„Abstract painting speaks a language of its own, and therefore demands more of its spectator “, writes Travis Jeppesen. Also abstract are the works of Berlin artist Pius Fox, who currently has a solo booth at VOLTA New York. His works are characterized by softly colored layers and geometric forms. In his interview with Sabrina Möller, Fox talks about his paintings, his great respect for large formats, and about zombie formalism.
What made you discover painting?
When I was still at school, I mostly dedicated myself to music. Later I attended an art school where I felt free to express myself and I began to try out new things. My parents were from East Germany and at some point, my mother took me to an artists’ group in West Berlin and I painted there. Those painters and their group did of course influence me. All those connections and encounters brought me closer to painting and to art in general. The first art books I borrowed from the library when I was about 10 or 11 years old, were about Monet and van Gogh. What fascinated me about them were the colors. However, I only started to take painting seriously when I was 17 years old.
Your works show an increasingly abstract tendency. While your earlier works used to show figurative elements, your new works are characterized by a purely geometric vocabulary of forms and layers of colors.
In the past two years, I did two decisive abstract paintings and I also started to think in more abstract terms than before. In the past, my abstract works used to be a result of failed figurations. I still work hard to succeed at figuration, though. I have a couple of portraits that have been sitting in my studio for a while because they simply don’t convince me. Sometimes I’d like to use a more concrete language, and work in a more figurative way. It’s unbelievably hard to convey what’s beyond the visible.
And that takes a long time. There’s a lot of dead, grey, figurative painting around. To succeed at drawing such as the ones by Hans Holbein for instance, that’s art.
Your earlier works show very clearly how much you’re influenced by the architecture that surrounds you. To what extent are your surroundings present in your latest works?
I take my surroundings, for instance my studio, as a reference. Over the last year, I’ve done a lot of work with photography. I’ve reworked my own pictures among other things. For me, photography is a possibility to approach the visible in a different way, to hold on to it. Historically, this has been the role of photography: to replace painting in its portraying function.
You work with a great quantity of layers of color which you apply in a rather coarse manner. Can you describe the whole process, starting with the motive, and culminating with the finished painting? Do you start out with a concrete idea, or does the work develop on the canvas or paper?
It depends. There are works where you just don’t know what you’re going to do. But there are other works where the desire and its realization go hand in hand. The process of failure plays a fundamental role as well.
Are the different layers of color and their overlapping the result of repetitious failure during the work process?
You can’t generalize- every work is different. From the moment where I work with larger formats, I’m forced to focus even more on the process and on my technique. I keep on asking myself how the old masters conceived and painted their works. Those pieces are very much controlled and yet extremely lively. You could compare them to a good performance. The way in which those paintings are constructed is true art, and this reflects in the work process. While working with larger formats, I’ve found myself forced to dedicate more though to the construction of my works. How do colors acquire their livelihood? What are the relationships between the colors?
What’s very atypical, is that you use oil to paint on paper. The material structure of paper creates a certain challenge. Why do you find the work with oil on paper so interesting?
What makes me opt for paper often has to do with the format I’m working with, and with how direct this material is. Both paper and canvas have their advantages and disadvantages. Currently, my tendency is to move away from using oil on paper. This has to do with a question of presentation. In the beginning, I attached the oil papers to the wall. Their flatness creates a certain window effect while their surface remains directly perceptible. Nowadays, I’m opting for canvas and wood, for practical reasons, because paper is a material that tends to deteriorate quicker, and because wood and canvas give me more options to prepare my surface. Wood offers both a hard surface, and a pad for the paper.
Your works demonstrate a clearly aesthetic dimension. What ‘s the role of aesthetics in your works?
Aesthetics play an important role for me. In politically explosive times, it’s only natural, that I keep on asking myself how relevant an aesthetic experience is. Still, it continues to be a main driving force for me. Kant described this special relationship with the world, and marvellously defines all the aspects that I consider to be part of an aesthetic experience.
Lately, abstraction and decorative painting have been linked to zombie formalism. What’s your take on the ease with which critics catalogue abstract art within this category?
To a point, this critique certainly has its justification. Abstract artists keep on asking themselves: „Is this just about aesthetics, or is there something more?“. That’s why we have to criticize the critics for failing to formulate an alternative. Where’s the dividing line between aesthetic and non-aesthetic art? What would the contrary be?
If we attempt to draft a counter model, confronting a beautiful, but empty art with an art of rich content, things become difficult. The same type of discussions have taken place in minimal art. The history of art is filled with aesthetic art and the accusation is by no means new, or unjustified. However, it is completely irrelevant both for the artistic practice and the result of its evaluation. While World War II was ravaging Europe, Matisse and Morandi kept on painting their „little pictures“. And they were criticized for it. For a good reason,- the question here is whether or not these categories are constructive. There’s the type of artist who attempts to escape from the world, and the kind who pursues a concrete change. To me, the spiritual component of art is of paramount importance. But it’s just as important to keep them apart. Not because of what I consider to be right or wrong, but rather because that’s how my personality works. To express yourself through the material, to exhaust your intellect and your practical skills on it. Or to subject art to an imperative of content, to force a meaning onto a work, seems just as problematic to me. You may just as well accuse this art of being the wrong medium for political or content related change.
What’s good is that the critique won’t accept art as being supposed to be just beautiful or supposed to be following certain trends. What bothers me, is that the critique and everything it stands for tends to divide form and content into two opposing camps.
Do you see it as a problem when art fits well in your living room?
Observing the intricate mechanisms of the art market, sales, recognition, and the hierarchy of artists, you of course start to wonder about the meaning behind it. Some people probably simply derive pleasure from looking at art. They buy it, and in the best case they develop an intense relationship with the work they own. And sometimes, you end up sharing something that you intended to convey through your work. That’s ok and part of the artistic process. But this would be the ideal scenario. In reality, there are many other aspects that are problematic.
If you had to pick a work that influenced your development, what would your choice be?
I think it would be “Constantine’s Dream” by Piero della Francesca. What captivates me is its clarity on one side, and the atmosphere and poetry on the other side. The angel’s daring flight, his literal plunge into the painting, the guardians’ dreamy calmness as the stand around sleep, watching over him, and the light, all this allows for the dream to expand.
// Sabrina Möller
Booth B9 at VOLTA NY