The Subject Matter in Painting (1986).


Joost Meuwissen

A conversation with Marian Plug, June 1986.

You made a series of large paintings of woods and forests in 1985 and this year you painted a whole series of equally large seascapes. So they all are about nature. And there are no human figures in them. It is all rather bare nature you present. The human figure is absent. Could that be the reason that they are not so much paintings of an overwhelming nature but rather I would say overwhelming paintings of some piece of nature? I mean, they have no identification points as where to be in these landscapes, where one might stand in them, and so

160 Sea IX  (‘Whirlpool’), 1986. Oil on canvas, 140 x 140 cm. Museum De Lakenhal, Leyden.

their frontality and even their latent symmetry would seem to be just a painterly affair, they would be things of painting and not from nature, not taken from their contents.

I do not know. I just do not call them seascapes or landscapes or whatever scapes because they are not in a fixed genre you see. I am not and I do not want to be a genre painter or to work in such tradition and I just called them Woods and Seas because that is what I feel they are. And moreover I am not concerned with the optical as such which would be a very heavy and depressing part of any genre or tradition in painting and that is where we should get rid of, in my opinion, today. I mean, modern art freed us from that but then they lost the content too.

They lost the content?

Well, rather they lost a problematic relation to their subjects. And that is a difference. I have a very problematic relation to the subjects of my paintings, to these pieces of sea and wood which I in a way prob­lematicize and they become more and more complex when I am working on them even though the resulting image might get simpler and simpler. And of course you might interpret Mondrian in the same way, you might say that his relation to his subjects is also very a complex one and very difficult to understand but that would be just an interpretation because he really did not paint that specific relation anymore. It was absorbed into the painterly means and therefore it had to be generalized. Now I also want to generalize and I also want to abstract but when you are doing this today the painting becomes ever more complex.

Generalizing today would have no specific purpose which would embed any subject into some equal aesthetic representation and in Mondrian’s time it had this aim of going somewhere outside painting once. But as it has become part of the painterly means ever since, now you are in a way obliged to generalize and yet it has no purpose so it is a complicating mechanism. And that is why the content is coming back.

No, I would not put it that way. You see, Mondrian has a lot of content but it is not in the abstract and it is not in the hawthorn either. I do not know what are his contents but I know they are there. They will come out some time and they will appear and show themselves. Maybe if we could manage to look at them with a less historical viewpoint, I do not know. I only know that going outside of the painting, as you said was his aim, is done by a content and not by establishing a language or an aesthetical doctrine. And yet that was what happened after the war when the painterly means became mixed up with the optical again, when the painterly means became themselves subjects of art research and then they had to be based on something I presume and that is why the optical returned I think. Painting as a way of looking at things and even painting or art as a way of doing things. That is awful. A lot of postwar modern art which drew from the abstract become in fact decorative or just experimental with optics and in my opinion that was not a progress. Twenty years ago that was a time of experiments and I myself experimented a lot too but only with the techniques. I did all the techniques then but as my research as you might call it was not based on optics or on some philosophical view on things I really had to flee from one technique to another and even within one technique I fled from one thing to another in order to escape something like fixing a personal view on things I suppose. And they became collages and even my oil paintings became collages and some of them are pretty good I think. It was only with silk-screens that I could find some rest at that time because it is such an analytical and impersonal technique and you have to do so many different actions for it. It involves the photographic as well as designing in black and white and then you print all these different colours which all are basically flat. I saw it from Dieter Roth and Paolozzi at the time. I always went on with oil but I think the silkscreen has been very important for me in that it was a way of going into the subjects I paint today.

Water, 1982. Silk-screen printing on paper, 19,5 x 27,5 cm. Artist´s proof.

How was that done? I mean formally your Sea paintings have something of the photographical image in being cut off at the edges, in being taken out from a larger landscape and then they are in a way telelensed. And their paint somehow seems to be layered but not in the traditional way, not by making glowing but yet invisible backgrounds. All layers stay visible. And that is something from the graphic as a technique I think. These paintings have something of graphic.

