Eberhard Blum.org | A Conversation
Conversation between Volker Straebel ( VS ) and Eberhard Blum ( EB )
Recorded on 26 October 2005, in Berlin
VS : In the field of visual art, a picture is first of all itself, only secondarily does it exist in the context of a body of work or a tradition or a technique. In the field of music, however, there is the score, which depicts the work, and there are perfor-mances, which render the work in a different fashion. In your work as a visual artist, I seem to detect a particular emphasis on the relationship between a drawing as the product of an artistic process and drawing as the process or concept that pro- duces a drawing.
EB : As you know, I come from Northern Germany, where I spent my childhood and school years in Stralsund with its Gothic churches, and where the music of the Protestant church plays a decisive rôle. I grew up steeped in such music, indeed, it was through that very music that I first came to play various instruments: to begin, the trombone, then the recorder, and finally the flute. Visual art always interested me, but circumstances simply did not permit any practical application of that interest. The atmosphere in my family just wasn‘t right, although they, too, were interested. On the other hand, making music was considered a standard part of one‘s education. My mother sang a good deal, in choral groups, for instance, and I played instruments. The performance of existing music formed my introduction to the world of music. Particularly influential were Baroque and even earlier music. The fact that one might compose music didn’t interest me. As a boy, one also came to hear—though this was rather complicated in the GDR—jazz music. Eventually, Louis Armstrong began to be accepted. But that was a type of music very foreign to me. On the other hand, what I did find compelling, from the very beginning and for over forty years, was the realization of existing scores. I’ve never thought of myself as composing. Nor did I ever think I was inventing music. In fact, even in the extremely conceptual works I have performed, by John Cage for instance, I don’t see myself as a co-composer or adapter, much less as an arranger.
Gütersloh, 1996 Photo credit © Jörg Sänger
VS : How does that apply to your visual work? Are you the implementer of an idea there, too?
EB : Well, everything I do in the field of visual art begins in my head as a type of score. To be followed by its implementation. All of which is influenced by the composers whose works I performed the most: Morton Feldman and John Cage. Morton Feldman worked in very much the same way when developing his scores, especially in his early years, in his graphic scores. The quality of workmanship in those scores is closely related to that of visual works of art. The way he made a score influenced the way I make visual art. In all of my visual works, I use things that already exist: numbers, letters, words, geometric forms. These then become the basis of a construction. Like Cage in his Variations, I first create a framework. Even when I don’t necessarily know how a picture will end up looking, I thus maintain control over the results.
VS : Would you agree that what you call a “score” is what is usually called a “concept” in the field of the visual arts?
EB : Yes.
VS : And, as a basic principle, you yourself realize these concepts but do not make them public.
EB : Yes, but the concepts are not a secret. I could well imagine displaying them together with the resulting works.
VS: Your plans, however, are not precisely notated—unlike Conceptual Art, in which a work exists primarily as a concept—but are rather sketches that precede the visual work itself and thus secondary in importance to their vsual realization.
EB : Precisely. Take for example Zeichen [Signs], a nine-part series executed in graphite and colored pencil. The format of the nine large sheets of rag paper and the area occupied by the motif on each of them are all the same. In the middle of each drawing, there is a large, red disc whose diameter remains constant [throughout the series], whereas the shade of red varies. A circumjacent geometric construction, rendered in graphite, is superimposed on the circle. It defines the four outermost points of the motif’s unchanging area, as if those points were the four corners of a rectangle. This figure is constructed entirely of small surfaces formed by straight lines and angles; there are no arcs or other curvatures. On the whole, these drawings recall Chinese characters, without there being any actual antecedents. Thus, the works are very closely defined. Nonetheless, the realization of each of them, within the guidelines, is completely free.
VS : What is there to say about graphite and colored pencil as materials?
EB : The colored pencils produce a matte surface. Whereas the graphite produces a glossy one, especially on this rag paper, which has a very rough surface. And these two worlds create an almost spatial situation, an illusion of depth.
VS : I’d like to follow up on the notion of the space that can manifest itself in a two-dimensional composition, specifically in regard to the work Kopf [Head]. Here, too, we’re dealing with a limited supply of pre-determined colors. The head’s massive form is fashioned from overlapping triangular shapes and the odd trapezoid or two. All of which amounts to a polymorphic structure in which foreground and background are constantly shifting but fail to establish any clear three-dimensionality. Even so, a suggestion of space is created. A suggestion that results, more or less secondarily, from the compositional pro- cess. How are image, process, and space related here?
EB : In that I allow the triangles to overlap, again and again—none of them stands on its own …
VS : … with the exception of the triangle with which you began.
EB : That’s right. The impression of space is the result of the fact that I do what I do consistently. Space as a consequence of process.
VS : How does that process work?
EB : I first select the colors from my palette of colored pencils, about 15 in this case. I will have already made a sketch in order to define the tendency of the shades I’ll use. Will it be darker? Will it be lighter? Will there perhaps be more shades of yellow? That is, I establish an atmosphere. And thus I have a scale.
VS : That’s Blum the musician talking.
EB : That’s right. Choosing colors is much like determining a mode, a row. I’ve played many works by Japanese composers that make use of a very limited range of pitch and sonic gesture, and are nonetheless full of expression.
