Stephanie Buhmann: You work in New York and Berlin, traveling regularly back and forth. However, each of your studios is dedicated to a different purpose.
Bettina Blohm: When I first set up my studio in Berlin in 2008, I immediately thought that I wanted to have a different kind of studio than in New York, where I'm focused on painting and have lots of daylight. My studio in Berlin is smaller in comparison and I only work on paper here. This allows me to concentrate on either drawing or painting for longer stretches of time.
SB: Do your works in both mediums still intersect or do you view them as somewhat separate, self-contained entities?
BB: Both the works and thoughts intersect. In New York, I still make small sketches for paintings, for example, to note compositional ideas. As the painting progresses, I keep continuing to sketch. However, in Berlin I focus on independent drawing series. It’s my time to think, develop new ideas, play around a bit, and essentially, to open up. This back and forth between working in two different media and traveling between two different cultures with very different aesthetic predilections has been very good for my work.
SB: Your most recent works on paper completed in Berlin hint at geometry, albeit rendered with a free hand rather than precise tools. There is an overall rhythm rooted in squares, verticals and horizontals. From where do you source your compositional elements and how do you bring them together?
BB: Originally, most of my ideas came from the landscape. In fact, I’ve been doing landscape drawings for about twenty-five years. So I think a lot of my sense of rhythm stems from there. Meanwhile, I use the grid as a basic structure, against which I set different ideas, be it the combination of two grids or particular shapes, for example.
SB: Many of your works ponder such a particular shape, as you call it, in different variations. The results evoke themes of repetition, reflection and transition.
BB: In general, I’m interested in opposites. I often set up two different systems or two ideas that guide the composition in both my painting and drawing. Sometimes it’s the same idea, but explored in two different scales. These parameters function like rules, against which I then like to push.
SB: Do the same set of rules describe the core of an entire group of works that then functions as a series?
BB: Yes. I usually will get excited about a certain idea and I will subsequently play around with it, trying to develop different versions of it.
SB: When looking at your most recent group of works on paper, one can trace a particular structure. Each drawing is characterized by the interplay of square and rectangular shapes on a plane.
BB: All of these works are in a vertical format, which is something I haven’t really used for a long time. The vertical format always suggests the figure in some ways, whereas a horizontal format evokes a landscape. I call them Mosaikformen [Transitional Forms], which in evolutionary biology define organisms that have characteristics of two different groups of organisms. So let’s say birds and crocodiles originally had the same ancestor and that ancestor would have characteristics of both species. These new drawings are based on two systems. First, there is a grid made by four sections in height and three sections in width. I then divide that grid further using a smaller scale. However, I don’t draw the grid from top to bottom and left to right. Instead, I draw it in segments so that each segment of the grid begins to move against another. This process is evocative of handwriting and it invites irregularities. These two grids of different scale seem to lean on each other.
SB: It’s interesting that these grids seem to be in flux, which is a quality that’s usually not associated with these structures. In your work, they almost appear organic and less rooted in notions of predictability and stability.
BB: That’s a very good point. It’s kind of quirky and personal. If you think of a city grid, you associate it with a rigid infrastructure. I use it in the opposite way, as something that you can manipulate and that is alive. In addition, I may introduce a curvilinear line that weaves through the composition. If you look closely, you will find that it divides each square in half.
SB: These are compositional rules that serve as a guideline, but which are also playful.
BB: I always need to establish some kind of rule or idea. Otherwise, I wouldn’t know where to start; it would just be so accidental. I want there to be a certain truth I guess.
SB: There is a strong sense of compositional clarity, which becomes heightened by the restricted palette.
BB: The ground of these works is a light acrylic wash and I use black gouache on top. It is the contrast that establishes the lines of the two grids. The actual line drawing that sits on top is in white pencil. It appears more fragile and nuanced than the stark contrast of the underlying forms. You can exactly see where this line stops and starts. Meanwhile, the matte, deep black of the gouache is very sensuous. In fact, you can trace every fingerprint on it.
SB: Do you focus on one work at a time or do you explore these ideas simultaneously on several surfaces?
BB: One of the advantages drawings have is that you can work on them quickly and on one after the other. Generally, I will prepare several grounds before starting in charcoal on a group of drawings. If one doesn’t work out I will throw it out. However, in painting, I tend to work on at least eight to ten paintings at a time, because you have to wait for each layer to dry. During that stage of having to wait, I will turn a painting around. In general, painting is just a much slower process.