Do you think so? I did not notice that, I always felt it the other way round because it was silk-screen which I more and more considered as a painterly and not as a graphic technique. At least the silkscreen does not involve much drawing, it does not involve much handwriting, it does without the personal line. That is a difference between screen print and many other graphical techniques. It has no personal touch, at least not through a sort of direct handwriting. It is a way of avoiding any kind of cheap expressionism. At first my screen prints were collage-like with social objects, people in the streets and so on, but gradually I developed this single and simple nature image out of it.

Yes. But how was that done?

Well I do not know or rather I do not know how to put that in words. You should not ask that. As I said before it has to do with a more problematic relation to the subject and its appearance as a single image and somehow by moving some parts of the picture away into the frame and these parts you might call the iconic parts as any picture has all these parts, there are always the naturalistic parts and the abstract parts and the flat parts and the light parts and so on and then you also have the iconic parts which I began to link up with the frame and with the cut-off of the picture. Now on the photography in my screen prints Jean Leering wrote a very interesting article which was published in Italian in the bulletin of my gallery at Milan. It was about how photography always cuts off some piece of reality out of a far bigger world and how this cut-off is influencing our look. Now I think I wanted to neutralize this mechanism of influence. I wanted to neutralize the cut-off in a sense. I did not want it to get meaning. At least not meaning in the painting or in the print. So in a way when you remarked that the image of my Sea paintings is a telephotographic one I could agree with you. It is a telephoto image but at the same time that does not matter. These paintings could be or could have been panoramic as well and when they had been panoramic actually nobody would have talked about telephoto lens or about the photographical aspect.

Then why are not these Seas panoramic seas?

As I said, they could have been.

But they are not. Is it because a panoramic landscape would necessar­ily involve more of the traditional landscape painting and that would have something of the genre you want to keep a distance to, you do not want to make Vedutes or Views Of?

Oh no. That is, I once made a real vedute in screen print and it was called View Of The Amstel and the whole edition was sold out very soon, haha, it had golden trees – bronze, actually.

View of the Amstel, 1976. Silk-screen printing on paper, 38 x 49 cm. Artist´s proof.

It was based on a photograph taken from the roof of the former house of Cas Oorthuys, the photographer, just before it was demolished to make place for the Opera, in Amsterdam. But I did not do it on purpose I think. It was a mere coincidence and anyhow the title was given afterwards. And then some of my smaller paintings are panoramic but that is because they are painted outside. Nearly all my paintings are studio works. But I always paint – so it happens sometimes on journeys or holidays I take canvas and oil with me and they are smaller paintings of course because it would be practically impossible to go out with a two meters square canvas, it would be blown away. And these smaller paintings are also more incidental, more isolated, more things of their own. And they are more panoramic.

Why is that? I mean somehow it sounds a paradox, your small paintings having a panoramic, wide view-angle and your bigger paintings having a very small view-angle.

I am not busy with view-angles at all but it happens when you are in nature, in a landscape, that you are part of it and you are sitting in there and everything changes. All things continually change, the light changes, the colours change, the clouds, the sun, the temperature, the wind and so on, everything is changing all the time and that is why the painting has to go very fast. It is because you are in there and be a part of it. There is not much time and not much reason to choose then. And that is why I think these outside paintings are more about the differences between things whereas my studio works including the smaller studio works are more about let us say the difference of one thing or about the diversity of one thing, be it a wave or a definite spot in a wood. In the studio situation you have the patience and the endurance to fix on one element. So those outside paintings are not panoramic because I would have a panoramic look or because I would compose them as vedutes, as a series of optical events which one might read from left to right, as a series of signals developing along a horizon, but they are panoramic because there are less moments of choice involved in them.

122 Landscape in the rain, 1976. Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm. KPMG, Amstelveen.

In a way I even would say they have no subject. They have no actual subject in the painterly sense. Of course they have this panoramic look and their image is a landscape image and it is even a quite conventional landscape image in some of them, they tend to show a naturalistic appearance but that is a mere appearance and it is not their content. It is not in their truth if I may say so. Actually they are more of a sort of nowheres or rather a sort of everywheres.

Then are you always painting really the landscape you are in at that moment?

