The artist on the alchemy of color and calling two places home.
You regularly work on up to 40 or 50 paintings simultaneously. How do you juggle creating so many works at once? And is that a preferred way for you to work, or did it come about out of necessity?
I just counted and I’m currently working on 44 paintings in my studio. This quantity feels natural to me and I believe I was even doing this with my very first set of acrylic paints at age 15 in my bedroom–the entire floor, bed and table covered with paintings done on paper. The studio is incredibly messy when I paint, with paintings and materials everywhere. I clean up every night before I leave and am still able to create chaos within minutes the next day.
I think this is an expression of my wandering mind and letting “it” flow is a stimulation and inspiration for my intuitively driven and floating way of working. It allows me to entirely immerse in the process, feel through the painting, and invite coincidences–all of it very crucial for my practice.
Mobility is also enormously important for me to keep my mind open and flexible enough to follow any new idea instantly. For this reason, I built my own painting furniture. It is all mobile and stackable. I mounted everything possible on wheels, including my chair. Some brushes also have extensions to enlarge my scope–this way I can reach to the center of the large formats that I paint on while they are lying stacked on the floor.
I partly work on so many because my paintings shape over time, through imagination and deposited memories. The paintings accumulate a multitude of layers, through which I ultimately filter the final image. This usually takes me years, and oftentimes, they remain untouched in a certain state for months or even years.
Having so many things going on at once gives me the freedom to respect their own timing. I like to allow my paintings to grow; sometimes it feels like gardening. Right after your visit, I happened to finish a large one that had rested for about eight months. I had a nice green-gray on my brush that “needed to go somewhere”–and apparently, this was just what that work needed. Plus, a good chunk of lived experience in between. It turned out as The Italian Night, inspired from my recent trip to Florence.
Nevertheless, as chaotic and as physical as the immediate painterly process is for me, it is contemplative too, and part of an overarching system: I spend an equal amount of time painting, observing and doing technical painting research. Working simultaneously on multiple pieces allows me to observe what a certain color does on several surfaces, on different under layers, or as a mark in different textures and shapes, and how it changes when adding this medium or that pigment to it. I’m constantly working on my own color chart and technical notebooks. My studio is a laboratory, and this setup supports my endeavor to deeply explore.
Much of your practice is in conversation with Renaissance masters. What is it about their works you’re most drawn to that people might not expect?
I was introduced to Renaissance painting while studying at the Art Academy in Dresden. It was love at first sight. The softness and intensity of those colors–their temperatures, and this particular internal glow that the Old Masters created through a certain layering–became and remains one of my major interests.
The program of the so-called “Die Dresdner Schule” is a traditional art education in figurative painting, which had its own take on painting history. I was educated on how to build pictorial space and volume through color and shape, and the negative space was regarded as equal in importance to the figuration. We also went back and forth to the neighboring Zwinger Museum–which has a remarkable collection of Renaissance paintings, especially from the Early Italian Renaissance that I love so much–to study their color and space. My “problem” from the start was that the figures kept “falling off” my paintings. I started out making an effort of painting the nude, but forgot about the figurative elements over the course as I got fully absorbed into color. Figuration kept shrinking and morphed into little marks on wide-open surfaces.
During the first two years of the pandemic, which I spent entirely in New York City, I deeply reconnected with Renaissance painting. It started in May 2020 when I kept waking up in one of my favorite Renaissance paintings. Again, it was less the narrative content of, say, Botticelli’s Primavera or Fra Angelico’s Annunciations than the color impressions, which kept echoing within me over the course of the day. Turning inward and “listening” to these colors rooted me during an uncertain time, and eased my sense of separation from home in Europe, which I couldn’t visit during the Covid pandemic travel ban.
Back in my studio, I started to create these colors myself, or try to. My technique evolved while the palette shifted to darker and earthier tones. I feel it’s important to be connected to my roots and to worship ancestors, in a familiar but also a broader sense. In a way, the Renaissance was about this return too, as a rebirth of ideas from ancient Greece and Rome.
The relevance and long life of these old paintings into the present is absolutely fascinating to me, especially amidst the ongoing modern urgency of innovation and productivity. I just got back from a profoundly nourishing trip to Florence, where I revisited many paintings in the flesh: the cloister and museum of San Marco, the Giottos in Santa Croce, two days in the Uffizi Galleries. It was amazing but, of course, not enough.
You leave many different kinds of notes on the backs your paintings. When did you start doing that in your practice, and how do you see that hidden text in relation to the faces of the paintings themselves, if at all?
Well, I have always liked to use the backs (and also the sides) to leave subordinate additional information to accompany the main content on the front.
Although these are subtle features, they underlie the “objecthood” of my paintings as containers of space and time. The backs carry written notes, such as the process of titling or technical details, or sometimes poems or scribbles. Meanwhile, the sides are records of the history of the layers of the front, akin to a rock formation. They also serve as color tests and as color notes in the form of spatters–it helps me to remember the next step.
