Looking Back
to the Future

Karin Kneffel in
Conversation with
Daniel J. Schreiber

Daniel J. Schreiber_ You were born in 1957 in Marl, a small town in Germany’s Ruhr region noted primarily for its chemical industry and coal mining. As the crow flies, Marl is about eleven kilometers from the birthplace of “Gelsenkirchen Baroque.” Do the carpets, wallpaper, curtains, and furniture we find in your interior scenes reflect this cultural influence?

Karin Kneffel_ One of the most important expressions of this cultural influence is my “everlasting Baroque” devotion to the Schalke 04 soccer club. I feel close to the specific type of furnishings you mentioned—you call it “Gelsen-kirchen Baroque”; we also referred to it as “miners’ Art Nouveau”—yet distant at the same time. It evokes a certain sense of melancholy and anxiety in me. No one likes these kinds of furnishings. They are largely disregarded in intellectual circles, just as the classically modern Bauhaus furnishings are unanimously indisputable. I think it’s good that such objects can also take on a fluid quality on the
canvas, which raises them above their ordinariness and transforms them into a visual experience. Thus, this type of interior is also capable of penetrating into the realm of art.

DJS_Some of your paintings smack of the postwar years, such as the view from the window of a high-rise building, for instance (cat. # 136, pp. 64–65). Do childhood memories play a role in your choice of motifs for your paintings?

KK_ Not really. I don’t remember much. About all that
occurs to me is my still “everlasting” fear of dogs. The ones in my first dog paintings wore muzzles, by the way. When it comes to memories, I am more interested in involuntary memories, which are linked to emotions and don’t allow us to distance ourselves from what we remember. Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time occurs to me in this context.

DJS_ In Swann’s Way, the first volume of his novel, the first-person narrator describes how the taste of a piece of madeleine dipped in tea awakens the memory of a long-lost feeling of happiness. He repeatedly tries to plumb the depths of his memory with the very same recipe. Yet his powers of recollection fade progressively with every bite of the shell-shaped cake and every gulp of tea he takes. It is only in a state of complete mental void that he can recall the fresh taste of the tea-soaked pastry, and then the memory rises from the depths of his inner being. Does the shell-shaped chocolate pudding (cat. # 79, p. 85) tipped out onto the plate in your painting also stand for such a relived sensory experience?

KK_ We can’t see things as they are. What we see is always our idea of things. I had this image of chocolate pudding in my mind and then tried to see it with different eyes and keep my own subjective feelings out of the picture as I was painting, like a Martian who has never seen molded chocolate pudding. Because I was able to set aside everyday perceptions, the whole thing appeared to me in a new, unaccustomed light—accompanied by the awakening of memories in the present. How do human perception and memory work? What threads weave the past and present together? Those were the questions I asked myself while working on the House on the Edge of Town cycle for the Esters House in Krefeld.

DJS_ Yet in the paintings for the Esters House you used motifs you found in the course of extensive research. You incorporated the partially somewhat plushy original interior furnishings from 1930 owned by the Esters family into the Mies van der Rohe building. In two paintings, you overlaid them with the semi-transparent reflected image of a furniture arrangement consisting of lamps and chairs designed by Lilly Reich and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, which are actually more in keeping with the style of the building
(cat. # 140, pp. 120–121). You blend fact with the facultative, blurring the distinction between historical truth and historical possibility. It seems to me that this deliberately conceived hoax is actually the product of hard memory work—really the opposite of spontaneous recollection evoked by sensory impressions. Yet the paintings convey a sense of the immediate presence of truth that evokes a sudden déjà-vu experience in the viewer. Is that what you want to achieve—
a blend of the possible and the probable?

KK_ “Want to achieve” sounds too calculated. The painting featuring Lilly Reich’s chair to which you referred is part of the first works of the series. It repeats the view from the exterior to the interior and actually only shows how I felt as I was trying to approach the house: this in-between state, the moment in which space and time melt together; my confusion, which emerged after a great deal of hard memory work, as you call it. That is where I wanted to take the viewer—into this space where the improbable becomes possible.

DJS_ Let’s return to your personal recollections. What did your parents say when you told them you had decided to become an artist?

KK_ Well, they were taken aback at first, but after the initial shock passed, my father said, “You only have one life to live, so you should try to do what is important to you.” My parents always encouraged me and kept the worries they certainly must have had to themselves. I am very grateful to them for that—and even more so today, where as a university teacher I see how so many parents plant the seeds of insecurity in their children and compound the fears they already have.