VS : So that a tension between expressivity and economy of means arises. As it does in your drawings.
EB : Exactly. And then, I’ve decided that I will only use triangles that overlap one another. Now and again, a parellelogram works its way in, but that is really …
VS : … just a setting of limits.
EB : That’s one way of putting it. In Kopf, I began in the middle and worked my way outwards in a circular pattern. I tried to avoid parallel lines and paid close attention to generating as much variation as possible. I don’t want to have all of the yellow triangles in one corner. But apart from that, I accept whatever happens. And then, at a certain point, the whole thing comes alive. A score develops—but not a score that sounds. It is not some kind of acoustic entity that I convert into color, or vice versa; rather, it is a score that denotes itself and admits of no interpretation.
VS : A similar work actually bears the title Partitur [Score]. Here, too, there is a limited range of colors, and the foreground–background relationship comes into play again—in this instance, in the details of how rectangles overlap. One could imagine its being read vertically, as the title suggests, or one could understand it as an all-over field. That is, there are distinct associations with musical structures without any definite reference to acoustic resonance. What do the musical aspects of your visual work signify?
EB : Here, one can read the image from left to right and vice versa.
VS : So that a complex polyphony emerges.
EB : That’s right. And one could assume that each color is a non-existent pitch, or at least something specific. With the pitches interlocking. It is indeed a polyphonic structure, one that was not worked out beforehand, one that hasn’t been calculated mathematically. My eye monitors the situation. The image is meant to appear well-balanced. Everything is equally important.
VS : There are, in fact, two aspects that determine the foreground and background of this work. First, the question of which rectangle is in front of which and covers parts of the other, and then the question of color: some seem to advance, others to retreat.
EB : But the colors here were not conceived of spatially. We are dealing here with the fact that things happen consecutively, happen simultaneously, or partially coincide in time.
VS : This plane of musical suggestion is accentuated by the drawing’s horizontally attenuated format as well. What are your thoughts regarding time in such images—apart from this finely meshed before and after? The viewer can, namely, disengage from the here and now of observation and allow his gaze to wander back to what he has already viewed. When listening to a composition, however, we are confronted with a constantly updated present from which only our memories can release us. Might one, then, say that, in the case of works like Partitur, there is no development? That such works are static?
EB : Indeed one might. After all, they have no beginning and no end. Everything is happening at one and the same time. By contrast, a piece of music always has a beginning and an end. The difference between an image and a piece of music is that, if the image is not too large, it can be seen all at once. In this respect, if you will, music has an advantage. There is the surprise of the unknown. If I am not familiar with a piece of music, I cannot tell what’s going to happen in three minutes.
VS : On the other hand, your drawings are large enough that, if one is close enough to them, one can lose oneself in them, one simply loses sight of the “big picture.” Thus, you do make it possible to experience surprise.
EB : Yes, I am very much interested in large formats, though at this point more or less limited to high-quality, industrially produced paper of, at most, 150 by 100 cm. I am, however, planning projects for larger formats.
VS : I have the impression that many of your works are primarily determined by the properties of the materials you use. Your choice of material is thus tantamount to aesthetic intent. This manifests itself, for example, in the drawings of sections of circles.
EB : I discovered this rag paper with a very rough surface by chance. The unevenness of the circles’ arcs results from a combination of the roughness of the paper’s surface and the hardness of the woodless graphite pencils I use. Both have been chosen deliberately. This again reminds me of music, in which some composers explore the specific characteristics and limitations of particular instruments.
VS : As the implementer of your visual concepts, have you ever reached your limitations regarding, for example, the sheer effort or virtuosity required to produce them? Have you ever altered a concept for this reason?
EB : No. But there are concepts whose realization is especially demanding. For instance, I’ve executed a series of sixty drawings in the long horizontal format of 50 by 100 cm. Here again, I had a palette of 120 colored pencils at my disposal. The drawings consist of vertical, variously colored lines that fill the entire format. The sequence of these colors [60 shades per drawing, repeated sequentially] was determined by chance operations. In addition, one color has been exchanged for one other color in each drawing, so that the sixtieth drawing has no colors in common with the first. This procedure was applied systematically throughout all 60 drawings. I began by drawing up an exact plan for myself—and then I thought, “You’ll never do it.” Because it was such a terrific amount of work. But then I thought, “Oh, yes you will.” So I sat myself down and, over a period of two months, worked away at it for three or four hours a day. I found the entire process so compelling that, after a couple of drawings, time seemed to fly—a wonderful experience.
VS : Up to now, we’ve been talking about geometric motifs. There are, however, works of yours that employ signs: numbers, letters, or texts. What is the source of your interest in the visual representation of something that, as the depiction of a sign, possesses a vague sort of materiality? Shapes such as these are not new, despite the fact that you employ a very idio- syncratic typography.
EB : To me, the letters in a word also represent a limitation of material—the economy of means we spoke about earlier. I find these signs, which surround us every day, very attractive. They command our attention and provide information. But divorced from their context, they become autonomous, they become image. That is my realism. Someone else draws a vase, I draw a seven.
From the German by Ann Holyoke Lehmann
Work table Fasanenstrasse, Berlin 2005
Photo credit © A.H. Lehmann