In The Brooklyn Rail, John Yau talks to Norbert Prangenberg, who has a show at Betty Cunningham through the end of the week. He’s well known in Europe, but this is his first exhibition in New York since a 1986 show at Hirschl & Adler Modern. Although primarily known as a sculptor, Prangenberg presents thirty small paintings featuring thickly impastoed surfaces and non-narrative geometric form. Eschewing theory, Prangenberg embraces process, exploring the interaction of hand, eye, and material. Here’s an excerpt from his conversation with Yau.
“For me, the thinking is, when I start, what can I paint? Actually, that is the big question. [Laughs.] When I was a child it was my problem, too. I asked my mom, what should I draw? She said, draw a flower, oh no, a flower is boring. She said, draw a lion, oh yeah, a lion is better. [Laughs.] So, it’s a little bit of the same thing. And then, I think for me, I paint what I would like to paint. I also imagine them. I start and things come. For me, I see two columns. One is memory—things I remember. And the other thing is what I see and what I’m interested in—maybe it is nature or a butterfly or a flower or a pattern in a carpet or on a cup, or whatever. And when I remember things, maybe it is Pinocchio, but it comes more from this Giacometti figure with the long nose. He’s a kind of Pinocchio, too. Or it comes from paintings. I did some paintings from Casper David Friedrich—the ship in the ice. Or, I did some paintings, one after Van Gogh, ‘For Vincent.’ Or, I did a painting after Albert Altdorfer, a painter in the Middle Ages who painted incredible pine trees.
“As I thought about those paintings, I thought what can I do in my painting? So, that’s the reason, but I think the first thing is the color, of course, in painting, in my paintings. And then I have to find the structure, and the color and structure as a couple, and then the scene and the title as another couple. Actually, maybe, for me it doesn’t matter if I paint a face or I paint a tree or I paint an abstract. Actually, the main thing is to make this painting and find a way. But the scenes have to do with me. They are important for me if they affect me personally, like environmental things or like political things, but I don’t have a message, actually. I think when I make a painting, if it’s really strong, then the painting has a power. And this power is the message. What can color do? What can structure do? I mean, that is the reason to look at paintings in a museum or a gallery, or to have it at home: the energy. And then, for me it can be figurative or it can be abstract, it doesn’t matter. Or, what you asked me, then I play a little bit with these abstract things. Abstract is a big issue in art, especially in America. And then, I think about, what is abstract? Okay, then, I paint, you know, I put paint on the brush. Actually that is the base of abstract painting, you know, movement. Then, I think, okay, for me it’s not enough, a hundred thousand other painters make the same thing. [Laughs.] What is my special idea? And then I put another abstract in. You know, an idea of an abstract, not a de Kooning or Schumacher. I’m not interested in quotation. I put the image from an abstract painting in. So, then, suddenly I have a completely new thing. I have an abstract painting actually with two paintings in it. You know what I mean? It’s a little bit of playfulness, but it’s serious. And I think, for me, the possibility of making an abstract without quoting anybody. It’s only to find the image. And then, of course, this image that I put in has to do with the color of the base.
“In the end, it has to fit together. Did I have quotations? I have to be free when I paint. So it has to speak with the voice of the painting. And I think for me this thing to be free is important. I’m not interested in style. I want to be free in my paintings. But it has to be serious. Of course, being free doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want. It has to be based on my experience, on my age. I mean, when I was 15, I started to look at paintings in museums and in books. I really saw a lot of paintings and collections. And, my whole life, I’ve been involved with paintings and color and stuff. I think I have experience. I mean, I teach, I speak with students about art, so this all gives me a lot of background, actually. But, I use this background to be a free painter, you know? It shouldn’t make me narrow. It should make me wider. Not to use the same style, or not to have to find a style like, I’m the guy who only makes the black paintings with the red corner and the other makes the black with the green corner, to use it, to take it and to work. This is what I try to do, or not what I try to do, I do it.”
“Norbert Prangenberg,” Betty Cunningham Gallery, New York, NY. Through May 22. Note: The BC web site has excellent images of the pieces in the show, but because they are wrapped in a Flash animation, I couldn’t post them here.