DJS_ Before you took up your studies in art, you studied German language and literature and philosophy in Münster. What was it that interested you in these subjects, and what professional expectations did you associate with them at the time?

KK_ After painting, reading was my second area of
interest. I come from a family that never had much contact with art. My father was a soccer player, my mother a cook. At the time, I wasn’t even aware that there was such a thing as art studies. The news hadn’t gotten through to me in Marl. And so I enrolled in college first in Duisburg and then Münster to study German and philosophy. My goal was to become a teacher or, preferably, an editor. The opportunity to study art didn’t present itself until I went to Münster, where I took it up alongside the other subjects.

DJS_ How far did you go with that first phase of study, and what was your focus?

KK_ When I realized that I was seriously interested in art, shortly before taking the state teachers’ examination I decided to skip it and concentrate entirely on painting. If I remember correctly, the last paper I wrote before making that decision dealt with the problem of identity in Max Frisch’s novel Stiller. Perhaps you remember: The protagonist, a first-person narrator, refuses to use the word “I.” He always refers to himself in the third person. In that way, he avoids identifying with the role others seek to impose on him through the way they speak to and behave toward him. I incorporated ideas from the book Sprache und Bewusstsein (Language and Consciousness) by the philosopher Bruno Liebrucks into my own thoughts. I was particularly interested in the idea that someone who speaks to someone else is also speaking to him- or herself. That person internalizes what is said and appropriates it. Expressed in simple terms: what you say determines who you are.

DJS_ The sculptor Stiller in Frisch’s novel creates a new identity for himself, James Larkin White, in order to escape from a life of failure. But he is recognized by his wife and old acquaintances, of course, and repeatedly thrown back into his old identity. Aren’t your paintings concerned with something very similar, namely the assertion of a new, different reality that competes with that of our everyday lives?

KK_ No. Art is a lie in a certain sense. And that is why it can tell the truth to the reality of everyday life without competing with it. The reality of painting is one reality, that of everyday life another. There shouldn’t be any doubt about that.

DJS_ But your painting nourishes precisely that doubt.
It maintains the balance between maximum illusion and
radical disillusion. Everything seems perfect, yet something is always wrong: the relationships of scale, the lighting, the shadows, or the perspective. In your most recent paintings done for Mies van der Rohe’s Esters House in Krefeld, it is almost impossible to distinguish between reflection, shadow, and reality. It seems to me that you take pleasure in tempting the viewer to question his or her own perceptions. Doubt of this kind has always been of great heuristic importance in philosophy. Do you, like Plato, doubt the deceptive illusion of sensations? Are you in fact trying to find the essence of being? Do you ultimately regard yourself as a painter-philosopher?

KK_ Certainly not! I wouldn’t even want to see the paintings I would produce if that were true. I don’t think Plato’s epistemological dilemma has anything to do with my perception of myself as a painter. There is no such simple analogy between the two disciplines. Philosophy is something entirely unique, as is painting. When I speak of doubts raised through painting, I am talking about something fundamentally different. It has more to do with my stance as a contemporary artist. You recognize a lot of things in my paintings at first glance. But what happens when the shifts become apparent? What’s going on? Where are we? Nothing is as it is. That is what I mean. Fact is transformed into illusion. If we really wanted to hear what a philosopher has to say, then I would rather it be Friedrich Nietzsche: “Everything is false! Everything is permitted!” By that I don’t mean to cast doubt on the value of truth per se, and neither did Nietzsche. What I question is faith in absolute truths and values.

DJS_ In Nietzsche’s view, reverence of the truth is in
itself “the result of an illusion.” He contends that everything that is real is created through
“creative, shaping, inventive power” alone. That is really quite in line with your paintings.

KK_ Yes, it is. And I would also quote Saint Augustine, who said “If I lie and at the same time say that I am lying, I am telling the truth.” No, I have no doubts about sensibility, about the reality of sensory manifestations. I create pictorial spaces, and I have to solve everything within them. I’m
always concerned with the inherent reality gap. I want to present reality, place it at a distance through artistic representation, and then ultimately transform it by doing so. Everything in the picture must be plausible. In the case of the cycle for the Esters House, an icon of modern architecture, I combined my thoughts about painting with the irritation associated with my own stance vis-à-vis the
modernism built by Mies van der Rohe. In its formal constitution, the painting clings stubbornly to the unbridgeable gap between itself and the real, three-dimensional world of the viewer—quite unlike sculpture, which corresponds to that world. By creating a link between the cycle and the exhibition venue, I wanted to blend the present and the past, reality and fiction. The viewer can observe him- or herself in the viewing process.