SB: Compared to your paintings, your drawings appear as somewhat reductive. In fact, whereas your paintings usually embrace a range of colors, your drawings are often black and white, monochrome, or limited to only a couple of hues. Would you say that your drawings are more simplified in order to focus on the structure of form?
BB: Yes. Drawing is really close to thinking, with the hand doing the thinking in a way. For centuries, painters have worked out compositional ideas or structural ideas in drawing first, before adding color, which is a richer medium.
SB: Do you think of color as adding an emotional component as well?
BB: No, it’s its own language, like drawing. I think of it as comparable to singing, one has to have a gift for it. I don’t like the idea of color adding an emotional aspect, because drawing can certainly be emotional on its own. Expressionist drawings, such as works by Kirchner for example, are very emotional. In contrast, some painting can be rather analytical, such as the work of Josef Albers. You can certainly play with cold and warm tones and use different colors to evoke certain emotions, but each individual will still experience them differently. Some people love black and others are scared of it. Color has to do with light and I think that different traditions of paintings have developed in countries, because of the light that you find there. The other day, I was looking at the paintings of Richard Diebenkorn, who was based in Los Angeles for much of his life. I remembered how disappointed I had been when I first discovered his work, because his colors seemed so washed out. I really only understood Diebenkorn’s palette when I went to Los Angeles myself and experienced how strong the light is there; it fades the colors. Meanwhile, New York has beautiful light and I think that’s part of the reason why there’s a great colorist tradition there. In Germany, light, except maybe for in the South, is not very good. I think that’s one of the reasons why Germany has a great tradition in drawing, printmaking and bookmaking. This certainly informed my decision to make primarily drawings in Berlin, which are reductive in color and line-based.
SB: In other words, your vision for your Berlin studio was partially informed by how you experience the larger cultural context?
BB: Yes, very much so, even though at first my decision was somewhat impulsive. I had been thinking about a drawing studio for a long time, simply because I can’t really focus on works on paper in my painting studio.
SB: Is this due to the fact that for you, both these mediums distract from each other?
BB: It’s a good question. I once spent a month at a residency in Upstate New York, called Yaddo, and I only worked on drawings there. When I came back I right away got myself a big tabletop, thinking that I would continue to work on my drawings. It just didn’t work. The paintings always took over. For me, both mediums require a different space, not just physically but also mentally.
SB: Though you were born, raised and studied in Germany, you have lived in the United States for a long time. Nevertheless, you have always kept a strong connection to Europe.
BB: I have always visited regularly, perhaps twice a year, as I still have friends and family in Germany. I also show my work regularly here. However, for about twenty years I was predominantly in the US. I would say that I have a certain split in me, allowing me a distance to both cultures.
SB: In a way, you never are truly at home. You sit between two chairs. In Germany, you are thought of as Americanized and in the US you are considered German.
BB: Exactly. It’s very strange. When I first came to Berlin, some Germans even thought that I was an American, who happened to speak German very well. That was an interesting experience.
SB: Above, you described your time in your Berlin studio as an opportunity to “open up” your work. How has this affected your paintings in New York? Do you bring back drawings made in Berlin to New York to develop them further or to even translate them into paintings?
BB: Yes, I do and it has really clarified my thought. In general, I think that the linear, the drawing element has become more obvious in my painting. Whereas before, different shapes were described and defined by borders, now they are rooted in line. Color and line are the two main oppositions in my compositions and I try to keep them both independent. I don’t use line as a mere outline, but as something that can establish its own structure and the same is true for color.
SB: Your work is abstract and yet, you have an independent, regular practice of landscape drawing.
BB: Yes. I have been doing landscape drawings since 1995, always working on site. In Berlin, these are often made while visiting the city’s many cemeteries. First, I went to different parks, but you usually encounter an atmosphere of entertainment there, which runs counter to the quality of timelessness and contemplation that I look for. I especially like a small World War II cemetery close to Südstern, which doesn’t have real graves, but just plates in the ground. These landscape drawings mark a separate group of work, which gives me a connection to the world. I certainly incorporate elements and ideas developed in these drawings into my abstract compositions, sometimes more directly and sometimes less.
SB: Did you already focus on abstraction while in art school?
