Lawrence R. Rinder in conversation with Stefan Kürten, 2013
LR: Your most recent show in New York in 2012 was great. Strangely, the images of disorder in the paintings later came true when Chelsea was underwater and strewn with detritus. Do you think of your work as futuristic?
SK: Well, not in the sense of a prophesy; it is more concerned with the present, the way we feel and experience ourselves and our environments now; and of course the past, as we access our memories— be they “true” or “false.” The futuristic quality in my images is something from the future, but it’s a future from the past, an optimism laden with bright promises and bedeviled by moral imperatives. I think that my works conflate both space and time. In the way that the images, their perspectives and detailing, leave it unclear if a space is indoor or outdoor, so too is it hard to discern if an image originates in a 1950s interior design magazine or a photo I took this year.
LR: Have you ever shown your photos? I know you were at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf when Bernd and Hilla Becher headed the photography department there, were they an influence?
SK: I certainly knew their work, but in Germany the whole tradition of documentary photography from August Sander and Albert Renger-Patzsch is very present, and now even more so with the Bechers’ former students, like Gursky, Ruff, and Struth.
Initially I only used photos that I had found in books or magazines. From a technical point of view they had to meet my particular criteria of objectiveness, brilliance, depth of focus, perspective. But I also looked for a certain universality and anonymity, combined with something else, something I might call “uncanny.”
When I started to take a lot of photos myself, I realized how hard it is to meet my requirements. Sometimes I take up to fifty photos of one image that interests me, then maybe two or three make it into my archive. In ten years I have kept about 1,500 photos.
They are more like sources than independent artworks to me, but maybe I will show them one day. When I look at the camera display and press the shutter, I’m really just thinking about the next painting. I never adhere strictly to all the details, I “rebuild” them until their very lack of authenticity makes them true. It sounds contradictory, but the more information a photograph provides, the more permission I have to exceed the limitations of its reality.
What you were saying earlier about trying to capture “the future in the past,” reminds me of Jacques Derrida’s concept of “hantologie” [“hauntology”]. This idea, which he developed in Specters of Marx [Spectres de Marx, 1993], spawned a whole genre of “hauntological” music that shares many characteristics with your paintings: the uncanniness, the embrace of “glitches,” the dark echoes of mid- twentieth century optimism.
Yes, the deliberate uncertainty in hauntological music’s relationship to its past is a sort of temporal amphibology that correlates to the spatial uncertainty in my works. Of course, time is a factor too, as is music. . . .
Many characteristics of hauntological music—the use of vintage synthesizers and outdated sound engineering, supported by various sorts of “weathering,”—have counterparts or equivalences in my paintings: The seeming familiarity of my subject matter, its origin, often inspired by “vintage” photos; the gold underpainting, giving the overlying colors a faded look, creates an indefinable, eerie light. And what you termed “the embrace of glitches,” in my paintings they could appear as decorative motifs from wallpaper patterns, “false” mirrorings of portions in a painting, or subtle hints of infiltrations of the “idyll,” like a door left wide open.
My parents’ generation, those who experienced the horrors of World War II in Germany, had to come to terms with their past. Looking back at my childhood, my parents’ coping with trauma, unnoticed by them, strongly affected my upbringing. The “ghosts” of the past were always present and had an influence on who I would become. Certainly, they left their mark in my paintings, disrupting the clearcut, conventional senses of “past,” “present,” and “future.”
Using song titles as the “borrowed” names for many of my paintings for me is also a way of combining the feeling, the secret of a song from the past with the present reality of painting.
Graffiti makes an appearance in several of the paintings in your last exhibitions. On the one hand, “wild style” tags echo the decorative patterns that show up in many of the works. On the other hand, the tags violate the images’ seductive bourgeois equanimity. Since much of your work derives from your own life experience, I wonder if the graffiti in these works recalls for you the time you spent living on Clarion Alley in San Francisco, one of the most densely tagged streets in the world?
It’s funny that you bring up Clarion Alley. For a very long time my San Francisco memories were covered up by impressions of more current events in my life. But a few years ago, shortly before my mother died, we looked through photos that I had taken during those years in the 1990s. One of them showcased my motorcycle, parked in front of my place on Clarion Alley. My mother only looked at the graffiti—it was hardly visible in the background—shook her head, and said, “We were so glad you made it back.”
After I had moved to San Francisco and sent this photo to my parents, they kept calling me and even wired some money, so I could move away from the neighborhood. They imagined it was an evil and dangerous place, where people take drugs, get mugged, or killed. As you know, all that did indeed happen, but I just didn ́t know it at the time. I grew up living in a nice one-family house that my parents had built in the 1970s, with a manicured garden, in a “good” suburban neighborhood. To them, graffiti on a wall had the same menace as intentionally ripped-up flowers in a garden, or broken glass from a shattered bottle on a doorstep: an air of implicit threat to everything they believed in and had worked for.
I’m sure that, partly intentionally, partly unknowingly, I let my parents’ nightmares leave their mark in my paintings, as well as forming my own life experience.