DJS_ Documentation and fiction repeatedly merge in your pictorial narratives. In a painting done in 2004, we see the television image of a woman holding a rifle. The pelt of a cheetah lies on the polished wooden floor next to the television set (cat. # 94, pp. 42–43). We inevitably associate the two images, although every child today knows that a rifle shown in a movie actually doesn’t kill anyone. In a painting for the Esters House (cat. # 142, pp. 116–117) you repeatedly use the reflections on the floor as a field of encounter for different levels of representation. In that work, the art historians Martin Hentschel and Thomas Wagner engage in dialogue with long-deceased ancestors of the Esters family. Isn’t it true that every reality to which a painting refers is also an image of reality? Isn’t every reality ultimately an interpretation, a composition, a fictional construct? Isn’t it impossible to escape the world of cultural signs and symbols? Are these the epistemological questions that concern you when you paint?

KK_ I don’t want to escape the world of cultural signs and symbols, as you refer to it. What I want to do is place them in a context in which they are free again, for me as a painter and for you as a viewer. What do you see when you look at my paintings?

DJS_ Well, what is it that I actually see? That is precisely the question no one who is swept up by the maelstrom of the suggestive power of your paintings can avoid. I will always find myself confronted by epistemological questions when I ponder your paintings. Perhaps there is something like a symbiotic relationship between your art and philosophy. And that reminds me of something else right away—your love of ordering systems, for example. I am thinking of a charming painting from the year 1998 in which cherries, sour pickles, and cherry pits are presented in several different arrangements (cat. # 52): one cherry above a cherry pit here, then two cherries next to each other, followed by a cherry next to a pickle above a cherry pit, and so on. These configurations follow each other like printed characters, line for line. One cannot help but think of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism. He once explained his basic hypothesis that all human cultures can be traced to a single, universal fundamental structure with reference to the example of the “culinary triangle.” People always distinguish between raw, cooked, and spoiled foods, even though the boundaries between these categories and their possible combinations differ from culture to culture. Your painting is a satirical projection of this ambitious French theory onto the surface of an ordinary German kitchen table. Isn’t that right?

KK_ The artistic illusion does suggest a meaningful order, but I see it precisely the other way around. I assemble
objects in such a way that the distinction between different uses—and Lévi Strauss’s definition has to do with utility—becomes superfluous. They are wonderful, highly charged objects, regardless of whether they are rotten or edible, raw or cooked. What you feel when you look at them you can only feel if you involve yourself with them. Order plays no role whatsoever, not even the inner barrier that tells you that pickles and cherries are incompatible in a culinary

DJS_ In spite of your resistance to philosophy, I enjoy philosophizing with you. Pleasure and distaste are often quite close companions. So I would like to venture another conjectural presumption: You habitually place your animal portraits (cat. # 07, pp. 66–67) neatly within a grid. Is that an allusion to The Order of Things by the discourse theorist Michel Foucault, which has been a focus of discussion in the hallways of German universities since the seventies?

KK_ No, I really didn’t have Foucault in mind at the time. I am always interested in the historical dimension of painting, and so I naturally concerned myself with the portrait. One cannot really approach this subject without preconceptions. Our visual habits bear the imprint of art history. We all know what a portrait is, and that influences our perception. I did portraits of animals in close-up on twenty-by-twenty-centimeter canvases, as if I were painting portraits of people I knew very well. I wanted to give each animal an individual identity and thus at the same time circumvent the conventions of the portrait.

DJS_ When I associate Foucault with the animal portraits, it is really because of the quote by Jorge Luis Borges which he made famous. Borges spoke of a “Chinese encyclopedia” in which the animal world was subdivided according to a completely ridiculous scheme into “a) belonging to the Emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) suckling pigs, e) sirens, f) fabulous, g) stray dogs, h) included in the present classification, i) frenzied, . . . k) drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush,” and so on and so forth. Borges made it all up, of course, in order to demonstrate that our scientific taxonomies do not represent the only possible view of things. A rooster next to a cow next to a wild boar next to a sheep—your animal portraits make nearly as much or as
little sense as the “Chinese encyclopedia.” Was it your goal, like Borges, to offer the associative ordering system of art as an alternative to biological classification based on genus, species, et cetera?

