John Bunker: I guess I’d like to start by asking what attracts you to abstraction as an approach to painting?
Sabine Tress: I suppose I haven’t really thought about why I’d gone with abstract painting… I went to art college in Paris and my so called teachers (Pierre Matthey and Jan Voss) were all more or less in the abstract field. I also heard about artists like Claude Viallat, Jean-Pierre Pincemin, Jean-Charles Blais for the first time there and I was fascinated. The fact that they would use colour and paint as means to express themselves without adding any or too much content, that was very liberating for me. I think I also loved it that there was no “right” or “wrong”. I hate rules. Abstraction meant freedom of choice, meant experimenting. I have stuck with abstraction because of those reasons but also because I find it so utterly unattractive having to paint something that is real or that should represent something. I mean I have tried it, oh yes, but it never lasted very long nor was it very satisfying. Ultimately I want to experiment, play, break boundaries (especially my own) in order to see if I can find the sublime. Some paintings by Joan Mitchell or Claude Viallat are sublime. I look at them and I am lost for words. Bliss.
JB: Just staying with this idea of freedom and rule breaking in abstraction for a moment…. I saw a tweet from a regular contributor of AbCrit, which said “there is freedom in not knowing what you are doing and there is freedom in knowing exactly what you are doing.” I wondered what you think about that duality or paradox in approaches to work? How does it relate (if it relates at all) to your own approach to abstraction?
ST: But it all comes down to the way you are and the way you work, I think. So for example, my next door studio neighbour whose work is figurative and very precise, almost photo-realistic, he keeps saying when he is in my studio: “well, I wouldn’t know where to start if I was you. It must be so hard”. I know he likes my work, precisely because of the lack of obvious rules that I have and the freedom I therefore enjoy. But he’d be incapable of working like I do. He does loads of preparatory work, drawings, projections, studies. For me this would be death or at least extremely boring. But of course I could never work as accurately as he does and on a certain level I am losing out. But my point of departure is different to his. And I am a different personality. I love the “not knowing where it’ll take me”. It’s a challenge. I struggle. I despair, I get anxious but by trying to overcome those worries I experience a big thrill and I see it as an achievement as such. And I want to make room for the unknown. That’s the exciting part of painting for me. I love the surprise within the working process even though it might not always be pleasant. But I have also a set of my own rules which I can “go back to” if nothing else works, you know. I speak my own language to a certain extent, so there is also always a bit of a help, a comfort, a certain security in that. But I try really hard to stay open. This exercise as such is a big part of my work.
JB: That brings us back maybe to the term ‘sublime’ – only because you use the words anxiety and thrill etc. I wonder if we could talk a little about what ‘sublime’ in abstract painting means to you. It obviously has a big history! I wonder how you deal with that history?
ST: Only in recent years have I been looking back and again at history of abstract painting. I think before that I was bored by it. Maybe I was trying to find my own way, I’m not sure. So now that I am looking back at what has been done in abstract painting I often feel in awe. Like seeing a Joan Mitchell painting, a good one, is sublime. And it means I am lost for words basically. Emotionally it triggers all the right things (amazement, respect, surprise) but also on a technical level I feel so overwhelmed by the achievement. It’s difficult to describe, isn’t it… the sublime? It is of course very subjective. I went to see Claude Viallat’s work recently in a museum in Koblenz. I did not like the museum or the way they presented his work. It made me very angry but his paintings, they were so strong, so “sublime” (not all of course) so in a way, it wasn’t important anymore that the setting was crap. Sublime might be a combination of colours, a composition. Sublime for me is when the work is loaded with originality and beauty. These are very extreme words I know. I suppose these days, it’s not what is de rigueur. Maybe my view on abstract painting is quite old fashioned. It’s not very rational. I am not saying I only like old fashioned abstract art like de Kooning’s. To tell you the truth, what is most impressive for me right now in abstract painting is what my peers do in the UK and the US. None of those artists work with big galleries. But their work often is surprising and sometimes even sublime. And it’s encouraging too. And like I said before, I have been looking at French painting quite a lot too – Fautrier, support surface, Martin Barré, Pincemin, Viallat…
I feel my work is quite different from what is currently happening in the abstract painting world. A lot of work that is currently made by younger artists seems very easy to digest, very well made… small formats. I think I am more and more looking for a personalised version of painting. And above all I want my work to reflect a very individual view and complex emotions. I don’t know if my work does that but I am attracted by works that do that, plainly speaking. As I mentioned, I have been looking at French painters again recently like Viallat and Pincemin. Maybe the fact that I spent my art college years entirely in France has actually influenced my way of looking at abstract painting. I am also quite fascinated by this French artist called Moolinex. He is a bit of a nutter but he is very funny and his works are quite anarchistic. As well as Joan Mitchell I’ve also looked at Guston’s work in the last six months.
