or growth, but about an individual’s movement in some direction that is practically arbitrary. In 1967 Barnett Newman wrote that, like many others, he had been led to take up painting by a moral crisis and by the question, “What can one still paint?” They were starting from scratch, as though painting was not just dead, but had never existed. Many an abstract artist started out by drawing pictures of mother holding a bouquet. What was your starting point?
As a matter of fact, I did draw pictures of my mother. I also learned to paint properly, indeed I became rather good at it. The transition from figurative to non-figurative art (I dislike the word “abstract”, for me it’s dated and, well, abstract) was a very natural one for me. I was in the Crimea, in Koktebel, doing open-air landscape painting on paper. Even then, parts of the landscape shaped the space in which I was constructing the painting. Later, in the atelier, exploring the same ideas, some of those elements began to spill out beyond the limits of the canvas and interact with the wall space. Next, the wall itself, with its monochromatic structures, began to intrude on the canvas. This discontinuity provided a form of relief between the polychromatic parts. Later I began to take an interest in the space in front of the picture and behind it; that’s when the craters came into being. All of my series (from 1985 on) are complete and successful in the same way. The difference is not qualitative, but quantitative; a temporal difference, to be even more precise. A particular series of paintings simply evolved until such time as it gave birth to the ideas for the next series, thereby completing the “parent” series. This is growth and progress at the same time, if you like. As for the ethical meaning of it, well, society as a subject of painting never held any interest for me. I always wanted to see something other in art, something not of this world.
In Europe, but especially in America, painting in the 1980s was a radical undertaking, in that people felt free to destroy painting, ridicule it, stubbornly pretend to be continuing it. Are you a traditional painter in some sense?
To admit that you follow a tradition, nowadays, is almost to break a taboo. For me it’s important to follow the classical modernistic tradition as well as the tradition of postmodern awareness. In other words, formal perfection is important to me as formal perfection; but at the same time something else needs to make an appearance, something, well, spiritual (although it’s not a word I like to use): you feel something that you can’t explain, you recollect things, something wells up, something begins to shimmer through, you start to meditate (another unlovely word! amazing, how much we rely on unlovely things in talking about the things we love). Think of Abraham, leaving the ancestral town Ur of Chaldea for a promised land that he firmly believed he would recognize, even though he had never seen it and didn’t know where it lay.
Your work is serial. Why is repetition necessary?
Serial, yes, in a way. For me the temporal extension of a process is important; time crystallizes the theme and the energy. It’s impossible to try out and achieve all the possibilities in a single work, so I try to go through the variations of a theme, and this is what defines the series.
“Perevod vremeni”, translation of time: the title points to the temporal dimension of the painting, time as the temporal extension of a project, and hints at the possibility of endless continuation. Or does the duration of the painting process provide a meditative contrast to the economy of time, which leads to serially manufactured works like Warhol’s?
In the title of the series I have produced since 1992, I play on the Russian word “translyatsiya”, which means “transmission” or “broadcasting”. You’ve actually touched on the same thing with the word “extension”. This is important, as are the connotations. But I’m not looking for any contrast. I love Warhol in the same way as I love the Beatles: without any desire to contrast the Beatles to, say, Arnold Schönberg. Of course, music is a much more engaging art, so Schönberg has his market as the Beatles have theirs (although his market is much narrower, it is true). People will say things like, in America pop artists succeeded abstract expressionists. But in fact there’s no such succession, it’s simply a reflection of the fact that the world of critics and of the art market is a much more narrow one than in music or in literature, say.
The series differ from each other in the variation of basic elements, such as the background, the paints, emulsions, the assembly materials, the manner of application. Is this due to a certain influence that the analytical current of the 1960s had on you?
Not really. I have always been influenced by artists who in formal terms are very different from me. In any event artistic influence isn’t a matter of outer forms, but the result of an inner, largely unconscious action, as I hinted earlier. It’s not just about one’s own experiences; those of other artists can be equally compelling even though a completely different form of expression is used. For me, recently, that’s been the Matthew Barney exhibition at the Ludwig Museum here in Cologne. I also remain under the spell of people like Jannis Kounellis, Louise Bourgeois, René Magritte, Giotto ...
You use paint, hair, stones. A sort of evolution of materials. What is the importance of the material: the background, base and paint, the aesthetics of colour, the tactile element, the craftsmanship involved?
