“Ultimately, my work is nothing other
than the proof of my existence”
August / September, 2003
(As published in: Peter Lodermeyer, "PERSONAL STRUCTURES" Works and Dialogues, GlobalArtAffairs Publishing, Germany, 2003)
PETER LODERMEYER: There is a witty anecdote about Constantin Brancusi’s portrait drawing of James Joyce consisting only of three vertical lines and a spiral. Joyces’ brother, Stanislaus, is said to have remarked when he saw the drawing: “The boy seems to have changed a good deal.” With respect to your Portrait of Rauschenberg, anyone unfamiliar with your type of portraiture could also claim this. What knowledge must one possess in order to recognize Robert Rauschenberg in it?
RENE RIETMEYER: My portraits, as well as my other series referring to cities and regions do not simply reproduce visual representational images of the subjects. They create an atmosphere. They transport my emotional relationship with the subject using form, color, texture, composition and a conscious choice of the materials. My portrait of Rauschenberg reflects this subjective image that I have of him. Probably, you would have to know him in person to be able to recognize him in my installation. This is not much different than with portraits by van Gogh or Brancusi. Only that the picture language has developed over time and I have taken my own abstract language further.
P.L.: But your installations also have to work without these personal encounters. The titles force people who look at them to search for a reference or to reconstruct it in perception or in experience. This is also a special form of communication with the viewer. One thing becomes clear, anyway: your Rauschenberg portrait is based upon two complementary colors (orange and blue) which are then, in part, varied considerably. Was this harmonious contrast also an element of your perception of Rauschenberg as a person?
R.R.: Recognition is no goal or subject matter for me. I create an atmosphere that mirrors my very personal subjective impressions of a specific person, but for some viewers, it is not immediately clear that this is a portrait they are looking at and to whom the installation refers. The title can then serve as an orientation. The viewer will only be capable of reconstructing emotions if he has actually met the person portrayed ; mostly he will be “forced” to construct and experience without pre-judgment. In a sense, I direct these impressions. With the Rauschenberg portrait I wanted, with the colors I chose, to express my observation of an intelligent and very lively inner spirit within a consciously self-destroyed body. For me, this contrast was far from harmonious. The colors lie so far apart, I feel them as if they were at odds. Until then, my portrait series were much more homogeneous in the choice of colors, because the impressions I gained from the persons portrayed were more uniform.
P.L.: Isn’t this precisely the problem? Although the choice of your shapes and colors is related to something external, this relation itself is not obvious. No viewer would be able to detect the reasons for your choice without your explanation. As soon as they are explained, they become plausible and comprehensible. You start to “see” them. But this implies that the artistic means do not stand for themselves but remain bound to language. Do you mistrust the autonomy of your artistic means?
R.R.: My colors and forms do not only relate to external observations – and this applies to many portraits by different artists especially over the last 150 years as well. No viewer of these very diverse portraits will ever know the real reasons for the choice of the picture language, regardless of how much the painter or sculptor will have tried to make his point of view visual in his own formal language. Besides, my abstract language is relatively new and therefore, requires more intensive confrontation, more conscious viewing and feeling. The time and will for a more conscious viewing and awareness are often lacking. Written or spoken words can then be very helpful. Nevertheless, I believe in the autonomy and expressive ability of my formal means. But you have to take the time to experience it.
P.L.: To discuss this matter a bit further, it seems to me that this recourse to experiences and emotions by choosing shapes and colors is mainly important for the production side, not so much for the reception. I think this is a vehicle to escape the arbitrariness of and the mere play with forms. It sort of forces you to take responsibility for all your decisions. But this is just one system of many possible others for reaching a result. This process of “transposing” emotions and memories to merely abstract values takes place, to a large extent, in a subjective way and is therefore not, or only incompletely, comprehensible to the viewer.
R.R.: First and foremost, I create my objects for myself and through many experiments, considerations and subjective conclusions. I have reached my own, very personal results. I do not strive for perfect comprehension; drawing conclusions will always be an interpretation.
P.L.: I think the relation indicated by the titles works better with your installations referring to landscapes or cities than with the portraits – probably because visual information plays a more important role there. For instance, in your Monaco series: you can easily see the white color in connection with the buildings and yachts and in general, with the light, Mediterranean character of Monaco. Even the small format could be understood as a hint at the particular status of that tiny principality – even if you yourself have totally different associations.
R.R.: The visual impression as it is felt emotionally of a character is mostly an important factor when considering regions and cities. My portraits of persons refer almost by themselves more to characteristics of that person which are not immediately visible and are therefore, more difficult to interpret, especially when the observer is not familiar with the portrayed person.
