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Robert Kudielka, Kurt Tucholsky Museum, Rheinsberg Castel, 23 February 2013

Ulrike Seyboth

It was winter, a harsh winter, when van Gogh arrived in February 1888, almost exactly 125 years ago, in Provence. But the white countryside he saw was not the winter landscape of the Midi. From Arles, he wrote to his brother Theo: “And the landscapes under the snow with the white peaks against a sky as bright as the snow was just like the winter landscapes the Japanese did.” (Letter 557, 21 February 1888.) The imaginative overlay continued, even after the snow had melted. “But, my dear brother – you know, I feel I’m in Japan. I say no more than that, and again, I’ve seen nothing yet in its usual splendour.” (Letter 585, 16 March 1888.) The addendum hides the true splendid achievement, because van Gogh had just completed his first masterpiece in the Japanese high spirit, the Bridge of Langlois, which downright sparkles in its bright colours, in the sky, in the vegetation, and the clothes of the washwomen – “colours like stained glass” (Letter 588), colours that don’t correspond to the harsh local colours of the south at all.

What does this artistic hallucination have to do with Ulrike Seyboth’s paintings? Indexically, to use a fashionable term, nothing at all, because van Gogh’s paintings are largely confined to the conventional subjects of landscape, still life, portrait, and interiors. But principally, it does have a lot to do with Seyboth: Vincent van Gogh is, next to Claude Monet, the painter of the early modernism of the nineteenth century who connects the discovery of Japanese woodblock prints with the colour of winter landscapes, and thus intimates a change in European painting. One day, when the arguments about trends and theories have become historically obsolete, one shared condition of modern painting will probably become clearer: the significance of the white plane. Working directly into the canvas primed in white, i.e., the eschewal of coloured underpainting and the layer-by-layer construction may initially have been characteristic of the Impressionists. But viewed from the perspective of today, the alla prima technique was the harbinger of a kind of painting that in the twentieth century took the colour white as a point of departure and a fundamental factor of artistic expression: Matisse, Mondrian, the great abstract Russians (Kandinsky, Malevich, Lissitzky) and numerous painters who continued and developed the heritage of these pioneers after the Second World War, stand for this development. At the same time, drawing on the white sheet of paper gained a new rank among the means of expression.

Ulrike Seyboth’s works, her oil paintings and the acrylic gouaches on paper, are part of this larger context. One might call them abstract. But that doesn’t say much. Abstract paintings that rely on the colour white can differ considerably. Only one condition is common to all white painting, both figurative and abstract: the rejection of the traditional concept of the picture as multi-layered body. For painters like Ulrike Seyboth, the white plane is no longer a mere substrate, not a neutral surface which had to be prepared by coats of paint – by making the “bed”, as Delacroix liked to say – as a foundation for the composition. However, this light ground is also not a tabula rasa, not an “empty sheet” that passively awaits being written on. One must avoid jumping to premature conclusions in order to see the practical implication. In painting, white as a ground colour establishes a specific spatial sensation: a bright, diffuse and at the same time impermeable luminous space that changes its character with every mark attributed to it – and conversely sets up everything that it accommodates.

The mark and the place it occupies are interdependent. Ulrike Seyboth enters the bright square with a discontinuous brushwork, sub-formal signs that allow the supporting ground to emerge differently than would be possible with firm, self-contained forms. For example, with Malevich the use of geometrical shapes leads to a spatial separation and consolidation of the white radiance as background that is sometimes reminiscent of the golden “transmitting light” of religious icons, gleaming from afar. The whiteness in Ulrike Seyboth’s paintings has a different function. The loose distribution and occasional agglomeration of brush strokes – to call them discrete “signs” would almost be going too far – transform the white matrix into an undercurrent that sometimes rests in itself, sometimes twirls, and sometimes it breaks through the coloured clusters, or sweeps across them. A similarly agitated pictorial space can perhaps be found in Kandinsky’s “Improvisations” from between 1912 and 1914. But even there, the turbulence is created and steered largely through drawing and colour forms, whereas with Seyboth, colour blotches distinguish the articulation.

