Wolfgang Huber-Lang (Interview – english)
“I am interested in the freedom of colour in itself”
Wolfgang Huber-Lang in conversation with the artist Andrea Bischof
Some artists like to talk about their work and other artists say: Actually, my work should speak for itself. Where do you fit in?
To be quite honest, the picture is naturally my statement and if I have to say something about my work, I usually find it rather difficult at the beginning. However, from time to time, I really have to restrain myself when I have visitors in my studio because I notice that my words are interfering with the process of seeing and are touching on things that these people have absolutely no need of at the moment. That way, picture and the viewer create their own relationship – and it is often better if I do not get involved.
Do you sometimes have the feeling that the viewers need a nudge to guide them in the “right” direction? Or, is it more exciting to see in which direction they go without being influenced at all and possibly learn something new from that?
The spectrum is very broad. But, of course, one of the possibilities I have for intervening using a word is through the title. I am very deliberate about the one I choose. I attach it to the picture as a name and often see it as a kind of aid to accessing the work; such as in “West Wind”, “Shore”, “still” or “Sometimes” for example.
Do those titles develop when you look at what you have created or are they formulated in parallel?
There are all kinds of possibilities. It is often the case that, in the preliminary stages, a word interests me, that I like it a lot. Then I work towards that word. And there are other cases where it suddenly occurs to me while I am painting: That’s it! And sometimes it is only given a name afterwards – like a child when I say: I have to get a look at it before I can give it a name.
In exhibitions and museums, it is easy to see that most of the people look for the caption first and read it even before they take a closer look at the picture. Isn’t that a counterproductive approach?
I think it’s a kind of safeguard for some – to make sure they’re not on the wrong track. But then – hopefully – they become involved with the picture.
What would be the falsest track people could be on when they look at your pictures?
I think that, today, the viewers feel that they are burdened with a great responsibility. They think that they have to finish painting the picture and develop it further in their brain. I don’t see it like that. It is more that the picture is a surface from which people can collect something. Of course, it is clear that everybody arrives there over their own, individual experience with pictures. But, it is not especially tragic if somebody takes a quick look and perceives something that he wants to see but I did not intend at all. However, I feel that, the longer one becomes involved with a picture, the more likely it is that it will impart what I possibly intended.
Art mediation is a buzzword we hear all the time. Doesn’t that also bear the danger of patronising in it because one acts as if one has to provide a recipe that makes it possible to decipher a secret?
With my pictures, my aim is that – when they are hung in the best light – it will be possible to experience what they actually are. It should not really be necessary to have much background knowledge to achieve this.
Is the question of objectivism only something you have to be confronted with in training in order to have some kind of orientation or is it something that always remains present regardless of how recognisably reality is translated?
I also regard the abstract picture with colours as reality. Of course, I extract them from reality. I draw the colour from it and apply it to the picture. What directly influences me does not always have to have something to do with nature but it is repeatedly something I see there, that I discover there. Then I try to introduce this colour into a picture, to anchor it there.
If we are talking about the direct portrayal of objects or people; of course, I learned all that when I was studying but it is quite simply not what interests me. I am interested in the freedom of the colour in itself.
Do you only take your colours from impressions of nature or from the abstract spectrum of colours as well?
Both. It can also be just a sound, a rustling; it can also be a smell or a certain hue that can be discovered as a reflection. There are also colours that come out of me, that I want to see. The pictures are all inventions: I want to see these pictures, these pictures that were not there before.
What was it in your education that made it most possible for you to find and express yourself as an artist?
There is no question about that; it was mainly “time”: The fact that, while I was there, I had time to attempt to come to grips with all those things; to look at pictures, go to exhibitions, have discussions with my fellow students. It was important to just spend time in this metier and try things out without having to produce a masterpiece immediately and simply of being able to work in a small, protected experimental laboratory and slowly get a feeling for the direction my own path would take.
Does that have anything to do with technique or methods?
Yes, but within a rather limited framework. I had a very good professor in the theory of colours; he did not teach us how to mix colours but talked to us about them and he was very good at it. When he spoke about orange, you really saw all of that before your eyes. It was incredible. Also, what this colour could do. It was really very impressive. And apart from that, the important things were the experiments, trying things out, changing between methods and materials.
You also studied textile design. How important was that? There is a trail through your work that explicitly deals with that – with materials that are worked into the surface.
There is the series with the threads where chance plays a large role. I just let the thread fall onto the paper and then sew it in wherever it lands. All of the threads have the same length and I was really enthusiastic about just how beautiful the form the threads themselves produced could be. You would need to slave-away madly if you wanted to draw and invent these forms yourself. Spontaneous ideas and experimental approaches were important for me in my tissue-paper works.
Was some kind of pressure behind this period of experimenting and seeking: I have to find myself; I have to find my inner vein of gold, as it were? And, how do you recognise it when you do?
It develops naturally and you also have trust it no matter where it takes you. The students at the Academy in Vienna possibly suffer a bit more from the competition and also from pressure from external sources because outsiders come to see what kind of up-and-coming artists are in the offing. It was not at all like that at the Mozarteum. It was peaceful and rather homey in Salzburg. I found it quite pleasant there; also among the students because we supported each other.
An artist’s life is fundamentally difficult because he or she is very dependent on the market. How was it in your case? Did you often doubt that you were doing the right thing? Did you ever think: “If this doesn’t work, what alternatives do I have?”
Strangely enough, I always felt sure that it would function somehow. I have a kind of basic optimism. And I have two siblings who always helped me a great deal when things were tough. They often bought a picture from me when I really had no money. The family gave me support and always provided me with a certain sense of security.
