Johannes van der Wolk interview – English
Johannes van der Wolk
More than anything, your work is about space. During the early years it was the space and immeasurable emptiness that you experienced in Australia. Later, it increasingly became the space and rhythms of the Netherlands, of its landscape and built-up environment. You saw quite a lot of the world.
That’s relative. What I see, however, will root in me. When you are travelling, it is important to allow yourself to observe things attentively and be open to where you are.
A trip that has rooted deeply inside me is the one that Cees and I took to Iceland together, in 1980, at the end of my first year at the Den Bosch Academy. The barren landscape, the virtual absence of people and the nocturnal light were the main reasons for us to go to Iceland. The landscape is rugged, the colours grey-blue-brown-charcoal, and there are hardly any trees. Everywhere you can sense the power of the earth. We witnessed a volcanic eruption at Myvatn. It was a fascinating highlight. While travelling north, we saw the massive smoke rising like a vertical pillar, spreading out high in the sky. That night I went along in a small airplane to circle the crater and the eruption area and filmed everything with a super 8 camera. It’s hard to describe in just a few words what I felt but once I had returned to the ground, I was all shaky. I felt that I would never experience such an overwhelming force again, never again something as grand as this.
It sounds as if the nature and the landscape attracted you first and foremost.
Yes. In nature you’ll find everything. But we were also attracted to the people! Climate and landscape determine people’s natures and habits.
Our next trip, in 1981, was to the United States. Particularly the cities appealed to me here, with their museums and architecture. We travelled in a rented car from north to south across the eastern part of the country. The trips across the vast landscape were
beautiful but all the time the city was our destination. In the late seventies I travelled across Jordan and Israel and I remember all too well that I used the bus trips through the deserts to sleep. Emptiness was beautiful but it was not enough.
Later you made up for that in Australia. What year was that?
It was in 1992. Australia was my first experience of how immensely special an empty landscape is. Vast spacious areas without any settlements. We travelled mainly across the eastern part and the middle of the country. Our trip started in Melbourne. During the first weeks we travelled widely in the southern state of Victoria. From there we went to Tasmania – lots of magnificent undulating scenery, but also huge rugged and barren areas.
Back in Australia we headed out to Adelaide, Broken Hill, Canberra, Sydney, and Brisbane with our car and caravan, and further north to the Cairns area. We stayed in a wide array of places, sometimes for longer periods, sometimes for just a few days. From Cairns, we flew to Alice Springs, a small town in the heart of the country, completely isolated. We saw a lot of the Australian outback. It’s so vast, hot and dry that it is strange that one can actually be there. It’s also what makes the outback so fascinating. In it, you realize that the earth sets its own standards.
Did you paint or perhaps draw on location at the time?
Not much. I did not feel the need to do so. There was so much to see. In situations like that I take it all in. I surrender to what I see. Selection will come later. I took many photos, though; not with any artistic pretensions but just to record what I saw – the photographic image as the carrier of what is seen.
I started painting relatively soon after I returned home in August 1992. I needed order in the multitude of experiences. That year a triptych went to the City Art Gallery in Broken Hill. This allowed me to leave a footprint in this silvermine town that is located hundreds of miles from its closest neighbour. Broken Hill is very special. I liked being there. North of Broken Hill is an endless plain. The horizon is low, a straight horizontal line. The space between you and the horizon is an immense empty plain.
With its splendid table mountains, monoliths, crevices and gorges, central Australia is quite surprising. These landmarks are sitting there in an age-old silence. There is the heat that constantly lashes at you, almost like a whip. The bright light forces you to look very carefully. The colour of the sand, it is hard to imagine a more beautiful mix of reds, browns, and ochres. Small critters moving across the ground. The air is quivering, it moves. All this in near silence. I was deeply touched by this space.
In such an original landscape, a strong urge to live comes over me. It gives you a strong sense of wanting to be part of nature and existence. It harbours the authentic knowledge that is essential to your being. It stimulates me to map my place in life. Where am I, and what am I part of? The same applies to space. By defining and understanding space, I will become more part of it. By painting, I can perceive space, visualise it. Space, lebensraum is necessary. Not just physically; space should also be inside your head.
Do you think that you could have experienced this sense of space somewhere outside Australia as well? Or is it specifically tied to that particular place on earth?
In the end, I think that these experiences are tied to that specific place.
The Australian outback is empty and entirely merciless. It is all about survival. The Aboriginals have managed to survive there for many thousands of years, walking from area to area, from shrine to shrine, and from food source to food source. I have a lot of respect for this special culture.
