We begin by discussing Turps magazine and the state of art education in England when Lüpertz interrupts – What is he talking about? Does he have a painting school?
ML: First I want to say how surprised I am to hear about the conditions for painters in Britain, in my time Britain produced great and important colleagues, now painting is decline. The same happens in Germany too – in Germany painting is marginalised, painting doesn’t play a role at schools or academies anymore. The Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (Art Academy Dusseldorf) was the last Malerhort (Malerhort: very old fashioned, poetic description of a painting institution, like something from the myths of King Arthur and his knights. ed) but after I left this remarkable place the academy was given an ordinary structure and lost its quality. I’ve already lost faith in France and Italy. They don’t produce painters any longer. Painting will change in the future. It will happen at the artist’s studio – the pupils, the élèves, have to go to the studio to learn about painting. It will be the same as at the end of the 19th century and painting will happen at the artist’s studio again, as the academies lose their power. Once academies have no function for painters anymore young men are forced to go to studios to learn. It will happen again. You can only learn about paintings at ateliers.
TB: How did you become a painter?
ML: I always wanted to become a painter – I don’t remember thinking of anything else. Nothing else has ever come to my mind. I wanted to become a painter but was kicked out by every school. I was kicked out of Gymnasium (high school); I was kicked out of the Kunstakademie, where I later became rector. I got shown the gate everywhere. Nobody wanted to deal with me. I was fifteen, independent and earning my own money – after failing at every academy I decided to move to Berlin at the age of twenty, twenty-one. I knew I was an artist at that time and ten years later I got my first professorship at Karlsruhe.
TB: We were very interested in your conversation with Peter Doig where you suggest that you can’t teach painting but rather have to allow conditions for conversations to flow between mentor and mentee.
ML: There is never a way back – and much less in the arts. We can only hope that contemporary technique destroys itself. I am a musician too. I play in a band. People want something haptic, that’s our fortune. That’s why painting has a future. Painting is a godlike pursuit. Painting is an order by god to paint images for men. We can’t abolish that.
TB: How did you build your team in Dusseldorf?
ML: I trusted my friendships. When I was rector of the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf I appointed my friends. Artists I believed in and who I called important. I never appointed someone under my level. The academy is not for the students but rather an institution for the Olympic gods. Students are only allowed to breathe the same air and to benefit the atmosphere. This team of astonishing artists communicates to keep the academy alive; once there is an interruption the academy dies. It is about bohemia. A bohemian atmosphere has to be lived.
TB: What drove the academy, how did it work?
ML: Friendship! Interest! We were interested into each other’s work and cared about our friendships. I am blessed by being friends with all the great artists of my time. I appointed artists like Baselitz, Kirkeby, Peter Doig; I appointed Kounellis, Daniel Buren, I appointed artists from Klapheck to Trockel. I had the honour of working with these people, either finding them at the academy or appointing them. We met every Monday for lunch and beer in the evenings. I only went to the academy on Mondays because I had to do my work the rest of the week. We also organised events. We had meetings, we had studio visits, we had disputes, we discussed a lot. I am the one who launched two things in the academy: I launched a special room for the professors, it sounds like a joke but it didn’t exist before, and I opened a gallery at the academy. Based on friendship people wanted to come to the academy, wanted to become professors. Artist’s wanted to free themselves from their studios to meet colleagues at the academy. We were all on the same level.
TB: Did you have to fight for it?
ML: I had to name it! My colleagues didn’t think of it before. When I took over the professors were enemies. I had to bring about peace. I had to appreciate them. I had to tell them who they are. I had to plant the idea of AKADEMIE. I am a MASTER! A champion painter. A champion of painting. A champion! We are not pedagogues, I am not a pedagogue, and I don’t even know what that is about!
TB: Can a painters for painters school sustain itself?
ML: The school has to sustain itself. Art is moving away from painting and real sculpture. An Erweiteirter Kunstbegriff – extended understanding of art – exists that deals with pedagogical, social and moral problems. Painting is more; painting implies all these topics. If you love and grasp (understand) painting you become a better human being. If you love and grasp painting you become a gentleman. If you love and grasp painting you become an honest man. If you love and grasp painting you are a philosopher. Painting is more than all those small human values which are deemed important in our current society.
TB: Who was the first painter? Or what was the first group show that had an impact on you?