This kind of painting, which in the West only became possible in the 20th century, has a long and venerable history in the Far East. Under the rule of the Sung dynasty, in the 11th /12th century in China, a kind of ink painting emerged that went from the original formal style based on ideographic writing to a structure of free floating blotches. The Chinese called this kind of painting “boneless”, and it was not pursued any further. But when the Japanese adopted Zen-Buddhism in the 15th century, they referred precisely to this abandoned manner and developed an ink painting style of their own, which is regarded as a spiritual exercise visualising the paradox (so hard to fathom for Europeans) that the all-embracing and all-sustaining Being, vis-à-vis everything that it embraces and sustains, is somewhat akin to Nothing. The precisely set blotches of the Japanese ink painters transform the seeming emptiness of the white paper into the perfectly plausible presence of an almost tangible, virtually infinite space.

Ulrike Seyboth knows this echo of her painting in the ancient visual arts and the spiritual attitude of the Far East. In fact, she would very much like go to Japan for a period of time to find out more about this culture, even at the risk of encountering the grotesque imitations of Western modernism there. But her “boneless” painting, in spite of these echoes, inevitably moves within a different field of reference, namely one that is largely European. For one thing, her handling of blotches cannot rely on the cultural precondition of a pictorial art of writing. Even though the brush strokes in the oil paintings occasionally get close to forming letters like „O“, „i“, „e“ or „M“, and in the gouaches and sketch books word fragments appear frequently, these allusions remain pre-linguistic, owed to the involuntary proximity of brushstrokes to the gesture of writing. Secondly, her spontaneous application is not an act that suddenly darts out of meditation, not an act that might be compared with the performance of a swordsman, but rather a careful exploration, a process of positing and retracting, which, as Ulrike Seyboth puts its, originates from “silence”. In short, a way of “spotting”, if we take the word in the sense it was used in Goethe’s time, as an intransitive verb: “It doesn’t spot”, poets used to say then, meaning that their work wasn’t progressing, things were not finding their right spot. Apparently, everything is well once things are “spotting”.

This approach has in common with Japanese ink painting that is it not spurred by a goal-directed intention, i.e., not dominated by the painter’s consciousness. Hence the negative view of an “un-conscious” process is not utterly wrong. But when André Breton in the First Surrealist Manifesto” (1924) assigned this process to an entity of its own, the recently discovered “Unconscious”, and postulated a “pure psychic automatism” – “dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason” – the limit of aesthetic honesty and art psychological correctness had been transgressed. Breton’s chief witness for painterly écriture automatique, André Mason, became in the 1930s his harshest critic, because the encounter with Far Eastern ink painting made him realise the flagrant contradiction that such an art, not bossed about by a subjective controlling agency, owes its existence precisely to an overly alert, enhanced consciousness. Ulrike Seyboth has resolved this contradiction for herself on a simpler, less controversial level by speaking of the “dialogue” that defines her work. In so doing, she caught up with the pragmatic precision of Jackson Pollock’s famous statement from winter 1947/48, where he says that “the painting has a life of its own”: “I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.”

But what is negotiated in this exchange? In the end, this question probably cannot be suppressed entirely. At the beginning of January, after a visit of Ulrike Seyboth’s studio, I was looking for the way through Ernst-Thälmann-Park to the S-Bahn station Greifswalder Straße, when at the edge of the looming monument for one of the heroic leaders of the pre-wart communist party I was afflicted by a strange stream of words, an “angewintertes Windfeld” (wintery wind field) of words like “ausgewirbelt” (twirled off), “unumschnürt” (unconstricted), “umbuscht” (embushed), “durchblubbert und durchpaust” (bubbled through and pausing around), “traumdicht” (dream-tight). The next day it became clear to me that it had not been my philosophical memory that had played this trick on me. It was the vocabulary of a poet that had been evoked by the paintings I had seen in the studio: “Lichtschaum” (foaming light) and “Atemkristall” (breath crystals), “Sekundengeflirr” (seconds’ shimmer), “wortdurchschwommen” (word-pervaded) and “augenwandlerisch” (browsing with one’s eyes), all the way to the naming of colours like “abweltweiß” (defunct white), “zeitgrün” (time green), “zielblau” (goal blue), “rotverloren” (red forlorn). There is evidently a connection between Ulrike Seyboth’s paintings and Paul Celan’s poetry.

