interview Charlotte Warsen – EN

Warsen_Foto_ copyright Svenja Höttler

You mentioned that the work you showed at Schau Fenster was not what you wanted it to be. I think it didn’t have the open, unfinished yet therefore sublime quality of your larger paintings. You said it was hard to work on a divergent canvas size. In what way does the scale of a canvas influence your approach towards the painting?

Usually I work with supports that can easily be turned upside down at the wall while painting. I tend to work with oil, laquer, spray paint and other really smearable or sprayable materials on bigger canvases because they enable you to occupy an area according to the possible range of gestures. Additionally, I use crayon, pencil, graphite, ballpoint and other rather graphic substances on smaller sheets of paper because they allow me to be nervous and fast in a precise and relaxed way. In terms of posture: working on a bigger scale and on a support that is attached to a wall feels more confronting, while working on paper feels like bending over something in a tender way; but that doesn’t say much about the degree of control you actually have and there is hardly any sort of paint I would not use on any kind of surface and scale and very often I work on canvases that lie on the floor so that I have to bend over and walk around them.

Although mostly it is great to use a scale and sorts of paint that are responsive to your intuition and fetish (or the other way around), sometimes it is a very good idea to use paint substances against the grain, against their supposedly inherent tendency and also to change the scale of the support randomly and against intuition, because a certain habit one should get rid off might not work on the new scale, so changing scale can mean outwitting yourself, cheating on yourself in a good way, making yourself stretch to other postures and gestures by means of one clean, sterile decision.

As a viewer what I always used to like most were very small and intense paintings (e.g. Vermeer) that capture and condense a whole range of excessive, heterogeneous and simultaneous processes and silences in a very tight frame or overwhelmingly big and wide paintings (installations / graffiti / frescoes etc., but also the open roughness of some Tintoretto canvases and, in a very different way Katharina Grosse, East Eric e.g.) that have a lot of air and generosity about them or use colour as a means to transform a spacial situation, while for my own practice I prefer the range of my arms as a scale to work with.

And why did you consider that painting as a failure?

As for the painting I showed in Berlin with you, in spring 2015, the explanation is rather banal. It was a failure because I started it too late and also just because that size of canvas was obligatory for the exhibition space. To work against intuition and preference in a good way apparently needs more time to develop than I actually had before the exhibition. It remained very superficial, because  it never got out of hand at any point and there had never been any problems – apart from the problem that I had to stop doing something about when it was still in a rather boring stage.

Once you are “in” the painting, at the best moments it seems that one is connected with a higher level of consciousness, intuition. While painting you are viewer, creator and part of what you are making. I compare it with what i picked up from Maurice Merleau-Ponty: you are a physical presence in your surroundings, by moving you change the way you experience these surroundings, so in a way you are both part and spectator and you are steering what you see. How does this work in your paintings? Are you part of what you are making?Your paintings look almost if you didn’t care about them, and at the same time everything is at the right place with the right intensity. Can you reconstruct the state you were in when you worked on those paintings?

Painting can be a way of knowingly not knowing what to do while doing it. But the state of being „in“ a process of something – proceeding  intuitively, attentively and wide awake – applies to other cultural techniques and art practices as well. What I like about painting is that it provides me with a sort of solitude that doesn’t feel alone at all. It is a way of creating an area, a narrative or a landscape (let’s say a colour scape) out of paint that you can transform and through which you can move, in which you can react, get lost and still make very precise and immediate decisions. Even if you are contemplating in a chair in front of a painting for hours or when you are elsewhere far away from the studio, working on a painting still means wrapping your mind and inner senses around something sensually close and intellectually affective.

When I am painting I work on a visual gravity and drift along logics of colours that are in an alchemistic state. To put it more simply and adequately vague: it is all about creating the right tension between the weight of colours, their volume, effect, texture and their behaviour (their good or bad manners) next to each other. Apart from dealing with chromaticity it involves a sense of balance and the negotiation of depths and temperatures. When I read ‘steering what you see’ in your question I confused steering with stirring and thought,yeah well, sometimes you have to stir what you see, ha. But not until it’s too smooth.


You often work on unprepared canvases, is that right?

I like to work on a support that is already interesting in itself; very rough or very smooth or already marked by stains and traces, so that there are already some grips right from the start. I think that goes for a lot of painters and it also goes for my writing actually (not with stains of course, but lines, words, letters, words by others), it just makes it easier to begin.

