Over the past three decades, Stephan Baumkötter's practice developed in incremental steps. Opportunities that present themselves outside the studio in Cologne were particularly significant. Residencies with Donald Judd in Marfa or at the Albers Foundation in Bethany, to name only two, resulting in an extraordinary oeuvre.
In this interview, conducted via e-mail and on the phone, we will delve in to the origins of this singular artist's methodology and explore a broader context, within which the artist developed his exceptional work. Culminating in his most recent series of large-scale works on paper, which will be the subject of a presentation at Bartha Contemporary's during May 2022.
NvB: Stephan, perhaps it's best to begin in 1989 with a show in your hometown Münster, where you were studying at the Academy at the time. In this exhibition, you displayed both a series of spherical sculptures as well as a small number of paintings. Can you tell me how you conceived these works and about your training leading up to this show.
SB: The exhibition in Münster marked both an end and a point of departure. By the time the show opened, I had already left Münster for Cologne. The exhibition included two paintings, from a series of works that I made during my studies and which ended when I left the academy. The sculptures signified a beginning of a new thought process, a sort of distilling of ideas that more generally came to interest me in my paintings practice, namely: space, light and an indeterminate positioning within an architectural space. I was interested in the inherent quality objects, which I viewed as an attempt to question of my own practice. I was always seeking to create objects that have a presence. A presence that was both fact but also less auratic. My primary aim or rather notion was to create objects that were not artificial but self-evident, like a chair, but at the same time distinctive and singular like a work of art. The contradiction therein continues to interest me to this day.
Lothringer 13, Munich, 2000
NvB: You once told me that you believe that an artist's development is limited to a small number of crucial breakthrough moments and that everything that happened in between was exploring the possibilities that these breakthroughs presented. Can you pinpoint one of these moments to your time at art-school or did they manifest themselves before or rather subsequently?
SB: At some point I realised that an artist’s practice isn’t defined by that many truly groundbreaking ideas. I think this is true both for my own work as well as the work of most of the artist’s I admire. Broadly speaking I am referring to fundamental ideas that carry an artist’s oeuvre and offer a wide array of possibilities to develop these ideas and indeed push their margins. For my own work this is defined by my interest in matters that are utterly subjective. You can't be selective about this subjectivity, and equally you can't simply change it at will. Realising this, marked an important point during my studies. Prior to this I was deeply unhappy with my work and I tried to understand why. There were many aspects that needed to be addressed. However, at its core, the problem was that I was making things that simply weren’t “me”. I then began a process of elimination, all elements that didn’t really interest me, or rather that had nothing to do with “me” were removed. I abandoned many things, which resulted in a solely conceptual process that is fundamentally subjective; this uncompromising subjectiveness isn’t a contradiction in its own right, but rather required as an integral part of the work.
NvB:I like that you embrace contradiction as a key element of your work. Perhaps this also explains why very early on you decided to limit the number of materials that you employed, both in your paintings and works on paper?
SB: I s tarted using Oil-paintsticks in 1991 and since 1995 I also employ soft Pastels. Both materials perfectly suit my conceptual requirements. The use of Oil-paintsticks allows me to construct large areas by drawing line after line of oil-paint, building up a painterly surface by layering or intertwining each line; this result in dense surfaces. In essence the homogenous surface of these works is achieved by condensing many layers of paint. Each line is applied with a lot of pressure, so much so, that I push through the different layers, as I continuously build up the works. Placing layers on top of each other or by merging them.
Indeed, the process of working with Oil-paintsticks is very direct, rather than being somewhat removed from the work by using brushes, I apply the paint immediately by hand, which I experience as a uninterrupted bodily connection with the painting. Another aspect I enjoy about this process is the fact that I do not have to make any decisions about the appearance of colour in my work. As I am not able to mix paintsticks at the outset. Rather, the colour transpires from the paintings as a consequence of the process of applying a multitude of paint layers. This fundamentally solves the question of colour, as there is no intrinsic value to colour in my practice.
NvB: Let's for a moment return to your CV, as you mentioned before you decided to move to Cologne at the end of your studies, what informed the decision to leave your hometown?
SB: At the time Cologne was the centre for contemporary art in Germany, in particular for painting. Here I was able to take part in an exchange of ideas and engaging discussions. One could argue that Cologne was also an international centre for contemporary art, not least as it was the first port of call for many artists.
Kunstverein Cologne, 1993
NvB: I notice that soon after moving to Cologne your work was included in institutional exhibitions, in 1993 you took part in a group exhibition at the Kölnischer Kunstverein and 1992 had a solo show at the Artothek in Cologne, how did these exhibitions come about?
SB: Soon after arriving in Cologne I enjoyed a lot of interest in my work from other artists as well as curators. At the time artists in Cologne were engaged in a lively discussion and an open exchange about painting as a medium, I particularly enjoyed that at the time we only talked about the work. These discussions led to the two exhibitions, which were both extremely important for me, not least because they offered an opportunity for people from outside Cologne to become aware of and experience my work first hand.
NvB: and in 1993 you would have your first show abroad, at the Chinati Foundation, in Marfa no less, which had been set up and at the time was still run by Donald Judd. When did you meet Judd and how did this exhibition and residency at the Foundation come about?
SB: It was Marianne Stockebrand, the former director at the Kunstverein Cologne, who introduced me to Donald Judd. At some point he asked me out of the blue if I would be interested to spend some time at his Chinati Foundation in Marfa, and proposed an artist’s residency. It was completely informal, the Foundation was very much a work in progress rather than a formalised space. It was truly exciting, few people knew of Marfa, Donald Judd was the only artist there. There were no Bookshops nor coffeehouse for fashionable visitors from New York or far flung Europe. I spent quiet a long time there and at the end we put up a show of the works I had made during my residency. These pieces are now part of the collection of the Kolumba Museum in Cologne.