This relationship is not based on an inner affinity of content, but rather on the similarity of the lyrical and painterly way of proceeding, aiming at a break with the usual way of dealing with images and words. Celan revokes the usual employment of language that sees words simply as denotations of something by shifting or blocking the direct relationship between word and the thing denoted, without however suspending the intention of meaning. Something similar might be said of the marks in Ulrike Seyboth’s paintings: the brushstrokes are not signs for anything – and yet, their making is by no means sufficient in itself, or “self-referential”, as we have come to name them for a want of explanation. Apparently both artists are interested in asserting something against what Celan calls the „bunte Gerede des Anerlebten“, the gaudy chatter of appropriated experience – or, speaking with painting in mind, against the redundant stereotypes of recognition. They want to put forward something that defies conventional denomination and rendering … and which precisely because of this emerges all the more forcefully when it is evoked. This is about as mysterious as the fact that we all know what is meant by the claim that someone has his heart in the right place, even though nobody could actually say where exactly that place is.

However, the space that Celan’s poetry opens up is very clearly different from that of Ulrike Seyboth’s paintings. This allows us to grasp an otherwise easily overlooked special feature of Seyboth’s paintings. Celan’s protest against the “light coercion” – Lichtzwang is the title of one of his collections of poems – challenges the “Lidlosigkeit” (the deficiency of the eyelid interruption) of seeing, the petrified perception that does not even know the moment of blinking and which is, just as the echo apes, just as “liedlos” (without song) and “lieblos” (loveless) as it is lidless, with “Dämmer” (twilight), “Wortschatten” (word shadow), and “Worthöhle” (words’ cave). In contrast, Ulrike Seyboth’s pictorial space is filled by a gleaming, winter morning light, in which the tricolour of bright blue, white, and bluish red, with which already Monet shocked the stay-at-homes of the 19th century, spreads a delightful freshness and clarity that is averse to any kind of cosiness. Apparently, the flood, “through us alive/splendidly uninterpretable”, which the poet evokes with surprising directness, can take on quite different faces.

The obvious contrast in the end helps us to resist the temptation to after all look out for a “Leuchtschopf Bedeutung”(Celan), a bright tuft of meaning. Instead, a poem should have the final word that in spite of mentioning a different time of day and temperature can be seen as a salute by the poet to the distantly related painter:

As colours, amassed,
creatures return, in the evening, noisily,
a quarter-monsoon
without a place to sleep
a pattering prayer
before burning, lidless eyes.

„Als Farben, gehäuft,
kommen die Wesen wieder, abends, geräuschvoll,
ein Viertelmonsun
ohne Schlafstatt,
ein Prasselgebet
vor den entbrannten Lidlosigkeiten.“

All the quotations from Paul Celan are from the collections Atemwende (1967) and Fadensonnen (1968).

Opening speech on the occasion of the exhibition Ulrike Seyboth: fragiles
at the Kurt Tucholsky – Literaturmuseum, on 23 February 2013

Translation: Wilhelm Werthern, www.zweisprachkunst.de
Und Robert Kudielka

Dr. Heimz Stahlhut, On the Cooperation Between Ulrike Seyboth and Ingo Fröhlich, Studio Talk 2012

Even in times of artist groups and delegating the creative process to third parties, that two artists join together and share a studio in which they collaborate is still something special.