ML: I grew up at a small town called Mönchengladbach -Rheydt (btw: Joseph Goebbels was born there) and as a young, growing up artist I got in contact with local painters. They worked in an artist group and it was possible to visit their studios. These were our first, short term heroes. After that we went to the Werkkunstschule Krefeld, getting in contact with higher artists who had a sort of professorship. Those heroes were a bit better known. Through this we learned about the important German artists who became real heroes for us. Ernst Wilhelm Nay, Willy Baumeister, post war artists, late cubist, Ecole de Paris painters. They are astonishing artists nobody knows about these days. These artists were very important for us; to tell us about art, to get us in contact with the important question of what it means being an artist etc. I stayed longer in Krefeld studying with a master who was doing frescos at local schools. He was a decorative painter and I was his assistant. That’s how I earned my money. I was there for two years before going to the Foreign Legion, before working in coal mine, before building roads and going to the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and being kicked out after one semester. That’s it.
TB: Paris painters stimulated you?
ML: Paris was the dream of every young man. Being an artist in Paris was the goal. While I was in Paris there were problems because of the war in Algeria. I had to leave Paris due to a bomb scare, everyone without money had to get out of Paris, and I ended up in Marseille. In Marseille I wanted to get on a boat to South-America. No ship could leave the harbour and I saw an advertisement for the Foreign Legion. I got basic training till they wanted to send me to Algeria and I had to disappear. Then I was a refugee and I wasn’t allowed to enter France for ten years.
TB: What are your thoughts on painting survival in a digital future?
ML: Freedom of art is dependent on a challenging society. A society that is interested provides the ground for high art. Yet we live in a consuming society that wants to be entertained. Art cannot be subservient to this need – revues, opera, events, music. Painting is another discipline; painting has another intellect or another naivety. Painting is innocence. Once pictures learned how to walk (the invention of film) painting lost its innocence. Painting had to conquer a new area and invented the idea of Freier Maler, the free painter; she (painting is female for Lüpertz) invented the painter. Before this painting was a system but in the 19th century the genius appears, the free standing artist, the independent working artist. The artist who paints paintings. That was the answer to technical interventions that were seen as important improvements. With the arrival of the solitary genius painting freed itself. Painting was art. She was art till the 1930s, 1940s; till this point if you talked art you talked painting. All went well till avant-garde appeared. Avant-garde freed all of us and we, we painters, we were all tricked by avant-garde. We were all victims of avant-garde. In the 1950s we started to offend paintings; we started to destroy them, we transformed them into gigantic formats, we spat on the canvas, we trashed the canvas, we hit the canvas. Being conscious of the infinity of painting we incinerated paintings. We felt so certain, so comfortable, being artists that we didn’t recognize how society changed and that new art emerged for this new society that overtook us to the right and left. Society became systematically stupid in peacetime and wasn’t able to understand the importance of painting and an independent poetry. We forgot that peace doesn’t make men more intelligent – peace makes men stupid. We painters didn’t seduce the audience anymore, instead we shared our problems with everyone. People lost interest in painting and couldn’t understand it anymore. Therefore they wanted to be entertained. This attitude created photography, this attitude allowed happenings, installation – this attitude created the computer (he points at the translator’s laptop).
TB: Therefore an attitude that reduces panting to a form of psychoanalysis?
ML: You can make that call. Men lost a direct visual access to painting. To understand painting you have to be innocent, you need an optical innocence, a visual or intellectual innocence or an intellect or both to understand it. Through mechanics and technology men got irritated and lost the understanding of the visual, of the secret, of the materiality; society is no longer open to the elements of painting. Something has gone. Therefore we have to make paintings again. I believe that the desire for painting will break though one day in different circumstances, with different requirements. But painting will have learned from what has happened in this dark time. No one could see a sunset if it hadn’t been painted by Turner, nobody could recognise water lilies if Monet hadn’t painted them.
TB: Should we let painting die and be rediscovered?
ML: We painters have to preach! Painting is like watering flowers. Once you forget them the flowers die. We have to preach! For pleasure I give lectures in small villages for anybody that wants to come. I teach grandmas in their fifties, sixties how to paint. I enjoy it. I paint like a devil and exhibit everywhere. I am in contact with painters. All this shows that I can’t do anything other than painting. There is a deep need for painting – a strong desire, therefore it won’t die. It all depends on society. Society will fail one day and after that men can value art again, its mysteries, its secrets. Painting has to free itself from business, from the market. People only see painting as an investment. That’s the main handicap. The papers only talk about the prices. That’s the only form of critique and everyone is participating; the museum, the collectors – even though there are no collectors anymore. Nobody is collecting through love, collectors collect to resell and get a bonus. That has ruined it, money is telling us who is an important artist.
TB: How do we change that? Do we create and educate a new collector base? How do we deliberate the under-market? This is important to us.
ML: Painters have to educate a new generation of collectors. As painters we have to invent philosophers, we have to invent poets, we have to invent musicians, we have to invent collectors – we even have to invent dealers. They all have to be reinvented. Today they cut a poor figure and have become trivial. Democracy represses the intellect and supports institutions that are merely progressive.