How do you control your paint, your brush, do you work with a brush, with your bare hands?

I work with (cheap) brushes, cloth, my hands, everything that is there. And I have a very simple knife which I have been using for 10 years now and which is great to scrape off paint. This knife is important. It leaves a very delicate striation on a rough surface. If I have totally messed up an area, this knife might still turn it into something interesting. Or something ok. At least into something I can continue with.

At what point do you stop, when is the moment you say it’s finished?


Of course Cy twombly is on one’s mind while seeing your work. Still I think you have your own signature in the marks, dots and lines. How do you relate to the history of abstract gestural painting?

Twombly obviously was a hero at some point, and also Joan Mitchell, Henry Michaux, Wols, the drawings by Rebecca Horn, basically all those nervously flickering ways of drawing and painting since the 1940s that showed how lines need not contour anything at all but can also create an area of tension on a plane (of course some of that you can also find e.g. in the fanned out contours of Michelangelo drawings).

What I liked especially about Twombly and Wols was that the nervous lines were usually blended with creamy, elegiacally applied paint, or, in Twombly’s case, the colour of the support was used to paint with it over certain areas of a drawing, which has the effect of the support partly swallowing or sucking in what’s on it.

But in my canvases I do not have this kind of nervousness so much anymore, only bits of it, small nervous situations here and there and overall rather something figural at work on which to work on more slowly, if not sluggishly.

Aesthetics are evil in every painting. Even if you are working like you do -almost indifferent – there still is a tendency to make it look nice, to work towards a composition. How do you see it?

The main ambition is to build up a painting, a figure, a colour scape until it stands there in front of you, opens up and confronts you, on its own, for itself, however frail. If it looks at me and looks good looking at me I won’t object. What you mean by aesthetics in this context is probably the wish to make things adjust to a certain taste, a certain cliché, a smooth „for sale“ – look. I think it is not obvious what ‘nice’ or ‘kitsch’ might mean today, unless you are standing in front of an artwork together and are talking about it specifically. There are lots of deliberately roughly painted or spray painted abstract paintings that look the nicer on smartphone screens the rougher they get and sell very well. Having mentioned Wols before, a similar strategy of crossing out or destroying faces and heads in such a strikingly beautiful and brutal way might now strike many people oddly subjective and sentimental. Destroying something nice in a painting can look pretentious, like a trick. Trying to be too balanced usually flattens everything on the other hand. Many of my older drawings and at least some of the newer canvases have something rough about them but I always liked and actively wanted them to have something gentle and soft about them, too.

At the moment I do not paint with enough patience, intensity and stubbornness that would be appropriate because I have been more interested in writing poetry during the last 2 years. (And as a viewer and philosopher I became more and more interested in the ways certain paintings narrate or cultivate a certain humour (like for example in the work of Dana Schutz), because I think, within all the teleologies and dialectics that pervade the discourse of painting, painting’s genuine ability to narrate usually tends to be forgotten or ascribed to language and there is a lack of vocabulary in theory in order to live up to that). But my laziness or disinterest in finishing paintings is also accompanied by an interesting development in terms of how to judge painting as such. I stopped thinking about single paintings as failures or landmarks in my development, and rather started to judge the painting process as such: was it any good? Was I under pressure or relaxed? Was it fun, was it annoying in a good way? Have I learned anything I can take with me? Did something hit me as an image and stay with me after leaving the studio? What happened to my senses? Etc.

The paintings look as if they were made in one take? Or do you re-work paintings?

Very often the biggest part (in terms of how much of the support is covered by or soaked with colour) is done within one session, usually one night or a few hours. But then, in the days afterwards, I do very small and decisive changes, I add a small mark here and scratch away a small mark there with the knife, almost in passing by. That’s also always the chance to ruin all of my everyday clothes. Or, when it doesn’t turn out well and I did too much, to ruin the whole thing for the next days. Then I cover everything I can’t stand with the colour of the canvas and try again later, spending the next days with a very strong feeling of discontent.

Every painter knows the sensation of putting the first brushstroke on the empty canvas. I think what makes your paintings so attractive is that they preserve the feeling of the first brushstroke. What are your thoughts at the first brushstroke and what inside you makes you move on the way you move on?

