René Rietmeyer talks to Peter Lodermeyer.
Excerpt from an interview, April 2000
P. L. What is your interest in the problem of balance? It is noticeable how balanced your paintings are. Even in your earlier work, one can see a balance of colour and static composition. Moreover, the vertical and horizontal lines in your Cote d`Azur paintings and many of your `Boxes` are clear points of orientation. Besides, you always order your `Boxes` in regular grid shaped constellations, balancing the tone of the colours harmoniously.
R. R. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that I grew up in Holland. The landscape is severe, flat and almost devoid of colour. I recall very clearly how I was practically afraid of colour in my early twenties. I grew up with ever present straight lines: sky - horizon - earth. Of course, my preoccupation with Dutch artists, such as Mondrian, also play a large role. It is natural for the Dutch to seek balance, to quest for harmony, to represent through geometric elements and this is especially recognisable since the group "De Stijl". Moreover, my character also plays a role. There are, very likely, more chaotic, vivacious Dutch people. I am, on the other hand, a very stable person and I believe that this is reflected in my work. Maybe I`m a little boring and that`s why I don`t try to shock with avant-garde statements in my choice of colours or in my composition.
P. L.You earned your living doing landscape watercolours, and as principal of the Summer Academy in Greece before you decided definitely to dedicate yourself to contemporary art. Your first independent work , however, still moved along traditional lines: still life, nude female paintings,
landscapes painted in relief style with a wide range of thickly applied strong colours, which have an almost Fauvist effect. Did you consciously want to move through certain classically modern positions before settling on the contemporary art form?
R. R.Yes, because oil paint was still relatively new material to me. I wanted to have the feeling that I could master it, that I could handle it. I wanted every decision that I make in relation to contemporary art to come from my own free will and not be checked by my own technical or intellectual limitations. I wanted to be free to decide what I create. For me, that meant that I wanted to feel that I could work figuratively and, more or less, realistically. I have to admit there were intellectual reasons why I thought I should move through art history again. During my studies, my paintings developed in a certain direction due to what I was reading and studying at the time. Initially, I tended towards a very dark, matt range of colours. As my technical ability and expertise with oil paints developed, my range of colours became more vivid, and I quickly tended towards the Fauvists.
P. L. You spent a good deal of time in the south of France and that must have had something to do with you losing your fear of colour. What meaning did the local southern French tradition hold for you (Matisse, the Fauvists, de Staël)?
R. R. The south of France, yes, of course. It was in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam when it became clear to me for the first time that different regions could call forth different colours: his gloomy colours in Holland in contrast to his bright colours in France. For me, it wasn`t any different. I felt an affinity with the Fauvists sometimes. On the Cote d`Azur one inevitably comes in contact with them, with Matisse, Derain, de Vlaminck or with Nicolas de Staël or Soutine. They were all there. For example, I lived next to the Picasso Museum in Vallauris.
It is not just the body of thought of these artists which takes possession of one there, but the whole atmosphere. That was, of course, a wonderful experience even though I was penniless at the time and sometimes didn`t know where the next meal was coming from. All of this left its mark; one can never forget if one has been on the wall in Antibes where Nicolas de Staël jumped to his death. It was definitely during that time that I laid the foundation stone for my work. The spiritual, if sadly not physical, presence of many interesting painters from the beginning of the twentieth century was extremely formative. At the same time I had plenty of time to read, to study, and that was the foundation stone. The south of France, the Cote d`Azur, on the tracks of many great painters, to be spiritually in such close contact with them, to see their work, to be moved, to study, yes, that was it.
P. L. It is noticeable how, in your later Cote d`Azur paintings, an important change occurs. For one, the dual colouring of your work moves away from natural colours, i.e., the figurative reference declines so that the lines of colour can now also move vertically, for example. At the same time the paintings supports - which simply look like wooden panels at first - become thicker, five centimetres, nine centimetres, etc.. Thus they break optically further away from the wall and near the object status of your later `Boxes`. When did this new and, for your art, decisive concept come about? Did your preoccupation with the `Boxes` - as we know them from American minimal art and, at times, concept art - play a role in 1997?
