Portraits of Artists 83

Conversation with Heinz Gappmayr

Wolfgang Fetz: Mr Grappmayr, when your first publication came out in 1962, you were 37 years old. It was titled “Zeichen”. In 1964 you had your first solo exhibition in Munich called “Zeichen II”. From book to exhibition – how did that happen?

Heinz Gappmayr: In Munich it was a private gallery. I got to know the gallery owner and he was someone who organised these exhibitions within his possibilities – also of Fruhtrunk, Calderara and me.

WF: I actually meant something else. I was referring to the art context in the early sixties. Was it so easy then for an “author” to exhibit in a gallery and hang his works on the walls?

HG: At the time I suppose it really was something new and unusual. But perhaps it’s the way of literature towards fine arts. No-one could foresee of course that these linguistic elements would eventually play such an important role, especially in the context of conceptual art. But what brought it about was maybe … the experience that you could enlarge the “page” onto the wall, just like that. I felt that these works, these texts, weren’t only adequate for the book form. And later I found that practically all texts could be enlarged in any kind of exhibition space. The theoretical principles for doing so were slightly more difficult because of the lack of interdisciplinary knowledge between writers and fine artists or musicians. Most of the time the other side provided only very little information and to a certain degree that’s still the case.

WF: Late modernism – and also late-modernist theory with its aim of the absolute image or pure visuality – had their heyday in the sixties. It was then, at least in retrospect, that the invasion of language in the field of art marked the beginning of the postmodern era … a change from late modernism to post modernism. All of that took place before the emergence of conceptual art; it happened at the same time as minimalism which simultaneously represented a zenith and a transcending point of late modernism.

HG: Yes, looking back as the producer of certain works you tend to constitute some sort of continuity but at the time it was not nearly as concrete. Instead – in terms of literature – the fifties were dominated by surrealism, mainly French surrealism and people like Eluard or René Char. What bothered me though, apart from the phenomenal works, was the arbitrariness of metaphors. Next came a certain amount of scepticism regarding metaphorical ways of language altogether. In fine arts minimalism had reached a dead end which could no longer be overcome with artistic means. All you could do was to regress, to resort to something else and try to develop something new but no-one really thought anymore that anything new could be invented from minimalist concepts or that it could be modified. So in a way everyone was stuck and it was tremendously difficult to come up with something innovative. The step from purely artistic means to language is a very complex story because there is no immediately apparent connection between fine arts and language. But with the theoretical prerequisites as a starting point it’s possible to define the connections. In this context, a very interesting example is Robert Morris with his ideas about the perception of reality – which was very well demonstrated with the cube. Here, all of a sudden categorial aspects emerge which have their equivalent in language. In language you’re also dealing with categorial things – with space, time, relations etc. – with quantities … the old classifications and categories going back via Kant all the way to Plato. So, there are connections. But then none of that was immediately apparent, especially when it came to creating art. Some thought it was just about wanting to show something in language which could also be shown in art. What was essential though was to get away from the mere transposition of certain images in fine arts to language because that would have indeed been a kind of banalisation. Fine arts are much better at doing that. Yet there are things you can only realise with language, the numerical indifference of my text “ca. 100” for instance. It would be impossible to express that with the means of fine arts. One common ground exists, however; for, the reduction of elementary forms such as in minimalism or these borderlines of cognitive processes resulted in equivalents one could clearly depict.

WF: I’ll come back to that but first I’d like to talk a bit more about the early sixties. In the Austrian art scene you were one of the very few working in this direction at the time – perhaps with the exception of Wiener Gruppe or some of their representatives. Gomringer was an important figure for Wiener Gruppe as well. Where did you get your information from?

HG: I met Gomringer in 1959 and of course I knew his work but I also realised in time that we had very different starting points. For example he always related his work to advertising and also to “Concrete Art” as it was called. Then, the concept of the “concrete” was very fashionable and so was the concept of “poetry”. I never felt comfortable with that. In my opinion the “poetical” and any kind of “poetization” is an atavistic concept. But in the linguistic usage of the time you had to use such terms in order to make yourself understood. Still, what Gomringer did was really great. His “Konstellationen” which came out as early as 1953 was certainly a key book of that period. To use language in such a way was unusual and the reduction to mere words or this near elimination of the syntax had a big influence on everyone including myself. Except that eventually I realised that I tended in the other direction. That is, I was more interested in realising specific theoretical principles of such a usage while he was more of a pragmatist.

