California Revisited, 2001

The Luck of Being a Painter (Peter Iden, 2002)

“You know things will go on.” A conversational foray into the life and work of Markus Prachensky

He once suggested, one changeable night, that we climb the Plague Pillar in Vienna together. It was in those early days, that era of sudden existential gestures. The qualified architect was rehearsing the uprising, freeing himself from the geometrical grids that still determined his early sheets. It was always about liberation, the contradiction between the system of an artistic model and the spontaneous gesture that shattered it. Red was the colour in which the drama expressed itself; he calls it his ‘colour of life’. At the Theater am Fleischmarket in Vienna in 1959, and one year later at the Stadttheater in Aschaffenburg, he poured buckets full of it onto a canvas that was destroyed immediately afterwards: what was intended with this streaming red was merely an act of impulsive liberation; the process was the thing. Later he painted the cycle of pictures that bear the names of landscapes, yet do not belong to the genre of landscape painting. Rather they derive the aspiration to a reality of their own – no less intense than the reality perceived out there – from the reality of the world's regions to which their names refer. This intention to create a world with autonomous paintings was fulfilled in the Umbrian, Etruscan and Sardinian series and in the cycles which the artist was inspired to paint in Bali and twice in California. California revisited – this is the most recent period in an oeuvre that is quite unequalled: the new colour shades here are wonderful, the yearning blue and the brilliantly imperious green on a ground that is as black as night.

Over the years, both in the real world out there and before the in no way less true reality of his paintings, we have repeatedly conferred together on what was to be done in life and what he was considering doing in his painting. There never has been, nor is there, more world than in his studio. Everything is in motion, and the conflict of forces and counter forces is perpetual.

It has been a long road through time. Initially, in the decade after the war, there was the rejection by the ignorant stick-in-the-muds in Vienna and Germany. Gradually, however, people did learn to see, and didn't believe their eyes. They understood that what was in the paintings in front of them was something they themselves should not forego (although so many were able to): emphatic signs of life, appeals, in the face of the end that is always there.

That road often took the artist very far away from Vienna – the garden of barefoot dancing in the Californian valley was by no means the most distant place – but he returned again and again. And has now arrived back in Vienna to stay, at the Obere Belvedere. That time, when we were considering climbing the Plague Pillar, we could not have anticipated this. But I never really had any doubt about it.

Peter Iden:
There was surely a moment when suddenly it was an indubitable certainty that you had to paint pictures, that you wanted to be an artist ...

Markus Prachensky:
The road to that certainty had been largely marked out. I was much influenced by my parental home. My father was an architect who also painted. I was confronted with painting from an early age and as a child began to draw from nature. In any case, it was a continuous development which led – I was sixteen –to the decision to be a painter. I then studied architecture, but I always painted, even during my studies. At that time, I was preoccupied with geometrical structures, as some sheets in the exhibition indicate. However, I knew I would have to free myself from this strict formal idiom. The period after the Second World War was very difficult. You had practically no information, no knowledge of what was happening in the art world. I familiarised myself with Romantic, Gothic, and Renaissance art from books in my parents' library. But due to the cursed Nazi era, we were cut off from contemporary art. News about it only spread gradually, above all from Paris, but also from America. There were some examples of a moderate avant-garde, so it was obvious that we had to go even further. But you did manage to find the right track, so to speak, in the company of a few other kindred spirits, and that was enough to fall into disfavour at the Academy. The Academy did not quite see itself as a place of experimentation, quite the contrary. Because of our ideas, Hollegha, Mikl, Rainer and myself were regarded as out-laws, lawless. Later we formed what we called the “Gruppe St. Stephan”. Monsignore Otto Mauer acted as a kind of inspirer, promoter, and mentor. He was a man of the church and preached at St. Stephan's cathedral. The gallery of the same name had nothing to do with the church, otherwise it would have been unbearable. Mauer experienced hostility because of his friendship with us.