However, that was not always so. From the Middle Ages into the 18th century, it was a usual practice in Europe that in an artist’s workshop, every painter was specializing in a particular motif or a certain genre, and this was then contributed to a joint work. But due to the rise of the cult of the genius in the late 17th century, this practice went out of favor. For modern aesthetics, the work of art created by one individual was regarded a product of western art, while a joint art production was associated with archaic, medieval, or “primitive” non-European cultures. Thus a big gulf opened up between high art, which was associate with qualities such as uniqueness, individuality, and originality, and cooperation in the artistic field.

At the beginning of the 19th century there were already tendencies towards artistic cooperation, for example with the Nazarene movement, founded in 1808 as St. Lukas-Bruderschaft, and comparable artist communities. The function of these groups was above all to support individual artists and strengthen their position vis-à-vis an indifferent or marginalizing society, and to establish an artistic trend.

The reasons for such forms of collaborations are numerous. Zdenek Felix, for example, sees temporary cooperation between artists almost as a condition for artistic progress, giving the examples of the intellectual and stylistic interaction between Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Le Corbusier and Amédée Ozenfant.

According to Felix, such a cooperation works as a continuous exchange of ideas and experiences in a productive working process, in the course of which the individual part is transformed into another, new self. He cites the example of the cadavares exquis of the surrealistes, whose purpose according to Max Ernst was “intellectual infection.” An intensification of a merely temporary cooperation is a longer or indeed even a life-long collaboration like the one between Sophie Taeuber and Hans Arp.

A further motive for working together is the desire to test how far the shared artistic views really go.

It is no accident that the practice of cooperation was especially increasingly populatr since the late 1960s and 70s, because it seemed then like a transgression of the limits ofindividual production and this an adequate response to the desire for extending the boundaries of the arts.

In conversation, Ulrike Seyboth and Ingo Fröhlich reveal the motives for their cooperation and speak about its character. Even though their genres of painting and drawing differ, and this material difference also means that each artist takes a different approach: Ulrike Seyboth’s pastose, opulent way of painting, which aims at a sensual presence contrats with the seemingly sober conceptual drawings of Ingo Fröhlich, where regular structures dominate.

What both artists have in common is a profound interest in the juxtaposition of emptiness and fullness; the white sheet of paper or the white canvas as a “resonating space” of color and regular structures is for both decisively important. This close affinity apparently makes it possible that one can be a “corrective” to the other and persuade him or her to pause, or give encouragement—an engagement where both become conscious of their individuality.

Studio conversation on December 28, 2012: Heinz Stahlhut, Ulrike Seyboth, Ingo Fröhlich

U.S. We were happy to be awarded this stipend from the Bezirksamt Berlin-Pankow. A real recognition of our artistic work.

H.S. How did you actually meet?

I.F. We met at the Kunsthochschule Berlin Weißensee in 1992. I was studying sculpture, and Ulrike painting.

U.S. Then we lost sight of one another, and then we met again quite by accident at an exhibition at the Georg Kolbe Museum.

I.F. … and then we arranged a studio visit. When I saw Ulrike’s studio, I was immediately struck by the vitality of these paintings. And I felt a similar approach to working as an artist. The working process with its means and possibilities was more in the in the foreground than any idea. I saw that in Ulrike, and that touched me quite deeply right from the start. And not much later we had the idea to show our work together.

U.S. At first, we wanted to swap works! I had always been fascinated by Ingo’s drawings and sculptures; and later also by him as a person.

I.F. In summer 2011, we got the chance to share a studio in France, and in January and February 2012 we had a grant from the Goethe-Institut in Helsinki to work on the island Suomenlinna, and this past summer we were once again in France in the Auvergne. It was exciting for me to share this intimate atmosphere. At the academy I found it difficult to work in a shared studio space, but with Ulrike there was a lovely, pleasantly calm peaceful working atmosphere. In France, we had one large space, on Suomenlina, things were rather cramped, and it was winter. The works reproduced in the catalogue were largely made in these situations. It is not anything like a fusion, but rather a dialog.

H.S. Please describe your notion of artistic work.