R. R. Yes, my paintings definitely originate from optical impressions, i.e. from the Dutch landscape - a narrow strip of land, a large expanse of sky. In the south of France, in Vallauris, one sees an extensive expanse of water and only a narrow strip of sky if one walks down the street and looks upon the ocean below, the Mediterranean. That is where the dual colouring originated in my paintings of the time. On top of this, I became aware that my paintings - thanks to my preoccupation with the body of thought of the minimalists - could indeed be independent objects. They could transport something, so to speak, and for that they didn`t need a visual point of departure. But what do they transport, and how does one express that these are independent objects? I tried to establish my paintings as independent objects by liberating them from the wall so that they could be appreciated as objects, not as two-dimensional paintings. Consequently, this liberation from the wall led to the `Boxes` and there are various reasons for this: Firstly, the `Boxes` were now, one could say, clearly three-dimensional; secondly, the box, this small case, is a shape which holds something, contains something - and I wanted my independent objects to contain something. Not, like the minimalists, to simply present an object, a neutral volume, simply a coloured surface.....no, I am an emotional person, I didn`t want to seek an absolute truth. I believe there is no such thing. My opinion is thus: all of my activities, regardless of how objective I want them to be, remain subjective activities, and therefore my objects will probably be perceived subjectively. This is how I wanted to profess my subjectivity. I didn`t want to represent visual experiences in my objects, like Richard Diebenkorn, for example, who transforms the whole, the visual in an emotional manner. No, I wanted to capture the essence of emotional experience in a landscape or a person, in colour, shape, surface structure and composition. I clearly saw for the first time in Mondrian`s "Broadway Boogie-Woogie" that feelings can indeed be expressed using only abstract forms, using lines and coloured surfaces.
I wanted my objects to be vehicles, mediators for these emotions. This decisive viewpoint came about through my preoccupation with what the minimalists said and what was being said in conceptual art. It was a merging of many sentences, which leave their mark on you, which you continually repeat in your own mind. Be it from Robert Ryman who simply places the brushstrokes as if to say "I am human, I paint." or Brice Marden who said of his own works that they were very emotional or certain opinions from Donald Judd or Carl Andre. I picked things from everywhere and profited and learned from them. My ideas developed as a result of this.
P. L. You are concerned then with reflecting your subjective emotions in experiencing a landscape or city or even the impression that a particular person makes on you. Recently, you did a series of "Portraits" relating to world famous and also less well-known artists whom you have met. How would you define the portrait character of this series?
R. R. By my definition of a portrait, there is little difference whether it portrays a landscape or person. Whether this corresponds with the general definition of the word "Portrait" or not, I can`t say. My `Boxes` mirror my emotional and intellectual preoccupation with a region or person. This general impression is composed of many different moments. Many `Boxes` together give a richer, more complete but never one, all encompassing picture of this. They are more an intimation of my impressions, my perceptions, a subjective inventory of my thoughts and feelings. The "Portrait" is the artistic equivalent of my impressions. Not only does it refer to my own state of being but also to the person portrayed and ,naturally, his own artistic work. It is difficult to know which elements have, or have not, been expressed in a particular case. In the "Portrait Joseph Kosuth" (1999), for example, the concept of his art played an important role for me when I decided on the format and so did his boisterous "fiery" personality for the red underpainting, which can still be seen under the white layer of colour.
P. L. You refer to your own work as "Postminimalist", i.e., you take a certain standpoint from minimalist art, which is the extension of the painting`s concept to an object art form and the seriality of its organisation. At the same time, you criticise some of their ideological positions. Does that mean that your criticism of minimalist art is directed at their interpretation of art as a "specific object" or as Donald Judd called it "volumes, which are simple, as they are, without a secret, a message or a meaning."
R. R. Well, it was obvious that I wanted to express an impression, an emotional impression, an emotional feeling in my paintings. For me, it was not enough to simply repeat what is already known from minimalist art. Generally speaking, I believe that everything a person produces or creates conveys subjectivity. As much as they would have liked to, the minimalists did not manage to break away from subjectivity or break the bond between the artist and the work of art. A break from subjectivity was not possible. It was a good attempt but a dead end. Having realised this, I`ve professed to subjectivity and I accept it gladly. Maybe this has something to do with the times we live in. Maybe I tend towards the personal, the imperfect; in reaction to the world of computers, the technical modern world, if you will. I simply make my objects. Sometimes they turn out beautiful, sometimes they don`t. But they do `turn out`. Sometimes they are technically perfect and sometimes they are almost sloppy. No matter how they turn out, they remain the expression of my existence as a person, a living being with perfections and imperfections. In every aspect a person, expressing oneself as a person, not being anything more than one can be. Expressing oneself how one can, and wants to, today. That’s what I do. I express myself as a person. My paintings become what they become for different reasons: if I have eaten well or if I have seen an interesting exhibition or if I have had sex with an amazing woman. Maybe I had to work in a bad studio with only certain colours to choose from or maybe I had a great choice of colours and a wonderful studio. Whatever the reasons, my objects become what they become and reflect my existence at that moment, in that hour. Nothing more and nothing less. And they do not want to be anything more or less. They want to express my existence as a person and they do just that. They do not want to be objective, pleasant, beautiful or ugly. No, they are as they are.