share


Interview with Max Neumann

‘It’s as though you’d like to speak, but have no language.’ These are the words chosen by German painter Max Neumann to describe his earliest—and perhaps deepest—impulse to create. For nearly half a century, Neumann has laboured to develop, refine, and elaborate a visual vocabulary that is dark, obsessive and intense. A lifelong collaborator, Neumann’s paintings have accompanied the work of Cees Nooteboom, Seamus Heaney and Fernando Pessoa, among many others, helping to cultivate a global reputation.

 

Though long celebrated across much of Europe, Neumann’s work has only in recent years penetrated the Anglophone world. The success of his most recent collaborations—with László Krasznahorkai on their chapbook Animalinside (2010), and with the US journal Music & Literature (2012)—testify to the universal appeal of Neumann’s howling, primal language. 

 

When Max and I first met in Berlin – it must have been in the mid-1980s – we already knew each other. I had seen his exhibition at Kunstverein Bonn in 1982 and fallen madly in love with some of his paintings, while he was familiar with my translation of John Ashbery’s ‘Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror’. In the autumn of 1986 I moved to Berlin to direct the DAAD gallery’s Artists in Residence Programme, and we became friends. Two years later I initiated a show of his small works on paper, Sehr kleine Zeichnungen, at the same gallery. Max hung the show himself, and it proved a great success. I immensely enjoyed my innumerable visits to his studios, first at Hagelberger Strasse, then at Erkelenzdamm, and our talks on music and literature. I always left him in high spirits, my mind inspired, my eyes enriched by what they had seen.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— Theodor Adorno once maintained that expression and construction are opposite poles of the modern – I believe he said modernist – art style. When one views your work today, which is endlessly rich and varied and spans four decades…

 

A

Max Neumann

— …over five now…

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— When did you begin painting?

 

A

Max Neumann

— At the age of fourteen.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— … that is, five decades, then one could say that you did indeed begin with expression, in any case with informal or gestural painting, and then gradually progressed toward a clearly figurative vocabulary.

 

A

Max Neumann

— Expression and construction were both there from the very beginning. The balance was merely shifted. You can no longer clearly see expression or expressive gesture in the paintings. But I often find them to be highly charged with expression, although on the surface they’re far more constructed than earlier, more expressively painted paintings. But at my age, you tend to work differently than you did thirty years ago, especially in a physical sense.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— Does that mean that the high degree of spontaneity one senses in your earlier paintings has been lost? I also remember photographs of you standing in front of a huge canvas applying the ground – more or less like a god. I’d say there was a great deal of spontaneity then, quite a bit of gesture. In the beginning, a lot was left to chance. Has that quieted down since?

 

 

A

Max Neumann

— I wouldn’t say that, it’s just a different working process. After two slipped discs, I simply couldn’t work that way anymore. And so I had to reinvent my entire working process. Now, when I begin a painting, I know just as little about it as I did then. The process is… first of all, everything is completely spontaneous and open, and then it becomes more condensed, clear, and constructed. But it was similar back then. The only difference was that the images arose from the body’s movements.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— I’d like to go back to the beginning. You just said that you already began painting at the age of fourteen. The decision to become a painter was there early on?

 

 

A

Max Neumann

— Actually, I started painting even before that. My parents, who didn’t really have much money, once asked me what I wanted for Christmas. And I told them either a guitar or something to paint with. And because the tools for painting were cheaper, they bought me a few brushes, paint, and some paper. And I’ve been painting non-stop ever since.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— You studied primarily in Berlin?

 

A

Max Neumann

— At first I studied in Saarbrücken, at what was the School of Applied Arts at the time, but then I realised very quickly that it wasn’t really my thing. So I switched to the Academy in Karlsruhe, spent a few years there, and after that I went to Berlin.

 

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— Did you have any role models while you were there, either among the teachers or in the history of art? Some have mentioned Goya in regard to your paintings, others Francis Bacon and various other painters that studied the human figure intensively.