P.L.: Your most recent work is the portrait of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. What is remarkable here for me is the uneven, vivid arrangement of this installation which is so far removed from your usual grid, that I have never witnessed this before in your work. Is this only due to the fact that this is a double portrait or does this point to a new relation to space, to a more playful dealing with the formal possibilities of wall installations?
R.R.: It is very clear that with my ongoing development, my awareness concerning installations in actual space is growing and that the confrontation with these questions is taking on increasing importance. So, for example, the number of Boxes I use for an installation depends on the space in which the installation will be placed. The broader knowledge of the formal possibilities of my installations permits me to deal more freely with them. But with this specific series, the arrangement was mainly determined by the subject, my representation of the very different personalities of Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
P.L.: The question might seem banal, but I have to ask you anyhow: which box refers to Christo and which one to Jeanne-Claude?
R.R.: When I decided to create a portrait of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, I tried for a long time to see them both as one, but I didn’t succeed in that. For me, they are not a unity. Thus, Jeanne-Claude as manager became the flatter, darker shape.
P.L.: The box is one of the favorite forms, a “primary structure” of minimalism. Doesn’t the cube, the rectangular, hard-edged little box, restrict the formal and emotional possibilities to a considerable degree? Could you imagine giving up this form sometime or at least varying it?
R.R.: My installations represent the correlation between what is being portrayed and myself. I do not have the feeling of restricting myself thereby in the choice of my formal means. In the series Ireland Ballingskelligs April 2000, I once chose a curved line in the construction and that has been the only time until now. My preference for using rectangles and straight lines might have its origin in my background, in the Dutch landscape as well as in the works of Dutch artists such as Piet Mondrian and Jan Schoonhoven.
P.L.: In your large Shark Valley Boxes the vivid red color, the structure of the wood that is detectible underneath the paint layers, the rough surface and the bulky format add up to forms with a very strong energetic, almost aggressive vibrancy. These Boxes seem to me like counter-drafts of the cadmium red floor objects which Donald Judd designed in the 1960’s. In comparison with Judd’s works, the importance of emotionality for your concept becomes apparent. Did you consciously think of Judd while making this series?
R.R.: In my works I try not to answer directly to specific works of other artists, but it is unavoidable that certain artists or works of art have or had an influence on my own works. Basic to my work is, among other things, the difference in opinion to Donald Judd. Some of his statements seemed to me so unbelievable that I just had to declare my position – and that had a great influence on the development of my own thoughts about the visual presence of my subjectivity in the execution of my own works. In my studio, I do not consciously think about Judd or any of his works anymore. The emotionality and subjectivity of my concept are no longer a conscious reaction to one specific object or a color he used, but are an expression of my own existence and personality.
P.L.: To come back to Donald Judd: it is clearly visible in your work that he was an important reference value for the working out your concept. In 2002, you visited the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, which in a way embodies Judd’s artistic legacy. Did this visit have an impact upon your attitude towards him or minimal art in general?
R.R.: Perhaps I was too tired when I arrived there, perhaps I simply had too high expectations of a place which had been brought by him into such close relationship with his works placed permanently in the landscape. Whatever the reason was: For me, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and minimal art lost their last remains of holy status there, they won more human qualities and subjectivity. For me, this was just the confirmation of my own direction and showed me again that Judd’s big ego and his verbal powers kept a false observation of his works alive unfortunately way too long. I can not imagine that he still believed himself in the 80’s and 90’s since the incongruity between his spoken words and his works was so obvious.
P.L.: Probably, you are referring to his negation of composition, his rigorous statements against any kind of illusionism, etc. Even in Judd research itself, people are slowly relinquishing seeing his work only through his own statements and have therefore reached an increasingly differentiated view. Perhaps, this contradiction between theory and factual work is a productive self-misunderstanding which provides an artist with a creative impulse. I’m not bothered by such contradictions. On the contrary, I find them stimulating and hope that I will be around to provide proof of your contradictions some day as well. I’m already working on it.
R.R.: I believe that for the artist himself, this discrepancy between his theory and results can only then lead to a positive confrontation and creative impulses, when he himself is completely aware of this inconsequence. Recognizing Judd’s inconsequence became for me a driving force to develop further the abstract language of my painting and objects, bringing them closer to my own theories. This approaching is an ongoing process and moves along with my own intellectual capabilities and personality development, with my life. The theory and the final result will probably never be perfectly congruent, but I try to get as close as possible. For this, dialogues and confrontations with other persons are indispensable.