Of course I paint the landscape where I am. Since it is say also difficult and time-consuming to find the appropriate sites, why then should I paint another landscape than the one I am in?

Because painting another landscape is exactly what you are doing in your studio paintings.

Oh I see. That is ridiculous. You see, the subject is part of the painterly means. These Seas are not some far and distant things which I would long for or which I would bear in my memory or which I would dream of or which would cause anxieties to me. They do all these things but only when I actually make them. But they do not really matter when I choose this subject and then this choice of subject has not very much of a choice either, it is more based on expectations concerning how my painting could develop and there is the considerations about the sense such a subject, of sea and wood, would have in painting today. I would say they really contribute to painting today. And that would probably not be the case if I were naively painting my studio as if it was my real landscape. In the past painters did take their studios as a subject but mostly as a means to represent their problematic relation to a subject but I want all of this into the one painting itself.

You do not want to make meta-painting.

What is that?

Painting about painting.

Oh yes that would be part of the subject’s problematicization of course but then there is no reason why this should not be focussed on the production of a single image either. I think painting is such an absorbing medium, it is perhaps the most absorbing one of all. It absorbs everything and that is its nature or one might say its culture. So why would I neglect this nature? Why should I make literary constructions to escape from this absorbing mechanism as in order to offer some external view on it. If I did so it would seem as if I wanted to tell you that not everything is to be absorbed into my painting. Now why would I say such a thing? Why would I say my medium has its boundaries. I am not painting its boundaries, I want to be in the middle of it, I want to work in the centre of painting, in the centre of absorption. I want to feel this pressure. So in a way even my studio is absorbed into my paintings but not as my sort of real landscape, not as their subject. My studio is not a landscape. At least this studio is not. It is a room. It is my room of my own, haha, and it is not big enough actually, it is only three meters, it is hardly any bigger than the paintings themselves. To get a distant view of my pictures I have to manage with a mirror but is not that what painters always did? I mean when I would have a bigger studio I would make bigger paintings I think and then the studio would be too small again. My room is always too small. So why should I paint this room which is too small.

But is not the image of your paintings one of a room which is too small? I mean they have a certain narrowness and even if you would look at them in a rather neutral way and look for the space in them, then this space would be nearly completely filled up by the subject which is presented as a very dense phenomenon. And

153 Sea III (‘Vortex’), 1985. Oil on canvas, 150 x 200 cm. Rijnhof BV, Eindhoven.

there is hardly any space outside the presented subjects. Horizons are absent or they are as high as nearly connecting with the frame of the picture, like you said you did with the iconic elements before. In a way when I look at these pictures I have a feeling of being locked in and yet I see no place in there where the human being could exist in them. It may remember the woman’s position in the gothic novel hesitating between being locked up and being lost. Your Woods and your Seas might be defined as gothic rooms and yet iconographically they would denote also the vastness and the endlessness of these nature’s elements. Especially your Seas are vertical spaces within an element which in the common view would be a horizontal plane. This might be caused because you concentrate on the waves and on the layering of waves when they break on the rocks but even then you are doing this apparently to stress the verticality of the space. Now we might wonder about what content this vertical space would have and I would say it is the space of the human figure which itself is absent. It is a human space. And that is why maybe so many people looking at your Seas associate with Caspar David Friedrich, which in a way is also a rather odd comparison because the differences are so obvious. His painting Monk At The Sea for instance shows a sea which is very horizontal and wide and it has an open air above it which is stressing this endlessness and then on the shore is standing this tiny veiled human figure which is looking at the sea and the whole impression is that of Weltall.

