Selected Interview: Imi Knoebel
[1960s:] Line Painting; Room 19; 4 Piece; Stretcher; Black Cross; Double Black Cross.
[1970s:] Red Lead Paintings; 24 Green Septagons; Red Yellow Blue.
[1980s:] Ghentian Room; Property Kingdom of Heaven; Chemnitz; Green Earth Burned; Black Square on the Buffet; Having and Honor; Africa.
[1990s:] Grace Kelly; Snowflakes and Sunshine; Sittin’ in the Morning Sun; Sandwich; Marleen; Madeleine . . .
How does Knoebel work?
The eye is caught by a countless number of colored edges in his studio. All the color seem full, originally conceived for their haptic quality and not for their immaterial brilliance. There aren’t any transitions, no transparency and no colors flow into one another. In the open drawer of a flat file, at the ready, are sheets of paper stacked up in blocks and sorted by color and tone. The sheets of paper are cut into swatches — each one a handwidth in length — filling the color workshop, a smallish room on the lower of his two floors. Other strips of color hang in rows on two walls; the palettes of Liquitex, Aquatec, Schmincke and Lascaux. “The yellow from Aquatec doesn’t compare to Schmincke’s,” says Knoebel.
What are his favorite colors?
Pink is a favorite. Pink, in his eyes, is “disreputable, unclear and baby-like. Nobody wants a pink color in his living room.” He points out that Lucio Fontana used a really kitschy pink in some of his ‘egg-shaped’ paintings and that Barnett Newman resorted to other ‘off’ colors like turquoise and brown in “The Gate”  and in “Uriel” [1955.] “Those I like . . . ” On work tables in one of the other rooms of his color workshop, he lays out combinations of color strips, interweaving red, yellow and blue in squared-off areas. We get to Piet Mondrian and “New York City II” [1942-44.] It’s hanging in Düsseldorf’s Nordrhein-Westfalia collection. Made from strips of colored tape, it is a preliminary model for a work that was never finished. Asking him about the red, yellow and blue in his multiple, “Little Piet” , he throws the question back at me: “How can we let only Mondrian and Newman use these colors? That’s a fundamental issue for a painter.”
Does he see himself as a painter?
“Very much so, at the moment.” But he doesn’t want to continue that forever. He explains that he never saw himself as a painter in the literal sense. He rejects painting as a “vocation, doctrine and theory.” He links that with being “uptight, stiff and caged in.”
What are his artistic roots?
Unlike his earlier painter colleagues, Blinky Palermo and Jörg Immendorff, he and his closest friend, Imi Giese, didn’t have a strong painting background when they started at the Düsseldorf Academy in 1964. “We hadn’t learned about representation with a paintbrush and color,” he says. “We rejected painting styles, knacks and tricks because we didn’t want to put something on canvas that wasn’t yet our own. We had to find our materials and we wanted to start from scratch, the zero point.” For him, using masonite cut to sixty-by-sixty centimeters, was more imaginable than any style that the history of painting could offer. This masonite gives him “an already finished painting and it’s easy to carry a sixty-by-sixty format under your arm.” Not without sentiment, he remembers that for a long time transportability on the streetcar was a deciding factor in his choice of format. Later on he made this decision based on commercially available standard sizes for masonite.
What do the new paintings look like?
Four of his three dimensional “aluminum” paintings, measuring around 110-by-110 centimeters, hang in the biggest room on the lower floor. Attached at slightly varying angles to the four edges of a painted masonite support are layers of individually painted standard aluminum moldings. The colors of the underlying aluminum strips are visible, indexing what remains hidden. The axial shift causes moments of tipping, staggering and breaks the square format. This toppling effect is reflected in their titles such as Cry, Cry Baby and Sittin’ in the Morning Sun.
Does rock-and-roll play a role?
“At one time rock-and-roll may have been in the foreground but the work doesn’t hit on that. What counts is the stop before that, the place you enter, that you have to walk on.”
What is he searching for?
“Simply that it goes, to bring things to a point of lightness. That’s the most difficult place to get to with painting. The work that went into it shouldn’t show. Beauty always lies in between.” (Laughs) Chance plays a central role for him: “Things are always coming at you from the outside. What you have to do then is put that together with what you’re already working on.” What he means by working is: “to get to know the means being used. When I’ve got something worked out, there’s a whole history behind it. When it goes on the wall, it’s self-evident. It’s like an arbitrary act with no crisscrossing thoughts. Then things are right, ready for the wall. That’s how I go about it. That’s the liberty I take.”
When did the “aluminum’ paintings develop?
He began them two years ago. He considers them as a follow-up to his Grace Kelly series  as well as his Portraits  made out of right-angled wooden elements. The Grace Kelly series was the first time he put painted moldings on the edges of a central painted square. He often took colors already mixed from the palettes in his color workshop. He has extended his palette in the “aluminum” paintings, striking more unexpected chords. He also speaks about the Figure paintings from 1985, in which he assembles panels of different colors next to one another without any outlining. He started painting with color in 1975 with his Green Septagon paintings.
Why green? “That was totally subjective. Green was the most natural. It’s the color you see most of. In any case, it wasn’t a theory. In the beginning, I generally worked with black and white. Wood came as the third color and as the fourth, green, and this already included all of the colors for me because red, yellow and blue as elementary colors, I didn’t have to think through.” Sometime later, Philippa de Menil and Heiner Friedrich gave him a book, “The Sense of Unity: The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture.” Knoebel was fascinated by the Sufi system of seven colors, which included not only green between red and yellow but also black, white and sandalwood. Pointing to the Sufi color scheme, he adds. “They don’t have orange or violet, but green. And they don’t have brown, but wood.”
His impulse to make ‘aluminum’ paintings came from a mirror with layers of metal rods on its frame, which has been in his home for a long time. It got him interested in layering forms on the edges. At the same time these rod-like forms can be traced back to the X-form in his Projection X .
Knoebel describes the making of his new paintings as complex because the painting can not be directly executed from the model. The flat paper model only corresponds with the three-dimensional version to a degree. The painting as executed with the painted aluminum moldings has to be re-examined “until the character or personality of the painting has been established.”
How does he define painting?
“Everything is a painting for me. Each thing may already be the painting. You encounter that potential everywhere. You can pull a painting out of every situation. Those are the paintings you don’t have to paint, unless you’re a realist.” He doesn’t distinguish between object and painting, and pointing out the window to things put out on the balconies of the building over-looking his backyard, he says: “Flowerpots, tulips or carpets: each thing finds its place there without anyone paying that much attention. What is stuck out there seems always to be well chosen. Everything seems to be just right: things that have been used, things you’re attached to, which you can’t get rid of, things with a history, broken things. It’s everything people don’t want to put into their apartments. They can’t risk that in the front of the building. There it’s clean. Here, behind the building, the way they go about things is more carefree or less constrained. For instance, somebody paints a wall here only as far as his arm can reach and then just stops. That’s real space. To work out a whole balcony painting where each thing gets conquered is not what I’m after right now.”
Where does he stand right now?
He sees himself at the beginning of a new phase, in which he is getting more deeply involved in experimenting with color, prospecting in a multifold of color: “I want nothing but to get to the color. I put the colors on, lay them in and try to gain a color this way. I use really diverse combinations. That keeps it open. There is no color I don’t work with, so there is no pat system. Along the way, you can get to really beautiful paintings that you never had in mind.”
(Dirk Luckow based this text on studio visits with the artist in his Düsseldorf studio during the fall and winter of 1993-94).
Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.