BB: I went to art school in Munich and like most students tried different things. Basically, right after I finished in the mid-1980s, I came to New York. There, I switched from acrylic to oil, and began painting tree trunks at first. They were very large, telling of human intervention. After that I focused on architecture, figures, and landscapes. However, even as a figurative painter I was always leaning toward abstraction. Then, about eight years ago, my work became completely abstract. I had been resisting this step for a long time, but when I took it, there was a tremendous sense of liberation.
SB: Due to its history in Abstract Expressionism and the New York School, abstract art remains an important language in New York. In fact, I would argue that it is the more traditional one. You certainly are aware of the great abstract painters to an extent that it might feel overbearing; you have to measure up to that canon.
BB: Yes, exactly.
SB: Would you say that you work towards something that is already in your mind so that you are simply trying to find a concrete form for it, or do you develop visuals step-by-step and somewhat unconscious?
BB: I think it is different for drawing and painting. My painting is very process-oriented, so even though I start with certain ideas, it does develop over time. There is a kind of back and forth between trying to clarify the idea and then sort of messing it up again. Meanwhile, the drawings are more of a one-shot thing. While working on them, I can repeat the same idea again and again, inviting mistakes and slippages. The latter might even bring the work to somewhere completely new and unexpected. I don’t have a certain goal, but I do feel that I have developed this language in abstraction that has provided me with a solid plateau. On it, I can move around and just clarify things for myself.
SB: What makes a work successful and when do you determine that something is finished?
BB: Well, it’s a strange thing with finishing a painting. You never really know whether it is finished or not. Sometimes, I’m really happy with something; however, as time goes on, it gradually gets less interesting. It can also work the other way around in that something that I was unsure of and had turned around suddenly gets really exciting when reviewed on a later date. In general, there will be a sense of resolution and clarity in a painting if I determine that the composition is complete. However, this decision can take months.
SB: Does the same apply to drawings or is it easier to assess them?
BB: It is similar, but as the drawings are finished faster, the overall process of deciding whether they are finished or not, does not take as long either.
SB: Would you say that it’s easier for you to determine whether a drawing is successful than a painting?
BB: I don’t know, it is hard to judge your own work in terms of quality. I usually invite other artist friends to my studio when I have completed a new body of work. I like to listen to what they have to say in order to get an outside view. Sometimes, I will photograph the work in order to view it on the computer, which allows me a more remote look at it. Distance is important.
SB: Do you usually prefer to exhibit drawings and paintings together?
BB: Yes. I do, because it provides a look into the work process. Also, as my works are interconnected, I do believe that my drawings help the viewer to understand my paintings and vice versa. I also like to see that kind of presentation for other artists’ oeuvres.
SB: To view a painter’s drawings can feel like studying the bones of the composition. In addition, drawings are often very personal, allowing intimate insight into the thought that is at the root of observation. Think of Georges Seurat’s and Vincent Van Gogh’s black and white drawings, for example, which are incredibly expressive and yet a distilled concept from their luminous paintings. Drawings are often freer, uninhibited and perhaps because they relate to handwriting, are akin to taking notes without over-analyzing the moment.
BB: Absolutely. In drawing, there is very little disturbance between your thought and your hand. It’s wonderful. That’s also the reason why you can still read something intuitively, even when it is culturally unfamiliar, which in my case might be Chinese calligraphy, for example. Drawing is both intimate and private.
SB: What works by other artists are important to you?
BB: Well, you go through periods when you look more at certain artists or genres. For a while I looked specifically at Asian ink drawings. Matisse is important of course and Milton Avery and the Abstract Expressionists. Recently, there was an exquisite exhibition of Philip Guston’s grey paintings, which I thought was just tremendous [Philip Guston Painter, 1957 – 1967, Hauser & Wirth, New York, April 26 –July 29, 2016]. I also went to Ravenna to look at the mosaics and of course, the Agnes Martin retrospective, which I saw both at the Tate in London and the Guggenheim in New York [Agnes Martin, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, October 7, 2016 - January 11, 2017] was very important to me. I also read a lot. All of it enters your thought and your language. In the end, I think of myself as a formalist, to whom ideas, thoughts, and content make a painting. I don’t mean narrative content but abstraction is a language that exposes thoughts about the world just as much as figuration. In the end, that is what really excites me.
SB: Despite this formalism, would you still describe your work as a quest for self-exploration? Do you view your paintings and drawings as part of yourself or as being independent once they are completed?
