Frank Gerritz interviewed by Mark Harris and Alison Green at Bartha Contemporary, 28 September 2012
MH: You were just speaking of your vocabulary. I’d like to hear something about that.
FG: It originates in ’88 with my solid cast iron sculptures that have a special size. This one has the dimensions of a human head, but casting it in iron made it 60 kilos, which is the weight of a human body. A lot of measurements that I used later came from that time. Also when I started it was not the time to think of having the equipment to carry things, so this size was also practical. If I were to make it 5cms longer it would be much heavier and I couldn’t have moved it around.
There was a the side that stands on the floor and I was interested to show that. It brought something into the context, like a fingerprint. What I liked was to have this heavy solid sculpture sitting on the ground where you could really tell that it was solid, and on the other hand you had the only hidden side as a print, and I installed it not next to the sculpture but at head-height. So you are looking at something you don’t see and it transfers through your body to the ground that you share with the sculpture. Suddenly you have something like a secret, a very sensitive thing, because it’s as if the skin of the sculpture gets transformed and creates a picture of its own.
MH: Oh, so you always showed them together?
FG: Yes, and this was done according to measurements as well. I put myself on the floor with my feet on the ground and my head goes this direction, which is exactly 180cm away, which is my size. 60cm is like a step. So without telling too much or raising this as a big issue you underlay in a sculpture installation some kind of body relationship. You walk into the gallery and you see it is not just divided in half; there is another measurement inside.
In 1989 I started doing the drawing. I had books full of sketches but I never let them be part of artworks, and I never sold or exhibited them because I thought they were not the main thing. But I was interested in doing a drawing, which stood on its own. The first show I had in New York was in 1991, at Stark Gallery. It included the sculptures and prints as installations. A year later I had prepared a new site-specific installation, but in the meantime the gallery had moved. A nice surprise, the director thought, but I flipped completely because it didn’t work at all. The old room had two columns and I had produced three sculpture installations. The new space had one column, and this didn’t work at all because the centre of the room was suddenly the column. I really had to work out something to solve this problem. I said we will not do this show as we planned, and he got very nervous. I said the centre of this room is the column and I have to make an art piece out of it.
We had a restorer sand everything down. I wasn’t interested in the decoration on the capital, just the round thing, to make a drawing out of it. The centre is something for me as important as the wall, because it holds the whole building and architecture together. I think Alison said that it was like Brancusi’s Endless Column because the gallery was on the third floor but the building had eight stories, so in theory it was possible to have the drawing on every single floor. Maybe it was a coincidence, but when I hugged the column I could put my fingers together, so it was 180cm as well.
MH: I wanted to ask you about something. In her essay on your wall drawings, Alison wrote about the experience of seeing the column disappear in the space. Sometimes you might look up and think it’s gone, or it doesn’t look quite the same. So, suddenly in this work of reductive gestures we are faced with what we wouldn’t normally think of as part of that theatre of actions: the whole outside world comes in.
FG: This happened in the drawing I did at Wynn Kramarsky’s exhibition space. I made a drawing nearly the width of my shoulders and it functioned more or less like a door. And people would stand in front of it and say, what is it? And I would say it is a pencil drawing. What? And when they walk close to it suddenly they see themselves, they see the colour of their shirt and their face. What I realized by doing these things was that my interest was not just to transform a drawing into something else, like architecture. Or how doing these drawings–stroke for stroke for thousands of strokes–you were polishing these little particles of oil, making a surface and suddenly it was like a projection screen. A drawing could be the size of a field, and you could have figuration in front of it, and movement.
Whatever people call reductive or Minimalism becomes a very rich thing, letting things from outside in, what the minimalists would never allow. What Donald Judd would never allow–content–not just colour, but titles from music and all this to prove it’s not like Minimalism at all.
MH: So how come Eric Stark even showed you?
