An interview with Charline von Heyl

Charline von Heyl. Happy End. 2005. Acrylic and oil on canvas. 82 × 78 in. Courtesy Petzel, New York.

Among the dozen or so New Yorkers leading an exuberant revival in abstract painting, Charline von Heyl stands out for a fearless stylistic diversity. The German artist moved to New York in 1994, and since then she has brought back into painting themes and motifs once left for dead: thoughtful design, seductive color, and passages of figuration unafraid of being called kitsch. And yet von Heyl’s enigmatic art, which has never developed in a single direction but flitted among aims and approaches, does not shrink from the challenges posed to painting over the last century. It runs right into them, and insists that a future for the medium can only be built on its past.

Von Heyl was born in Mainz, Germany, in 1960. In the 80s she moved to Hamburg, where she met Albert Oehlen and other painters of the raucous generation before hers; later, in the hothouse of early 90s Cologne, she walked a thin line between faith in the future of the medium and doubt that the art world still cared. (She and her husband, the painter Christopher Wool, now split their time between New York and Marfa, Texas.) When we meet in her spacious, book-filled Brooklyn studio, eight substantial canvases are sitting on blocks, soon to be shipped to Berlin for a new show. Von Heyl speaks with poise and confidence, but she looks at the paintings warily throughout our time together. After months living with them, they still stay strange. × Jason Farago


I struggled to figure out where to start this conversation, because your art is not the kind that becomes clearer when you look at it in chronological order. And so I suppose we should just start here in the studio.

I’ve thought lately about what the original motor is, to come into the studio every day and every week, and I think it comes from being a fetishist. That started when I was a child. Every day, when I saw something gleaming in the street, I picked it up, and I immediately attached some meaning to it, one way or the other.

You mean fetish in the old, Freudian sense.

Yes — not in the let’s-have-fun-sexually sense. It means that satisfaction comes out of charging objects with something. Every object that I see. You can see it here in the studio. We’re sitting at a Klara Lidén picnic table, and for me that’s a fetish object. In my personal life I’m the same; everything that I buy, if it’s a cup or a knife, I’m going to look for the one that has the potential of being a fetish object.

And the associations, what charges objects with that power, can shift every month. Sometimes I get rid of objects because they lose that power, and something else has more power. A fetishization is completely mood-dependent and completely arbitrary; it’s a net of synchronicities and associations. The paintings are almost the conclusion of a series of steps of fetishistic projections, which want to find a voice.

Are certain objects more likely to provoke those associations, that spark?

Anything that is handmade. And anything that has history. In a stupid way you could say I’m a flea market freak. I grew up with a grandmother who could not throw anything away. Her whole place was filled with objects that had this fetishistic character. I know that my relationship to books, too, is also a complete fetish thing. I love books because of the way they look, the way they feel, the way they function in my environment.

And the images in books were the first fetish objects that I knew how to make mine. I think, from there, I learned that the ultimate fetish is an image that I have created, with my own hands, for myself, as an accumulation of everything that charges me or that invites desire.

Does that image become foreign to you at that point?

Yeah, but that is the beauty of painting: it always has a dynamic of its own, which happens through accident. Let’s say I start with a metallic color, because it reminds me of some object I was completely crazy about. The color gives me something that I need, so to speak. I put that metallic color into the painting — and the moment I do that, something happens. Suddenly that color needs another color. I will run with the painting, like it’s a dog on a leash, chasing and almost falling behind it. That is also the space where I forget myself, where painting becomes something that I don’t control, neither emotionally nor intellectually.

This is surprising. Your paintings, so often, have a strong graphical component, a sense of an initial design. Whereas you say they result from a much more instinctual style of working. Are you hiding your tracks?

I think that a painting needs to be enigmatic on a certain level. But a graphic component only means that it’s line-derived, and line can be as much a runaway train as color. I actually celebrate that fact, more and more. The graphic aspect, in a way, is a lie — and I’ve always enjoyed that lie.

I’m not saying that I’m not controlling, because it’s not as if this happens in one go. I do one chapter, so to speak, and then I stare at the damn thing for two months. And that time is a completely intellectual process, when I go through yes/no decisions: what can I put here, how do I go on?

But still, the procedural technique you are describing is not clearly expressed in the final object at all. Whereas a long tradition of abstract painting had the exact opposite goal: it wanted to advertise the means of its making, to erase the fetishistic sense you favor. I suppose it begins with cubism, but by the 60s, abstraction became essentially synonymous with anti-illusionism.

Yeah. But don’t forget: my works are not paintings-about-painting. They’re not concerned with formalist history. The materials that give me the means to make the paintings are basically the only things that I’m not fetishistic about. Neither the act of painting itself, nor the materials I’m using, nor the history of those materials, is in the least interesting for me. What interests me is how the painting, in the end, conveys a new image. Not in a classical way, not with a narrative, but a new image as such.

A lot of that seems to happen through color; the lighter yellows, the grayish pinks.

The dirty pastels, as I call them. You can’t baby someone into happiness, but I think that color is a way to play with emotions. The color harmonies do have a poetic or musical thing, which I find more and more interesting to investigate and manipulate. The way that color works in children’s books and illustrations, and the way that images open up desire, is something that starts really early. It is something that you cannot protect yourself against.