 

 

A

Max Neumann

— I admired the painters you’ve just mentioned, of course, but I never had the feeling that I was influenced by them.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— That’s a strength. When I look at your paintings – and I’ve known them since the mid-seventies – I’d be hard pressed to find any artistic influence in them.

 

 

 

A

Max Neumann

— I used the time at the Academy to learn the craft, so that I could complete the path from the inside to the outside. It’s as though you’d like to speak, but have no language. So what do you do? You have to have a language. That means you have to have a command of your field to a certain degree. Apart from that, I think I’ve always been doing the same thing. As a child, and now, too. They’re very different stages in life, of course. After 50 years, there are endless variations. But I still have the feeling that I’m basically the same painter I was back then, at fourteen.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— Your work spans 50 years, and I think there must be well over 50 books and catalogues by now. When you leaf through them, it’s amazing to see the huge capacity for variation. But to my mind there are constants, too. Along with a few animals there’s the human figure more than anything else, which appears alone or often with its double, or as a kind of stencil. Is the human figure the measure of all things in your paintings? Or is it one emphasised element of your vocabulary?

 

 

A

Max Neumann

— More the measure of all things. I’ve only made two paintings in which there is no figure. I’ve just painted over one of them, and now there’s only one. It’s hanging in a museum, and so I can no longer get at it and paint over it. So yes, I do think that all my painting revolves around people, around the human – us. I was never interested in landscapes or things of any kind. I was never interested in drawing or to leave painting to use other media. I always found painting wonderful and felt very comfortable with it.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— When I look at your paintings, I often think they’re not about a view of people from the outside. I was moved, years ago, when you painted heads without eyes. The head was reduced to a contour and perhaps a hint of chin, nose, neck. I found that fascinating, because when a head has no eyes, it seems to me the painting automatically becomes an interior space. And that’s why I think all of your paintings are about people’s inner states. There has to be an eye opening, probably, for the outside world to enter in. To me, the paintings are metaphysical spaces, and that’s a big word.

 

 

A

Max Neumann

— The strange thing about heads is that the more you leave out, the more intense the expression becomes. In a different way than in portrait painting. It has absolutely nothing to do with that. These figures are just that to me: figures. They’re sexless, they have no special attributes. They are spectres, shadows. What’s very important to me is the intensity, the presence. What that does. What it does in the painting. What it does with the viewer.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— I believe you’re right when you say that in the final analysis, it doesn’t depend on what’s represented or what can be recognised. It’s about form, volume, colours, and shapes that you balance off one another. But there’s always a latent disquiet or tension there. One could say that your paintings force the viewer to confront existential questions. Is that correct?

 

 

A

Max Neumann

— The working process is restless, it’s tense. It probably carries over.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— Much has been written about your paintings. Which is astonishing, because your paintings basically resist interpretation. That is, they want to retain their secret. They do pretty much everything to stay encoded.

 

 

A

Max Neumann

— I don’t really seek to make a puzzle out of anything. If I wanted to say something in a concrete way, I’d write or I’d make films. Paintings have a completely different chance of communicating than texts do, or films, or things that become concrete. Perhaps they are more related to poetry than anything else. This chance to conjure something in the viewer simply by looking is what I find to be painting’s great privilege.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— You often work in series. As though you were researching everything possible within a given format, or everything a given motif can offer. I’d like to talk about your most recent paintings, which I find particularly fascinating. These paintings, for the most part with a white or grey background, have these unbelievably blue shapes, actually an accumulation or pile of shapes.

 

 

A

Max Neumann

— Yes.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— Fascinating, because it’s so difficult to make out everything that’s entered into it. Could you say something about these last paintings?