FG: Well, I was the nerd in the gallery. He tried to sell my sculptures and my pencil drawings, the ones on paper or those on MDF, under the name of painting. This is the worst, craziest thing when people are talking about painting in front of what are quintessentially drawings. A pencil and a piece of paper, how can you call this a painting? Some people are so floppy using language and names. I think this is a pristine thing in language: you can get a little bit close to what something is, but in the end you over-step so many borders by saying this is a drawing. People say why are you always using black? And I say, black? And they say “Oh, colour, Oh there is colour in the black after all”. There are so many different ways of expressing oneself. I understood how rich these directions can be by adding to it but still being between the chairs of drawing, sculpture and painting…
AG: I wanted to turn to that. You object to a description of your work as painting. But you also use a paint-stick. It’s not a brush, but it is oil paint, isn’t it fundamentally?
FG: After the Column Drawing and the next exhibition, which comprised large-scale pencil drawings on paper, there was a break and I found myself searching for another support. I didn’t want to come into this painter context. I was always searching for a direct connection, thinking and doing, so I found MDF and sanded it and created all kind of things that were off the wall. But I was always trying to keep it in the sculpture context. I didn’t want to be too close to painters like Günter Umberg, Alan Uglow or Winston Roeth who were using MDF as a support in that particular reductive or Minimalist painting context–albeit very special and very good.
When I was doing research I found out about aluminum, and through a process of anodizing it I could create a surface, which could catch light. The more light comes onto this anodized aluminum the brighter it gets. I was interested in doing drawing with this. I also had this paint-stick which was better than pencil because it is so difficult to protect the pencil drawings, like at art fairs where people move by and bang them with their bags or put their hands on them; I wanted to have something more stable. I started using brushes to build up layers. It was the opposite of pencil and white paper. Using horizontal and vertical layers and different types of depth I could create a different type of surface where light sits on it, so your eyes dive into it and it would carry you. It’s like a photograph by Hiroshi Sugimoto where the waves go to the horizon and it really gets you in there. We know of this standing at the sea. This is a kind of language.
AG: How did you start making these new works with paint-stick, the ones in this show?
FG: One day when I entered the workshop of my framer I saw a stack of museum cardboard, and I said what’s that? He said well, it’s a question of definition: you’ve paid for it so you can take it, or you leave it and it’s garbage. It had these very correct angles and everything but I didn’t get it what it was…
AG: Oh, it’s what’s taken out when the window mat is cut…
FG: Yes, it’s what he cut to put my piece inside. I grabbed a bunch of them but they sat in the studio for years. One day my assistant was in the front studio drawing on the aluminum whilst I was working on my auction catalogue works. If this is my work table and this is my auction piece, this bit is going to be taped so I can hold it here, but of course the paint builds up on the side as the auction catalogues are pretty thick, so you have to clean it up. I needed to get the extra paint-stick residue on my work-table away, and I was yelling Christian, where do we have the paper towels? Can you bring me some? He said no, and I said shit, and grabbed one of these pieces of museum board and started putting the paint-stick residue onto it with the spatula I used to clean the table.
AG: So it’s not cured paint-stick, it’s new paint stick that was just around, it was still wet and flexible?
FG: I started playing around and suddenly I saw that if I do it this way or that, it’s exactly the same thing that happened with the strokes I was making on the aluminum. But I am not using brushes, I have these spatulas, which are very sharp, like knives, and I turn the colour in from the outside into the inside and build up something which is all done in a day or two. The whole process is completely different from making the works on aluminum, which take months, and with them you know what you are doing: you start in the left corner and you end over there. It’s like writing something. This is completely different. You are thinking about creating a space. The picture-field [German: Bildraum], is a picture and the roundness of space. For example this black field is a space. I want it to function not just like a black thing, but to have a body in it. Yesterday Colin Newman from the band Wire was here and he said it was like a sound. I said I thank you so much for that, because nothing functions in my studio without music. This is where my soul comes from. I believe in this: it is not just speaking about sculpture. There is a body that you create and it even has a sound…
MH: Could you say more about the field of sound? Because we would imagine them to be more about an absence of sound, a lack of sound, than something truly sonorous. The discourse in the 1950s around silence, Rauschenberg and Cage…
FG: I would be the opposite. There is this guy Henry Rollins and he did a spectacular album, ‘The End of Silence’. When people thought I might be like a monk doing my yoga exercises in front of my work, it’s the opposite: it’s like hell. When we do the wall-drawings there are some rules. We are allowed, wherever it is, to play music as loud as we want, and whoever is a part of this can drink and do what he likes, so it’s a pretty wild process going on there and nobody can stop us because this is the rule. When we did the installation at the Weserburg Kunsthalle we were on the fourth floor and you could hear Metallica hammering and eight of us were on the scaffolding…so the people who came to see the Jörg Immendorff exhibition had to listen to what we were playing.