BB: I think that my works are about the world and its various aspects as it is seen through me. I’m not interested in a personal or even diaristic position. My work is not about my habits, emotions, or about finding myself. However, it certainly embodies my point of view. Though I first paint for myself, I also paint for the world, for whoever might be interested in or connect with the work. Meanwhile, you’re part of a long line of artists; you’re in dialogue with living artists and those who came before you. This is of utmost importance, because like religion, all great art deals with the crucial questions of who we are as people.
Donna Harkavy: Let’s start at the beginning. Can you talk about your process – how you make a painting?
Bettina Blohm: The first thing I do in the studio is make sketches. They’re very small and simple and drawn in sketchbooks with a HB pencil. That’s where I develop compositional ideas for paintings. I make drawing after drawing, sketch after sketch, and when I have something that excites me, I will start a painting. Even as a painting progresses, I keep thinking it through with drawings. Often I start a whole group of paintings that deal with similar ideas. I use oil paint and work in layers, and I try to keep the surface open. Once in a while I can get there pretty quickly, but more often it takes about three months to finish a painting. I wash off areas, I overpaint them, and the surface is more interesting because it reflects that process. I like that sense of history. While a coat of paint is drying – it usually takes three days – I turn the painting against the wall. When I look at it again, I have a certain distance and that helps me determine how to go on. Every painting develops its own mood and character.
DH: Drawing is an important part of your artistic process. You’ve spoken about your sketches. What other kinds of drawings do you make?
BB: Some are landscape drawings. I’ve been drawing in nature for over 20 years. With the landscape drawings, I’m not thinking of painting, I’m just basically recording what I see. Since they are always done in a very small format, 5 x 7 inches, there is a direct flow from the eye to the hand. Another series of drawings is called Diagrams. The Diagrams are always abstract. They are done in Berlin, where I live four months of the year. In them, I’m developing ideas for paintings, especially the painting space and the structure. For example, Diagrams, 2014 (page 100) relates to the painting Great Escape (page 33).
DH: In your paintings, erasure is a significant part of your process. Is that equally true of your drawings?
BB: In my landscape drawings I never use erasure. If it doesn’t work, I basically throw it away. The Diagrams are done with charcoal over an acrylic wash. Charcoal is quite a painterly drawing medium, and I wipe it with my hand. As a result, the drawings sometimes get this very nice dark surface tone. I also use the drawn line and the half-wiped line to get different spatial degrees and a sense of distance.
DH: Comparing your drawings with your paintings, it seems that the space in the drawings is often more active.
BB: In the drawings, you only have a line and the white paper. So the paper already is the space. You don’t really have to construct the space like in a painting. That’s the wonderful thing about drawing, it’s so close to thinking. In my case, the scale is often small and it comes out of the hand, so the thought processes go directly into the drawing.
DH: Has working in Berlin influenced your work?
BB: Yes, definitely. I established a studio in Berlin eight years ago and decided to only work on paper there. As a result, line has become more prominent in my painting. The back and forth between painting and drawing periods has clarified my work.
DH: How do you title your paintings?
BB: I like giving titles. I don’t usually have a title before. At some point in the process, the painting takes over, and I just sort of follow it. Then suddenly the title may be there. It’s just this flow that is absolutely wonderful. It keeps coming by itself, almost. And sometimes I don’t have a title, sometimes it comes afterwards, even in conversations with somebody looking at the work. So it’s different ways of getting a title. But, ideally it adds another layer to the painting.
DH: Does the title ever guide the painting?
BB: Once in a while. For example, the painting called Memory Palace (page 19) is based on a grid. In that painting, I had the title pretty quickly while I was painting it. I thought of the ancient technique used to memorize, where you visualize a structure, usually an architectural structure, and put different parts of memory into those spaces.
DH: You’ve been using a gridded format in a number of your recent paintings. How has this development emerged?
BB: I painted landscapes between 1995 and 2008. In a landscape space, you always fall back on the horizon. Even if you don’t use it, or negate it, it’s always there. With these newer works, I very much wanted to incorporate the vertical and the horizontal, and the grid is a perfect combination of both. It’s also an architectural space. It’s very much an urban space. When I look out of my window, that’s what I see. It’s also non-hierarchical, so it’s a perfect modernist structure, and egalitarian. And so, all these associations are in my head. I don’t necessarily measure out the grids; often they’re hand drawn and irregular and they tilt or bend the space. I also use them on an angle so that they’re more like diamond shapes. It creates order, which is something I like. You know, out of chaos, you want to make order – that’s a very basic human impulse. But then, I need to break that order and have a sense of freedom; that’s where the gestural element comes in.