KK_ The idea behind the presentation of the pictures in a grid-like arrangement was to steer interest in the portrait toward an abstract structure that is always open to modification and rearrangement, accompanied by concurrent
remembering, repetition, and resembling, also remotely
related to a gallery of ancestors. To me, painting animal portraits involves the act of altering my interpretation of the animals as well as my own visual habits and prejudices. My objective was to charge the motifs with meaning. That was the challenge I faced.

DJS_ With reference to Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, Foucault showed how a painter transposes the knowledge structure of his time into a visual image. The soft paste of the paint is less resistant to thinking than the lifeworld. Thus a painting is capable of depicting in a relatively authentic way what we regard as valid and true. In the case of Velázquez, Foucault makes everything dependent on the absent sovereign, who is present only as a mirror image and yet dictates the rules to both the painter and the viewer. What about you? What truth do your paintings convey?

KK_ I’m not the least bit interested in the absent sovereign in Velázquez’s painting, and I don’t accept Foucault’s theory about this picture, by the way. I like its enigmatic quality and am amused by the lack of consensus in interpretation, which can’t be explained by the evolution of world views through the ages alone. It is an incredibly
self-assured image of the artist in which the artist guides the viewer’s gaze and sets the traps. Whether the painting has been fully interpreted even today or whether it can ever by fully interpreted—I tend to doubt it in the spirit of the painting itself. In a letter to Michael Foucault, René Magritte wrote that “The Meninas are the visible image of Velázquez’s invisible thoughts.” I like that. If I could give my paintings a similar, eternally enigmatic quality, a sensual dimension of progressing thought—that would really be something.

DJS_ That’s the point, isn’t it? Good art visualizes movements of thought, those of the artist, but also those of a
cultural environment or an era. And that is also Foucault’s basic premise. Yet in contrast to Foucault, your interpretation of Velázquez focuses not on the representation of the sovereign, but on the open-ended nature of the underlying thought process. I find that very interesting with respect to your work as well. Near the edge of the Meninas painting we see an easel with a canvas from the rear, and next to it, almost in the middle of the picture, a mirror in which we recognize the figures of the king and queen. Yet we do not know whether the reflected image of the ruling couple is that of the two in the flesh or of a painting. Viewers of your paintings are also susceptible to such deceptive maneuvers. A dog lies lazily on the floor in one painting (cat. # 128, p. 53). At first glance, we think that its mirror image is distorted on the surface of the polished wood floor. But we eventually recognize that the animal has raised its head and is listening attentively to something. Which of the two is real? It’s hard to say. It depends on how the picture is hung on the wall. We never reach the solid ground of truth. Everything depends on our own construal. Your paintings are concerned with human beings’ perceptual and thought processes. Yet people rarely appear in them. We encounter them more often in the more transient medium of the watercolor, but only in reflections or television images in your oil paintings. Why is the human element missing?

KK_ For a long time, the human figure appeared only
indirectly in my paintings, mediated by what it evokes. I felt that the depiction of people was too psychological, too fraught with vanities. And then there was the struggle for resemblance. Yet the human being is still the subject of my paintings.

DJS_ Enough of intellectual matters. Let’s go back to your education as an artist. You studied at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf from 1981 to 1987. I was
surprised to learn that your first teacher there was Johannes Brus, a sculptor and photographic artist. How did you come under his tutelage? Did you initially not even want to
become a painter?

KK_ Yes, I did, but I don’t distinguish between painters, sculptors, and photographers. It is artists who interest me more or less, regardless of whether they are video or performance artists. And I also consistently seek to accommodate different disciplines in my own class in Munich.

DJS_ Johannes Brus is famous for his absurd compositions. In 1973 at the Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, for example, he installed a landscape composed of trees, flying cucumbers, floating cloths, a plate spiral, and a sofa. Today, he works on concrete casts of animals and industrial objects, which he also combines to create absurd ensembles. In that sense, he is really not so far removed from Borges’s encyclopedia or the Surrealists. Aren’t the motifs in your earlier works from the mid-eighties, such as the woman with the fish on her head, inspired by the same love of combining things that don’t belong together? Does this Surrealist approach to composition still influence your painting methodology

KK_ In my eyes, all of those things belong together
exactly as I paint them. Dadaism, Pop Art, and Surrealism had a truly liberating impact on art. This autonomy has
certainly helped us all, but only if we succeed in developing our own artistic stances from this abundance of abstract possibilities.

DJS_ Your next mentor after Brus was Norbert Tadeusz—a “full-blooded painter” as he was described in the February 19, 2000 issue of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung—a master student with Joseph Beuys who adopted a very vivid, sensual, realistic mode of representation as early as the sixties. That makes sense in light of your career, doesn’t it? What did he pass on to you?