I.F. I often have works in front of me that are still in a flow, a meditative process. When I’m in the rhythm, it doesn’t cost me any energy. Then I don’t have the strain of having to make decisions all the time. For example with the stamp works or the series Icelandic Landscapes. There is the desire to finish something. My motivation is to create something, to bring a process forward. Monotonous activity as a principle, man as machine, maybe. Striving for a perfect structure, a perfect process, and yet failing. To counter faultless perfection with the inability to be perfect. Conscious failure. For example, I try to place lines very exactly next to one another. You know from the start that it won’t work, but that is precisely what creates the liveliness, this moment of tension, which I also seek out quite intentionally nowadays. The result reveals the beauty of this inability in the process.

U.S. For me, to paint means a friction against limits, my own limitations, my own inability. To try things beyond my inability, to enter paths that are new. So the actual failure is the signpost. I’ve learned not to take the fear of failing so seriously anymore, and to trust that I will find visual solutions.
If I want to exploit my potential, my possibilities, I need to create structures for that. In our form of society, the focus on what is really important, the right of development, in the deepest and most human sense, is often quickly lost. Every day, we are confronted with so many stories. The insane distraction by the media, shopping, and the struggle to survive means in my opinion an incredible loss of energy, and I really wonder how a society can afford such an incredible waste of creative energy. I try to be very attentive and persistent and to keep practicing orientation and concentration. My paintings are a statement. I want to explore, develop, try things out. Painting is part of perceiving life, my life. I cannot separate art from myself.

H.S. Does beauty play a role in your work?

I.F. Of course.

U.S. Yes. An attitude to life. This sense that tells me: accept your life and express your emotions. I lived in France for more than ten years. Beauty is part of life, like love and growth, decay and death. That is change, that is life, one thing. In this process of realization, true beauty emerges. Becoming conscious of the encounter of moment and time. Without this depth, beauty remains a moment and is blown away by time—but when beauty is preserved within this knowledge, it can withstand time and overcomes and transforms the moment.

I.F. Bringing our artistic positions face to face means also making visible our individual imperfection. Time and moments are antagonists, the one cannot exist without the other.
Just like Ulrike, in Berlin art circles, I had to deal with the criticism of being too aesthetic, and carve out space for myself. Perhaps the dominant opnion is that beauty generally lacks depth.

U.S. Beauty has something to do with being human. That is what I want to integrate into my work. And that is something that I also find very deeply in Ingo’s work, realized differently, of course, but with a close affinity to this idea, this sense.
Recently I saw this wonderful film: Aragon, le roman de Matisse by Richard Dindo. In the greatest horror Europe had seen so far, in 1941, Matisse painted his most beautiful and delicate paintings, and I would like to quote Louis Aragon: “…through all the storms and wars, all the misery of the times, for sixty years a man gave us a very intense view of life, a harmonic view, with an unprecedented optimism of color. … What remains of him is the enormous trust in humanity’s fate, the power to overcome darkness, this affirmation of happiness.”

H.S. In your works, empty space seems to have great significance. Can you confirm this impression?

U.S. We are both interested in he perception and integration of empty space. Emptiness equals form, form equals emptiness. A dimension that can only be perceived sensually. That is, formally speaking, where we intersect.

I.F. The void, that which is not denoted, determines the drawing, the line is just a contour.

U.S. At the beginning, I don’t know where the working process will lead me; I start with a blot, or a line. How do I deal on a painting with shapes, masses, lines, and that also means with space? The unknown plays an important role, it fascinates me. The process of becoming in painting. Through my paintings, I unconsciously reflect on the world and how I perceive it. And often I’m surprised. Do you experience something similar?

I.F. I’m interested in possibilities, I explore possibilities. The piece is the result of the working process, of the activity as such. At the beginning, I make a decision and pursue it. Gesture and tracing things in the process are more important to me than pictorial ideas. A work always starts with a decision about how to draw a line.
For me, drawing is a striking off of time, line by line. Experiencing, understanding, thinking, constructing, exploring and discovering. It explains the world to me, everything emerges through drawing in its own peculiar way. I trace and explore this with the pencil, the line—a way of seeking traces in the landscape, in nature. From macrocosm to microcosm, and vice versa, this is where I seek and find the foundations for my drawings. In the drawings on walls for example, I explore or even scan the wall with the pen. It is a process of tracing and inscribing distance and space.