 

 

A

Max Neumann

— For me, these paintings are the first after a very long time of working purely on paper and in a smaller scale. It was a long process to find out what was actually there, and how I could continue working. Working on a small scale is very different from working on a large scale, because I’m never trying for a particular image. I don’t make sketches. Even the smallest pieces of paper are paintings. The large formats are something else altogether. Perhaps it was a series of accidents that gave me an idea as to how my painting could go on. And that is the result.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— When I saw these paintings for the first time, or the first paintings of this series, I thought about the paintings of the Renaissance. In The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, there’s a form floating above the floor between the two men that cannot be clearly identified. When a concave mirror is held to this area, the shapes form a skull. There’s an unsolved aspect in your work, as well. But in the case of the larger paintings, there’s this fine balance between shape and line in the foreground, where one can see your endless painterly potency and experience.

 

 

 

A

Max Neumann

— The strange thing is, I’m moving away from that right now, or it’s developing in another direction. But what fascinated me about these piles of shapes is this completely light, immaterial blue and the dynamic it can develop. That interested me. This contrast between lightness and a very powerful dynamic. Other parts of the painting are like quotes from the past. At the moment, I’m still too involved to explain what I’m doing. Maybe in a year… (Laughter)

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— I’d like to pick up on an earlier comment of yours, in which you spoke about small-format works. In 1987, we put up a wonderful exhibition together – Very Small Drawings.

 

 

A

Max Neumann

— Yes, it was very nice.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— Are drawings for you the terrain, the gateway so to speak for new imagery, new forms, which you then continue to develop in the larger paintings?

 

 

A

Max Neumann

— Oddly enough, no, not at all. For me, drawing is a completely different process. You come to the studio, sit down, turn on the light, look at something and start somewhere. And then something grows from that. Painting is a far more aggressive process. You stand, you have a large canvas in front of you. The first thing I do is make a real mess so that there’s something there. That’s a much tougher process than drawing. In my case, I’ve always made my discoveries – the essential discoveries – in large paintings, never in small drawings. But drawing is – I don’t exactly want to say journal-like, I don’t work autobiographically. That would be a misunderstanding. But to tap into the flow of ideas, every day, regularly, that’s drawing. Painting is another challenge. The canvas is more of an opponent. You have to conquer the painting.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— The paintings you contributed to László Krasznahorkai’s book Animalinside – were they drawings, or paintings reduced in size?

 

 

A

Max Neumann

— I have the drawings here, I can show them to you. They’re relatively small. That saved me at the time. I had been in the hospital for a long time and no longer knew how I should continue working. Then László came by one day and said, hey, let’s do something together. The American University in Paris publishes a series of brochures called The Cahiers Series. I suggested to them that I do something with you. And so I said, OK, let’s do something. I had given him a drawing once in which he recognised himself. That’s another example for how an image can be read without a text being written into it. Our collaboration was supposed to proceed from this drawing. He had written a text, which he’d translated somewhat into German. I understood right away what it was about, and we agreed that I’d make a drawing. He gave me the text, and we thought about a continuous passing back and forth of drawings and text. The next day, I called him up and said László, I have eight already. And he said, I already have seven. We were done pretty quickly. And then I knew that I could work again. The door was open again. It was fantastic.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— The book is beautifully made, and I believe it’s also a great success in the Anglophone world.

 

A

Max Neumann

— Yes. There are different editions, among them one from New Directions in New York. I have the feeling that it’s attracting a lot of attention.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— Wasn’t it written about in many of the important papers and magazines?

 

 

A

Max Neumann

— Yes, it was.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— You have a close relationship with literature in any case. You’ve made books with authors. To my mind, one of the most beautiful books after Animalinside is Self-Portrait of an Other with Cees Nooteboom. You also made other books with Nooteboom, for instance Der Ritter ist gestorben.

 

 

A

Max Neumann

— There was also a book with a selection of my favourite poems by Cees. And accompanied by – no, not accompanied – I never make illustrations. Together with drawings of mine, titled Fraulund. Apart from that, you and I have also made a very beautiful book together.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— Yes, we made a beautiful book together.