KK_ A great deal, but above all a capacity for enthusiasm; an eye for color harmonies, shadings, the color atmosphere of a painting; and a profound belief in the potential of painting.

DJS_ Joseph Beuys was dismissed without notice by
Culture Minister Johannes Rau nine years before you
enrolled as a student in Düsseldorf. But in late 1990, after his case was settled in court, Beuys established the head office of his Free International University in “Raum 3” of the Kunstakademie. How much of an appreciable factor was he for you.

KK_ As an artist he was definitely an appreciable factor. But he didn’t play that much of a role for me at the Academy in the eighties. The point at which his cause was institutionalized in the form of an office there was really the point at which my fascination with him began to wane. He was certainly an important artist, but I had no interest in his Free International University. I liked his comment that “the mistake begins when someone starts buying stretcher frames and canvas.”

DJS_ But that’s exactly what you did. Were you opposed to Beuys’s expanded concept of art?

KK_ No, I’d already done that by then. I didn’t learn that it could be a mistake until I happened to get hold of a
postcard inscribed with that quote. I had already fallen into the trap. And that despite the fact that my second teacher, whom you referred to as a “full-blooded painter,” was a master student with Joseph Beuys. There are always two sides to Beuys that need to be considered: his manifestos containing suggestions for making the world a better place on the one hand, and his complex works of art on the other. And it’s interesting to note that he didn’t have nearly so much to day about the latter. The manifestos are full of
contradictions and, viewed as statements of principle, worthy of criticism. I tended to regard his comment more as a provocative form of critique.

DJS_ You eventually became a master student with
Gerhard Richter, without doubt the best-known contemporary German artist. Things could hardly have turned
out better for you, could they?

KK_ Richter was just the right mentor for me at that
particular time. But it’s wrong to suggest that the famous master’s stamp influenced my so-called success in the course of my life as an artist.

DJS_ What did you gain from Richter?

KK_ His pictures. Contemplating painting.

DJS_ His great contribution to the history of art is his masterful combination of abstract and realistic painting in a single life’s work. You are no less masterful in your ability to blend realism and abstraction completely in a painting and even in a single motif. A drop of water on a pane of glass, a highly polished wooden floor, or the folds of a curtain can be viewed not only as figurative representations but also as abstract formations. Is that your contribution to the history of art—having perfected Richter’s synthesis of two currents in art that have been in competition for decades?

KK_ You keep trying to get me to subscribe to a specific formula.
DJS_ I’m trying to understand . . .

KK_ If there’s anything I don’t want to be, it is the
perfecter of anything. I would much prefer to be the one who makes things possible, expands on them, and raises new questions.

DJS_ You are now a professor yourself, formerly in
Bremen and now at the academy in Munich. What distinguishes you in your teaching from Brus, Tadeusz, and Richter? And what do you share with them? How do you see yourself as an educator?

KK_ Here’s the thing about teaching: I don’t think you can teach art. What you can do is stimulate the development of artistic skills. I try to try to help students form an
approach to art and give them the time they need to develop it. That’s the only way that unknown forms, and art itself, can emerge. One of the differences is that I’m a different person and can only try to engage in dialogue with my students, backed by my own subjective nature. Another
difference has to do with the times. My time as a student was very special for me—never a transition period during which the economic requirements, issues of learning economy, or straight paths mattered. The idea of one’s student years as a special time—“the best time of one’s life,” as my parents used to say—as a time of self-discovery, curiosity, dialogue, and unlimited extremes is gradually disappearing. It is hard to learn flexibility today. And that is especially important in view of the fact that, especially in art, productive moments cannot be predicted.

DJS_ That is quite a fine summation. How does that work in painting? How do you come to a conclusion in painting? At what point do you know that a painting is complete. And does it ever happen that you simply can’t find the right way to end?

KK_ In my eyes, a painting is finished when I have
nothing more to add; when I look at it and discover nothing that rubs me the wrong way; when I have come closer to my mental image and am surprised nonetheless. Sometimes—although not often, for canvas is patient—it just doesn’t work. Perhaps the idea isn’t viable. But it might also be that the challenge of realizing the idea is too much for me or that a technical problem presents too great an obstacle. Or perhaps I was just wrong about something.

DJS_ The first retrospective of your oeuvre is now being presented at the Kunsthalle Tübingen. It spans the period from the early years of your career in the eighties to the present. What do you expect of such an undertaking?

KK_ A look back to the future.