JB: Can you say you have moved into oil paints and away from acrylics recently? What is oil paint giving you that acrylics don’t?
ST: I started using oils over a year ago. I had never worked with oil paint before. It was awful at first. I did not understand how oils work, you know, that you can make it more transparent if you want etc. It was just like chewing gum, really hostile. I started to experiment a bit and now I think I can handle it. Haha! With acrylics it had become a bit of a dead end. I know how it works – too well I guess. I was a master of acrylic paint. My work had become a bit too gestural, too expressive, too predictable for my taste). I still like to use it… but oil paint allows me to have thick and textured bits as well as transparencies. It’s more intense, lusher, creamier. With acrylics I used to work with layers a lot. To create some depth I suppose. Or because I painted over what I had just done because I wasn’t happy with it. It was almost automatic. Painting layers over layers had become a habit. I still paint over a lot of stuff when using oils but it’s less automatic. My working process has become slower. I think that was necessary because there’s no reason for always painting in a frenzy. I want to give my work more time to breathe during the painting process.
JB: What you have said makes me think about my own ignorance of post- war European abstraction. Viallat’s work being a good example of this. Do you think, from your perspective – being based in Cologne – that European abstraction has not been properly investigated and assimilated internationally? How is abstract art thought of where you are right now?
ST: I am not sure if European abstraction hasn’t been properly investigated internationally. But an interesting question which we should maybe discuss over a beer. But I do think that if as an artist or painter you are not the star type, then being internationally recognized is going to be hard. Take Viallat for example, he is definitely not a poser, a media person. On top of everything his English is probably crap, I mean, at the opening in Koblenz / Germany he spoke French and someone had to translate all the time. But he is also the sort of artist who is more interested in working and evolving in his painting… He does like to talk about his work and he is capable and he was a teacher. So he is not a hermit. But he just does not play the game I guess. So it’s no surprise that outside France, not many people know about his work.
When I left London in 2002 there was a huge figurative movement with Neo Rauch etc. Since then, abstract art has gained its place in the art world again… and in the German art world. I do feel though that what people produce now is often quite easy to digest, they don’t take many risks, they like to stay on the save side. This sort of work is often a bit too pleasant and decorative for my taste. Then you have young artists like David Ostrowski who really stand out. His work is quite unusual, quite minimalist but in a sort of challenging way. Charline von Heyl is German but lives and works in New York. She is not your typical German painter. I am not sure if I was able to answer your question. What do you think? What’s it like being an abstract painter in the UK?
JB: I can certainly relate to your thoughts on work being made at the moment that is in small formats and “easy to digest” as you put it and a bit safe… You are prepared to work on a larger scale. What does working big give you in terms challenges and satisfaction?
ST: If I could, I’d like to work a lot more on bigger formats. Physically, it’s a challenge. The huge format I worked on recently… I had to get on a chair in order to reach nearer to the top. Small formats can be challenging too as I need to control my actions much more. The bigger formats on the other hand, allow me to ‘slam the paint’ on, I have more freedom to experiment, leave the canvas ‘empty’ on certain areas. Bigger formats allow me to have more of a dialogue with the painting. It’s like a person or a presence standing there. It also feels more like creating a very personal reality, something that stands its ground. I imagine sometimes that if I could paint lots of big formats and that I would then be able to live in this painted environment.
JB: When I was a student (late 80s) large-scale gestural abstraction was looked at as a macho conceit, an expression of an over-heated, out-dated masculinity. Do you have any thoughts on this as female painter working in a similar vein today?
ST: The first thing that came to my mind when I read ‘macho conceit, an expression of an over- heated, out dated masculinity’ was of course de Kooning. Well, I think women can be just as macho and over-heated as men (Joan Mitchell).These days it might less be a gender issue though but more a question of a certain attitude – today’s artists seems less involved, less passionate, more moderate, more PC. Me, I am fed up with playing any kind of game. I have played ‘nice girl’ for too long and even though I don’t feel the need to play ‘bad girl’ I simply want to paint and make some money so I can continue to paint.
Sabine Tress is currently holding a solo exhibition – ‘Run Run Painter Run’ – at Appels Gallery, Amsterdam; and is included in ‘A Dream Within A Dream’, Bankley Studios, Manchester.
Upcoming shows include: ‘eigentlich abstrakt’, Galerie Kunst 2, Heidelberg, Germany; ‘Summer Show’ at Galerie Proarta, Zurich, Switzerland; ‘Art Is Good’, Wright Gallery, Northport, USA.