Hans Ulrich Obrist talks to Herbert Brandl
HUO: This interview is taking place between locations. Where are you now?
HB: Between Salzburg and Innsbruck.
HUO: Peter Weibel has said that the idea for the current exhibition of your works originated in the Musée d’Art Moderne. Apparently he saw one of your pictures there and thought, we should do a retrospective. How do you feel about the term “retrospective”?
HB: The exhibition will probably not be a proper retrospective. What it will be like remains to be seen. Peter Weibel and Christa Steinle, Director of the Neue Galerie at the Landesmuseum Joanneum in Graz, saw two pictures in the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, which have already been on show there for over a decade. Both were extremely enthusiastic about them. Then the idea of this general show developed from that. The first part of the exhibition has already opened at the Künstlerhaus: new mountain landscapes and panoramas.
HUO: Painting and the mountains is a point I find very interesting. You had an exhibition at the Robert Walser Museum entitled “Painting in the mountains”. Your exhibition in Graz focuses on the mountains. And even now as we speak, you are in the mountains.
HB: Yes. I’ve been in a “mountain phase” for two years now. It began with our trip to the Säntis. Mountains have always held a fascination for me; I just never knew how I should apply the theme in painting. Nineteenth-century mountain painting was not something I could take as my model. It is only really in the last two years that I have gained a perspective of how mountain images are represented by photography today and the direction in which the aesthetic of mountains has developed. The mountain pictures that I paint today are painted from pictures in glossy catalogues or mountaineering magazines. They are mountain pictures without a title. By this I mean that I’m not interested in the name of the mountain, but more in the essence of the form of the mountain. The process that takes one from the empty canvas to the mountain on the canvas is perhaps for me a pretend alpine experience (privately). Moreover, it’s minus 50 in my studio in the winter and I always have to paint in mountaineering outfits.
HUO: You take images from picture databases as your starting-point. How does the transformation happen? Do you use projection?
HB: No. That doesn’t work. I always act spontaneously. I do know more or less where I’m aiming for, but not how. In other words I don’t ever depict something; instead I allow changes in form and colour into Brandl’s painting, over the decades.
HUO: In fact mountain images also occur in pop art and even Gerhard Richter painted mountain pictures. Within this context I have in the past spoken to Gerhard Richter about the meaning of pre-existing images. He suggested that borrowing images from other contexts to use in art was an age-old process and not really a Pop Art innovation after all.
HB: I grew up with Pop Art and also with the whole culture of comics and brochures. For the artists of Pop Art, the shift in context was certainly exciting. Today it is no longer a dramatic event.
HUO: I’ve also discovered that the formats of your pictures are growing.
HB: I chose them that big. It means that painting becomes a physical exertion too. It makes the experience of formulation much more interesting for me. The new mountain pictures are actually screens. So one could hang them on their own in the middle of a room and in these dimensions use them as an installation too. In this respect size plays an important role and can be varied infinitely. Among other things it reflects sheer possibility. Now I enjoy using the largest possible format that the canvas industry is able to supply. I don’t want any joins or partitions or diptych set-up. Or strung-together extensions.
HUO: Are your pictures a metaphor for climbing?
HB: No, not really. Although I am continually threatened with sliding masses of paint, barely have a safe place to stand, struggle with hunger and the cold, but they are definitely not metaphors for climbing. I am basically an observer and not a climber of mountains.
HUO: You have described your current exhibition in Graz as an installation. In the early 20th century at a World Fair in Paris, Giovanni Segantini had the idea of building a mountain as an installation and then pumping fresh air into the tent. The project was never realised, owing to the protestations of the Swiss hoteliers. The story goes that they were frightened that no one would go to Switzerland any more if it were possible to experience the mountains in Paris. Segantini also came up with the line, "Voglio vedere le mie montagne." Does your exhibition have anything to do with Segantini?
HB: And I came up with the line, "Voglio vedere la mie pitture." And in a modern museum. Segantini is brilliant, but in Austria we also have a panorama painter who settled in the Alps at the end of the 19th century, because he loved them so much. Theodor Frederic Compten was Irish and for instance painted a panoramic building in Tyrol in order to give a view of the Alpine world. It was however soon dismantled and destroyed. I myself have cooked up something with Heidulf Gerngross along the lines of Segantini. He has taken one of my mountain pictures as a plan for an architectural model and is planning to build a mountain Disneyland in Holland. The plan is to paint a Mount Everest mural on the side of a high-rise block and to put panoramas of the biggest mountains in the world and accompanying information on each storey.
HUO: An unrealised project?