I do not think this is a right way to discuss my paintings, it is not the right way to look at painting today, I mean in such a one-sidedly narrative way that only those contents would be accentuated which in fact are outside of painting itself. When you say this word ’space’ it really does seem to be something unchangeable and eternal even and it has very clearly something of abstract value to you. And then you are going to transfer this very abstract value into the psychological and then you feel in a way obliged to react on what through yourself have become quite superficial representations of the nature of pieces of nature and of spaces, big spaces which always would be endless and things to be lost in and that causes a certain feeling, and small spaces which are to be narrow and they are always rooms to be imprisoned in and that causes another feeling but I could mention hundreds of novels in which these feelings occur. They occur in every novel I think. Now in my paintings the spaces are not that external, they are internal spaces,

155 Sea V (‘Blanket’), 1985. Oil on canvas, 170 x 140 cm. Daimler Chrysler, Utrecht.

they are spaces out from the pressure the subject causes from within and so it is not a matter of density, it is not about how a subject would fill a space, as if my painting would start as an empty bottle, as if it would start with the subject fully ordered in my mind, but it is about pressure and about the pressure caused by a thing, by a sea or a wood, and this pressure caused by a thing is always more singular and specific, it is something which is exercised and which is happening, it is not a general idea in your mind alone.

But you cannot deny there is a narrative level in your paintings. Not only they are called Seas, they also look like seas and then there is this tail of a story in them, there is a boat which seems to capsize or there is a shore which looks like a fish. They are events. They are events happening in a story.

In a story yes but they are not psychological events, they are complica­tions of the subject itself when it is painted towards a content. You see the narrative in painting is not the same as in literature, it is not about elements in the picture being related to another.

154 Sea IV, 1985. Oil on canvas, 160 x 160 cm. Bouwfonds Nederlandse Gemeenten, Hoevelaken.

In fact I am always very suspicious about elements in the picture which tend to relate to each other and telling a story in this let us say linear way. If that would happen I would rather paint this relation as just another element I think and then this relation somehow would be lost. Anyhow that was a sort of program when I made lithographs twenty years ago, in the experiment time, when I tried to break the relation between a naturalistic figure and its abstraction, between naturalistic and abstract figures and I did that by printing their relation as just another shape in-between. Now this is not a problem today of course, nature and abstract is not a problem anymore but the relation of elements, their interweave as a sort of narrative structure, that stayed a problem. When I take for instance a Sea At Night as a subject for my painting and I paint a very wild and rather blue and dark sea and there appears something like a boat in it, which at first was a wave like the other waves, then in a certain way I have to withdraw from the picture, I hesitate. I really doubt. Such a thing could be nearly everything, it could become the fin of a fish, it could become just a piece of wood, it could become a boat.

178 Wave, 1988. Oil on canvas, 90 x 70 cm. KPN, The Hague.

And then mostly as a solution I choose that possibility which is the least narrative with regard to the content of the image. If it would be a fin the painting might go to say ‘nature’ or even worse, ‘natural element and its inhabitants’ or ’shark threat’ and that is the sort of thing I do not want to paint. And when it would become just a piece of wood floating on the water it would go to mean ’shipwreck’ or even worse ‘rest of human culture’ or ‘after the bomb’ or something like that and that is also something I do not want to paint.

Felix Guattari recently said that artists should get involved with these problems, they should get involved with the problems of nuclear weapons, nuclear energy, ecology and so on. It is now so long that artists are mainly involved with artistic problems themselves, even to the point of just playing games with their artistic means in a very formal way. That is his critique on postmodernism.

Well, who would not agree with that? But it is not so simple. It is not making a painting of rain and then call it Acid Rain, that would not be much of a help. I think he does not mean that in such a direct way. When painters would stop being busy with their means then in my opinion painting itself would end. It is not existing outside the means.

Then would you call painting a craft?

No it is an art because these means in turn do not exist when they are not developed through the works themselves. And that is the point I think why postmodernism is not a good term to describe the develop­ment in the visual arts today. At least in painting there is no real break with the modern though it has become very different today. Postmoder­nism is a poor term which suits maybe the new architecture or other cultural areas which are in a more direct way involved with how people live but in painting I myself would prefer the Italian term of transavanguardia to describe the situation of ten years ago. It means that we are not an avant-garde anymore, we are now in the middle of society. In a way this was also a cultural development and you could feel it then, you could feel this transition into a more positive interest of people towards painting even to the point of naive narrative, to the point of re-telling a painting’s supposed story.

187 Untitled, 1990. Oil on canvas, 160 x 160 cm. Museum De Lakenhal, Leyden.

Painting could suddenly be re-told as a story. That means I think that the painting’s content had become positive. It became very positive. Now my paintings are very positive and I think the whole position of painting within culture depends on this, that it is one of very few things which bear positive content today. And that has something to do with the iconic. I mean even graffiti and the comics-like way of painting have this sort of positive.