MH: But how does that impact the work? Because on the one hand we have Alan Uglow playing The Fall during one of his openings and Steven Parrino working to punk rock, but the results are completely different.
FG: Completely. When I did the wall-drawing at the Weserburg the director wanted to leave all of the dirt and everything to say look at this, it’s all rock-n-roll. But for me this is the end of the story. The sound is already in there and the fifteen hands that created the drawing are in there, but we will not show it. You take it away and it’s a pure thing and then life can come into it. It doesn’t need the attitude being shown. I don’t want to hide it but there is enough there.
AG: It’s back to the conversation about context. Now you expect all that to be provided as well as the art object, such as the history of how a work was made, or a text to help you interpret it, performances related to it, etc., etc.
FG: It’s all completely chaos when we do this, but this is the opposite of what the end result is going to be like. The space is completely full of CDs and garbage and all this and when it’s over you take this away.
In the end the edges have to be straight and everything. Whatever happened in three or four months, sometimes six or seven years, it’s all part of that. It may be visible if you take your time to go into it, and you can reflect the outside into a work. This may not help the situation but it may let you tolerate it. I can live with this, that I spend six years on one piece, because in the end I know it is not a loss of time. I believe in that. In the end I know, even if I’m a wreck, it’s going to remain there. It’s a signal for something that nobody else knows.
MH: It’s clear that they take a long time to make so we can read concepts of duration in them. But through that duration, that time you spent on it, can you say what accrues, what is gained?
FG: Well, you are there, you feel that you are there. I am responsible now to feed this twenty-five years of context. You have to take care, like you take care of children. To really put the energy in, to go on and find other possibilities to allow this language to grow. There was a nice experience with my oldest collector recently. He visited when I was preparing the four solo exhibitions all happening this month, for which we had to move a lot of work around. After he spent two hours talking and looking at works he’s very familiar with–pencil drawings, works on aluminium, auctions catalogue works–he looks at the new work, which is now here at Bartha. He then says, I’m collecting your work now for twenty years and I can read your language and feel at home and very comfortable. I have a conversation, and I don’t need you anymore. I always have a grip and I can follow it easily, even if it’s more complex or more reduced. But now, with this new work, you have taken away my hand grips. But what is left over is what is inside here. This lets me see that now it is just like a space filled with light. Whatever, it is very strict.
AG: That’s interesting, given the conversation about duration. So we’re just in it now. But as you described before, these paintings on the museum board are quick–you can do one in a day.
FG: Some of them, yes.
AG: Well, they are quick in comparison to seven months
FG: There’s only one way to create the aluminium works; you cannot do them faster because you have to do one layer and it has to wait to dry.
MH: For how long?
