Neoteric Art: Give us some background history on yourself.
Ruprecht von Kaufmann: I grew up on the Bavarian countryside. When I first came to Los Angeles, I loathed the place. Leaving Munich very blue eyed, I was not prepared for a city that vast and hot, and that lacked any form of decent public transport. I was not prepared for a place so entirely different from Europe.
I studied at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. I ended up there more or less by accident or through a chain of coincidences. When I graduated from high school it was never my intent to go into art, because in art history we had been taught about the death and end to painting, or at least figurative painting, as a finite and irreversible fact. And I couldn’t see myself as an abstract painter or conceptual artist because I liked drawing the world around me. In that way my affinity to drawing was clearly a limitation more then anything. I spent huge chunks of my childhood drawing and drawing was also what saved me during the high school years from the fate of many other bookish and introverted, scrawny and no-good-at-sports kids. As long as one got told off in class for “defacing” school property by means of spreading drawings all over school desks and other surfaces, distracting oneself and others in the process, you went unpunished for the offense of nerdom. Even though I drew almost all the time, it never occurred to me to make it a profession.
At the Art Center I discovered that there were people painting representational images still; I got hooked quickly. But painting that way, meant to never be taken seriously by the “real artist”. Before representational painting came clawing back out of the grave in recent years (DEAR GOD, IT’S ALIVE!!! Even the stake through the heart won’t kill it!) there were , with very few exceptions, only very few artists who successfully bridged the gap of modernism and fused old with new and had been accepted by the broader art world. So prospects of getting into a gallery were slim. Nonetheless, after finishing my degree I realized that painting was all I could and wanted to do, and fortunately even “narrative” painting is allowed again. It’s actually quite an interesting time, because it seems that we are again living in a time of another great turnaround. All of a sudden a lot of young artists got fed up with just following the rules of modernism that dominated art school for so many years, and started to do what they liked again. There is a lot of interesting stuff coming out of that short period of freedom. To me it seems much safer to work abstract, because there is less risk in terms of a message that can go wrong. As soon as figures are introduced into a painting many more layers of interpretation open up. It’s very easy to paint something that doesn’t work. By contrast it’s pretty hard to screw up a minimalist painting.
NA: Your work seems to change/evolve every 2-3 years…is this a conscious choice? Describe your overall work/process.
RvK: It is a conscious choice, or at least to the degree that I push myself to do things that might not be comfortable. Change is really important. Without change there is stagnation. Life means change. Only death is permanent. Painting is like life. It evolves constantly, you never stop learning, and I never feel entirely safe in front of the easel. There are days of elation in the studio, but there inevitably are the days of dismal failure that put you back into your place. The concept of style seems very self defeating to me: it’s essentially your own censor telling you what you can or can not do. It’s a form of self censorship at best or an expression of laziness at worst. I allow myself reckless experiments every now and then and that sometimes leads to some rather different work. Of course, from a commercial point of view that is NOT a clever move.
I used to start on the canvas pretty much straight away, with just a rough drawing for guidance, but found that this method isn’t ideal for me. These days I do thumbnails and sketches and a pretty tight guache drawing before I start on the paintings. Only when I feel the guache is exiting enough to proceed do I move to the canvas. I am also very specific about how I want the surfaces of my canvases to look like. Sometimes I apply up to 10 layers of paint before I even start the actual painting. However the guache drawing is only for reference. I redraw the picture on the canvas without projection or tracing. I find oil paint an exceptionally beautiful drawing medium and that the drawing in a large scale often comes out a lot better then the original design. Besides, often ideas become more clear while I am working on them, and sometimes the idea will change as it evolves on the canvas. That is also a reason why I don’t use models or photos as reference. They tend to trap you in whatever reference material you have, and force you to stick to your initial plan to the bitter end. However there often is a certain point, when the painting develops a life of its own, and demands of you to change your mind, to surrender and follow its guidance. For me it seems more true, to use the imagery that comes out of my head, because through this detour the images on the canvases are not copies of what we see but something “new” and digested. The surface of a painting is very crucial to me. Paintings are objects and their surfaces like very shallow reliefs. I like paintings best that make you want to go and touch the paint, to really feel it and trace the brush strokes with your fingers.
NA: Drawing is important to you. Are your drawings exercises for your paintings?
RvK: No, the drawings aren’t exercises for the paintings. Or at least not in the sense of a musician practicing scales. Drawing is very different from painting, because drawings allow for more spontaneity and less self-editing. There is a lot of room for the happy accident. And the happy accident is the best thing that can ever happen to an artist. And if a drawing comes out badly, I just throw it away, or cut away the area that doesn’t work and stick a new piece of paper in it’s place. It’s this casualness, that makes drawings so important. drawing is the best experimenting ground. In the end it all comes down to drawing. If the underlying drawing on a canvas doesn’t work, you can spend years painting away, the painting will never come together. It’s important to clarify though, that this doesn’t mean a drawing has to be tight or very rendered out. As a matter of fact, the more fluent and loose the drawing is, the more fluent the final painting will be. Drawings are works that exist in their own right: paper is a wonderful material and its very intimate to look at a drawing rather then a painting.
NA: You recently did some installation work involving painting on and cutting rubber. Describe this whole experience. Will you attempt more installation work?
RvK: Those haven’t been my first installation pieces and probably won’t be the last. I have long been interested in blending sculpture with painting, or to put it another way: in emphasizing the three-dimensional qualities of a painting. With the rubber paintings I was initially just very fascinated by the material itself. I went through a long and frustrating phase of trial and error to overcome the technical difficulties the material raises. When I first started I had the rubber mounted flat on wood. The idea to really let it buckle and droop only came later. I also liked the violence of cutting into it, and how one or two simple cuts could change the surface entirely and create quite interesting shapes. Even though I like how some of those rubber paintings came out very much, there are certain concerns about whether they will endure: how long will the rubber last and obviously its hard to predict how long the paint will adhere to an ever changing surface like that. Only time will tell. Doing installation pieces is at the same time very gratifying and very frustrating. It allows for many more “layers”, which you can use to communicate your idea. But you have to learn to use new materials or techniques and struggle with those, while, at the same time, trying to make a piece work conceptually. Sometimes that leaves you with so many “unknowns” that it’s virtually impossible to predict the outcome, or even what the next step should be or where to begin. I also find that many people, who like my oil paintings can’t really relate to the installation pieces. They can’t understand why I would waste my time on them. And they may be right. But I always learn something from them. They tend to open up new perspectives and possibilities.
NA: Who are some of your fellow contemporary painters that you admire?
RvK: It’s quite a mixture of people whom I like for many different reasons: F. Scott Hess, Lucian Freud, Jonas Burgert, Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly, Marc Rothko, Paula Rego to name a few…