HB: Yes. But it has been developed in depth and could actually be carried out. The idea behind it is to keep people away from the mountains and to satisfy their longing for the mountains with an entertainment park.
HUO: Can you explain your installation in Graz in more detail?
HB: The exhibition space is a kind of shoebox with an apse and skylight. The space is very dominating, so I have hung three large pictures from the ceiling. The highest picture is 6 metres high and hence is the same height as the space; meaning that it reaches from the floor to the ceiling. The other two are horizontal formats with a height of 3.5 metres. The visitor moves between the canvases as if they were scenery in the wings of a theatre. On the walls are smaller mountain pictures. The result is a landscape that one can go walking through.
HUO: Again the keyword, walk! When you’re painting you go walking, and the viewer goes walking too.
HB: Exactly. This aspect of a Monet monograph has also struck me. His pictures are like shots of those moments during walks when you pause to take in the view.
HUO: Which leads us to Robert Walser, who says that it is never too early to start going to pubs. In 1992 I opened the Robert Walser Museum in the Hotel Krone, where Robert Walser stopped regularly off during his walking years. Walser also uses this analogy. He says that writing is like walking. At some point walking took over from writing:
“At certain times I have preferred walking, that is to say walking with my feet to talking, that is to say talking with my mouth. But in the end it is the same thing.” How do you view the analogy drawn between painting and walking?
HB: Off-the-cuff nothing funny occurs to me. I found the walk that we did together that time in connection with my exhibition at the Robert Walser Museum interesting. We left markings behind. That is not to say that we painted in caves like they did 40,000 years ago, but instead we fixed our painting on the mountain. We marked our vantage point with an invisible paint, a silver spray: as the definition of the position of a walk.
HUO: Why was it that you used silver-grey paint?
HB: In Styria this paint was used to give old things around the house a new shine: the stove, the crucifix, the table and old wooden boards. It had another meaning for me though. Silver-grey is a colour that renders structures more visible. It was a chromophobic activity.
HUO: In the 1990s you also used it extensively in your painting.
HB: Yes. From an intuitive rejection of colour and also in order to see what stood out in the structure and remained of the picture. Really what I wanted was to run away from having to make a decision about colour. In other instances I used chrome spray as a screen to push what I had painted back into undefined space. And to open up new possibilities. In a series of these chromophobic reflections I then tried again to force the suppressed sphere of colour back to life using colour interventions (a pressing process). The exhibition in Graz is called "Chromophobia", no one knows why yet.
HUO: A chromoparadox?
HB: Exactly! A chromo-recovery.
HUO: Time after time one observes oscillation in your work. In this way you break through frozen situations. You oscillate between figuration and abstraction, between very different forms of painting, between what is internal and external.
HB: Yes, that’s right. Yes, that’s how it is. And always will be. As I have always said: the sun goes west, the sun goes east.
HUO: In the Hotel Krone you created an exhibition in the hotel with a readymade.
HB: The object was the readymade of a painter – not an artist painter though, a painter-decorator. It has a lot to do with time and maturing. I first saw it at the house of a retired painter and had to have it. It has the aura of a stalactite cave. An object that materialises time. It wasn’t easy to get hold of because the painter himself wanted to saw it up and so make the process of his work visible once more. In the end he did give it to me after all. The only object left over from his life-long work as a painter.
HUO: It has lifetime condensed within it.
HB: Yes, yes, yes, time and space. A great thing. A cosmic dimension. A tragic monument to still living painter.
HUO: You also made a print, a screen print, for your exhibition in the Robert Walser Museum. This then became the poster for the museum. You have also designed a lot of flyers for bands. Could you tell me about the significance of printed matter in your work? This aspect of your work barely appears in the catalogues and is also rarely discussed.
HB: The great thing about a print is if one knows one or several great printers. Then you can call them and say: "Print me off something beautiful" and then you go to an exhibition and think to yourself: "Wow, what fantastic stuff." Here in Austria there are a handful of printing stars, with whom I am always happy to work on daring printwork. Schilcher, Stalzer, Chavanne, Zein. It has to be them, if it’s going to work. The print graphic refers to extra-terrestrial children. The last couple of productions were conjured up by Zein and Schilcher. I used the mountain motif predominantly in both of them. It was all about a transferral from the medium of painting to the medium of screen-printing or acrylic plate printing. I hardly even intervened in Zein’s production. Choice of colour was left up to the printer and actually only three brushstrokes were supplied. Along which Kurt Zein created Brandl. The other edition was produced just recently in Graz. Painted pictures were photographed, alienated and decolorised. The black-and-white prints with fine colour nuances are reminiscent of old postcards. Of the series concept of the 1960s and ultimately of Ad Reinhardt.