Somewhere else I might not have been touched so much by the interaction and the unity of land, climate and man. And perhaps I would not have looked for harmony, purity and universal space so consciously. To survive.
Of course there is the rainforest as well. I saw it in the northeast of Australia, mysterious, lush and replete. But I feel that I belong to the dry, harsh area, empty and vast, with its wide open view. Quite likely I was not yet ready for such a landscape during earlier travels.
Do you ever go to sand drifts in the Netherlands, and do they give you a similar experience?
Experiencing is seeing, hearing, feeling, and smelling. That makes things quite different over here. I have never experienced the intensely silent space of Australia here. The Netherlands are full of sounds. I do not know of any barren empty spaces here like the ones in Australia.
In view of this, isn’t it strange that you are a real indoor painter? You do not work outside, in nature, the space that you want to represent, but you work indoors. You do allow a lot of light into your studio. Wherever you feel that it’s necessary, you filter it with cheesecloth, thus elongating the white walls, in a manner of speaking. But you don’t seem to need a view of the outdoor environment.During my years at the Academy and immediately after, I drew and painted a lot outdoors. Probably one needs to observe things closely outdoors to be able to do something with the observations indoors. I am more concerned with space, light, rhythm and the balance of everything you see outside rather than with shapes. The studio allows you to process everything that you observed outside in all peace and quiet. It allows you to make space tangible and use this, and to elaborate on it in a subsequent work.
After my travels in Australia it took me eight years to document the space that I had seen there, and to make it abstract. Around 2000 I had the feeling that this theme had been completed, and I released myself from both the earth colours and the landscape. Colour as such has become increasingly important to me. Every colour has
its own spatial quality. Colours relate to one another through their spatial quality, which enables me to capture a space. Thus, the space of the Australian landscape slowly transformed to the space of our here and now, to the space of our existence.
What kinds of studios did you use over the years?
After the Academy I was able to rent a studio for a while here in Zeeland – above the library. It wasn’t bad, but I had to share the space with others who were using it in the evenings.
Fortunately, I got permission to build a studio in the back garden of our house. It measured 7.5 by 10 metres, smaller than the current studio. By then I had two young children and working at home was a perfect solution. When the kids were little, they played in the studio, in a large playpen that we had built. That would work for several hours. With young children,you have only short periods during which you can work. You’re working in a more fragmented way, but still… the process could go on.
Why didn’t you continue to work there? Many an artist would love to have such a beautiful workspace.
In 1997 another wonderful space became temporarily available: the old school building of the Abbey of Heeswijk, which had more or less been vacated. I could rent the refectory. This room had high ceilings, the light was excellent and it had five times the floor space of my home studio. It gave me not only a great location to work in but also a perfect place to store my work. It suddenly also gave me a better opportunity to show my work to people who were interested. Later, it was decided to renovate the building and use it as a school building again. I worked there for six years.
Apparently the solution was in your own backyard again.
Yes. I got permission to add an extension to the studio, so I now have a large working surface and the work can be stored within reach here. It has a glass wall facing the north. The light is good. I love to work here. It’s quiet. I believe that a working location can never be quiet enough. You’re not distracted, and if you want to
hear and see more, you just go out and look for it. Distraction is always an interruption of your concentration, of the dialogue between you and your work.
Anyone who thinks of a painter’s studio in terms of easels with paintings-in-progress will not see that idea confirmed by your studio. There is some work on the wall, hung there for longer display. But the wall doesn’t seem to be the place where you work either. So… not on an easel, not on the wall. I do see a table with brushes and paint. How do you work?
I work on the floor. The canvases are on the floor and I just sit next to them, either on my knees or squatted. Sometimes I am hanging over them. I walk around the canvas. If I am working on a large painting and can’t reach the middle, I will roll a long panel with four castors across the painting. When I stand on it, I can reach everything.
I still know exactly on which painting I worked when I started working this way. I wanted to “lay out” a thin layer of paint and prevent it from running or dripping.
Did you come up with this painting technique by yourself, with the canvas on the floor? Or did you copy it from a colleague? Examples that come to mind are Jackson Pollock in his New York studio and the Australian Aboriginals who sometimes work like that in local arts centres but mostly in the open air, being one with their soil, so to speak.
Something like this is almost always done for practical purposes. That’s how it started for me. I did not want the paint to run. I also found that I liked working on the floor. It is easier to paint lines when the canvas is on the ground.
Because of the way he worked, it was just practical for Jackson Pollock to put the carrier on the floor. The paintings would have turned out completely different, if he had put them up. It would not have become what he wanted.