P.I.:
Were those beginnings not inspired in particular by the contradiction between a then distinctly conservative, if not reactionary cultural climate in Vienna on the one hand, and on the other, the Viennese tradition of new departures and modernism, as manifest early in the last century in literature, music, architecture and the fine arts?

M.P.:
We wanted a new beginning for all we were worth. And we actually had the necessary self-confidence for this. I was quite convinced that I wanted to, and would, get things moving, make progress. We, and in Vienna above all the sculptor Wotruba, who was on our side, distanced ourselves decisively from those who had carried on through the Nazi years and continued to be active as artists, had professorships at the Academy and were highly respected all the while. We despised those people.

P.I.:
Your early works are still influenced by geometric grids, and a familiarity with architecture and urban planning continues to shine through. Then a gestural element begins to assert itself strongly, and is persists to this day. And the colour red, no less important and just as lasting as the gesture of the paint application, became the dominant tone of the paintings. Why red?

M.P.:
I definitely wanted to break out of the grid of the geometrical in which I was imprisoned. For almost a year, I did nothing else but draw, in an attempt to develop a gesture of the hand, you could say a hand-writing, by means of which I would become free, would gain my freedom. Red had always fascinated me. I knew it was the colour in which I could express myself. The colour of my life. Yes, that is what it is. I had the notion that red was the colour of my life at a very early stage.

P.I.:
It transpired that Vienna was no longer the only place to develop. After an exhibition in Hamburg, in 1960 the southern German town of Aschaffenburg became the setting for an event of art-historical importance. “Peinture liquide” was the name of the action which caused such excitement at the Stadttheater there, after a preliminary run in Vienna (at the Theater am Fleischmarkt) a couple of months previously ...

M.P.:
Within a certain space of time, a number of litres of red paint were to be poured onto and let run down a slanting canvas. Nothing like this had been done before. However, it was repeated later by a certain Austrian artist. The difference was that after the action I immediately destroyed the large canvas with the traces of paint, while that other artist still has similarly treated canvases on sale today as paintings. My main concern was the action itself, which in Aschaffenburg was accompanied by electronic music. For a certain time – the process took no more than half an hour – the paint was to free itself as completely as possible from all constraints, as it ran more or less uncontrollably across the initially completely white canvas. This caused a huge scandal in Germany. People simply could not grasp the sense of the action, i.e., the total liberation of paint.

P.I.:
What eye-witnesses particularly recall is the radicalism of the action ...

M.P.:
I was quite aware of that radicalism. But also of the quality both of the concept behind it and the practical implementation. The whole thing was like a great manifesto. I would like to point out, though, that it had nothing to do with my painting as such.

P.I.:
You subsequently continued painting. The fruits of individual periods became series, suites of paintings stimulated, or let us say, inspired by landscapes. The series are designated by the names of regions to which you travelled and in which you stayed, usually several times: Apulia, Etruria, Umbria, Sardinia, Corsica, Bali. Towards the end of the 1960s California was the theme, as it is again now in the most recent cycle of works, California revisited. The landscapes stimulated the paintings ascribed to them without the representation ever having been intended as a portrait of a landscape. What is the relationship between the sense perception of the landscape and the appearance of the painting?

M.P.:
You take something from the world which you then have within you. What I make of it, however, is not a reproduction of the perception. I create something new, which is as independent as what I experienced as the reality of the landscape. With each painting I have to go beyond what has happened. The new painting must have an intensity that corresponds to that of the experienced reality, it must have an impact that is just as new and even stronger than that of the fragment of the world that provided the stimulus for the painting.

P.I.:
So painting is a reaction to the world, albeit significantly transformed. Yet the crucial thing is that it itself creates a piece of world, the autonomous world of the painting. The concept of autonomy that asserts itself here is controversial on the current art scene. Art is being increasingly instrumentalised, being used, for example, as a tool of ideology or social criticism, or else it is being staged as an event. Do you get the feeling that with your particular idea of the autonomy of the painted image you occupy a position which meantime isolates you?