You’re right about the ambiguity of the “wild style” tags in some of the work. For example, in SOH (2012), the graffiti has two functions: It is a compositional, “decorative” element in the painting, and at the same time a subtle threat, a disruption, in an otherwise banal and innocent scene.
LR: This tension between domesticity and danger makes me think of the strange ambiguity embedded in the German word heimlich which can mean pleasantly familiar and yet also hidden or lurking.
SK: Even though the houses and gardens that distinguish my paintings are drawn from real houses and gardens, taken from my own photos, books, or magazines, they are somehow transformed into the stuff of daydreams or nightmares. They are devoid of human presence, the apparent idyll feels isolated to the point of oppression. Nonetheless, there seems to be some sort of a presence, like a hidden secret, some- thing untold and left to our imaginations. So heimlich describes this unsettling, disturbing uncertainty very fittingly.
I looked up the etymology of heimlich. It’s from Old High German, meaning “zum Haus gehörend” [belonging to the house]. I’ll use it as the title of a painting! And there are other words derived from the root heim, like heimsuchen [to haunt or afflict] and heimtückisch [malicious].
Some of your paintings “take place” in Europe (presumably Germany) and others in the United States. How do you feel these sites differ in their resonance in your work?
Houses and gardens first appeared as a central theme in my paintings while I was living in the US. You chose Home, Studies for an Ideal Landscape (1989), for my first solo museum exhibition at Berkeley in 1989. The work consists of 36 small paintings, showing variations of the same idealized landscape, one that I “located” in Germany. Each painting features a different detail, like a soccer goal post, or a Christmas tree. For me, maybe painting these “homes” was a way of dealing with homesickness and nostalgia while creating a new identity in a foreign place.
Later, I moved back to Germany, but travelled a lot between there and the US, and I automatically looked for something more universal, or archetypical. I wanted my paintings to be “true” for Europe and the US; I wanted to evoke certain emotions, feelings, memories that everyone shares. I used a cer- tain international architecture, which can exist almost anywhere in the world.
Having lived in the US and Germany, I learned that the same image can provoke completely different responses. For an American, a painting of, let’s say a public housing project in Germany, might look like a desirable place—or vice versa.
More recently, I started highlighting the characteristics of different locations, leaving more of their traits and individuality. It permits a wider range of associations that are more “regional” and leaves room for misinterpretation, but also imagination.
I do sense that your work is becoming less objective and more fanciful. It always had those undercur- rents, but now they are becoming explicit—at times. In a way, it's a full circle, returning to one of your earliest paintings that I saw, Eternity Until Tomorrow (1992), now in the collection of Berkeley Art Museum, in which a cosmic constellation of desires, fears, and fantasies explodes across the canvas.
I’ve always felt especially connected to the work I made during my San Francisco years. Eternity Until Tomorrow is about adolescence, about being young and angry, affectionate and impatient.
In those early paintings, I developed many of the features that still define my paintings today. A lot of it comes from the techniques I use. The motifs were drawn in black, before adding other colors, rather like the way I use sepia to sketch out the composition in my paintings today. Seen from a distance, they give the impression of wallpaper patterns. There is a mysterious, indefinable light in the painting, and the background seems to consist of abstract clouds and light reflections, generating an otherworldly quality. Then as now, applying the color is the last step in my procedure, I still use several thin layers of paint on top of each other to achieve a muted, watercolor-like quality.
In my most recent paintings, the different qualities of light play a decisive part in the feelings they evoke and what you termed the “fanciful.” I have used gold, silver, and copper underpainting in many of my works since the 1990s to enhance the nostalgic mood and to lend a stately or spiritual sensibility to otherwise profane and commonplace scenes. The tone of the gold creates a special, indeterminate light that surrounds the motifs with an unreal, oneiric aura.
After a lot of research and attempts with different grounds, primers, acrylics, inks, and coatings, I was able to expand my palette. In the new work, the time of day seems to be variable, indeterminate sources of light cast dark, improbable shadows. There are subtle color transitions and strangely tinted golden skies seem to turn day into night and night into day. In some of the latest works, the images could be from a crime scene, or a film set illuminated by Klieg lights. In others, the light is reminiscent of over- exposed photos from the early years of color photography, or documentary footage of houses or their interiors one second before they are vaporized in a 1950s nuclear test.
While working on them, I often recalled images from my early childhood, like solar glare in front of black skies the moment before a thunderstorm. Sometimes it felt like the images were leading me to create their own individual “stage.” The multiple sentiments that are achieved through the varied light portend a less objective viewpoint: there seems to be a story behind each one of them, or a hidden secret, one that will never be revealed.
The conversation took place in January 2013
Stefan Kürten – Here comes the Night Works on Paper 2009-2013
Texts by Stephan Berg, Lawrence Rinder and Oliver Zybock
Catalog accompanying the exhibition
Stefan Kürten - Silencer, Galerie der Stadt Remscheid
ed. Oliver Zybock
Published by Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern, 2013