DH: You have frequently spoken about chaos and order in regard to your work. Can you elaborate?
BB: It’s good to set some rules. They have to come out of your painting praxis; they shouldn’t be superimposed, but they can help the work. One can only be free within certain limitations as freedom is pointless just by itself. So these two opposites, order and chaos, rules and freedom, need each other. And I go back and forth in my painting process -- of setting up an order and then going against it, or breaking out of it and then going back to order.
DH: As you were saying, the grid provides a structure and order.
BB: Yes, exactly. The grid is also related to the format, the rectangle. The format of the painting determines the space. When I did the landscape paintings, I used an extreme horizontal format because I was always dealing with the horizon in some way or other. The rectangle is a classical painting format, and it is a nice open format for the grid. My favorite size at this point, 68 x 84 inches, has a relation to my height and the reach of my arm, and so the painting process is related to my body and the gesture.
DH: It’s often been noted that an early and decisive influence on your work was Henri Matisse, both in his use of broad areas of bold, flat color and in the areas where edges of forms meet. Can you speak about that influence and also other artists who informed your work?
BB: In 1987, there was a show of Matisse at the Metropolitan Museum, works from the Hermitage. It had a huge impact on me. I was making paintings of tree trunks at the time in sort of Cubist colors, brownish, bluish. And I went home and painted this whole trunk red. Then I started doing color studies. Afterwards, I flattened out the shapes and introduced more and more color. So yes, Matisse was central. Also Milton Avery and later Arthur Dove. When I did landscapes, Avery and Dove were very important to me in terms of color and what they did with the landscape. Also Dove’s emotional and, shall I say, spiritual exploration of landscape. I studied Matisse’s use of borders between shapes. When you use flat color, edges are fundamental. I used to only do edges; all my lines were edges. Now, of course, I use line more independently.
DH: Are there contemporary artists whose work you admire?
BB: Thomas Nozkowski, Jonathan Lasker, and Mary Heilmann. All three insist on a personal view of the world. Even though they hide their sources, you know it’s something they’ve seen and experienced, whatever it is. And that’s something I’m interested in. For me, for many years it was the landscape, but before I also used to do architecture, even figures at some point, so I developed this vocabulary over the years that I can use, even in my current work. And that’s why I continue doing landscape drawings even though I don’t necessarily paint what I bring back from these drawing sessions. It keeps the contact to the world. It gives me ideas. I look at the light – there is an endless variety of shapes and moments in nature, always changing with the light. When I first had a chance to go to the Catskill Mountains, I had such an emotional response, I just had to use it.
DH: Throughout much of your career, your work oscillates between landscape and abstraction and often pauses between the two. Since 2011, pattern has become a more predominant motif. What precipitated this shift from landscape to a more abstract vocabulary?
BB: I felt a certain limitation or restriction with the landscapes in that I wanted the painting to be self-contained and not involved with information that needs to be recognized. I think I’m good at abstracting in terms of distilling the essentials, the basic structures of whatever it is I see. But I was resisting it because I wanted to be a figurative painter, even though that doesn’t really mean anything anymore. So there was this point when I let go of that space and more recognizable imagery. It was a liberation. I’m not necessarily thinking about pattern. It’s sort of an additive process; I put down a shape or a gesture, and I repeat it. It ends up being some kind of patterning. There is a connection between pattern and abstraction and it’s also closely related to nature, the shapes and forms you see in nature. It’s also about a sense of order.
DH: Your newest paintings seem to be inspired by music. They’re like a visual point and counterpoint of musical rhythms and multiple motifs responding and reacting to one another. Can you talk about your relation to music? Is this something new for you?
BB: Last summer (2015), Sabine Bergk pointed out Leonard Bernstein’s Norton Lectures to me. I loved them because he drew connections between music and poetry, art, even linguistics. He held them in 1973, so it was a crucial point when Modernism had run out of steam and post-Modernism had started and there was this big question of how to go on. It made me think about music and about his ideas, and so I did a group of paintings in response to the idea of repetition in musical forms and moving those forms around. I even call one painting The Unanswered Question, which was the title of his lectures and also a musical piece by Charles Ives that was at the center of this whole group of lectures. Paul Klee, another artist who has influenced my work, had a deep understanding of musical structure and often reflects it in his painting space.