HUO: Have you also done prints and flyers for bands? There is an interesting collaboration between painting and music. I’m thinking for example of Gerhard Richter’s cover for Sonic Youth or of Mike Kelley.
HB: In the 1980s I began to do posters and flyers for some bands. The copies were small and the design was kind of raw, in an underground style.
HUO: Are you taking your study of music any further at the moment?
HB: No. That’s run its course now. It doesn’t mean anything to me any more. Probably because I don’t have enough talent and also I’m not prepared to learn more in this area. It’s basically a completely different kind of process. Painting is simply a lot more natural for me.
HUO: You are nonetheless involved in other areas in an interdisciplinary way. I recall a conversation with Carsten Höller in which the two of you spent hours holding an ornithological discussion about robins. This conversation then triggered the Uccelli/Birds conference in Italy.
HB: Ornithology is a difficult subject. Birds are dying out.
HUO: Another outing? We were just talking about your trips into the mountains, now it’s a trip into ornithology.
HB: To be followed by trips into mineralogy, botany and aquaristics. With me you get a bit of everything.
HUO: Robin redbreasts had built their nests in your studio.
HB: Yes. And seriously obstructed the painting for a while. I have always tried to bring something back with me from walks to use in art. With the birds it worked precisely with regards to the Uccelli conference. Within this context a postcard was produced depicting a range of birds from the longtailed grassfinch to the parrot and the bullfinch. But I do not want to become a scientist. I circle around these subject areas, but I don’t get into them 100%.
HUO: How are these impressions reflected in your painting?
HB: In a very indirect way. I don’t draw on my activity in science for themes that I then assimilate into the painting. It is for me much more about necessarily distancing oneself from the art world in order to keep the art itself alive.
HUO: Does literature play any role for you?
HB: The painting/literature interface doesn’t exist for me.
HUO: It seems to have become completely detached.
HB: I only have a connection with Christoph Ransmayr, a walker, who also likes to write about his trips. Just recently he wrote the foreword for an Anselm Kiefer catalogue. Ransmayr also meets up regularly with artists (e.g. Hubert Scheibl). Gerhard Roth has a profound link with art. Otherwise the link with literature is broken.
HUO: In the 1990s collaboration between artists was an important theme. You were connected with Schifano and Boetti. How did this cooperation develop?
HB: Mario Schifano and Alighiero Boetti were important to me as people and artists, although an art collaboration never happened. There were collaborations with Franz West, Gerwald Rockenschaub, Otto Zitko, Gilbert Bretterbauer and Loys Egg. I visited Schifano and Boetti as a fan. In the meantime I haven’t worked directly with other artists. There have been occasional joint exhibitions such as those with Adrian Schiess, Albert Oehlen and Christopher Wool. I dream of an exhibition with the legendary Bruno Gironcoli.
HUO: Can we reconstruct your artistic development as an autodidact? Can you tell us about how you started out? Richard Gerstl, Arnold Schönberg and also Franz Anton Maulbertsch are mentioned time and again. What significance do they really have for you?
HB: Franz Anton Maulbertsch was one of the few great Austrian Baroque painters. After him Austrian painting effectively came to an end. However he did not play a great role for me; on the other hand, the early, late Impressionist works of Francis Picabia were important. There are pictures that remind one of Gerstl’s painting. Although I must admit that I don’t know Gerstl’s work well, because there was hardly any to be seen in Austria. It was only at the beginning of the 1980s that the first big Gerstl exhibition was staged, accompanied by a small publication. I was particularly fascinated by Gerstl’s pictures of gardens and trees and also his picture of the Schönberg family. At the turn of the century he was already painting in the style of De Kooning.
HUO: What role does Arnold Schönberg’s painting play for you?
HB: The dilettante aspect of this painting particularly fascinated me, its muddy amateurishness. It was much more about the way he painted than the content.
HUO: Are you actually an autodidact?
HB: I’m not really an autodidact. I studied with Tasquil and Weibel. With Tasquil I received a comprehensive and pedagogical education. I didn’t want to become an art teacher so I changed to studying with Peter Weibel. With him I heard lectures about morphology, about 1970s art, about Minimalism, Performance and Actionism. His art theory is very complex and interesting. But I didn’t want to get drawn into this theoretical line.