TB: Looking around the studio, you work in series?
ML: Always ten, twelve canvases surround me. I paint on ten, twelve, twenty canvases at the same time. I can’t explain the origin of a painting because one comes out of another. I never think what I am doing – I never consider what to paint. There is no doubt about what I am doing: with an innocent mind I go to the studio to paint. I have abstract reflexes. I have an idea of colour placement. I am an abstract painting thus I have always painted abstract paintings. You might recognise something in my paintings but for me they are abstract. I don’t care. I am someone who moves colours on a canvas discovering something that passes my way. Of course, I observe on a visual level. I see things at the Louvre and the Märkische (area of his studio) countryside. I notice things around me which have an impact on my paintings yet they appear as abstract fragments. It’s all about the atmosphere. A painting should look like a painting. We all know what a painting should look like and I hunt for that ideal. I offer something but I am not satisfied. That’s the reason why I keep on painting.
TB: How do you start to construct your paintings?
ML: It is difficult to talk about because painting doesn’t have a beginning or ending. The process of painting is a perpetuum mobile. One painting comes out of another. While working in this process you realise that painting is the production of failure. Painting is a process. It’s about creating an image. I have an idea of painting. I am a professional in what a painting has to look like. I know how to deal with surface, layout of lines, colour application. Motives are time based. I am not interested in motives I am interested in the HOW. How to paint a tree, how to paint water, how to paint a free form; something abstract? How to drop paint and find a figurative counterpart? How do I create a painting that looks like a painting? There is no new invention in painting, never. In all times every painter painted the same. Impressionists, expressionists, cubists all painted the same yet they were individuals. Individuality advanced painting, symbolizing it and finding it a name. Braque was a cubist as well as Picasso but Braque was the better one. Comparing Braque to Picasso, cubism to something else, is the missing point. Thus individuality advanced painting itself. The biggest mistake of the 20th century was to believe painting invented something new. There has never been anything new. Renaissance painters painted Kandinsky’s abstract painting already. Painting is not inventing new topics yet it lives from the painters. The best Picasso paintings are painted by Pollock.
TB: What determines the content of your painting?
ML: Content is determined by time. I am a painter of my time and time is creating content. I am a protagonist of the time I live in. We are not living in the romance, the renaissance or neo-classicism; we live in the only time that exists. In our time it’s enough if painting exists for itself. The arabesques, lines and forms of paintings have to be free enough that viewer finds his own access. Climaxing means we painters all paint the same. Together we give birth to a new time. The quality of painting can only be seen through comparison. If our current time is not enough you have to go back to history. Comparing yourself with the past creates future. There are always many painters if you live in a good painter’s time. I am blest to be living in a time of great painters. That makes me immortal! I’ve lived in a time that allowed me to compete with other painters. Many good painters. Between Velaquesz and Goya was only Zurbarán. Two to three hundred years of solitude. Velasquez lived in a time of Franz Hals, El Greco and Rubens. Goya started the time of Manet and impressionism. As long as painting is as potent as it is now we can shit on society. Strong painters are demanded. The offspring is turning towards society in the hope to be loved, understood and bought. In order to be successful younger generations started to make jokes about painting. Young painting is full of jokes; consists of jokes. There are times of concentration and times of solitude. The misunderstanding of our time is ignorance about our important painters. Society is unable to see us.
TB: On the eve of your Peter Doig curated show at Michael Werner in London, some of the painters present were speculating on your paint finish. I asked you – How do you mix your colours, what is your formula? – Glue Pigment, Shellac, you said – Glue, Pigment, Shellac – three or four times.
ML: Yes, I use Glue, Pigment, Shellac. Shellac as a binder for the colour powder. Sometimes I add acrylics but I paint with oil. I do it myself though. It’s all right if you follow your master’s formula to paint your own paintings. I am not patient. That’s a problem for an oil painter. I have to paint with fast drying substances even though it might kill the painting. As a sculptor I work with plaster. I am driven by my internal unrest. I am undisciplined and uncontrolled. I paint in trance. I paint in series from one to the other. Sometimes I am patient enough to enjoy painting one thin a precise line with a mahl stick.
TB: When do you know a painting is finished?
ML: Suddenly you think you know a painting is finished. There is no rule rather a feeling. You are surrounded by your paintings so as to get to know them. After a couple of weeks you might continue if the painting wasn’t finished the first time. You realise every painting with dissatisfaction. It doesn’t matter how but a painting has to be seen to exist. Going to one of my shows I haven’t curated myself always causes troubles for me.