Material has enormous importance to me. I was given a set of oils as a child, and it was when I smelled them that I first decided that I wanted to become an artist. Of course you could smell industrial oil paints wherever you went, in those days, but this was a different smell. Also this paint didn’t run, and I discovered that I could shape it with a brush or other instrument. I was hooked. Later there were other materials that affected me in different ways – some repulsed me, some attracted me, but I have never been indifferent to my materials. I look at them not just as a means to do my work, but also, and perhaps more importantly, as a sense-substance. Sometimes it is the material that gives me the initial idea for a painting. There is a strong sensual component: the tantalizing texture of different substances, the tautness of the canvas. The stimulation that working with oils provides is very different from that you get handling a stone. And it’s possible to look at paintings in the same way. Painting is for people who would rather derive pleasure from sensations than be entertained with a witty anecdote.
You have a way of activating the surface by applying many layers of paint successively, in the manner of the old masters, to achieve not just a deeper colour but a certain energy and tension. Is this to bring about the desired union of the material and the ideal?
Yes! That’s exactly how it is.
Did you restrict the representationally expressive aspect in order to remove the emotional overtones?
Not so much remove as modify the overtones that are sensed. At various periods in life one has different methods of expression, forms are subject to change.
So we have colour and form being freed from the theoretical superstructure? Art is autonomous and pictures are sufficient unto themselves? Painting that formulates aesthetics but does not play a programmatic role?
No, I wouldn’t go that far. You see, in our verbally dominated world, explanation, which comes after the work of art, is frequently mistaken for the programme (which is prior). The people in Rembrandt’s portraits naturally didn’t somehow possess a deeper psychology than, say, the sitters in my schoolboy’s drawings. But Rembrandt’s programme was about the music of light, the way colours, light and shadow can be marshalled; everything else followed naturally. I am convinced that the subjects merely provided him with an opportunity to let his imagination as a painter run wild!
You’ve talked about your most recent works as a “soft constructivism”. They recognizably bear your subjective mark; would you say that you have moved beyond constructivist, geometrical/mathematical composition, to the domain of fiction?
Of course, I use the term “soft constructivism” with an element of irony. My recent work has geometrical forms created using hair fibres as the material. Paradox has always been typical of my work, I relish paradox in all its forms.
Have you ever questioned the basic assumptions behind painting? What system of values should one use? Is the painter driven more by passion or by reason? Is painting an obsession for you, as with Cézanne or Mondrian?
Painting is coming back into fashion. Many people are capitalizing on it as a means of satisfying the demands of a certain market, of curators – they essentially do commission work. In this approach, painting is reduced to the action of slapping oil or other coloured paint to a canvas. Painting has such a long history that the absence of talent, of a gift (finally we have some agreeable words, even if they are all but taboo), turns this process into the profanation of painting. This is the subject of our talk – or rather, the predicate, that which is affirmed.
When you were started travelling, and later when you moved to the West in the early 1990s, did you feel the need to discover yourself, to free yourself from external manipulation and confront your self under different conditions?
In my travels, and when I settled down in the West, I realized the full depth of difference between the concept of painting in Russia and outside it. I tried to free myself from provincialism, to live what has so often been proclaimed: that painting is a universal language. Because it’s not just universal, it’s also my language.
You progressively abstracted from landscapes, moving to structural surfaces, you moved from bright expressive colours to more subdued ones. Are you concerned with contrasting the clarity of form and the structure of surfaces to the randomness of nature?
I returned from Crete recently. That’s where you see the contrast between the clarity of antique forms (or their sorry remains) and the wilful arbitrariness of the (current) landscape in which they are poised.
How do you understand the components of painting to work? Is painting the separation of the rational from the irrational?
I would say rather the union.
Your paintings are modern and yet contain much that is classic. There is spirituality and beauty. What attracts you in painting? Its history, its bounds, which you want to explore?
It’s always hard to explain why you love something. Occasionally, some of the ‘classics’ that I’m less fond of, such as Baselitz, Lüpertz and so on, get the better of me and I think: I can’t take any more of this, that’s it, I’ve had it. But then I see a work in the flesh, so to speak, and my appetite returns. Colour provides an impetus, it takes possession. Painting may be the only artform in which you need to commune with the original in order to fully grasp your feelings. In other artforms, the represented subject is sometimes more interesting than this contact with the original.
I have the impression that your painting maintains contact with material reality by indirectly asserting it anew with each series. This allows you to continue experimenting?
Among other things.
Do you think the artist’s task is to define for art what its essence is?
No, I don’t. There is a voluntary process and an involuntary process, whereby the artist follows the art process, and the two operate in parallel.