Alchemistic Abstraction

Pat Rosenmeier in conversation with Hendrik Lakeberg about the blacks in the work of Rembrandt, Kandinsky’s infinite blue and the longing for the perfect painting.

Hendrik Lakeberg Is there a kind of continuity in art history in which you might see yourself?

Pat Rosenmeier I studied art like other people study mathematics, and of course all research has its unresolved questions, including artistic research. I’m more interested in form than in content. I don’t want to tell any real or surreal stories with my paintings. That’s another department. I’m interested in pure painting, in alchemistic abstraction. There are naturally continuities in art history. I’m fascinated by the unformulated parts in Tintoretto, and later in Velázquez and Rembrandt. I mean, not the image itself, the narration, but the interim spaces where the brush scurried by. Abstraction begins even here. Turner’s sky, a lot of Ensor, the daring pointillists like Monet or Segantini. Max Ernst has some amazing abstract structures in his paintings.

Rembrandt has often been referred to in connection with your painting, but Jackson Pollock too. Where is the link to your work?

There is no link. In Rembrandt I’m interested in the black painting, the painting of darkness. Hinting at details of a concrete world, although they’re almost invisible. With Pollock I’m interested in the control of chance.

Where do your motifs come from?

They jump at me. The magnolia was a birthday present from my sister. Lovely stem, wonderful flower. It stood in my studio for almost two weeks. Closed at first, it was an early white variety. In time it went brown at the edges. I just had to paint it, and it preoccupied me for a long time and gave me a lot of pleasure. I could address quite a lot of painterly questions with this simple motif. There’s no looking for content. I see images in newspapers, magazines or wherever. I take from them quite intuitively. Sometimes only once, as in Dornröschen [Sleeping Beauty]. Sometimes it mutates from one form to another. Wotan started as Axolotl.
But even though I’m primarily interested in the formal side of painting, there is of course a close emotional connection to the content and titles. The last flowers that Florette Lynn brought her friend Eva Hesse in hospital were magnolias, and an axolotl not only looks tremendous, but is also a zoological sensation as a rediscovery – it’s no different in art.

In your work there’s a chromatic development, currently from gold and black to blue. How do you decide on a particular colour?

The first magnolias were colourful. I wanted to know how the more or less unchanging motif would alter with the different colours and experiments in contrast. The first black magnolia was the result of an act of desperation. I was having no success with a coloured magnolia, and there was already quite a lot of paint on the canvas and I was about to ruin it. In the end I tipped all the rest of the paint I had onto the painting and churned it around. After it was dry you could still see the structure of the magnolia blossom and it looked really good. From then on I was enthralled with black. I had to investigate it more closely. Later there was the transitional painting Dornröschen, and an underwater painting like the Undine, only with black tones and variations of silver. At some point it’s no longer productive. The lemon has been squeezed out. The most extreme work is certainly Black Black Beauty, from the series Nine Gold, which is impossible to photograph and has thousands of faces. Amy Winehouse was my studio guest for almost six months with another black painting, Back to Black.

Why gold?

Gold was on special offer at my paint store. I had a studio grant in Stuttgart. Gold is just as strong as black, and is also very loaded with meanings. And both colours have a great material dynamic of their own, if you make them shine. I was involved with the black-gold combination for over a year, and it lead me to painting without brushes. I mean, to a way of painting in which the brushstroke is no longer visible as a gesture or representative of the painter.
Google Earth was responsible for the blue-white in the current paintings. Ice- and snow-covered landscapes right by the sea. I knew those from learning to fly in Canada, but I’d never been so high up. Kandinsky described it perfectly: ‘The deeper the blue, the more it calls people into the eternal, awakens in them the longing for purity and finally for the transcendent.’ And after looking at the earth from above I went underwater with Neptune.

Is the longing for distance and depth a motif that drives your work, or that plays a role in your paintings?

There’s only the longing for the perfect painting, and with me that’s the question of when to stop. Do I perceive the right moment, or do I paint the thing to death.

What is the relationship between composition and chance in your way of working?

There are always impulses from outside. Photos or aerial views while flying. Images change very slowly when you fly, and they imprint themselves in your memory. Of course I use procedures that contain a certain element of chance – when very liquid paints intermingle. But I can also control it. Composition is the result of painting. I start with a very rough chalk sketch on the canvas, as with the magnolias. I determine a centre, and the painting develops from there. They all go through hundreds of different states. My partner is always frustrated when she likes a painting and two weeks later it’s a different one.

You once called your way of working ‘a continuous process of modelling with paint’. But your titles still refer to figures and themes. To what extent is it an issue for you that your paintings contain remnants of figuration?

The title in my head, the motifs I imagine, are all motivations to paint. I need these imaginary images. Although I’m not concerned with the real object, but with painterly structures. If a recognisability comes about for the viewer in connection with the title, that’s fine.

There’s a kind of cosmology that can be sensed in your work, for example in the titles that refer to Neptune and an underwater mythology. How would you describe this cosmology?

I take from traditions. They’re like photographs of historical models that can trigger of stories in your head. Elements like water and air always resonate as the basis of our existence. Neptune, also the god of flowing waters, is in a certain sense the ‘patron saint’ of my way of painting.

How did you come upon Neptune and the sea?

The first sad Neptune was actually a painting in the Sealands series. But the longer I looked at it, the more this sad little guy beamed himself into the foreground. And so I had a new task and went from the sky into the sea.

Why Neptun traurig [Neptune Sad]?

Sometimes artists are sad.

There’s a song by Jimi Hendrix, Valleys of Neptune. It contains the lyrics: ‘Singing about the New Valleys of the Sunrise ... Rainbow clean, the world is gonna be … Singing about getting ready for the new tide … The Valleys of Neptune is arising.’

Hendrix was before my time – composed rapture. But he must have been sad too, otherwise he wouldn’t have founded the Club 27. But I’m already older. And anyway I want to fly. I’m sure everyone has their own ideas about heaven and deep oceans or valleys. Otherwise we wouldn’t have any songs or paintings.

Your work appears hermetic at first glance. How much is it a reaction to ‘reality’?

Well, if you see probably a million barrels of crude oil spreading across the Gulf of Mexico, as a ‘work in progress’, so to speak, always changing, getting bigger every day, you’re already right there in reality.

You’ve described your work as being ‘painting in the no-man’s-land of invisibility’. What do you mean by that?

Shut your eyes and see! I mean the moment when the paint lies on the canvas in a very liquid state, like a lake of colour. You no longer see what’s happening with the dull black and other dark tones. I can influence how they flow into one another, but it only becomes visible once the paint has dried. There’s a single heading for all my paintings: appear and disappear.