 

 

A

Max Neumann

— …which is called capucelle. And then I made a small book with a poem by Seamus Heaney.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— Is there another project with Cees Nooteboom in the works?

 

A

Max Neumann

— We don’t have a new project at the moment, but Self-Portrait of an Other is currently coming out in Spanish translation.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— Is literature a source of inspiration for you? Or is it more like parallel worlds? I know that you listen to a great deal of music when you paint. And you read quite a lot. You’re one of the best-read painters I know. Are there authors that were once important for you, or are important now?

 

A

Max Neumann

— They are true stimuli, in a very literal sense. I become stimulated. The flow of thought becomes faster, richer. I’ve been reading my while life with passion, and of course I read for pleasure. –What was the second part of the question?

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— Whether any authors have influenced you in your imagery, apart from reading…

 

 

A

Max Neumann

— …not really, because the imagery arises during the working process. It’s very rare that an image arises entirely in the imagination. That is, before I’ve begun anything.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— Painting?

 

A

Max Neumann

— Yes.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— I can remember that there was a time when you carried The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa around with you like a Bible. And Pessoa appeared in a number of paintings at the time.

 

 

A

Max Neumann

— Yes. There’s also a Pessoa book.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— Yes, there’s a wonderful Pessoa book, that’s true, that Miloš Sovák made and published with a great deal of love.

 

 

A

Max Neumann

Die Unruhe des Dichters was the title. How should I explain it? It’s not that any concrete ideas for images arose from this involvement. I read him so passionately and intensively, because – we’re talking about a period that’s 20 years ago – at that time I felt a very strong connection to him. So that’s something that could be called stimulation or reinforcement. It’s wonderful. It leads to an inner disposition that makes it easier to do something oneself.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— Is Gottfried Benn still important?

 

 

A

Max Neumann

— Yes, even now. I mean, Gottfried Benn – I know, one grows older. And this growing older makes me more sensitive to the pathetic. But the unbelievable beauty of his poetry, the precision of the arguments in his prose, this still fascinates me.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— In conclusion, I’d like to ask you again – in a very general sense – about the panel painting. The concept of art has expanded tremendously over the past several decades. There are installations, more and more time-based works, videos and whatnot. The panel painting has been declared dead over and over again. But to me it seems very much alive. You hold to it unerringly. I believe there was once a very brief sojourn into photography, with double exposures?

 

 

A

Max Neumann

— You’re going to laugh, but I even made installations during my studies at the School of Applied Arts, because I was terribly bored. Photography is very important to me. But photography made by photographers. I myself am definitely not a photographer. There’s a simple reason for this: I always have to see what I’m doing. When photographic technology was still analogue, you couldn’t see the images until they were developed. Then came the Polaroid. That interested me greatly. After two minutes you could see what you’d done. So I worked with that once, but it lost its fascination quickly.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— A byway?

 

A

Max Neumann

— That was a byway, because painting was no longer any fun for me at that time.

 

Q

Joachim Sartorius

— For me, the painting, the rectangular panel is simply the most familiar projection surface. I grew up with it. I think that for me, it’s an inalienable part of the core of art itself.
A

Max Neumann

— I always find it amazing that critics of art magazines and the culture sections of newspapers regularly declare painting to be dead. Here’s this person, and he says that painting is dead. And yet it continues to live on. How can that be? It’s as though one were to say that dance is dead. We have all these wonderful prosthetic devices, or whatever. It’s a fundamental element, a basic expression like singing, like dancing, like talking.
 

 



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Joachim Sartorius is a poet, translator, and long-time friend of Neumann’s. The recipient of several international awards for his poetry, Sartorius has also collaborated with Neumann; in 2003, the two artists published a chapbook entitled Capucelle: 11 Zeichnungen, 52 Strophen (Capucelle: 11 Drawings, 52 Verses).


READ NEXT

Features

September 2013

9/11 Emerging

Fiction

The White Review Short Story Prize 2014

MUEUM

Fiction

November 2013

Special School