FG: Well, the first layer, for example, is a week. I can only do these things in the summertime, which is crazy–there are so many rules I don’t control. The material only works with a warm, dry air outside, so if it’s a warm summer it’s perfect. We open the windows and have screens in front of them so the flies don’t come in, because whatever is on your pullover–a hair–finds its way and sits there. It’s like a wound, open for a long time and the more layers you put on the longer the drying process and the more uncontrollable is the drying process. If rain comes up for a week and we are the middle of a drying process the whole thing is going to be tacky at the end so we have to put another layer on top of it. The thing is very complex. And people say why don’t you just make it easy and do it with acrylic, but you never would create a surface like this with acrylic. I can create this depth with the wax and the oil, which create a direct context. I am interested in this when I do the pencil on the wall or on the paper or on the MDF. I want to have the same thing with the paint stick. No ground, no priming at the beginning.
MH: And you move it around, with a spatula?
FG: Or a palette knife, but whatever you use it is very simple. It has a wooden grip and a sharp end, like when you fill in walls.
AG: The surface has a feeling of these really, really amazing wall plasters, made with a knife that creates a polish at the end.
FG: You don’t see it from the front, which is important to me, but if you turn here, you have it all. I want to create this colour-space, this light-space, this projection screen, whatever. I didn’t want to create loads of colour. I want to have this three-dimensional thing that comes from the way I add the paint onto the surface. You have the feeling you can dive into a cloud, like when you look up into a cloudy sky you know that there is sun, but the clouds are so thick that the light doesn’t get through. There’s always a silver line running around the edge in my aluminum works and they always have this hard-line context, but here it is all about the light.
MH: It’s a cream card, not a white card. The panel seems a lot lighter, in terms of weightlessness, but you do have this beveled edge at the back which makes it much sheerer. Even if it were aluminum and you went all the way to the edge it would still have a different presence.
FG: The toughest thing was to create this edge so it’s pristine and focused. I am very happy with this part of the piece. Because what I have here is a colour from the material from the cardboard thus colour inside without using another colour. And there are so many types of cold and warmth in that white. It gets that depth into what I call Bildraum, a three-dimensional colour space, just by using two elements.
AG: Bild is an interesting word, because it has multiple implications. Picture, like a painting in a frame that you can pick up and move, but it means image as well.
FG: You call it a “painting”. We have a word for this, “Gemälde” and you never put that into the context of drawing or sculpture, a “Gemälde” is a classic colour brushed on canvas. But “Bild” or picture can also be a photo. The German language is very pristine and really helps me put it to the edge, but I’m also uncomfortable that I don’t know the word for what I am trying to say here. There is this three-dimensional thing, because it is a drawing, but it is also a wall sculpture. Here, what is left over is really the space, which is normally lined up with hard edges, a horizontal and a vertical. In here it is all one; you can dive into it.
AG: It matters that it’s a readymade as well. Winston Roeth, for example, goes right back down to pigment and there is this whole alchemy in making his works.
FG: I don’t want to get close to this. I want to keep it very, very simple, so everybody understands. And so the beauty or the complexity of the thing comes from the most simple thing. There is another everyday word and you are talking to somebody and you do some sketches on the phone, you know how a pencil works, you know. And suddenly you are confronted by something, which has a depth in it, and you cannot believe it is done with just one thing.
AG: It’s like you’ve gotten into the paint-stick and turned it inside out and made it into something workable.
FG: I need this friction, something is pushing from the other side that doesn’t make it too comfortable. For me the experience of finishing a thing in one day was a completely different process. I didn’t know what I was searching for and suddenly it comes and you think, oh wow, this is great and then it’s gone. I was going through emotional waves when I looked at the studio, and said I hope you look like this tomorrow. Coming back the next morning and turning around and it looks good as last night. Then you try something similar but none of them come out the same and you have to learn ‘to let five be even’ [as they say in German]. You have to know the second that you have to stop….
Niklas [von Bartha] was very positive pushing it–“Let it flow, don’t get your head in it”. I’m always with the concept, working my head into it, and thinking maybe we can have a four-panel piece, or maybe we can have a black one, and then a second one. And he said “Just stop that: just make one a day, or one every two or three days, whatever. But don’t start to bring another concept in. Just let it happen, because I know you can create something in a different way, in the new language”.