WF: Looking at your list of exhibitions it’s remarkable that starting with the early sixties and ever since you’ve been much more present in the international art world than in Austria.

HG: Yes. The possibilities in Austria were very limited … with the exception of Wiener Gruppe and in some respects also Jandl whose work took on a similar direction. But even in Wiener Gruppe, the only ones working in this direction were Rühm and Achleitner. And considering what was actually visible at the time in terms of productions, everyone else in Austria related to the literary in a more conventional sense.

WF: And the emergence of conceptual art – was that an impulse for you or a confirmation?

HG: Yes, primarily a confirmation; and to a certain extent astonishment. I met Weiner in the early seventies and it struck me as amazing how little they knew about the developments in European art and the close relationship to the literary … Take for instance the early Carl Andre. He was also working with texts but it would be oversimplifying to relate them to these early developments. There are affinities, no doubt, but it’s nonetheless different. There was one thing, however, where I did feel confirmed – especially by Kosuth etc. They too were about categorial things. And that was so amazing because it’s legitimate for me to say that I was really the only one who wanted to develop the works in that direction.

WF: In light of your works one could perhaps also speak, in a sense, of speech-analysis or linguistic investigations. Here there is of course also a very significant Austrian tradition – allow me to mention just Fritz Mauthner or Ludwig Wittgenstein. Did this influence your thinking in any way?

HG: As far as I can remember the Wittgenstein edition appeared in 1956. At the time one knew little about Wittgenstein in general. But then I also later found confirmation from Wittgenstein and also, incidentally, from the Americans, from Quine or Goodman, for example. This was confirmation of the fact that there is apparently a general trend towards investigating such things as philosophical and artistic questions from a linguistic angle. In this sense, reading Wittgenstein and the Americans was, of course, extremely inspiring.

WF: In conceptual art you could say that there is also a tendency towards a criticism of the institutional, especially with “Art & Language”, i.e. a step from criticism of the perception – the phenomenological criticism in minimalism – to a linguistic criticism in conceptual art and eventually also to an institutional criticism in conceptual art. How do you see your work in this context?

HG: There are different ways of interpreting the phenomenon, or say, the relationship of language and object. The lack of conceptual clarity for instance is a fact and open to different interpretations. Along with Jochen Gerz for example you can say that language is not at all capable of communicating any kind of reality. But by the same token you can also say that from an ontological point of view language carries more weight than objects. Here opinions differ and in a strict sense you can’t prove one or the other. It’s more to do with personal experience. And of course, the terms themselves do not exactly correspond to the objects – there is indeed a certain degree of arbitrariness. And this why it is difficult to communicate facts, realities or issues by way of language. But in my opinion that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to judge them negatively. If for example you want to create a connection between society and these problems, then perhaps you are more inclined to classify this phenomenon under the category of “Babylonian confusion of tongues”. On the other hand, it was precisely this differentiation of language from the figurative which indicated the purism lying dormant in these things. Here too you can find several forerunners. At one stage I was also very interested in Mallarmé where following all this extreme symbolism these problems emerged as well, for example regarding the influence of the syntax on the content or the relation of words with reality.

WF: If one now thinks further about this aforementioned institutional critique and considers historical developments, then the accusation that was made about this institutional critique, above all from the feminist side, was that it completely excluded gender-related issues and the human body. If I see things correctly then writing itself – the act of writing, the gesture, the expression – has never interested you. The somatic is completely missing in your work.

HG: You think that it is completely missing?

WF: Yes.