H.S. How does your cooperation work concretely, both when you are in Berlin and abroad?

U.S. In Finland, there were different rhythms of day and light. We got up late and worked into the night. In France, we start early, and when we take breaks we are out in nature. That is an ideal state that we an only enjoy for limited periods of time, it has something to do with the country. The whole day, everything is about work, late into the evening, then we have some wine in the studio, in front of our works, and we talk about them. Living and working is simultaneous there. Creating is my life, for me the ideal space. Just being an artist. Here in the city, that is more difficult.

I.F. If an outsider says to me, I like that, that is good, or, leave it as it is, I get that very directly. That is indeed a form of influencing things. But we are at the very beginning of working together.

U.S. I’m very grateful for this mutual interest. In Berlin, we have separate studios. It is also important that we each have our own space.

H.S. When living and working coincide, would you call that an ideal state, a lived utopia?

U.S. I think utopias are always bound to fail. Susan Sontag once remarked, “I don’t like the term utopia, I’d rather speak of idealism. The total victory of capitalism has many alarming consequences, and one of them is the destruction of every kind of idealism.” I believe that the decision for art is something very idealistic. And I think that Ingo and I share this idealism, that this is where we come together. It is for both of us terribly important to create free spaces, both intellectually and materially, which are needed for developing and discovering and thinking something new. These open spaces require the decision to believe in the human and social value of artistic “research,” in the possibility of beauty, as we have already mentioned with reference to Matisse, and a necessary decision to radically limit ourselves to what is important to us, and thus remain authentic.

H.S. What fascinates you about working in different places like Iceland and France?

I.F. I don’t know that precisely. I felt delicately grounded there, and I liked it there. The idea of going to Iceland came through my work. I realized that there is something of nature studies im my work, even though the drawings were made in the studio. I wanted to study time and then check that in the landscape, seismographically. And Iceland is unspoiled, genuine; time plays an important role there. I explored the country, was on my own, made friends. One year later I went back to see why it fascinates me. I still can’t put my finger on it.

U.S. I knew exactly why I was in France. The openness, the light, the wonderful, old cultural landscape of the Bourgogne. This intact quality which because of the war cannot be found anywhere in Germany anymore. That for me was quite, well, healing. For me, the landscape and nature play an important role. It is about vibrations, perceptions, that are very directly reflected in my works. Like translations; one notices where my works were made.

H.S. What would you like to say in conclusion?

I.F. In my work as an artist, I’m concerned with seeing, there must be peace and quiet in it. This is where our works are similar. Ulrike’s works exude, just like mine, equanimity, peace, balance.

U.S. Perhaps that is our basic theme, our basic yearning. To move into silence and create pictures as a balance of movement and rest. There is always calm and rest behind movement. Just like in life, an illustration of the duality of finiteness and infinity.

I.F. I draw time, you paint the moment.

We owe thanks to Christine Schmidt, CSC Berlin, for her advice and encouragement.

Erika Billeter: “Eine Utopie wird Wirklichkeit: Zusammenarbeit – Die gelebte Harmonie“, in: Collaborations: Warhol, Basquiat, Clemente, exhibition catalog Mus. Fridericianum, Kassel/ Villa Stuck, Munich 1996, pp. 50–54, p. 50.

Zdenek Felix: “’Kollaboration’ als Austausch und Methode”, in: Collaborations: Warhol, Basquiat, Clemente, Ausst.Kat. Mus. Fridericianum, Kassel/ Villa Stuck, München 1996, pp. 56–59, p. 56, and Peter Dunn und Loraine Leeson: “The Aesthetics of Collaboration“, in: Art Journal, vol 56, Nr. 1, Spring 1997, pp. 26–38, p. 26. Billeter 1996, p. 52.

Susan Sontag, “Die amerikanische Misere,” in: Die Zeit 09/2002