Yes and the new Italian classicism has it and the new decorativism has it.

They all share it, they all share I would not call it a strife for positive content but the awareness of its being there, they all are aware of the fact that whatever you paint, whether fully abstract or extremely narrative, it will bear the mark of positive content. And of course that is a very disturbing matter for those critics who use cultural concepts of the negative kind and the criticism on postmodernism is about its supposed lack of content. And that may be true for a lot of postmoder­nism in for instance architecture which always stood more in the middle of society, which had its inhibitions of the functional kind and therefore it had less opportunities to develop its means and that is maybe why the image of architecture is such a fragmented one today, I mean you see their pleasure sometimes but then the materials are so poor.

But what kind of content this sort of painting would offer us in such positive terms? Would it be like Friedrich’s Weltall or would it be like an iconic image in which content and form would coincide to such an extent as provoking some experience of the inescapable, an experi­ence of the religious kind and a glimpse of another world. Or would it be such as Philippe Sollers recently stated that even in the most abstract form of painting it is only the image of the human body and especially the nude which saved painting in our century from being lost and that would be the importance of Picasso.

181 Salzkammergut IX, 1989. Oil on canvas, 140 x 140 cm. Delta Lloyd, Amsterdam.

Or would it be like repeating the eldest myth of all, the nature’s epic and the ever returning poetry of what Robert Graves called The White Goddess which your Seas certainly could pay a contribute to, in their way of specifying them­selves and fighting also an internal battle, a sort of Battle Of The Waves wherefrom the human being would be detached as to only feel the loose ends of its pressure. So in a way we might compare your Wood paintings with the Celtic epic of The Battle Of The Trees and that for several reasons, I mean their trees tend to be specified, they tend to be a species and there is the fir and there is a predominance of the beech which is the book of Celtic poetry because

147 Wood IV, 1984-1985. Oil on canvas, 160 x 160 cm.

its twigs are its letters and then at the end of your Woods series when these trees somehow threaten to relate they are lifted up in what really seems a fight leaving the twigs behind like suprematistic signals on the ground and then in the very last painting of this series there is lying a very dead tree on the ground and this tree does not have twigs anymore and there are some twigs standing apart at the very last right edge of this painting, they are standing up there and they are very alarming signals. Now is not the same thing happening in your Sea paintings where this boat is somehow a specification of a wave, where a boat is seen as some sort of wave and if they would relate, if boat and waves would relate they would in a way relate again and there would be a clash and that is not what you paint. You do not paint the violence of the battle.

Nor its beginning, nor its end. It would be rather strange to say this painting, this sort of painting has a very positive content and then say that this content is about violence. I would not like to put such a statement in words. And if my paintings really would be about battles, which is something I doubt, well then these battles are not fought. I do not think my paintings are about specification either because specifica­tions would probably involve battles as their next step but it all would be a metaphor and that is something you need as a basic for explaining your narrative reading. But I must stand I like the idea of it, though I do not agree with the generalizing concepts. You see when I painted these Woods at first the difference between the various trees was as big as avoiding any relationship between them. They were not different sorts of trees, I did not paint a family and its members.

143 Wood I, 1984. Oil on canvas, 160 x 160 cm. Private collection.

I painted a fir and I painted a beech over there and I painted other elements which did not belong to a family of trees definitely and they were very dark and they were more about some sort of Japanese calligraphy. So these Woods started more out from darkness and light and this made a more classic painting which was bought by a private collector from Amsterdam. And afterwards the trees were not species anymore. They became just woods and their stems or their trunks were not specified anymore. And in a way that caused a problem of naturalism because of all these rather loose stems making the same space all of them. You see that was really not a problem of specifica­tion but rather it was a problem of loss of specification. I became very annoyed by the naturalism which these trunks fixed. These trees were always standing there in the painting whereas what I really intended to paint were the grounds of the woods, they were my motive then.