It is different with Aboriginal art. It has a different origin. The paintings of the Aboriginals have a religious-ceremonial reason. They make paintings in the sand and paint their bodies with colour materials that are available in the area: natural ochres, resin, blood, ashes, etc. These ceremonies still exist. Only since the seventies are the Aboriginals creating paintings on canvas, as works of art. They do this while sitting on the ground, in accordance with their traditions.
This painting must date from just before that period?
This painting is from 1996. That year I experimented with dripping and running paint lines. In some paintings, the Weaverbird series, I used the dripping technique to weave the lineplay into a veil. In some other works from that period, Sound Tracks, all 80x90cm paintings, I allowed the lines to run. After these, I did not continue this technique.
No matter what you work on, whether you use paper, board or canvas, you are always a painter. You are neither a drawer nor a sculptor, you’re a fully-fledged painter. What do you use most, oils or acrylics?
On canvas I always work with oils. When I paint on paper or board, I usually use acrylic paint, sometimes oils too. I like oils, I like the material. Its substance is firm and it can be used in many ways.
Over the years you have experimented with many variations to the classical form of the painting. Besides the traditional form of a painting that is mounted on a canvas stretcher, with sizes varying from 35x35cm to 182x226cm in your case, the unmounted canvas seems to have a special appeal to you.
First there were the somewhat roughly cut canvasses that you apparently managed to hang loose from the back wall in some way or other. And now you are presenting some of your smaller paintings as if they are drawings, in passe-partout and framed behind glass. Are you getting tired of the classic shape of paintings. You still make them, so that is probably not the case. So what is it?
The classic shape of the mounted canvas painting remains a great medium to work on. I stretch the canvas across the wooden or aluminium mounts myself, or order the canvasses ready-made. I usually use transparent gelatine to prepare canvasses. Because of this transparency, the canvas remains visible as the carrier.
It starts with the choice of dimensions. Both the size and the height-width ratio of a canvas are expressions. It’s your first shape. A clearly vertical, upright canvas evokes a different feeling from a distinctly horizontal, recumbent canvas. I react strongly to size. The painting always relates to its size.
Sometimes you don’t opt for the firmness of a mounted canvas? Why not?
For several reasons. Canvas is really beautiful material that can be firm even when it is not mounted. Mounted canvasses raise expectations. That’s why I regularly paint on unmounted prepared canvasses. I put out a length of canvas on a plate, staple the edges to the underground and prepare it with gelatine. Once this has been done, I loosen the canvas again and cut it to the required sizes. With the wetting and drying of the canvas during preparation the pieces get rough edges. These edges become part of the overall picture.
More recently you mounted some of your work in passe-partouts and framed them behind glass. That is the other end of the scale.
If you want to exhibit a loose canvas, you need to find a way to do so. During my exhibition at the Museum Jan Cunen in Oss in 1999 I exhibited paintings on loose canvasses for the first time. I was able to hang them using a little strip of wood at the back, which also kept them slightly off the wall. That was good. You can also attach them to the wall with small steel nails in the corners but this remains a temporary solution. Currently, I am creating small works besides my larger paintings. I mount them in passe-partouts and then frame them behind glass. In this particular case, it adds more peace and concentration. I try to find the best solution for each series.
Apparently, the Australian Aboriginal painters don’t always choose a specific hanging direction for their paintings. Whether this means that they’re not concerned with what is up and what is down, what is horizontal and what vertical, I don’t know. It may even originate from a slightly less neurotic attitude to life than what we are used to in this part of the world. Or it may stem from a different sense of dimensions.
I can see from the work of Aboriginal painters that they have a highly cosmic sense of space. Perhaps that’s why concepts such as “up” and “down”, etc. do not apply all that much. You don’t see a horizon in their work either. They are one with nature. We are more observers of nature; basically we are in front of nature. Theirs is an entirely
different perception, which, I believe, is very deep.
My own work does have a hanging direction. It has a side that goes up and one that goes down. The fact that I paint my paintings flat on the ground doesn’t mean that they don’t have a top end and a bottom end. To the contrary.
If your paintings are not square, the horizontal side is almost always the larger side. There must be a story behind that. But first I would like to look at the few paintings that you made that actually are vertical. How many are there? And what made you choose this particular shape for them?
A vertical image has vitality. I think that the vertical orientation tends to evoke activity and movement more easily. An up and down movement, or reverse. Eyes read vertical paintings differently than they read horizontal paintings. It is a challenge to catch landscape space on a vertical painting. Most of my paintings are indeed
horizontal. But every now and then I break through this concept.