It is a completely different language. I was making photos of details every day and I could send photos to him every day. There were a lot of questions I had to ask myself: Is this finished? Is it a Frank Gerritz? And he said, “Oh yes”. Here if you go on for a second you can destroy it. All my ways of working are intense but here you have to be completely there and you have to see that. After a certain time, I don’t want to use this word perfection, but I have to be able to say this is good, and then we put it back on the wall and let it dry.
MH: I was thinking about my responses, remembering when I was living in New York surrounded by these monochrome artists, and often I challenged some of the assertions of how their work was made. I don’t know if you ever met Fred Thursz…well, Fred insisted to me that his work was only action, was only process, was only procedure: heating the paint and applying it. You would look at a green painting, and he would say no it’s red; it’s built up of layers of colour. So he put a huge amount of effort into defending his position. And then I found out that he was mixing material from Auschwitz into his paint. So I said you can’t be serious, this is crazy. And it seems that frequently the context widens unexpectedly. I mentioned earlier Alan Uglow listening to The Fall, and wonder whether there is a positioning within the group which requires a theatre of radicality to be enacted. It interests me so much that things broaden. And I was pleased when you started to talk about context and auxiliary material.
FG: I would say this is very important for art today. Without knowing all this I cannot do a work like this and just say ‘it just came up like this’. I have to know all this and I have to know all the works from these colleagues to do a piece like this, and say I’m allowed to do it because it is something I know already for 20 years. And now we have talked so much and you ask me about my language. We started talking about the ‘End of Silence’, where there is a lot of chaos and performance. I think this is the end of language. There is no talk and no cheap talk anymore; it is just there. It’s about this very reduced colour-space and it doesn’t need lines anymore and it doesn’t need hand grips anymore. It really relaxes me…
MH: That’s interesting because I did go away thinking, given the lightness of these new works, that they resonated like pages from a book, but a book without text and pages without text. I don’t know if you know Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy, but at a certain point in this book–which is a postmodern book centuries before the term is used–Sterne is discussing the death of Yorick [AG: a character in Hamlet] and he admits he can’t describe Yorick’s death and follows this admission by two blank pages. It’s a famous occurrence in literature. There are lots of eccentric plot devices in Tristam Shandy, but this is the most conspicuous one, and it’s readable in many different ways. For Sterne it was a bit of a joke, but it is also about that point of inexpressibility, about what we can’t comprehend and what can’t be explained.
FG: There is the end to language. You just have to look. To try to make a photo of this work is very hard, for example. It’s tough if you want to describe them as then you will get to the end very, very soon. It is something which is very concentrated but not arbitrary. It is worked out, and in a very complex way you bring it to a point. By pushing the colour in and bringing it away you create this surface. There is a way in which it is so reflective, you see the whole street in it.
AG: The artist I’ve been thinking about in relation to these works is On Kawara, with his date paintings. You have rules, but his are made according to a set of intellectual instructions, and then the painting has to happen within that. Even so, I’ve always speculated about what happens while he’s making them. What’s he thinking? What’s he doing while he’s working? The mystery of Kawara’s work is that it’s very ordinary: just putting paint down, always the same size, or two different sizes; sometimes the lettering changes or the format of the date changes. But always this rule that it has to be finishable in one day. Within this then there is everything that happened during that day. The context is there, in effect. Sometimes museums will show a painting with its companion newspaper—which he boxes together in each instance—side by side. These are triggers to wider questions about painting’s singularity and contextual meaning.
FG: I think this is what I tried not to do. I could come up and say it has to be finished in a day, and I would try to make that happen and not to ruin it. What I create with language is always to find an opposite.
AG: So in a way the parameters are set by what the material can do–in that you would ruin it if you tried to go back into it?
FG: No, I can work two or three days on it. But this is the start of it. I have very interesting results and have to accept that this leaves out issues of context. This is the first time I don’t have the context. There are no rules right now. I have a chance to see whether this fits into what I have done in the last twenty-five years.