TB: Are painters the best curators?
ML: Is a composer a good conductor? There are several ways of seeing a painting. I never cared about it since people I trust are surrounding me. I would be an excellent curator for a colleague’s show. If I understood a work and developed a deep love I would be the best person to curate a show. Working with Peter Doig in London meant trusting a younger artist and allowing him to choose works for the show. I didn’t say anything to him even though it should have been the other way round. Also, if the gallery owner allows me to. (Laughs) I’ve worked for fifty years with Michael Werner and he is an excellent curator for my work. I also appreciate an outside view on my oeuvre and new thoughts about it.
TB: Who is the man in your paintings?
ML: I don’t paint men. I paint forms. I have little to do with human beings. Painting is an artificial world creating its inhabitants, its own trees, forms and countryside. Painting invents them. Painted objects tell their own story. It isn’t the painter who tells the story of a helmet it’s rather the helmet itself that tells us the story of war and peace, heroism and military tradition. We only paint it.
TB: Is there consistent meaning to your iconography?
ML: We encounter objects. I have painted about the war in Kosovo showing I am not in fear of content. But stories don’t mean anything to me. I am not a pedagogue who paints the misery of the world. I don’t paint sadness or happiness as a romanticist would do. I am a picture painter who creates pictures to give us more to look at. It’s about men maintaining us in the world. We are not victims of nature or of other powers. We are on earth as individuals creating our own space and history. We are the pride of creation. There is nothing above us only angels and heaven. On the earth we are the gods and painters are the elite.
TB: What are the consequences when dealing with German history in paintings?
ML: I don’t have any relationship with history. I don’t accept the past because I have my own excess. Whenever something is painted I see it as something contemporary that communicates with me through any period. I live in the universe of painting and contribute my duty. You have to find your own technique. You only have to follow the rules of painting and to use comparison to see if you are a good painter or not. If you want to paint an execution do so, but we are aware how you do it – you have to know the vocabulary of painting. It’s your own business what you paint but you have to learn to paint it in a way where everything is possible. Whatever is getting caught on you can be inspiration as long as you don’t start illustrating it. You have to paint it. Never illustrate, paint! Otherwise the content is more important than the peinture. That creates the dilettantism you find in museums and galleries. Kippenberger crucified a green frog …
TB: Kiefer says the opposite.
ML: I know.
TB: Is the narrative the end of content?
ML: You have to find your own answers to this question. I am not responsible for it. You are allowed to look at my world and to enter it. If I’m interested I can look at your world or at any other reality. It depends on the painter as an individual. The only point that allows critique is the question of colour application and the domination of peinture. That is championship. That is how you recognise a master, a champion. If we are not champions any more we become naïve: ending as illustrators. Jeff Koons is a craftman. His “art” is pure craft. It is no championship. I am a champion. I make all the work myself. I create a hand and an elbow myself. That is the difference between me and an ‘event artist’. The museums are filled with random objects that show nothing but ideas. You can call it literature. Maybe poetry. But it is not painting. Not sculpture. Not championship. I insist on this. If Damien Hirst has someone painting his paintings we don’t talk about championship. I have seen pictures painted by him that looked like shit. Please print that!
TB: Can painting be made by assistants?
ML: Painting is honesty. Painting is pants-down. Paintings have to find themselves. I don’t paint hundreds of black paintings like Baselitz. I would be bored after the second one.
TB: You have been constantly photographed during your career yet hardly any self-portraits appear in your work, why?
ML: I have made nude paintings, still lives and one day I will make portraits. I have made the Parsifal cycle that touches the theme of portraits and sometimes I appear in an ironic way. Ego with chicken. Self-portraits have a great history with Beckmann and Rembrandt. Are there self-portraits by Auerbach? Auerbach is a champion too. The room changes in atmosphere when you hang an Auerbach on the walls. I haven’t managed to integrate portraits into my work and dealing with portraits includes self-portraits.
TB: What are you making now?
ML: I am making glass windows for churches which means working with a topic that I couldn’t deal with on canvas. I want to do glass windows which look like glass windows. The maternity of my work is painting. I am a painter – I will always be a painter. As a painter I fail constantly – and failure is one of our ultimate goods in Europe. It only depends on the level you fail therefore make sure you fail on a high level.
TB: You are high octane – do you enjoy dancing?
ML: Yes. I used to be a very good dancer – and an excellent football player benefiting from a very good stamina. I had my own team – Lokomotive Lüpertz!
The interview was conducted for Turps Banana in Markus Lüpertz’s Teltow Studio on the outskirts of Berlin by Edmundo Arigita and Markus Harvey with thanks to Christoph Westermeier for translating.