To me, the vertical paintings seem to be border posts of some kind. Perhaps they mark moments of change, subconsciously and unintended. They help you take the step from one specific working method to another, I believe.
I can’t really give you a spontaneous answer to this. […] I had to leave the question open for a while to look back on my earlier work and see if I could find the answer. It is strange, but I think that you are right. I never noticed this before: vertical paintings appear to announce a new stage. I have no explanation for this. I did come across quite a few vertical paintings, though. I would like to mention a few of them specifically here.
Relatively soon after my return from Australia I painted many small vertical pieces. They announce new working methods and are even a breaking point from all previous work. Above all, I was looking to create a painting language that allowed me to depict space with the use of lines. The subsequent large paintings are all horizontal.
The vertical painting, Energy, 1995, that I would like to mention here, has circular lines in the background. The lines were painted from the corners. Over and across the circular lines, I painted lines in different directions. The painting dates from 1995. That year I made two other vertical paintings with circular lines. After that, I saw no way to continue, but the idea had announced itself and remained dormant. At one point I started an entire period of circular lines, the No Horizon series. I started it in 1998 and the series continued into 2002. All paintings in this series, large and small, are horizontal. In No Horizon the image is created from ever-expanding circular lines from the four corners covered by horizontal lines that refer to the landscape.
This vertical painting, Untitled, is from 1998. Here I wanted to paint various rhythms using lines and stripes. I wanted to study directions. It almost looks like some kind of sample card. After this painting, I started working on 40x50cm paintings. In the end, it led to a series of twentysome paintings that started in 2000, Hektikos. They are all horizontal. In this series, I am working with short intersecting lines, horizontal, vertical and diagonal, resulting in frantically interrelated rhythms.
Vertical formats remain the exception in your work. Apparently you prefer to work on horizontal formats.
That’s just the way things developed. It has to do with the sense of landscape. And with the space I am always pursuing. The horizon is a given. The land is horizontal. The lines that run parallel to the horizon pull the image to the side, lengthwise. I call it the horizontal space. To me this is a great concept, a space that is almost breathing. It offers a different space from the perspectival space in which the lines are perpendicular to the horizon. This space moves towards depth and sucks us in. I believe that people look horizontally.
I allow for a lot of complexity and, at the same time, I look for simplicity. Between these two extremes I work and try to achieve harmony and balance. Also, the merging of shape and space – both of equal value – remains a challenge to me. I continue to work until everything is in proportion, has settled in place, until everything fits. Unnecessary details serve no purpose. Sometimes there is a beautiful fragment. But if it does not participate in the entity as a whole, I paint it away again.
My work is abstract. But the abstraction is very close to nature where everything also has its place.
Do you work in series? I mean, do you create works of one specific size or theme, or do you change from one thing to another, as it comes?
Usually I work on several pieces at the same time. One thing about oil paint is that you cannot continue working all the time. The paint needs to dry first. Sometimes I actually don’t know how to continue. I will leave the painting for a while then and continue on another. There are always several works in progress on the floor and most
of the time they are not from the same series.
A series will develop. I don’t have a series in my head when I start. In the course of the process, paintings develop into series. Dimensions play a part in this, too. When I start, I usually have an idea. But not until the actual act of painting will the development show. A particular work often has its origins in the previous work, either as a continuation or a reaction. For me, painting is a continuous process of observing, feeling, thinking and the actual act of painting.
You don’t like to think of a series and then create it in one go. It is obviously not the way you work. You seem to value the freedom of the moment very much.
I value freedom of thought, freedom of choosing. In order to learn, one needs the freedom to embrace the opportunity. Every painting is an autonomous unit. If I think of a series in advance, all I’d have to do then is just to paint it. I would not particularly like that, because I already know what’s coming. The most rewarding aspect of the whole process is to create the opportunity to discover something, even if it is only a tiny fraction. That’s what it’s all about. Art is life and, like life itself, it is always a permanent process. You cannot repeat yourself in it, not even for a minute. Besides, repeating yourself carries a risk. The works in the 90x110cm series are very similar, but it worked.
Yes, I think it is a beautiful series. You can look at the paintings as a group and as individual works. I quite like seeing an artist “at work”, even when the actual work itself is finished. That is obviously the case with this series.
Do you ever make sketches to prepare yourself, or are all ideas purely in your head?
Basically, all my paintings combined constitute my memory. There, ideas and possibilities constantly expand. Every painting, large and small, has something that needs to be expanded. Even the smallest matter can sometimes be brooding inside me for months. It will always become an autonomous piece, never a preliminary sketch.