When I started out I wanted the paintings to basically torture people. [Laughs] What I want now is something that seduces more than it angers. I’m also more engaged with my own history of color, which definitely has to do also with kitsch. It’s funny, when you get older, how all the accouterments of who you want to be fall off at some point.

You are part of a generation of painters in New York — overwhelmingly women, it’s worth adding — who continue to wrestle with all the challenges that painting has faced since the invention of the camera, but who also are undaunted by the last century’s pieties around abstraction.

People always so sloppily say, “It lies between abstraction and representation.” I hate that expression. But I know what people are getting at: a painting can have several flip points, where things, while you are looking at them, shift from one state to another. They have a way of slipping out of your control, which makes them more interesting. “Abstraction” and “representation”: those idioms are just completely abused now. I think one really has to find some new expressions, because these just don’t click anymore.

I take very seriously what you said about your art not being paintings-about-painting. But on the matter of taste and color, I remember something Frank Stella said in the late 60s, around the time he was making his Protractors: that he wanted “to make decorative painting truly viable in unequivocal abstract terms.” And this is not far from what you seem to be doing: using design, using decoration, using personal taste and personal history for something far more ambitious.

Exactly, and that’s an important part of my work. When I say “kitsch,” it’s dangerous, because I really mean a decorative effect — like in Belgian art nouveau, for example, where everything is full of emotion, but it’s also extremely creepy and disconcerting.

Actually, was the German Romantic tradition important to you at all when you were younger?

Yeah, my parents had Caspar David Friedrich posters hanging in our house. I love pathos; maybe that’s my German side. I love the way that feeling resonates in silence, the fake silence of a landscape. Pathos is a feeling that has a grip on time. It can expand a moment. That’s what I want to get at with the paintings: to have this expanded moment, and for that I need that kind of feeling.

I can get that through decoration. But decoration of a certain kind, which for me really does have to do with kitsch. There’s an immense satisfaction that I get out of a perfectly curlicued line, for example, or a Disney face. Kitsch is not ironic the way I use it. Kitsch, for me, means a raw emotion that is accessible to everybody, not just somebody who knows about art. That’s where kitsch comes from to begin with: it was basically art for the people.

Your painting Carlotta (2013) seems to testify to that. It has a strong graphical background and a bunch of central shapes, but also a woman’s face that almost recalls a beauty advertisement.

I often paint faces onto the surfaces, and usually then erase them. In that case, it was so perfect as a carrier of longing that I left it. It’s called Carlotta because, as a child, I always thought Carlotta was the coolest name on earth. It’s my fetish object of a name, projected into the painting. The name makes the painting iconic, and I’m interested in that too: how do you create an iconic painting despite itself? Iconic not because it’s recognizable as a soup can, but iconic in itself, because it insists on that power.

Your use of “iconic” makes a kind of sense, because your paintings’ surfaces are almost always quite flat. In comparison to someone like Laura Owens, who makes heavy use of impasto, yours function very well in two dimensions. Each painting is both an image and an object. It gains its power as an image through its objecthood, and vice versa.

The flatness is important for me. I do sand them down if they’re not flat enough. That’s probably a reaction against how the power in a painting shifts to its materiality the moment it’s not flat.

But it’s really important that its objecthood does not mean “painting with a capital P.” I don’t want it to be a painterly object that talks only about its making and its material.

Which is such an American question anyway. Abstraction in Europe always had other concerns, and maybe we can talk about the different rhetorics around German and American art. You studied in Hamburg and then Düsseldorf...

I studied under [Jörg] Immendorff, but naming professors is actually misleading. What makes you an artist is very rarely a professor. I cannot remember a single thing that any professor said to me, including Immendorff, who only became important because I worked for him later. Not as a studio assistant, but I was watching him paint. What’s actually much more important in your career is your peers.

I’d identified myself as a painter, outspokenly so, since I was five years old. But as an art student, I was not interested in the paintings I was seeing, and I was not interested in the paintings I was making. Something was not clicking. I didn’t know how to get to paintings that would interest me, myself. I went through the motions of making something in art school. I had a talent for this or that, but it didn’t stir anything in me. I was unhappy that I knew I was a painter, but I didn’t make anything that was interesting to me. And I didn’t know how to get there.

I tried everything. In retrospect, I found the way in Hamburg, where [Sigmar] Polke had just stopped teaching. His students were Albert Oehlen and Werner Büttner, and they lived around the corner from me. They were friends with my friend Diedrich Diederichsen; that’s how we met.

Diederichsen was the founder of Spex, the great German music magazine of the 80s.

That came later. This was in ’82. Through Diedrich I met Albert, who was 27 at the time. I was 22, super young. But I saw, for the first time, painting that had power — and it was among my peers. I never got the leap into Polke; everyone always assumed that I was such a Polke fan, but maybe because he was such an alchemist and a materialist, that was not that interesting to me. What was interesting was [Martin] Kippenberger’s and Albert’s intellectual stance, the way that painting was detached from them. It wasn’t a statement that wanted to prove something. It was just absolutely anarchistic.