HG: Yes, that’s right. But this is not deliberate. It’s just that I think that dealing with speech leaves one, in a certain way, with no other option than to simply stick with the terminology. Anything else would be, so to say, something that affected the remaining reality. But not if one is dealing with such issues as “the difference between a single word and a sentence” or “when does meaning arise?” If one includes the entire problematic of writing: “how is it possible, for example, for simple graphic lines to communicate meaning?” This problematic is somewhat concealed by our school system and by these huge conventions. It appears obvious to us that pupils in school simply learn language and lettering. But if one sought to try to derive an explanation from the apparent triviality of learning lettering and a language, then this would naturally be a very unphilosophical way of looking at things. This is more or less how Brunelleschi, Masaccio or Uccello and the others discovered central perspective back in their day. For them, this was something overwhelming. Today, each pupil draws central perspective space in geometry lessons. But in doing so he doesn’t get the feeling that this separation will lead to the, considered negatively, destruction or, considered more transcendentally, disappearance of the visual world. One often sees that people regard some things – speech, for example – as trivial because, as a result of convention, they are so accustomed to dealing with them. But it is truly hard to understand how straight or curved lines can transmit highly complex contexts. Even if this can be superficially explained by the learning of language or lettering. For me, this relationship between lettering and meaning was a fascinating subject. And even if this is apparently far removed from any element of the fine arts it is only that this seems to be the case. The reality is that, for example, the question of object and image in the fine arts closely parallels the question of terminology and objectivity in language.

WF: This means that you would carry out your investigations on a purely visual level in a certain analogy with research.

HG: Yes, because I think that, otherwise, one arrives at a mere theory which lacks clarity. This means that these works are not just about illustrating some philosophical systems or theories. Quite the opposite, these texts should make certain problems regarding human comprehension or even regarding our entire approach to things very present. That is the content. Whereas elsewhere, in literature for example, stories are always being told. I believe that Schopenhauer once said that all that a novel is about is the fact that, after 300 pages, Hans has found his Grete. Hence, this type of linguistic usage is not related to this context.

WF: At the end of the seventies your work started to become spatial. You created room installations. Is this a logical consequence of your earlier work? I mean, the basic principles are similar enough even but in these installations you often also use non-linguistic signs.

HG: Yes, it bothered me that the book is in such an inferior position when it comes to the reception of texts and that it’s always outweighed by a summary way of looking. Yet, once you transfer it to body size or to larger rooms, you get a totally different proportion – in terms of the reception – between the person and the concept and the word. So, to me these applications to the walls seem justified. We’ve seen – also in the works of conceptual artists such as Lawrence Weiner and others – that visual moments started to all of a sudden play an important part again. So, basically, you can’t radically reduce it to the mere conceptuality. It would be a type of abstractness which wouldn’t even be desirable. Instead there must be at least the possibility to allow for these works to appear in a larger framework. With Weiner it’s a bit like that. The Americans always kept a distance to these developments in Europe and sometimes they indirectly expressed their criticism insinuating that it involved a lot of embellishment. But one must look at the works; that’s also true for Barry for example. They are themselves forced to suddenly realise things visually as linguistic particles – by using paint, even reliefs and sculpture etc.

WF: There is a series of room installations – on the basis of non-linguistic signs – where the viewer doesn’t instantly understand what they are about. The receptive behaviour is a totally different one if I look at a picture with a horizontal and a vertical line or if I’m in the gallery and I see a horizontal and a vertical line only hinted at by four points on the ceiling, the floor and the walls. The viewer has to enter the scenario as it were and then find the connections.

HG: True, a part of my work consists of non-linguistic elements but that’s only seemingly a contradiction because it’s actually also about these things, these cognitive realities. It’s about differentiations – of a fundamental kind one should add – about the presentation of differences, relationships etc. but in a radical way. The works of some conceptual artists also go in that direction. A text by Weiner for example with the word “reduced” in gigantic letters – I’m sure you know it. In my case, an example would be the text you chose for Bregenz. The one with the millimetre.

WF: A billionth millimetre.

HG: There are certain affinities. The difference is that Weiner uses the word directly as it were whereas I’m referring – mentally if you like – to the same problematics by taking the detour via a number text. This tiny difference, this minute distance by using huge signs to show this minuteness.