P.L.: Recently, it seems that you have been more intensely concerned with certain aspects of conceptual art. In our earlier conversations, Donald Judd and Robert Ryman were certainly the names you most frequently referred to. Recently, it has been the name of On Kawara which has been mentioned remarkably often. What aspect of Kawara’s art is interesting for you with a view to your own work conception? Is it his concept of art as a documentationof one’s own lifetime that you are intrigued by?
R.R.: With growing age, I myself am increasingly more aware of the passing of time. My own existence, your existence, his existence and transience, all of these are elements which On Kawara had made the subject of his art at an early stage already. It is a subject, which in my own works is not immediately visible, however it does show its presence indirectly in the continuing process of creation. The expression of my “here and now” exists in my own works, but the way in which Kawara gives testimony to his existence is more than a dialogue, it is a very conscious experiencing of life. It is the maximum which may be achieved in our lives. This, at least, is the way I see his work. Although “time” is for me an increasingly conscious and important factor, I did not succeed in making this topic more visible in any one specific series of my own works. That this is so is an awareness which On Kawara brings me every day.
P.L.: That reminds me of our conversation on the beach of Nice a few weeks ago where we talked about the works of On Kawara and Roman Opalka. We realized there that the waves incessantly breaking against the shore create a tremendously strong awareness of time. At that time, you said you could imagine integrating noises and sounds at some point into your installations. Did you mean that seriously or was this just a fleeting idea?
R.R.: Many years ago already, I had plans to combine visual and acoustic impressions in my installations. In 1996, I saw and heard an installation by Opalka in the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It became clear to me that such a work could only be made as a permanent installation in a perfectly suitable environment and space. I recorded the most different sounds and noises, for the purpose of intensifying the atmosphere of a specific installation. Sounds from close to the sea for the Mediterranean-series, Japanese tea fields for my Saitama-series, a Canadian forest for Bowen-Island and street noise from 60th street in New York for Brooklyn. It turned out to be more complex than I had thought initially. Although I have set up some expressive installations since then, they were always without acoustic signals. I do not know if it will ever come to that – meanwhile I have erased the old recordings.
P.L.: It is remarkable that for many of the Personal Structures artists, the issue of “time” plays a very central role – and this in different ways, be it seizing a certain moment in time, a trace of memory, a process of development or experience; or more formal: time as the constituent of processual work methods. Your installations always bear a date in their titles. Which relationship to time, to the passage of time, is expressed with your Boxes?
R.R.: When I create a series, it always refers to a specific region I have experienced or person, who I met at a certain place and time. That “same” experience at another moment in my life, the creation and execution of the series shortly after or much later, would unavoidably lead to a different result. Like I said before, although “time” is an important factor for me as a human being, my relationship to time does not show so obviously in any specific work. It is much more visually present when you follow several years of my work and line up the results.
P.L.: A last question concerning the subject of time: Your works effectively deal with the past by always referring to a concrete experience at a certain point in time in the past. Doesn’t the desire to arrest time have something deeply romantic or “sentimental” about it? Could you also envision a work which points forward in time, to the future, an installation that has an anticipatory quality?
R.R.: I see the reference to persons or regions I have experienced at a certain time not as something romantic or sentimental, but much more as a realistic awareness of “time” and the progression of my experiences. A conscious experiencing of something in the future is utopian and therefore, for me, unthinkable as a subject.
P.L.: I’m surprised by this reply, because you are someone who always makes plans and thinks towards the future. By the way, I didn’t mean “sentimental” in an emotional sense but in the way Schiller used it when he defined the sentimental poet as follows: “This sort of poet reflects on the impression the objects make upon him and only on the basis of that reflection is the emotion founded, into which he is transported and into which he transports us.” If you specify “emotion” as “the effect of an emotional atmosphere”, you are very close to what we could call the core of your art!
R.R.: Just as sometimes the viewer of my installations could use a little more explanation, it also helps me to receive this additional information from you so that I can achieve more nuances. For communication between two persons in whatever language, it helps if both continuously improve the use of this language. Expressing and understanding contents is a learning process, very much alive and without ending.
P.L.: You are the only artist in this book who decided to show one of his paper works. It seems that you see these series not only as an extra work, but as an important part of your artistic production. Exactly what value do these series of works on paper have for you?
R.R.: Having been influenced by many interesting artists, who created works with paper as the material carrier, I started many years ago with my works on paper as well. Since 1997, when I began developing my “Boxes”, the “works on paper”, which had been flat until then, became increasingly three-dimensional “objects on paper”. The function of the paper had changed. It didn’t have any apparently visible influence on the material used for the objects, as would be the case, for example, with an etching or better, watercolor. The sheet of paper establishes and preserves space around the objects placed upon it. I create an installation on the paper, so to speak. The objects and the sheet of paper form a unity. These objects on paper are traditionally-bound works and the logical result of a strict adherence to my own intellectual development.
