In the early 1960s, having just come over from the GDR, I naturally declined to summon up any sympathy for the aims and methods of the Red Army Faction [RAF]. I was impressed by the terrorists' energy, their uncompromising determination and their absolute bravery; but I could not find it in my heart to condemn the State for its harsh response. That is what States are like; and I had known other, more ruthless ones. The deaths of the terrorists, and the related events both before and after, stand for a horror that distressed me and has haunted me as unfinished business ever since, despite all my efforts to suppress it.
These pictures possibly give rise to questions of political content or historical truth. Neither interests me in this instance. And although even my motivation for painting them is probably of no significance, I am trying to put a name to it here, as an articulation, parallel to the pictures, as it were, of my disquiet and of my opinion.
The political topicality of my October paintings means almost nothing to me, but in many reviews it is the first or only thing that arouses interest, and the response to the pictures varies according to current political circumstance. I find this rather a distraction.
I wanted to say something different: the pictures are also a leave-taking, in several respects. Factually: these specific persons are dead; as a general statement, death is leave-taking. And then ideologically: a leave-taking from a specific doctrine of salvation and, beyond that, from the illusion that unacceptable circumstances of life can be changed by this conventional expedient of violent struggle (this kind of revolutionary thought and action is futile and passé).
And then the work bears a strong sense of leave-taking for me personally. It ends the work I began in the 1960s (paintings from black-and-white photographs), with a compressed summation that precludes any possible continuation. And so it is a leave-taking from thoughts and feelings of my own on a very basic level. Not that this is a deliberate act, of course; it is a quasi-automatic sequence of disintegration and reformation which I can perceive, as always, only in retrospect.
Why did you decide to paint the Baader-Meinhof?
There was no special event that made me decide. I had collected some photos and the idea was in the back of my mind for a long time. It was growing and growing, so finally I said, 'I must paint this.' I come from East Germany and am not a Marxist, so of course at the time I had no sympathy for the ideas, or for the ideology that these people represented. I couldn't understand, but I was still impressed. Like everyone, I was touched. It was an exceptional moment for Germany.
In your paintings there is pity for the Baader-Meinhof.
There is sorrow, but I hope one can see that it is sorrow for the people who died so young and so crazy, for nothing. I have respect for them, but also for their wishes, or for the power of their wishes. Because they tried to change the stupid things in the world.
The ones that weren't paintable were the ones I did paint. The dead. To start with, I wanted more to paint the whole business, the world as it then was, the living reality – I was thinking in terms of something big and comprehensive. But then it all evolved quite differently, in the direction of death. And that's really not all that unpaintable. Far from it, in fact. Death and suffering have always been an artistic theme. Basically, it's the theme. We've eventually managed to wean ourselves away from it, with our nice, tidy lifestyle.
So you consider the RAF [Red Army Faction] dead as the victims of their own ideology?
Yes, certainly. Not the victims of any specific ideology of the left or of the right, but of the ideological posture as such. This has to do with the everlasting human dilemma in general: to work for a revolution and fail…
Those were press photos.
Yes, they were from the magazines Stern and Spiegel, and from books. You know, I had actually planned to make the whole thing broader, and then I surprised myself by reducing it to the dead, to the last moment. I was going to approach the topic far more comprehensively. I was going to paint things from their lives, from their active period, but it didn't work, so I gave up on the idea of painting that.
How do you see this particular American interest in the German RAF [Red Army Faction] and related topics, and, more generally, how do you rate the efficacy of political art in conservative America?
Because the Americans are far removed from the topic of the RAF, they probably relate to it in more general terms – in terms that are relevant to every modern or even unmodern country: the overall danger of ideological beliefs, fanaticism and mayhem. That's relevant in any country, including the US, which you rather sweepingly refer to as conservative. But I can also see another, more direct, link between America and the RAF – and I don't just mean the Vietnam war, which Baader and Ensslin protested against in 1968 by placing several incendiary devices in two department stores in Frankfurt. I also see a link in the fact that the attitudes and lifestyles of the so-called 1968 movement were strongly influenced by American ideals. Even the movement's inherent anti-Americanism wasn't simply a reaction against US hegemony, but was largely imported from America.
The reason these paintings are destined for New York is not because I am disappointed about a lack of German interest, but because MoMA asked me, and because I consider it to be the best museum in the world.
Could you say something about how you selected the photos and how this compression of dates and events came about?
I remember that I felt I had to avoid all these sensational photos, the hanged woman, the man who shot himself, and so forth. I collected a great deal of material, including a number of banal, irrelevant photos, and then in the course of my work I came back to the very pictures I had actually wanted to avoid, which summed up the various stories.
Can you recall what it may have been that led you to it precisely in 1988, to muster the courage for the cycle?
A lot of different things had to come together over the years, accumulated experiences of a general and personal nature, before the idea and the decision were developed and then carried out.
And as for the RAF itself?
I was frightened by it, and I was amazed to see an incredible blindness there that exposed our cruelest and most vicious side. But the most frightening aspect for me was the sympathy accorded to these fanatics. That's just how we are –