All my paintings are interrelated and interlinked; they refer to one another. Since we are looking at the works that I created since 1992, I noticed how strongly they are actually connected, how they sprang from each other as searches and reactions.
You don’t try things out on a piece of paper or board?
I use a sketchbook to write down or draw thoughts and ideas so I won’t forget them. I can return to them later. I hardly ever try something out on paper first. I go straight to the canvas. Otherwise I cannot convey the intensity that I strive for. I also don’t want to put a small work onto a large canvas. It doesn’t work. Every piece is a new process in itself.
Every work is a sketch for the future?
Basically, yes. They pass on.
I believe that one of your greatest fears is to become stuck in a mannerism.
I don’t want to pin myself down to a mannerism. My thoughts are never: That came out nicely, let’s make another ten. That’s a linear way of working. It’s not how I work. Besides, you can’t stop the thinking process, or the progress of the working process. Sometimes progress is slow, very slow. But it never stops.
How do you compose your paintings? Layer by layer, looking for the next step? Or do you already have the final result in your head when you start on a new painting?
I have an idea. From this idea I compose the paintings back to front, searching. It requires constructive thinking. This happens very intuitively: the colours that I use, the thickness of the paints, brush sizes. They are intuitive choices and, at the same time, I think about them carefully. About how I use the paint, whether I agree with the rhythms that emerge, whether I will use a thick, a flat or a round brush, how to position the lines. No, I never have the end result in my head before I begin. I don’t know what the outcome will be when I start. Sometimes I look at a painting and decide what to do next. Then I walk to the palette table and do something entirely different. I like to try and maintain the transparency of the process as much
as possible to ensure that my thoughts and the choices that I made remain visible.
Even though you make them at different moments and not consecutively, you combine certain works and call them a group in retrospect. How do you find the names for such groups?
Titles announce themselves. I don’t look for them. Over the past five years I have grouped my work into series that I titled Stripewise Space. Recently I made some small paintings on which space alternates with colour strips. This series is called Shared Space. The names are quite bare; perhaps that will change too in future.
Is there a time succession in these groups? Or are they created side by side?
They can emerge side by side as well as successively in time. In the old days there were many large families and often an aunt and a cousin happened to be of the same age. Similarly, my work does not move exactly chronologically, from a to b. Series/families overlap. I see my work as one long continuous journey.
I started Arid Zone in 1992, with small paintings. Several larger ones followed in 1993. I even made one in 1997. No Horizon started in 1998. I painted the last work from this series in late 2002. While I was working on these paintings, I started the series Circumspectare in 1999. The last painting from this series also dates from 2002. In the meanwhile, the Hektikos series was started in 2000. It continued into 2003. La musique des balustrades is a group of four paintings from 2003-2004. Constructions was started in 2002 and ended in 2004. The first paintings from the Stripewise Space series date back to 2000. The series still continue. The small 35x35cm works from Stripewise go from 2003 to 2005. Shared Space was started in 2004 and I have no idea when it will end. In the second half of 2005 I started four new series: Light and Distribution, Refraction series, Partition series and Hum of Voices.
Arid Zone must refer to Australia.
Arid Zone means: the dry, infertile area. The term also implies that there is different vegetation, a different rhythm, a different way of life, etc. The Australian outback as such is an arid zone.
In this series, I made some large paintings, soon after Australia. Suddenly I got the space and the landscape. In Arid Zone I discovered how to use lines to create space. I had never worked at such a level of simplicity, and without the arid zone in the Australian landscape I may have never achieved what I did. By looking at the paintings of Aboriginal artists I learned that it was possible to see and portray space in a different way – not in perspective, like in Western art. It’s the space of everywhere, almost hallucinating, similar to what you may experience when you look at the azelejos, the Arabian Portuguese mosaics.
When did fans enter your work?
In 1993 already, in small works. They are circular lines. When continued, the lines would form full circles. These circular lines enabled me to talk about the infinity of space. Apart from a few pieces in 1995 it took me until 1998 before I could actually do something with the concept. That’s when the No Horizon series started, in which horizontal lines refer to nature and the landscape. I think that these horizontal lines restore space to a comprehensible space again, one in which we can feel at home again. I am not concerned with shapes as such. The whole is the shape.
These lines do not represent the hot quivering air. Basically, they allow me to make space visible, to pull the space towards me so I can get to know it, in a manner of speaking. Questions like “What does space look like?” and “When are space and landscape shapes and when aren’t they?” really concerned me at the time. With every
painting it remains a challenge to connect shape and space in such a way that a unity is created between the two.