DH: There also seems to be a new kind of layering in these paintings. You often built up layers in the past, but kept them hidden under broad areas of flat paint. Here, the layering is much more apparent. You’re breaking up the surface and revealing different levels of activity.
BB: I want to challenge myself and the viewer. In these new paintings I am introducing another layer, and by playing with scale I keep shifting the focus. Shapes get multiplied or echoed in different sizes and intensities. By opposing washes with more thickly painted areas, I can create a sense of depth but still use flat shapes. The washes are like windows into space. There is a sense of back and forth, sometimes through the overpainted areas, and sometimes through the erasures, the wiping off, and that creates a sense of depth, too. It’s spatially more demanding.
DH: This sense of having your process more exposed, do you think it has something to do with growing older, being more comfortable, and feeling that you don’t have to be quite as private as you used to be?
BB: That would be a nice explanation. There may be different reasons for it. There’s more painting around, so I get more input from shows, from young painters. There’s sort of a casualness in painting today, not being so perfect, but showing the imperfect, the human hand. And I am more in control of my means and want to push them more.
DH: That is, in part, what your painting is about: taking a form and really pushing it to its limits. Or experimenting with one type of form, and pushing it in different ways.
BB: Yes, that’s what I would hope to do. And all the relationships, all the parts should relate. That’s quite important, that the painting is a whole, that there isn’t a kind of background and foreground, and figure and ground, but that all the shapes relate and one thing makes up the other, like the ground makes up the figure, and the figure makes up the ground. That would be my ideal.
DH: Is there a final thought you would like to add?
BB: Each painting has a story at its core, it’s not something I necessarily start with, but which I am looking for. This is the curiosity I have, what will be the story of this new painting, what will it tell me? What reality will it have? So every painting has a question and the point is not to resolve it, but to clarify the question.
Donna Harkavy is a New York based independent curator.
This text has been excerpted from email correspondence on 18 January 2016 and a live interview on 21 January 2016 in Bettina Blohm’s studio in New York.
Bettina Blohm's paintings are Haiku-like visual landscapes that distill emotion into abstract form. They reflect a love of Eastern art with its focus on intuitive states of mind. Blohm's paintings also engage with a Matisse inspired sense of color and an Abstract Expressionist scale, both of which come across especially within her compositional placement of gesture and shape. Enigmatic shapes or nature forms often seem to imply human presences. In earlier works where the human silhouette is depicted, more tensions arise which are emphasized by color contrasts and the formal placement of figures in relation to each other.
The following excerpts from an extended interview reveal the philosophy and approach she developed over 20 years as a painter and graphic artist. Her work forges together influences from Modernist and Asian art into a personal approach which is stands in opposition to prevailing postmodern and conceptual trends.
I am interested in your dedication to painting with historical roots in an aesthetic and Modernist tradition.
I work in the Modernist tradition. Someone once called me a third generation Abstract Expressionist. I believe the formal language is still relevant and can be built on. In the best Abstract Expressionist works there is a unity between the act of painting and their feeling and the world.
You clearly love the expansiveness of Abstract Expressionist scale and Matissean color.
Matisse is the greatest painter of the 20th century to me. Nobody else even comes close. Of course I love his color, but also his variety of formal solutions, his way of arresting shapes on canvas, and how each form is alive. His paintings are complex yet look simple.
Bettina Blohm German Forest 1997
oil on canvasm, 48 x96 inches
Collection Pfalzgalerie Kaiserslautern, Germany
I tend to see a close analogy to your work in Milton Avery's landscapes where elements become compressed in simple abstract motifs.
I like Avery's color and the generosity in his later paintings. In those late works he achieves a beautiful synthesis between formal rigor and looseness and an exquisite poetic sense. In some paintings the motif becomes so compressed it is like a metaphor: a black and white bird hovering over a gray sea in Plunging Gull 1960 or the green horizon line which seems to contain the sea like a bathtub in Dunes and Sea 1960.
You have talked about your interest in Asian landscape painting and the abstract work of the Japanese American artist Miyoko Ito.
