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