These features arose over time through my personal discourse with the idea of painting as “the sensation of its own realization.” And, like the fronts, the backs grow into their own webs as well, finding their own rules and meaning. Given the chance, it is nice to occasionally display them in shows, as I’ve done by sitting them on pedestals, or hanging them in front of a window, or placing them on a wall ledge in recent shows at Spencer Brownstone Gallery, Claas Reiss, and Albada Jelgersma.
I like the idea of offering different perspectives and access points to the viewer. Everyone has an individual disposition, and even though my work is reductive, I don’t want my paintings to be hermetically sealed and hard to experience.
The idea of place seems important in your practice. What has it been like living and working in Brooklyn as opposed to elsewhere?
I think that my place is painting itself, especially since I’ve been living in two cultures–born and raised in Europe, and now living in New York City since 2015. My answer to “Where is home?” is a constant pendulum swing between the two of them, which is certainly an interesting but challenging place to be.
Through working and living here in New York, my art has become a crossover of my European heritage and my love of American abstraction, especially the work of those artists whose positions embody introspection, such as Agnes Martin, Mark Rothko and Mary Heilmann.
My sense of Brooklyn, from a German perspective, is that it is chaotic and partly provisional, which suits my practice. Of all of New York City’s cultural uniqueness, I prefer Brooklyn the most because it still has open parts and is somewhat vast. But it is definitely not the easiest place to live as an artist, especially at the current moment with climbing rents and costs. I really hope that I’ll be able to keep my beloved studio. It is my anchor, and I’ve completely arranged my life around it. I live in the neighborhood of Ocean Hill right on the edge of East New York, which makes me able to afford my studio in a safe building in East Williamsburg and makes for a 20-minute commute. I spend every moment I can in my studio.
You have a second Instagram account dedicated to your references and research. What are some of the things outside of art that you find most inspiring?
There is hardly anything I’m not interested in. I constantly accumulate information and material I find relevant for my painting. I think this sub-account is comparable to the backs of my paintings. As in painting, I can easily get lost, and I opened this account to keep track of the most relevant things. It’s an open archive.
I’m partly writing this text right now sitting at Rockaway Beach, looking at the ocean and surfers in the morning light. I love observing light and twilight situations, and I’m constantly documenting these.
But back to your initial question: I’m not sure what is completely outside of art. Through my interest in color phenomena (“Why is the sky blue?” etc.), I got into optics and Black Hole Theory. I recently met a NASA astronomer in the Lufthansa service line at Frankfurt Airport. (We both missed our connecting flight due to the widespread flight cancellation situation.) It was so exciting for me to hear about his work and to speak to a real person after all that literature.
That kind of open archive on social media is great for exchange too. I love when we learn from each other. Painting to me is a pool, which includes the accumulation of knowledge and experience.
You love working in natural light and have expressed an interest in escaping the city for a bit to be in nature. If you could go anywhere in the world right now, where would you travel to?
Oh yes, I’d love that so much. But with all my responsibilities as an artist living abroad, it hasn’t been in reach so far. Generally, I’d just like to be and work in any kind of nature for a while. Specifically, I’ve been wanting to go to the Southwest, perhaps Texas, and work close to nature or perhaps even move my studio outdoors. I have been wanting to visit the Menil Collection for a very long time, especially the Rothko Chapel.
Sunlight is an activator of my paintings. My technique of layering and use of material makes my color light-responsive. It alters in nuance with the changing light. Which, by the way, makes for a huge challenge to capture or document them.
In the studio, I oftentimes alternate between looking outside the window and then back to the paintings. I primarily work in natural light, and as the day wanes I prefer a dark or almost dark studio to switching on electric light. This might sound like an unusual setup for a visual medium, but when you break it down, color is just wavelengths that our brain turns into a visual phenomenon.
I’m sure you’re being interviewed more and more in the course of your work. What’s something you wished people would ask you more often to learn more about you?
Thank you for asking! Yes, I’d love to continue the thread John Yau picked up in his review “The Pleasure of Slow Looking” and talk about the calm and inner balance that painting is able to generate. The essay was for Hyperallergic on the occasion of my recent show “Here comes the night” with Spencer Brownstone Gallery, a show composed of dark paintings. I got great, unexpected responses to this show. Many people reached out to me to share their experiences, oftentimes describing the calming effect that being with these paintings brought to them.
I truly believe that painting has transformative potential. My experience while making my last show and also the previous and current works on Platform is that the more I sink into these soft-dark tones, the more quiet I become myself. A sensitizing is happening, teaching me patience and listening. Their spaces give me ease too, just as some of my audience described. I hope I’ll be able to contribute more in this way–so many peoples' experience of our world has become so difficult and distressed.