Besides the fans, whole circles also appear in your work at a particular moment. Do you, in fact, consider them to be circles or are they balls or painted holes, or even something else?
I see circles that provide openings. It is not self-evident to combine circles with lines. In terms of shape, circles are complete. One cannot enter them. It’s not quite clear what’s going on. This intrigued me. I made several works that used circles, both on paper and on canvas. This led to another series, Circumspectare. This means:
looking around. The series consists of 24 paintings of approximately 50x50cm, oil paint on prepared unmounted canvas.
I believe that I am an observing painter, one who looks, studies and records. To me the Australian outback was a miracle. For years I tried to understand what I saw in various ways by painting – telling about the little that is ‘all’. About the narrow margin between something and nothing.
But I assume that it is not the Australian experience alone that keeps you going.
No. Everything you see is stored somewhere in your brain. Here at home, I also look at the ploughed fields. They often have beautiful structures and lines – firm, clear strips. I don’t paint them. But I saw them and they remain memories of something that captivated me. I have painted works with diagonal lines; perhaps they refer back to the fields, who can say? The same applies to the poplars. Perhaps my sense of not wanting to give away space immediately but to evoke it from lines is related to the home landscape where I saw poplars everywhere. A horizontal rhythm of vertical lines that allows you to look through the lines. I still find this as fascinating as ever.
Do you ever think of the way in which Vincent van Gogh painted them, for instance in the landscape that is now in Museum Boijmans van Beuningen?
I know the painting and it touches me that Van Gogh was close to this place, saw the trees and did something with them. But when I am at work, painting, I don’t think of this painting. Neither do I think of poplars. More than anything, Van Gogh is a painter of emotions to me.
I worked with diagonal lines on treebark paper. When this paper is wetted, it cockles strongly. The acrylic paint I used ran beautifully into the crevices, heaping up in them. Such an effect is “obtained”. I use it a few times and then leave it again.
You made a similar lineplay on canvas with parallel lines, rather narrow but almost undulating in shape.
In 1999-2001 I made a number of 40x50cm paintings with line rhythms. Parallel lines. Freehand. Consequently, everything seems to quiver. To me, these structures were about arranging and shaping.
You also set up surfaces as film images of some kind for a while.
This is a series of 90x110cm paintings from 1998. I called them film paintings and hung them next to one another in various combinations. Together, they talk about the infinity of space, like frames in a film. At the time I made notes to put them on film in a particular way: “running through space frames”. However, it never came to anything and presently I don’t even own the paintings anymore. I also made a series of six works on cardboard, Walking. Together, as in a film, they tell about walking, about walking on.
Each of the film paintings has a character of its own, circular lines, straight lines, paint stains, spiral shapes. Together, they respond to one another and evoke a multifaceted three-dimensional image.
La musique des balustrades sounds both musical and architectural at the same time. What kind of music and what kinds of buildings are you referring to?
There is no direct reference. It is a figure of speech. The Stripewise Space II series includes some paintings that, in retrospect, reminded me of blocks of flats.
The rhythm of the horizontal and vertical lines reminded me of blocks of flats and balustrades. The paintings were constructed back to front. The layers remain visible as much as possible. The light behind the lines reminded me of the lit windows in flats.
I don’t paint blocks of flats and my paintings are not musical by themselves. The space that I have in mind, however, is related to the musical space. The musical space is a space that we can induce with sounds and rhythm. My work does not refer to music in terms of sound. However, there is rhythm. And the sounds of colour strike a chord.
As a child, I was often fascinated by the relation between letters and colour. Specific letters evoked specific colours in me. I regularly made a coloured alphabet, and I was also wondering whether it would be the same as it was last time. It was a private fantasy, but later I always regretted that these pages had not survived.
During my days at the Academy I came across this idea again in Über das Geistige in der Kunst, in which Kandinsky writes about the close relationship of shape and colour.
In cases like these, is it the relation to the blocks of flats that inspired the rhythm, or do you look back on it and say: gosh, they look like blocks of flats?
In Stripewise Space II, it was a discovery in hindsight. In the La musique des balustrades series (Stripewise Space VII) I also did something with the idea of blocks of flats. The horizontal and vertical rhythm has been enhanced, and so has the architectural element. Here, the concept of a block of flats inspired me.
But you won’t go as far as to say that they are somehow images of blocks of flats?
No, no. If that were the case, I would have painted them completely different. Images of blocks of flats would have come out as entirely different paintings.
I would think so.