M.P.:
When I paint today, I am no lonelier than I used to be. I have no doubt whatever that my work produces something that exists, that aspires to a right to exist, which cannot be denied by any art philosophy, as has occasionally been attempted in recent times. That is the source of my pride. It is irrelevant to me whether others judge this to be either anachronistic or progressive.

P.I.:
Even though doubt is being cast on the autonomy of the artistic work itself by theorists and indeed by other artists, the degree of public recognition now being granted to the heroes of the early years is very striking, especially after the great scepticism which they experienced in their day from the public and the critics. This also applies to Markus Prachensky. One can say that your oeuvre has asserted itself. It is altogether unusual for Vienna to be honouring a living artist like you with an extensive retrospective exhibition. Has your understanding of yourself as an artist changed as a result of such recognition?

M.P.:
I don't feel that I have become another person. Or that I approach my work differently than before, when such honours were not forthcoming. Every artist hopes that his work will not get worse, that he can improve in the course of his life. I also hope that for myself.

P.I.:
What role does experience play?

M.P.:
There is of course a technical knowledge that gets gradually deeper. Which format is appropriate for which pictorial theme, which proportion should be chosen for the relationship between the colours, which approach will take you further and which has to be abandoned –experience is very valuable when it comes to such issues. The critical factor in a painting, however, has to be struggled for anew, each and every time.

P.I.:
The paintings, even the early, geometrically inclined ones, give the impression of an emphatic involvement on the part of the artist in the process of their genesis. They have an emotional appeal, presented with great insistence. Is the artist dependent on a certain emotional disposition that can be called in at will in order to achieve this effect?

M.P.:
My experience as a painter is that, from the very beginning, I have in the main been an emotionally-driven being. That is part of me, That’s what I am. Without it, I would never have become an artist. However, rationality is also a part of me. It is indispensable as a means of monitoring, steering emotions, and not least of organizing the working process. I work as follows: after finishing a series, usually in August, I take a trip. I try to gather new impressions. Then come several weeks during which I do smaller sketches. That is how I begin to focus, and to capture what has permeated me in pictorial concepts. The next step involves rendering these concepts on paper. By then it is February / March. Now I know what has to be done. Finally, I begin the paintings on canvas. That takes time, until the summer.

P.I.:
Over the years a constant theme can be observed in your paintings: the opposition between order and chaos, between compulsion and outbreak, discipline and freedom. It seems as if the paint is to be arrested by the thrust of the brush, as if an order, a system has been conceived for it. Then, and these are dramatic events, the paint spurts, breaks out, frees itself from constraints, as if it had a life of its own. What is your relationship to this life-long partner, to paint?

M.P.:
The high-handedness of the paint and the chance aspect of the result of these breakouts are always under my supervision. Whatever does not “seem right” to me about the effect is immediately eradicated. I produce a lot of waste, attempts I do not accept. Whatever is contained in and released by the paint complies with my hand. In this way, I bind the paint not to the task of representing, for example, a landscape, as Cézanne still did (however much he wished its liberation), I bind it to myself. That is the rule. In the tube the paint is dead. When I mix it, it can come to life. Then this really happens on the canvas – now it is my only partner.

P.I.:
Paintings also have to do with time. By preserving something fleeting, they are a response to transience ...

M.P.;
Yes, each painting is an anticipated response to death. You have a certain amount of time for it; then that time runs out. What remains is a deliberately postulated symbol of life.

P.I.;
California revisited is the title of your latest cycle of works. A return to California, which was once also the site of a critical period in your biography. Does this constitute something like a late work?

M.P.:
I hope not. When I paint, I feel as lively as ever. I still feel that something is again in the offing. That is a wonderful feeling. One that makes you happy. You know things will go on.

Peter Iden
Vienna/Frankfurt am Main, February 2002