Kolumba Museum, Cologne, 2019
NvB: Shortly after your time in Marfa, you embarked on your first series of works on paper, using soft pastels rather than paint-sticks. One should note that to this day you have predominantly worked in one format 32 x 24 cm. Please tell me more about this unique body of work and the reasons for choosing this particular format.
SB: The drawings on paper developed from the paintings on canvas. The paintings on canvas are in effect condensed, stacked drawings. Indeed, one could argue that time accumulates in these works.In comparison, the pastel works on paper depict the beginning of a painting. The first drawings were made on spiral-bound tear-off pads, which described their character well. The drawings show how the canvas works start. Each drawing depicts marks and actions that, in contrast to the paintings, can in themselves result in a finished picture. The resulting works are more open, less dense or hermetic. The drawings permit me to do something, which I could not do with the paintings. They were and still are very important for me. I also want each group of work to be specific, that is, they are each clearly defined and show an aspect that another body of work cannot. In contrast to the paintings, which all have different sizes, the works on paper intrinsically have a far more serial character. Hence my decision to use a specific paper format and one kind of paper, which I continue to use to this day. I also decided to keep certain suites of coherent drawings together in sets of works. These are often linked to a place of origin. I almost accidentally choose this special format of paper. I liked its quality and the colour, I also enjoy that it is not part of the German standardised Din format, but rather is slightly larger.
Untitled, 2012, Pastel on Paper, 32 x 24 cm
NvB: It is probably fair to say that the works on paper also came to inform your soft-pastel works on aluminum panels that you started working on around 2000, what attracted you to this far more mechanical support, that in my mind at least is an outlier in your practice.
SB: With works on paper, there is always the question of presentation. Even if you exhibit them unframed, as in our exhibition in London, they will eventually be framed. The drawings on aluminium support are a way of showing drawings without framing them. The drawing also enters into a completely different relationship with the support, giving it a different presence that these works have in relation to the space within which they are shown. I enjoy that the aluminium works teether on the edge between painting and drawing, which is a fundamental theme of all my work.
Untitled, 2008, Pastel on Aluminium Panel, 30 x 21 cm
NvB: In 2005 you introduced an element of image transferal in your work, monotypes and footages where developed at this point, first on the smaller scale, later, around 2010, taking on an unusually, almost monumental format both on canvas and paper?
SB: It was always clear that the canvas works with the many superimposed layers of oil-stick could not be very large. They have to do with density as well as with concentration. They also imply that the viewer stands in front of a work like a mirror or portrait, which implies their presence. A lot of colour is painted on a relatively small area. They have something object-like about them. But large works have to be different to smaller works. It was clear to me, that the larger works had to be more like the drawings. As they are very large, they are the opposite of density. They deal with expansion, and could be even lager. I think that in painting, size is as specific as in sculpture and has its own meaning. I introduced Monotype or frottage as a new process, which allowed me to print structures on paper or canvas by pressing it through with my hands. As with most of the processes I work with, it is a combination of what I, my hands, my body, do and a process that is predetermined.
These groups of works condition and comment on each other.
Temporary Gallery, Cologne, 2010
NvB: The series and more broadly the intensified interest in works on paper also coincided with your residency at the Albers Foundation in Bethany in 2005. While in Bethany you created a suite of 17 drawings alongside new wall drawings, that were made using the same pastel sticks that you employed for the works on paper. Did these works respond to the environment in which they were made?
SB: Yes, it had to do with the studio and the incredibly focused situation in the Albers Foundation. I had begun trying different forms of presentation with the drawings on the walls of my studio and then made a drawing directly on the wall to sit alongside it. The small wall-drawings had an enormous presence and developed a very strong relationship with the space. From then on it was clear that the type of drawing that usually marks the middle of a sheet also works as a wall-drawing. Usually, the drawing is positioned in the middle of the wall. This gives the small wall drawings something monumental, because the entire wall or even the room is focused and compressed in them. The wall drawings were first shown at the Goethe-Institut in Brussels and subsequently at the Sleeper in Edinburgh.
PEAC, Freiburg, 2008
NvB: More recently you returned to working with Oil paint-stick on paper, the exhibition at our gallery in London included three such paintings on paper. At what point did you decide to shift the focus from the canvas to paper and how do these works stand in relation to the paintings, which also form part of the exhibition?
SB: The new oil paint-stick works on paper refer to the first oil paint-stick works from 1991, which were also made on paper. The present ones, however, are considerably larger, in part also larger than the paintings on canvas. They are landscape format and contribute their own space defined by the paper edge. Because of the landscape format, they have a much stronger relationship to the wall and the space than the portrait formats of the canvas paintings. Although they are created in exactly the same way as the paintings on canvas, the colour has a completely different presence which is determined by the change in support. They are more factual and have more of a quality of an object, which is emphasised by the fact that they hang unframed directly on the wall. They are indeed paintings on paper.
Bartha Contemporary, London, May 2022
NvB: Looking specifically at the paintings in the exhibition here in London, these works, of smaller scale, some encompassing an element of drawing, somewhat contradict the more homogeneous appearance of the paintings on paper shown alongside. What were the concerns that informed these magnificent and self-contained paintings?
SB: This is not a contradiction, but rather this series of small paintings depict their origin more clearly than the larger works on paper and perhaps also the larger paintings on canvases. All the works begin as drawings that become more and more condensed, and result in painted surfaces through a continues superimpositions. In this series of small oil paint-stick works on canvas you can see this very clearly. It quickly became clear that I wanted to exhibit them together as a suite of works. Alongside the larger works on paper, they form a good juxtaposition in the exhibition and encompass many of the ideas that inform my work.
Bartha Contemporary, London, May 2022