It’s the idea. In this case, something to hold on to.
But, basically, the serial repetition of blocks of flats is often the most boring part of them. Or do you actually like them?
Its rhythm can express something. It is a prejudice to think that blocks of flats are always ugly. There are some beautiful ones too. What immediately comes to mind are the restored blocks that I saw in former East Berlin in 2004, on Karl Marx Allee. I was surprised how much I was taken in by them. A building can have everything.
Do you ever go on architectural excursions?
Not necessarily on excursions. Perhaps I will, sometime. But I always pay attention to architecture, everywhere. I believe I already did so as a child.
These are large-size paintings, measuring 140×180 and 150x200cm. If you did not already prefer large paintings, one could almost say that you are trying to keep up with the dimensions of large buildings, with the dimensions of these paintings.
You start with the dimensions. If you paint, the canvas size is a given that you work with, just as technique is. You take it along during the working process. The painting automatically strikes up a relationship with the size. Just assume that I would have used the idea of La musique des balustrades on smaller canvasses, for instance on 60x80cm canvasses. The paintings would have turned out quite differently. They would have had a different character and would not have become what I was looking for at the time. No, the image fits the size. Sometimes I use an idea from a large painting on a small canvass. It results in different works again.
What are the dimensions of the largest canvasses that you have used for your work so far? I don’t think that they are part of the La musique des balustrades group.
The largest canvas I worked on so far measured 182x226cm. In 2003 and 2004 I painted three more works of this size. They are part of Stripewise Space VI. These paintings have a background with a horizontal and vertical rhythm of lines and stripes. On top of this background I created a transparent layout of two alternating colours, either horizontal or vertical, in which the openness of the image is important.
I really liked the way they were hung at your exhibition in Nijmegen in the summer of 2004: at the top of the large staircase to the auditorium in the main building of the university. It looked as if they were made for such a spot.
Yes, they fitted the rhythm and openness of the building.
During the same exhibition, but in one of the buildings of the university hospital, you alternately hung small and large works next to one another in a long corridor, whereby the small ones were clearly above eye level. They looked like raised footnotes, which gave them more prominence than would have been the case if you had hung them at regular eye level.
They were hung as a kind of intermission, as chain links. It provided an alternating rhythm. And, in hindsight, it was also safer to hang them up high. The corridor is a public space that is used by people all day.
Do you consider the small paintings to be building blocks for the large paintings, like some kind of modules?
Small canvasses allow you to work fast and visualise an idea. Basically, you are painting small discoveries that can be used on the large paintings, so to speak. However, the reverse also applies. When you’re working, you constantly examine and expand image opportunities and possibilities. Each work is an individual entity, but it also passes itself on to the next one.
In a way, all small discoveries become the words of my language. And just as you will not use all words you know in one story, you won’t do that in a painting either. You only use the words as you need them.
You published twelve of the 35x35cm works from Stripewise, space on 35cm in a little book. You gave them the names of the months of the year. Did you only do this for these twelve, or also for the other works that were part of the same series?
I was asked to help with a brochure for a study project by a school of graphic arts. Since it was only a small brochure, we picked one series of paintings, the 35x35cm works. I had already started them in 2003 and I was still working on them at the time. In all, I made thirty. At first I gave titles to the twelve works in the brochure only. I named them after the months of the year.
When you were painting these little paintings, did you associate them with the months or did this notion come afterwards? I seem to remember that I heard you talk about seasons like winter and spring in relation to them, but never specifically about certain months.
When the text and the layout of the brochure were finished, there was room for twelve paintings. In order not to make a random selection, I decided to use the months of the year as a source of inspiration. And it worked very well. It fitted. The months are an arrangement of time. In the end I gave time-related titles to several other paintings such as “day”, “night”, “morning”, etc.
Do you have any plans to continue in this direction?
By now, I have mounted thirty new canvasses of the same dimensions. In the first series I quite liked it, in hindsight, to link a totally abstract work to a reality. The theme of time may become an inspiration for the next series.
Here in your studio I see three small paintings that you have not shown publicly in an exhibition and that are rather different from what you usually do. They are branches with leaves.
When I was in the middle of working on the 35×35’s, I wanted to try out how it would be to work from an existing rhythm. Just to find out what it was like. I bought a length of white curtain fabric in town that had a pattern of woven branches with leaves. I mounted them onto four 35x35cm stretchers. I worked from the rhythm and the shape of the leaves. It’s very relaxing to concentrate on colour and paint only. Eventually, it still took rather a long time before the colour was exactly right, and it was no longer curtain fabric but a painting.
