Perhaps the Doors, Curtains, Surface Pictures, Panes of Glass, etc. are metaphors of despair, prompted by the dilemma that our sense of sight causes us to apprehend things, but at the same time restricts and partly precludes our apprehension of reality.
What made you choose a fifteenth-century painting as a model and create a sequence based on Titian's Annunciation [CR: 343/1-2, 344/1-3]?
Because there's something about this painting, or any painting, that grabs me if they're good – irrespective of the impact they had at the time, why they were made, the story behind them. I don't know what motivated the artist, which means that the paintings have an intrinsic quality. I think Goethe called it the 'essential dimension', the thing that makes great works of art great.
If the abstract paintings show my reality, then the landscapes and still-lifes show my yearning.
Of course, pictures of objects also have this transcendental side to them. Every object, being part of an ultimately incomprehensible world, also embodies that world; when represented in a picture, the object conveys this mystery all the more powerfully, the less of a 'function' the picture has. Hence, for instance, the growing fascination of many beautiful old portraits.
My pictures are devoid of objects; like objects, they are themselves objects. This means that they are devoid of content, significance or meaning, like objects or trees, animals, people or days, all of which are there without a reason, without a function and without a purpose. This is the quality that counts. (Even so, there are good and bad pictures.)
… landscapes or still-lifes I paint in between the abstract works; they constitute about one-tenth of my production. On the one hand they are useful, because I like to work from nature – although I do use a photograph – because I think that any detail from nature has a logic I would like to see in abstraction as well. On the other hand, painting from nature or painting still-lifes is a sort of diversion; creates balance. If I were to express it somewhat informally, I would say that the landscapes are a type of yearning, a yearning for a whole and simple life. A little nostalgic. The abstract works are my presence, my reality, my problems, my difficulties and contradictions. They are very topical for me.
I see the bomber pictures as an anti-war statement…
… which they aren't – at all. Pictures like that don't do anything to combat war. They only show one tiny aspect of the subject of war – maybe only my own childish feelings of fear and fascination with war and with weapons of that kind.
Were you influenced by Duchamp when you painted the pictures Woman Walking Downstairs (1965) [CR: 92] and Ema (1966) [CR: 134], and when you made the 4 Panes of Glass (1967) [CR: 160]?
I knew Duchamp's work, and there certainly was an influence. It may partly have been an unconscious antagonism – because his painting Nude Descending a Staircase rather irritated me. I thought very highly of it, but I could never accept that it had put paid, once and for all, to a certain kind of painting. So I did the opposite and painted a 'conventional nude'. But, as I said, it was an unconscious process, not a strategy. The same happened with the 4 Panes of Glass. I think something in Duchamp didn't suit me – all that mystery-mongering – and that's why I painted those simple glass panes and showed the whole windowpane problem in a completely different light.
How did this alternation between figurative and abstract work come about?
There's no precise reason. I started doing 'figures', then, one day, all of a sudden, I started doing abstraction. And then I started doing both. But it was never really a conscious decision. It was simply a question of desire. In fact, I really prefer making figurative work, but the figure is difficult. So to work around the difficulty I take a break and paint abstractly. Which I really like, by the way, because it allows me to make beautiful paintings.
How do you explain the difficulty you have with figurative work?
I can do abstract painting in an almost professional way. With the figure, on the other hand, it's impossible. Chance is precluded from it. You also need a particular condition and a particular angle – and you also have to be able to find them – because from the moment photography came into existence, it has precluded almost everything. Plus, when I'm painting a figure, I try to bring it to the canvas in the best way possible: it's not easy, but it is necessary, because what surrounds us is generally true, good and sometimes even beautiful. When those things are painted, we find ourselves de facto in the false. So they have to be 'pushed' to the point where they gain a beautiful appearance, to the point where we want to look at them. For that, they have to be as pitch-perfect as a song.
You have done every possible subject: still-lifes, landscapes, portraits, etc. Why?
Because they happen to surround us. We all need them. My method is related to an attempt to do something that might be understood by today's world, or that could at least provide understanding. In other words, doing something I understand and that everyone understands. This natural desire for communication is also found in other domains, like reading and discourse, etc. I also hate repeating myself; it gives me no pleasure whatsoever. Once I've understood something, I need to start off on new ground.
Are there subjects that you cannot paint?
Well, I don't believe there are subjects that can't be painted, but there are a lot of things that I personally can't paint.