WF: Earlier on you made some critical remarks about poetry. I imagine you meant certain forms of poetry because it seems to me that some of your texts do have a poetical quality. I would like to give you an example. If one reads a text such as “absent object” then in terms of logic this is hard to follow but one can still imagine some meaning. Or then the words “the furthest away” are written on a wall in front of which one is standing. Or “not yet visible” on one panel and “no longer visible” on another. Or even a billionth of a millimetre, 0.0000000001 mm. An acquaintance of mine who is an engineer showed me how one could imagine this. On the route from Bregenz to Budapest one metre corresponds to one billionth of a millimetre. This is how one can portray this at the optical level. Or, as I said, one can also see this certain poetic aspect.

HG: Well yes, they do. I suppose what is seen as poetical here is an important reality in all art. The question is only the context. In poetry there is of course always something which is regarded as “lifeworld”. It’s a context which is often connected to personal feelings, fates, difficulties or pleasant things. In the case of these texts, however, they are completely taken out of the life context and appear as … perhaps, as cerebral reality. If a work is good, then naturally it may also have a quality one might call “poetical”. It’s difficult to define. I mean, in literature you attempt to produce it in a discursive way but only through words. Maybe that’s the difference because for example “the furthest away” can be interpreted as a motif of longing – which would again be literary. But you can also look at it from an astronomical point of view and then you’re dealing with Kant’s aporiae of the infinite and the finite because we can’t imagine the finite but also not the infinite. So, you can arrive at totally different conclusions by just referring to these few particles alone. For the recipients who are not constantly thinking about these things this may be an advantage because they can interpret a series of texts in their own way, from their own context of experiences with literature etc. Or it presents itself to them in such a way.

WF: So far your oeuvre consists of approximately two thousand works and in some of them you resort to older topics which are then varied or changed and appear in a new context. You can look back on more than thirty years of creativity. How do you see your own development?

HG: I don’t think there is a particular development. Of course you will find works that are different from those of the beginning. But to apply the term progress which in art is always used so abusively wouldn’t be possible either. It’s like you said before: It’s more of a circling round certain possibilities and I suppose it may not be quite so easy to clearly distinguish slightly later texts from earlier ones.

WF: But this also means that you are constantly seeing some aspects that have escaped you in the past and that you then, possibly, process again using these same concepts.

HG: Yes, this possibly arises from the conviction that one shouldn’t do the thing that some artists do who suddenly throw out their entire concept and replace it with something completely different that has no relationship with the previous work. This seems dangerous to me and I could give you a few examples. Thereafter they often became incredibly bad and I am talking here about some of the most prominent names. Strictly speaking, the painter is always working on one painting, to exaggerate a little, and one is actually always working on the same thing. Always of course in the light of certain experiences that are clearly the basis for making some modifications possible. But continuity is assured, even if one doesn’t want it, as long as one doesn’t consciously want something completely different. And this seems really problematic to me because in this case one will probably completely deviate from all that one has learnt through experience. And one has to start again from zero. I don’t believe that my approach is a conscious retention of traditional forms but rather that the forms emerge in similar ways because one is working on the same thing. One has to see it the other way round completely.

WF: But you wouldn’t say that one is dealing with obsessive character if one takes, for example, On Kawara or Miroslaw Balka or Hanne Darboven, who perhaps have very little to do with your work? That is obsessive.

HG: I believe that a thing only has certain possibilities and that one has to research these as far as possible or work with it. And that is also the reason for continuity. It is astonishing how little many artists distance themselves from the fundamental idea after having reached a certain point. These are often only tiny modifications, but they are naturally decisive in terms of evaluation. This means that this is not a detail, but rather that these small changes are, for the artist themselves and the friends that appreciate their work, very important changes. Looking from the outside these are tiny changes but for the artist it is often incredibly difficult to introduce even a few changes in such a way that one doesn’t repeat oneself. And that is the other problem, that one suddenly only always does the same thing schematically. This also makes no sense! But it can also be a programme, there are also artists who very consciously constantly repeat themselves, this happens too.

(Vienna, June 1997)