Does it remain a leaf pattern to you?
No. I consider it primarily a rhythm, not of lines this time but of a dancing pattern. It was an experiment. Now I know what it is. You can do a lot with it, but I limited myself to these three.
The actual creation process is important to me. Looking for the overall shape. In the end, space, colour, structure, light, rhythm, etc. together must create a picture, in a dialogue. Once you have set up a painting, you still don’t know what it will lead to; in the course of the process, this becomes increasingly clear.
A fixed shape has always been an issue to me. In the old days, at the very start, I believed that you needed a shape before you could start painting. When you think like that, it is appealing to derive the shape from, for instance, a still life. A still life is a great study object for shape, space between shapes, light, etc. However, and particularly in landscapes, it is all about the space between the shapes.
A shape should emerge in a natural way. After Australia I suddenly discovered how I could approach this. Lines enable you to shape. The resulting shape is self-evident. I formulate shape while painting, so to speak, thus enabling myself to attain space. Because space is what I want. The dialogue between shape and space has always been my battle and my challenge. Generating a shape without painting a shape. And ending up with space right though the shape. This was also the challenge that Paul Cézanne put to himself. In his work, shape and space merge as equal partners.
Is Cézanne your great example?
When I saw his paintings for the first time, I had the feeling that they contained everything that I was looking for myself. Yes, I think he is one of my best teachers. The way in which he worked with shape and space, constantly studying their relationship and how they could complement one another. As if, every time he painted Mont Sainte Victoire he was thinking: How can I paint that mountain in such a way that there is a unity of the sky and the mountain. How can I capture the spaciousness of that mountain in relation to the space of the sky? He used different light all the time. Each time he looked at it with “fresh” eyes. In a way, his landscapes are constructions in space.
A group that we have not yet discussed explicitly, is the one in which, as I see it, the colours are shapes in a way but basically just colours. To me it seems that this way of working is the most promising for you in terms of continuation. What’s your own idea about this?
Many new elements have emerged over the past few years. Colour, in particular, is becoming increasingly important in my work. Colour cannot be separated from space and light. Colour characterizes space, nearby, far away. Every colour suggests a different space, a different feeling. Together they can create images of the versatility
of space. Colours can both weaken and enhance one another. It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that colours need to be carried. They must get the opportunity to create their own space. I continue to modify and change colours until there is a dialogue between them. I have been using this concept very consciously in my work, perhaps even since Stripewise Space VIII-1 from 2003.
In series V something came up very naturally. I call it the resumption of the lines. This concept is very much on my mind. It allows me to do a lot. I paint lines, but gradually I resume the line in a different colour. As a result, various spaces emerge from one line. Without much effort, I painted several paintings in this way, the first one in 2003. Currently I am working on five 120x120cm paintings on which I elaborate this concept.
To end this conversation, I would like to know your answer to the question: What kind of artist don’t you want to be.
The work is the essence. I do not create to please, nor to shock. I don’t want to use tricks to impress. Actually, I want to take it one step further: to space to follow life.
You also told me once that you don’t want to be a handkerchief painter.
Yes, I did say that to you once. That’s how I described it at the time. Crossing lines create space but if you use them in a different way, they create checks. I am not interested in checks. I am interested in lineplay, rhythm. Also, I don’t want to found my work on a shape. I want to work from a basic feeling, from a basic idea of space.
For many years this basic feeling came from your experiences in Australia. In recent years you are increasingly letting it go and you started to explore new roads.
Absolutely! Sometime in 2000 I suddenly realised that the Australian period was over. It had been processed. I saw this when the first works from Stripewise Space were being created. These were paintings from which the sense of landscape had
Australia meant a lot to me. It inspired and motivated me for eight to nine years. It evoked so many images. But I left it behind and took another step.
Different colours and different rhythms emerged already with the Hektikos series. The interplay was different; there was a different kind of freedom. I felt this strongly at the time. After the reds, ochres, browns, and blacks and whites, I could suddenly take different colours. It came naturally. I did not think about it. At the time, I hardly ever painted on small canvasses, and the 40x50cm format offered me different options. During Hektikos a new colour palette of pinks, yellows and greens developed. Different colours lead you into a new world. The space that this series evoked was of an entirely different nature: more urban than landscape. Perhaps I should add that my sense of space was also urbanising.
The representation of landscape space has changed to a space with the sounds and the rhythm of our existence. It is increasingly becoming an abstract musical space. It is no longer about creating a representation of what was experienced and seen, but rather about the image itself. Colour showed me the way in this.
You walk on and leave things behind