Was there a point when you felt: This could be it?
There really was a moment like that: Towards the end of my study, I began working with oil paints and, quite spontaneously, made a series in my small studio at the time. That is when I had a strong feeling that “this is really my artistic language”. It was a wonderful moment. That is when I realised: This is right for me.
What did the picture look like?
It began to vibrate, the lines started to tremble, it quite simply came to life. It came to life and started to breathe; it had its own flow, its own individual energy. This first series somehow got things moving. That is when I also understood: I am different from the others; this is my own, personal language.
Are works from this series also on display in this exhibition?
It also has some very early works in it.
On the other hand, are there also works that you failed at – because, unexpectedly, the moment when you breathed life into them did not function? Works that – in a manner of speaking – remained stillborn on the easel?
There actually is a moment when you have be careful not to do too much – it is usually at the end, when the picture is almost finished and you have the feeling that you should do some more. But, fundamentally you only have to look and absolutely should not do anything except possibly add a spot here or there. That is an extremely tricky moment with every picture because, as an artist, you like what you are doing; you like mixing the colours, you like the smell. You like to get on with it and that is precisely what you should not do with the picture. You have to let it hang around and wait and maybe find a fresh idea for it. It can take two or even three months until you really come up with something. It might be another colour that you then introduce into it.
Your pictures develop out of the grounding; you layer colours. Do you have the final product in mind or is the result open?
I have a vision of the direction I want the picture to take, also concerning the colouration, and which grounding I need to be able to ultimately produce this red. Some of the pictures have eleven or twelve layers so there is a plan behind them. But, of course, spontaneous reactions to what I see always play a role.
Do these spontaneous reactions not only depend on what you see but also on how you feel?
No. You simply have to concentrate. It is extremely hard concentration work. It is the same as in any other area where you have to concentrate; the emotional state you happen to find yourself in is not always the one you need at that moment.
Do you have to go through a kind of lock when you go into your studio to be able to start working again where you left off the day before?
Absolutely! I have a couple of little rituals that I perform to find my way back into my work. For example, I put on my painting apron and pick up my book; I have a workbook in which I make notes and small drawings or simply write down titles I like. Each picture has a small legend there. Soon after I hold this book in my hands, I feel that I have arrived. I prefer to start early in the morning if I had worked in the studio the evening before and gone over what I planned to do next day in peace and quiet. That is when I think ahead about each picture once again and sometimes mix the colours so that I can start working immediately on the next morning. That is super for the concentration – if nothing gets in the way.
This exhibition is a kind of mid-career show – do you feel that it illustrates clear stages of your work?
Basically, the last 18 years are touched on. The main section will be the Cascades and Pulsations. The Pulsations really make up a large series, and there are also works from the previous series that have a more peaceful feeling in which the sweeping brushstrokes are not so predominant and where there are also tranquil areas of colour and occasional point-shaped spaces in the grounding that are like small views into the depths.
The Pulsations – which you also call “Flankerlen” (Fluff) – these shimmering, seemingly moving elements in the pictures that cannot be grasped, seem to have become one of your trademarks?
The sweeping brushstrokes are executed from top to bottom so that they fall down the surface of the painting like squiggles or small spirals or – precisely – fluff and twist and turn… But that applies mainly to this cycle where that is so prominent. The one before was different and I have no idea how the next one will be.
There is movement in your pictures, but it is not very expansive. There are these strong, stationary moments; the movement takes place within an orderly framework. Transcending the picture, the grand gesture – is that something you supress or do not even feel?
This grand gesture has been performed so many times – and it is always thought to be terribly significant. And I think that I am really not very interested in that. However, I can imagine that the formats will become even larger and that the colours will possibly wander in another direction and that the forms will also be different; but I don’t believe that I would work with any more freedom if I were to perform a grand gesture.
Could that be typically female – abstaining from the grand gesture?
Well, you know, I would have nothing against the picture getting bigger. (laughs). But, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t find it so interesting to set a grand gesture on it like a signature. I don’t know if that’s female or not. But I really do find a large format great – and you can show strength in another way. Strength, but subtlety at the same time – that is what I find interesting. That means: poetry but still full of passion.
The position of the woman in the art business is something that is repeatedly discussed with great intensity. Is that a question that was – or still is – important for you?
Something that really pleased me was the Joan Mitchell exhibition in Bregenz and now in Cologne. For me as a female painter, it is wonderful to see that they are now increasingly coming to the public’s attention, the great female painters who have always existed. And that you can also follow in the footsteps of women and not only men. And, I also hope that more will become visible in today’s art business. Of course, I would like to be represented in some museums or exhibition houses where I am not yet present – but a lot of male colleagues definitely have this problem as well.
You almost participated in an exhibition in the Lower Belvedere in Vienna in connection with the Monet show, but, at short notice, it did not materialise. There are obvious associations to Monet in some pictures that make one think in the direction of his water lilies and wisteria. That is not so apparent with Werner Berg. Is there also a connection to him?
What I find fascinating about Werner Berg is that he came out of this German Expressionist environment and also had a connection to Nolde and then went to Carinthia. I find this combination really fascinating; that he had this strong, intensive colouration that is so very individual and was very modern in his day and that he then found inspiration in Carinthian popular art and church art and introduced it into his work. He built a very beautiful bridge to the past – but remained modern. I find that beautiful in his work; that his art delves into the depths.
Is that also important for you?
What I was always very fond of was to search for something that would last for a long time and was not only short-lived and modern. I am always cautious when there is a hype in any direction whatsoever. I have always longed for something that is linked with other things that were already there.