Very often the first marks feel pretentious. So the next marks are meant to give the first ones credibility. They try to lift the first ones into the air. Then, after the next 3 or 4 steps a certain dynamic comes into play that I can react upon. But whatever I do I always feel the structure and colour of the support to be very authoritatively and actively there in a good way, as an air that should not be overlaid and choked. At least not in all parts of a painting.

You mention Dana Schutz and Wols. The humour of Schutz and the brutal destruction of Wols. Do you think working abstractly makes one too serious? There is nothing to laugh about in abstraction, is there?

This distribution of characteristics doesn’t really do justice to them – at least not to Schutz, who can be humorously brutal and brutally humorous. There are paintings by Mary Heilman, for example, that I find very humorous. Although / because they do not depict anything (easily) nameable. They also tell a story about the closed-mindedness of the discourse of (abstract) painting at a certain time in Western art history. The same goes for Lynda Benglis’ poured latex works on the floor, even though from a very different perspective. Narrative techniques (including humour, jokes, irony, evocations of brutality, destruction and so on) are not foreign to (abstract) painting, I think, they are human techniques that painting (as a way of ‘doing things with colours’) participated to invent and develop alongside or fused with language, music etc.

For me it is everything but clear what abstraction should or might mean and how it can be talked about apart from a) following a modernist, and (not only) politically problematic, teleology or b) forgetting about the term ‘abstract’ altogether. The mission statement of TAOP e.g. seems to suggest that abstract painting is something that was invented by 3 white boys in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. I think the line abstract/figurative or nonfigurative/representational is blurred since people started painting in caves (or, earlier, probably somewhere else). One example of how blurred the line is is the frequency with which Merleau-Ponty is quoted in the context of nonfigurative painting, although he never wrote about nonfigurative painting (at least not in the texts by him that I know of).

That’s maybe what I meant with aesthetics, is looking for a sublime or perfect image in fact not merely boring? What does it say about life?

That’s a big issue of TAOP I think, what takes abstraction to the next level, the level that keeps us alive?

I am not sure if the act of painting relates to (an idea of) abstraction in a specific way. 

For me the term is not so very helpful and how to take abstraction to another level is not a question that bothers me or urges my practice. I always liked Philip Gustons remark: „Painting is impure. It is the adjustment of impurities that forces painting’s continuity.“ When it comes to nonfigurative art I see exciting works from time to time. Maybe the problem is rather that the art world around it often seems a little bit dull, at least in comparison with other art scenes and spaces in society.

I like the way you approach your paintings now, asking yourself what the actual act of painting did for you or to you. That’s kind of sports approach. Like riding a bike as fast as possible… But then what do you communicate in your work and with whom?

Colours have something bothersome about them, in terms of both effect and materiality. They do not stay where they are supposed to. So there is always an urge to paint until the painting or an area of colour starts to pulsate, until it demands certain decisions. You have something in front of you that echoes and resonates.

Does your poetry relate to your way of painting?

Because of a grapheme-colour synaesthesia I see vowels and some of the consonants in colour, and when I’m writing I also attribute a lot of ‘painterly’ characteristics to words I think (gleam, greasiness, weight, powderiness and so on) so in terms of arranging words and the white of the paper sometimes there are similar considerations and moves.

But at the moment poetry gives me more air and space to move in, it has more porosity towards the world and allows me to involve narrative fragments, images, voices and language material from more diverse places. But this is not my general attitude towards painting and poetry, it just holds true for my own practice at the moment.

I am working on a Lasker show now and he says: I am trying to make the unconsciousness conscious. He does it by making mark-sketches in oil on pieces of paper or cardboard and then blowing up and exactly copying the ones he likes and thinks are resonating.  His large paintings are becoming absolute and objective in that way.

Yes, I think the interrelationship of unconscious processes, gestures, the behaviour of paint and conscious processes of choosing is very mysterious and cannot be brought into a straight (assembly) line –  à la I am producing the visibility of the unconscious, because the unconscious (at least my unconscious) is not an oil painting and does not look like one. What I find interesting in a painting I make is that it is partly foreign to me and with foreign I don’t mean my unconscious ‘other’ that wakes up on the canvas but for example the colour effects that are cut loose and do not refer back to me. Of course it is good and necessary to have phases of „automatic painting“ that tie your gestures, senses and immediate emotional reactions very tightly together, but the connection between visible results and a painter’s subconscious is not a matter of a visualisation of the latter by means of the former. I think we also paint because colours have a life in themselves that can help to prolong inner processes and outer gestures into the material of the visible but can also disturb, corrupt and manipulate such transferrences totally. I think every act of painting has its own subconscious that does not belong to a specific person; this is the reason dull people can paint great paintings and great people can paint dull paintings, and the other way around with all possible gradations in between.