P.L.: What do you mean with “traditionally-bound”?
R.R.: Works on paper have a long tradition in the Netherlands, too, and so, at the very start of my artistic career, I also chose paper as a carrier. I could have replaced paper at a later stage by another material carrier, but I consciously stayed with paper.
P.L.: It was nearly four years ago that we discussed the first ideas of what later turned out to be the Personal Structures project. Initially, your interest was to find artist colleagues concerned with the subjective and emotional adaptation of minimalist characteristics. Meanwhile it has become apparent that what they have in common exceeds this rather formal criterion. It seems that many artists, meanwhile, are searching again for an existential confrontation with the real world and that art – completely apart from representational tendencies and without recourse to metaphysical interpretations of abstract pictorial means – can be seen as self-assertion of the artist subject in the real world. Do you understand your art as a possibility for an existential encounter with the “world” – for yourself and as well for the viewer?
R.R.: Alone with my works in the studio, or later when I see my installations on the wall in a gallery or museum, I unavoidably begin a dialogue with my own works which heightens again my awareness of my existence as part of this world. It is an encounter with myself, with me as a person, with my past and my reflections. Over the last few years I have met several artists who seem to be engaged in a similar dialogue. The confrontation with their works
is still interesting for me today. The Personal Structures project makes also personal engagements in dialogues between the artists possible, and that will surely have consequences for the thoughts and the works of some of them. There will be much to gain for the artists, as well as for the viewers in this undertaking.
P.L.: Reference to the real world means mainly this: since minimal art and conceptual art, many works have centered only around questions concerning the definition of art and how art works in certain contexts. On the other side, many works of the so-called postmodern movement seem to be nothing but quotations and assemblies of signs which only bear reference to other signs –David Salle, for instance. I think that many artists dare again now to say something, with the help of advanced artistic means, about the real world and its subjective experience instead of referencing only a medial image.
R.R.: Questioning the definition of art itself, as it is done, for example, by Joseph Kosuth, has resulted in the last 40 years in interesting and diverse conclusions which have increased my consciousness. A further exploration of this question doesn’t seem to lead to any significant new conclusions at the moment. Bringing gained knowledge together and putting the pieces next to each other, as for example, Salle does, can make many things clearer and is visually very attractive, but that would not be enough for me. Today’s view of the world forces one to review man’s position. My work is more than just an abstract reproduction of perceptions; it includes my reflections, my existence as a human being, as well.
P.L.: About David Salle: the third portrait that you show in this book is dedicated to him. Just a short time ago, I read an interview with him where he stated that it has been his experience that it is not allowed to speak about certain things. For example, he had noticed that some artists enjoy such a good reputation that one is not permitted to say something negative about them. Do your black boxes say something negative about him or his work, respectively? In the final analysis, there is not so much visible anymore of the pop-like colorfulness, the often cheerful sensuality of his paintings.
R.R.: The sex in the paintings of David Salle always attracted me and seduced me into a dialogue with his work. To hear him speak about his work was very disappointing. It was a contrast to what I had expected from him, and therefore, I chose black for his portrait.
P.L.: Does this mean that you consciously try to create works that are not aesthetically so attractive?
R.R.: Whether my works will be attractive or not, depends solely upon the atmosphere they should create. The series USA Miami Down Town August 2000, for example, was supposed to represent a part of Miami where I couldn’t stay to live and therefore, I chose from my personal point of view, ugly colors. For the USA Santa Monica June 2001 series however, I chose a shape which I found very appealing. My objects are supposed to mirror my thoughts concerning the subject and thereby, at the same time, also say something about me, regardless whether the result is aesthetically attractive or not.
P.L.: How do your works say something about you personally?
R.R.: How you experience another person or region depends not only on the condition the person or region experienced is in, but depends largely on your own personality. How I experience things is closely related to my own character, momentary condition and situation.
P.L.: Quite often, you use the term “existence”. Is art a possibility for you to cope with the contingency of being? What does this existential reference of your art consist of?
R.R.: The confrontation with your own existence as a human in relation to your own surroundings teaches you many things about priorities and values in life. The communication with other people, either directly or through my work, allows me to make known my thoughts and my presence as a person. Ultimately, my work is nothing other than the proof of my existence. Not much different than the 30,000-year-old handprint of the painter in the Chauvet cave in France.