The anarchism that you appreciated in Kippenberger: did you associate that with a masculine identity? Because other painters of the 80s — of the Neue Wilde [a German neoexpressionist movement], or Julian Schnabel here — were very male.

That was pure stupidity, we thought at the time. Later, Albert started to love Julian Schnabel, and I think now he actually has a really good hand for a lot of things. But at the time, that was exactly the kind of painting that had to be fought against. The Neue Wilde in Berlin? We thought they were total idiots. All this throwing yourself against the canvas, reenacting German expressionism....

Anyway, Hamburg was like getting my first fix of heroin. I sort of thought, OK, I want that, I want that feeling of power. How do I get to that? What I came to was making paintings in a manner that exaggerated who I am. Everything the boys didn’t do. I have a need for harmony. I have a need for a painting to be centered. I love the grid. Everything which is considered “female,” though at the time it didn’t seem important to describe it as such.

Did you have a sense, around 1990, that artists and collectors were beginning to look at Cologne as the hip new thing, or even as the world’s new art capital? Because in New York, especially as the art market weakened in the early 90s, Cologne was written about in rhapsodic terms.

There was an unbelievable arrogance. I started to show at Christian Nagel Gallery, and we thought, really, that it was the center of the world. I bullied my way into it, because I wanted to be in a gallery that didn’t show paintings—I was, at that moment, their only painter. I felt good there because the paintings were treated as objects. In retrospect, I understand that was the idea of the move: to get access to a different audience than painting usually had, and get people to look at them in a different way. This one gallery had Andrea Fraser, Renée Green, Mark Dion, Michael Krebber...

And Cosima von Bonin too.

Yes, she started there as well. She and Krebber were the ones, along with Fareed Armaly, that were in control of the discourse. And this being Germany, it was very dogmatic. Texte zur Kunst appeared too; I was very good friends with [its editor] Isabelle Graw, and still am.

The discourse you describe, if I’m understanding correctly, meant that you needed to step away from painting-centric art circles in order to get your first hearing as a painter.

And I think it worked, though I got hell for it. You have to understand, I am not somebody who is insecure. I never was. I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t want to put it into words, because those were embarrassing statements. It was very, very uncomfortable.

But I think if I had shown in a painting gallery, with other painters, I would have had much more difficulty going ahead. It was actually in that friction, in that fragility and insecurity of my position there, that people started to see me. Even if they saw me as the dirty spot on the sleeve of the gallery.

And these were my friends! We fought a lot, and it was fun to have those fights. Well, it was not only fun — I was often in tears — but we would get completely drunk and just tell each other to stop working. There was right and there was wrong, and artists would really argue, to bloody each other’s brains. A take-no-prisoners thing. Everyone was a victim at some point or other. Everyone also, from time to time, had an advantage. That’s probably why it felt so alive to the rest of the world — because it was pretty hardcore.

What brought you to New York, then, in 1994?

After one and a half or two years at Nagel Gallery, I felt it had run its course for me. I had positioned myself, but I did not get enough positive feedback to stay there. Gisela Capitain offered me a show — a gallery that was more interested in the power of painting in a traditional way — and I took it.

Then I was invited to a group show at Petzel Gallery in New York. I had just broken up with Mayo Thompson. It was perfect timing for me to get away from everything. I started to become friends with Friedrich [Petzel], and then, in the way things happen sometimes, someone was going away for a year and I could use his studio. Someone else had an apartment. And I was falling in love with Christopher [Wool]. We’ve been married for 20 years.

The moment you came to New York was a very difficult time for painting. Now painting, particularly abstract painting, is riding high again, but in the late 90s—when video became predominant, when the Web first developed—painting did not have very good PR.

I never cared about that. It didn’t register. I have always had the talent of being absolutely oblivious.

It’s a skill for an artist in some ways.

I think so. I’m sure that I would not have survived without it, because it also protected me completely from all the gender problematics.

And now you find yourself among a generation of artists, almost all women, leading the debate around painting. Yet people experience paintings in a very different way than they used to, even as recently as the 90s. Either through reproduction, or in a gallery but mediated through the smartphone, or in a fair where people move differently and look differently than in a gallery... Do these conditions militate against the fetishistic quality that you say you aim for?

Not for me, because I’m on a roll. I’m in the studio and I’m working at it. It might be more difficult for the audience to get there, though I think you underestimate them. Look at how many people are going to museums. Sure, you maybe now have the experience of the painting for just 20 seconds, and then you take a photograph and you go home and look at the photograph...

Twenty seconds sounds very high to me.

Yeah, maybe it’s five seconds. But to tell you the truth, I think it has always been like that. The mythic audience sitting forever in front of a painting, staring at it, has always been a lie. I’ve never bought it.

What I find revealing is that everybody chooses their own painting of mine. I have very rarely felt that people like my work. They always like this painting or that painting or another painting... And that shows, already, that there is agency in whoever looks. So, yes, of the hundreds and thousands who run through for museums, there will be maybe 50 people who are like that. But that is satisfactory.