My first real encounter with Asian art was in 1992 in London at the exhibit of woodcuts by Hokusai at the Royal Academy. Certain images responded to my search for abstraction in figuration. Because Asian art was never that concerned with imitating nature the artists developed a greater individual freedom and expressiveness in their gesturers. I love the sense of poetry, of spareness, of essence, of humanity that I feel in these paintings. My ideas come from the visual world, or more specifically for the last 10 years from landscape, and that gives me something to push against. This is one of the pleasures I get from looking at Miyoko Ito's paintings. Her mature work is abstract and completely self contained yet it is obvious how hard she looked at the movement of water or the spatial construction of a landscape.
When you arrived in New York in 1984 you were making paintings of trees with a kind of Expressionist fervor. What did these early tree works signify to you?
I came to new York right after finishing art school in Munich. I chose the tree as a motif because I had a strong emotional connection with trees. I would walk around the city's parks and photograph different trees and then paint them in my studio. They were urban trees with chopped off branches which made them seem more human.
Bettina Blohm Where Are They Going 1992
oil on canvas, 82 x 68 inches
Collection Christian Friesecke
Human figure and silhouettes appear in your later paintings like Where Are They Going? from 1992. I cannot help feeling a sense of anonymity and distance in these figural works, with a rumble of emotional intensity just palpable below the surface. What was going through your mind?
At that time I hid my more emotional gestures under layers of flat paint and only at the borders between shapes could one see this undercurrent of turmoil. Formally it was a way to create depth. I wanted flat shapes but I also wanted to retain a sense of emotional urgency. Where Are They Going? was done at the time of the first Gulf war and the title reflects my feeling of hopelessness, the sense that everybody just followed mindlessly.
It seems nature and abstraction have given you a way for you to reflect on interior states of mind - a reflective space that at times balances between solitude and loneliness. Do you feel this too?
I always separate things. Every shape has a clear outline and there are borders; nowhere does one thing "bleed" into another. That may give a sense of isolation that you mention. I have a very strong sense of human loneliness and isolation: nature, however, offers me a sense of wholeness and connectedness.
I am struck by the difference between your works on paper and your paintings, especially because the paper works are more expressively stark and don't often use color.
I rarely use color because drawing, for me, is about mark making. Drawing is the most direct, honest or humble visual medium. You cannot lie with drawing. From a drawn line you can immediately see the temperament of the artist. This is one of the pleasures I have with Classical Chinese landscape painting: after many centuries and over vast cultural differences you can still see the individual artist at work.
How has growing up in Germany shaped your art? What are the things you see as distinctive about having a European background that are still with you living in New York?
Growing up in Europe I may have a stronger feeling for painting as a medium with a long history. But its a specific culture, in my case German. I only became conscious of it when I moved here. Being European I may have a stronger sense of the precarious nature of the world. Life is not black and white but has gray zones. I loved New York city as soon as I arrived. I loved the nervousness and chaos of the city. I also loved that women were treated as equal and one had the sense that it was still possible to add something to the history of art. Today I have a nice combination of both worlds. I work in New York and travel 2 - 3 times a year to Germany where I have had some success with shows.
Bettina Blohm Untitled 2004
colored pencil on paper, 7 x 9 inches
Courtesy of the artist
You have been a committed painter for over 20 years with a consciousness of what is going on in the contemporary art world in New York over a long period of time. What is your view of present affairs?
As a friend of mine says: today artists are like racehorses. Again and again artists are destroyed through commercialization. It is a fundamental problem in the American art world and not new. Eugene O'Neill describes in his play Long Day's Journey into Night a gifted actor who got seduced by money and fame into playing the same part over and over.
And art education?
I believe art education has become too academic. Powerful emotions are at the basis of all art making. Today we do not have a compelling formal language as other times did and young artists have to find their way through a jungle of possibilities. The result is often an anxious obedience to the latest fashion.
What do you attribute this to?
Art movements have always been connected to political environments. There has been a feeling of apathy and cynicism, a feeling that nothing mattered but money that has been dominant in the art world and in the political system. The esthetic of an artist like John Currin is closely linked to the politics of George Bush; it is based on an all-pervasive contempt for people. If the political situation changes it may bring back some idealism and belief in art.
Diane Thodos is an artist and art critic who resides in Evanston, IL. She is a recipient of a Pollock Krasner Foundation Grant and is represented by the Paule Friedland and Alexandre Rivault Gallery in Paris.