And the subject is wider than this motive. If you paint the forest ground you have to paint a forest for that. And because you want to paint the ground of the forest this forest would also appear as a part of a forest, as a piece taken out from a far bigger forest.

Yes I think so, I wanted to paint the grounds not the trees. But I could not really get away with the trees. Then someone said to me, when we were discussing this problem, he said: why do not you do as Baselitz did, why do not you paint these woods upside down? This whole problem of naturalism would be solved in a very elegant, simple and formal way. And moreover, not only would this problem be solved but in a way it would say that it had not been really a problem. That it was a fake problem. And it is a fake problem when you would look upon it as for its content. Naturalism is a problem without a content today. It does not say us anything and it only stands there as a technical problem which sometimes occurs in painting and sometimes does not. So for me as a painter it is a big problem when it occurs. And that is also the reason why I could not manage to think about these woods painted upside down because as a solution this would be a far too general solution for this specific problem. It would say that this very small problem always occurs in painting whereas I would make clear that it is a very big problem when it occurs but it seldom occurs. Because it has become part of the painterly means for a long, long time so when naturalism occurs it is because you want to use it. It is because you want to use it as a means. So I could not sleep with that idea of turning my paintings over and hanging them upside down and then I came to a sort of compromise, I would go halfway with it and I would paint the horizon as a vertical line and then the trees would stand horizontally out, their crowns would point to the left. That was my last Woods painting which was bought by the Centraal Museum in Utrecht and when I did it the horizon was left out and there was one horizontal tree which did not have any twigs nor leaves. Most people thought this was a painting of a fallen tree, they thought this tree was lying on the ground and that it was a dead tree. Well, it was not. And then all critics said this painting was about decay and that it was about death. It was my last Wood painting and its content would be the death of the wood. They all fixed on the tree you see, they all fixed on the narrative of the tree whereas the real painting was not about death at all, there is so much life in it.

150 Wood V, 1984-1985. Oil on canvas, 160 x 160 cm. Centraal Museum, Utrecht.

In my opinion this painting in all its glowing was nearly all too vitalistic and that is maybe I think that you are right to state that its real content would be something like the birth of poetry, I mean with these loose and independent twigs which are standing there apart in their pride. You see, positive content is not about totalities and it is not generalized into total concepts of the psychological or religious kind. Positive content is about sin­gularities. It is the drama of singularity.

And that would involve the uncertainty about its going narrative so in a way you might say that your paintings are iconic insofar as they offer a coincidence between form and a very accurate dose of content, just a dose to such an amount that it would avoid the common ideologies of belief and psychology. So they would involve also a far more bigger dose of iconoclasm, of breaking conventional images away. And then you would be right to say that this content is positive and that it is yet not taken from outside of painting, that it is only in the painting but that nevertheless or rather just because of that this painting is in the middle of society.

Yes but the importance of modern art would be of the same I think. You see when I painted this very dark and blue sea and there appeared this boat because all other things than a boat would cause all too larmoyant images, I painted this boat very carefully in such a way that you cannot see which side of the boat you are looking at.

156 Sea VI (‘Boat’), 1985. Oil on canvas, 160 x 160 cm. ABN AMRO, Amsterdam.

When you look at this boat you know it is a boat but you really do not know which side of this boat. So even the idea of things painted upside down was absorbed here. Now if you really should want to know about this boat, if you really would try to identify with this boat, you would not identify only with some common image of happy sailing across the waves but you would also identify with your boat turned upside down and with your boat capsized. In a way you would get lost in this sea. If you want to specify the image you will get lost. And that is also why such a boat cannot be painted in a vague and sketchy way because that would leave psychological choices to you. It has to be painted very carefully. To avoid any specification of this boat in the optical sense I have to specify it with just painterly and rather abstract means which bring forward a boat which does not exist outside of this painting. And that is also why this painting is not changing whatever distance you take to look at it. Also at a very close distance it stays the same. And that is a difference with a lot of painting today which you mostly appreciate from a long distance whereas from nearby you would see only the materials, pieces of oil and sand without image. My paintings may be looked at from a short distance too and that is maybe because of my screen print experience but anyhow the materials do not offer now a way to escape.