HUO: Robert Fleck had the idea that the autodidactic aspects of your painting show in the fact that the work is constantly beginning again. It struck me that the title picture of your first catalogue in 1982 is a cliff. How do you feel about this phenomenon of, as Nietzsche puts it, the eternal repetition?
HB: This redundancy would never have occurred to me, but Robert Fleck meant it more in the sense that I do not start out with a concept and in fact never know how the final result will look, but rather constantly begin again. The repetition of this motif does not arise from any strategy; it’s an inner compulsion. The mountain you’re talking about, in particular, has for a long time meant a lot to me. My father, who was an illustrator, set me the task of drawing it when I was still a child.
HUO: Was your father a technical drawer or an art illustrator?
HB: He was an art illustrator. However after the war we lived in Styria, far removed from contemporary developments in art at the time.
HUO: Fragments frequently crop up in your drawings that could come from comics. What role does this genre play for you as an illustrator and what role does it play on the other hand for you as a painter? If one visits your studio one can see that you often begin with illustrations, which then disappear behind layers of paint.
HB: Quite. I paint away these small ideas and notions. In this way scenes where someone strikes onto a flower with a hammer are not particularly expressive, but their amusing character prompts me to begin the painting process. The result is that I go to the canvas with paint and try to paint over these traces. All of the notions that come to me from a blank canvas must disappear again. It must become an independent process. It must come to a separate outcome. It’s a matter of letting go of a particular idea. Only once it disappears does it become interesting for me again.
HUO: What role does chance play in this? Not in terms of a classic construction of the picture, but rather in terms of an informal coincidence.
HB: It exists in detail, but not overall. Very often I work only with the physical conditions of the paint: the way it runs or drips down, how it forms lumps and you smooth them away. I go through this whole repertoire and try to achieve an unintentional state (whatever that might be!).
HUO: Within the context of your exhibition in the Robert Walser Musem we have already spoken about chromophobia and the chromoparadox. In your pictures from the 1990s, colour disappeared on the one hand; on the other, the pictures from this period contain a swarm of colours that are hidden but which come to the surface around the edges. It can be guessed at in other pictures.
HB: I develop colour from colour and not from form. In principle in my painting it is a question of splodges or clouds of colour from which a main colour develops, which floods everything else. So the other colours only become visible around the edges. It is in fact not my intention to create a monochrome surface. In these pictures something got out of control – the orange, the black or the white – and superseded the previous painting process.
HUO: A second paradox is noticeable in your painting from the 1990s: the paradox between on the one hand a very physical layering of paint and on the other a kind of dissolving, in which the material of the paint almost disappears. How do you explain these contrasting tendencies?
HB: Breathe in – breathe out, up and down. Left and right. Above and below. Front and behind. Completely equivocal.
HUO: I think that there is a similar oscillation between abstraction and figuration. In purely abstract exhibitions figuration often suddenly plays a role again.
HB: Exactly. It is a movement between fields of tension. It would be tempting to commit oneself and to say: “This is the direction I’m taking now. This is where I’m going.” But the more dominant phenomenon apparently is in fact that you’re standing on one spot, see another and want to go over there instead.
HUO: Which takes us back to walking again.
HB: Yes. It must be planned out like a walk, otherwise in the long run it becomes too strenuous.
HUO: Aren’t there some uncompleted pictures?
HUO: I also remember your bird-shit bronzes.
HB: Yes. I’m not going any further with those though. My latest plan was to grow rock crystals artificially. It turned out to be incredibly difficult. But I’m still working on it and am planning to make something along the lines of an alpine paragenesis. It could develop into my own mineralogy museum.
HUO: We haven’t spoken about museums yet. Which are your favourite museums? How would you imagine the ideal museum as being?
HB: Fundamentally I like going to museums, to mineral collectors’ private museums too. Museums interest me in the smallest but also in the very biggest way. Especially in the 1970s an attempt was made to move away from museums, but I don’t have anything against them.
HUO: Another oscillation?
HB: Oscillation is essential. I think there should be many more different containers.
c Hans Ulrich Obrist 2002
Hans Ulrich Obrist is director of programs at the Serpentine Gallery, London
⇒ Julian Heynen about Herbert Brandl
⇒ Herbert Brandl in the Austrian Pavilion
⇒ Peter Pakesch to Herbert Brandl
⇒ Achille Bonito Oliva about Herbert Brandl
⇒ Hans Ulrich Obrist talks to Herbert Brandl
⇒ Martin Prinzhorn on Herbert Brandl
⇒ Norman Rosenthal about Herbert Brandl
⇒ Conversation with Herbert Brandl (May 2007)
⇒ Talk with Herbert Brandl in November 2007