For me the connection between the two states is intuition. I see that in your paintings and drawings. We have talked about the process of painting, which is sometimes intuitive and at some moments you are very aware of what you are doing. The whole process runs parallel with real life.  During the course of making a painting you cannot constantly be in the highest intuitive state. For me, and now we come to Lasker, painting is a constant struggle in finding balance between concentration and indifference. Lasker’s oil sketches show this struggle,  his large works  are more clinical, executing the act of painting like it’s a job at the office. They leave no room for intuition, in a way they are arrogant. Too self-confident….  His latest work seems to open up though.

Yes, I think it should be totally ok to paint well in certain life phases and then fail in others. Sometimes it can be good to turn to something else to do at some point and return later. It is just complicated if you have some kind of career and people expect you to deliver a product. If you don’t have a career everything is fine (and also annoying of course).

Maybe a way to get life in painting and make a step beyond post-modernism would be to forget about the painting as an object and take the process of painting (like you now do) as the only reference. But then, what do you show? Is it your own self or is it a spirit that can be captured by a group of people?

I think the main challenge is to create spaces in which all kinds of people come together in order to make art or talk art (and at the same time make a living, to add some crazy utopian spirit). So that the results or processes of individual painting or writing is one reference among others, because art / poetry / music are rather seen as social challenges than as exceptional works by individuals (there will be always exceptional works by some, but the challenge is that those ‘some’ do not mostly come from a group of socially privileged people).

There are two obvious dangers of being an artist today: the first one is to adjust to the logic of an art market that makes 97% of the people live precariously, the second one is to drown in privacy and downgrade painting to a hobby with no relevance to anybody else in the world.

As it is quite easy to heroically ignore a market that is not interested anyway the consequent challenge is to build up alternative spaces (in terms of exchange, exhibiting, working together, making a living) that do not have to rely on art objects as a kind of currency. And I think this is what many artist groups and collectives have tried to do or try to do right now. As I see it all that works quite well here and there  – apart from the ‘making a living’ part …

Maybe the German poetry scene provides both a bad and a good example. The melancholic description is this: there is no money, anywhere. All the big publishers have kicked poetry out of their programs. A book of poetry hardly ever sells more than a few hundred copies. And the general concept of literature is very dull: ‘literature’ for the most part means ‘novel’ / long prose. Plus: the poets form a rather homogenously privileged group (in terms of family and academic background, and also whiteness).

But there is a lot of aliveness and wholeheartedness at the same time, an atmosphere of departure, also in terms of exchange among each other. There are lots of new magazines and independent publishing houses, most of which came up during the last 10-15 years. So – although there is no money and the scene is too elitist – it is still an environment in which I like to work much better than in the context of visual art, at least during the last years.

Talking about intuition. Jeroen and I have talked a lot about the quantum cloud lately. The cloud full of quantum particles that surrounds each individual and contains all the information of that individaul and more (DNA, memories etc.) That cloud knows a lot more than we do, and maybe in the best moments in painting we connect with that cloud and thus the painting we make actually knows more than we do….

Is that why we make paintings, sculptures, write poems, books etc..?

Is painting being alone without feeling lonely, is writing a poem  composing your thinking in an abstract way, is getting rid of that post-modern layer of irony  the way towards a new art

Well, I promised you in my last email to connect to this quantum cloud in order to write a halleluja to postmodern irony. Personally I do not believe in a story or idea of an essence, a core, a quantum cloud of sincerity and intuition which is choked by a layer of irony. There is a lot about postmodernism I would defend against any quantum cloud. If postmodernism includes the revaluation of values in terms of „high and low“ arts, the 19th century idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the idea of the fragment and the non finito, if it includes romantic irony, trash, the technique of the collage, pastiche, camp, the abolition of the genius, post-colonial art history, art as an adjustment of impurities, and a scepticism towards everything essentialist, I am absolutely up for postmodernist irony. I believe in bad art out of good motives and good art out of base motives and I think irony and intuition can live very very closely together.