The German-born, London-based artist talks Henry Moore, Johannes Vermeer and the nature cures of Dr. Edmond Szekely
There’s no question that my first encounter with art was in my hometown of Nuremberg, which has a profusion of art, churches and cathedrals. The fountains of Nuremberg are world-famous and, as a child, I would sneak into the town centre whenever I could and wallow in the immensity of this kinetic art. The movement of form, colour and sound has been important to all that I have done.
At the same time, I was raised in a Jewish Orthodox environment, so there was a fascinating clash in my youth between art and the Jewish insistence on the prohibition on images. This is at the centre of my work: on the one hand, opening up to the world and, on the other, closing off from it. I arrived in Britain as a refugee when I was 12 years old, so it never came to the point of choosing between art and tradition because, by the time I would have been faced with such choices, I had already left my hometown and gone in a completely new direction.
I was lucky that, during the war, while I was living and working in Leeds, I had the opportunity of repeatedly visiting a great art gallery on the outskirts of the town, which exists to this day, called Temple Newsam. It was there that I first came across what in Germany, at that time, was called entartete kunst (degenerate art). As a child, before leaving Germany, there was no chance of me seeing such things, unless I had gone to Munich for the ‘Entartete Kunst’ exhibition (1937), which would have been impossible. It was a great culture shock to be exposed suddenly to art forms that, on the other side of the continent, were forbidden territory.
In Leeds, I studied woodwork at a technical college set up by the Organisation for Rehabilitation through Training and Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (Children’s Aid Society), important Jewish organizations intended to prepare Jews to go to what was then Palestine. When the technical college closed, owing to a shortage of materials due to the war and people having to go to fight, I went to work in a furniture factory. Each worker had certain duties, including fire watching. Every so often, I would have to go to the roof of the factory and spend the night there in a sleeping bag. Then, on weekends, I would go to Temple Newsam, where I could see the paintings of John Piper and Graham Sutherland. Seeing an exhibition, in 1941, of Sutherland’s latest works, depicting bombing and shelters, had a tremendous impact. Here was this reality, presented like a stage with firebombs going off – death and destruction. We were so lucky: the factory was never bombed and I never suffered any injuries throughout the war.
'It was a great shock to be exposed to art forms that, in Germany, would have been forbidden territory for me.'
My involvement in politics started in that factory. A young man worked there – a truly fanatical left-winger, a communist – who took me under his wing and introduced me to his ideas. He must have felt I was good fodder for the left wing – and I was. He was leaning towards Trotskyism and he influenced me to go towards that rather than Stalinism.
It was a heady time and I would go to Leeds Central Library to read about left-wing politics. Then I came across an author who is completely unknown today but who shaped my life and the way I work: Dr. Edmond Szekely. Every book that was available by Szekely I would borrow and read. There were several and they were big books. He was an idealist and my recent exhibition ‘We Must Become Idealists or Die’, at Museo Jumex, was a reflection on my time in that library. Szekely’s writing and lectures put me in sync with so much: with the idea of nature cures, looking after nature and animal welfare.
Then, the story continues rather nicely: in 1944, I went to live in a left-wing commune near Bristol for six months and, afterwards, moved by bicycle – much of my travelling back then was by bicycle – to Champneys nature-cure clinic outside Tring, Hertfordshire. There, I had arranged a job in the garden and the whole place was organic – the gardens, the food, everything. It was a major experience for me to live like that. There is a living chain between this experience and my later environmentalist work, which has become more and more important to me as time goes by and as society becomes increasingly organic. This turn to the organic has been as revolutionary as any in the history of humanity.
It was while I was living at Champney’s that I did my first carvings. I was given a little chalet in the grounds and I set up a studio there. They were quite small stone carvings, strongly influenced by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. I eventually had to leave these behind as they couldn’t be moved. I very much admired Moore’s art and decided to contact him in the form of a letter. He wrote back: ‘If you come at such a time to the National Gallery, we can have a conversation.’ I went to London – not by bicycle this time, but by train – for the appointment. Moore was very kind. He very firmly said: ‘You should join an art school and spend some time life drawing,’ which is what I did. I unfortunately never saw him again but certainly this experience was decisive. I realized I wanted to become a sculptor and that’s what I did.
Soon after, I encountered Eduardo Paolozzi on the steps of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. He was coming down the steps, looking curiously at me, and he asked very directly what I was doing there. I told him that I was thinking of applying to the Ruskin School of Drawing. He said: ‘Oh, don’t do that: it’s not good.’ I just thought: that’s it then; he would know. I got the feeling that it was rather conservative, so I cycled on and enrolled at Cambridge School of Art. I went to lots of art schools and, of course, they’re all important but, throughout, Moore’s statement on life drawing remained key. I spent my time doing just that and making small compositions until, in 1959, I made the move towards auto-destructive art.
David Bomberg was the biggest influence on me. I had gone to study painting with him at Borough Polytechnic in the late 1940s. I would describe Bomberg as a great figure because he was more than an artist. At one point, he dominated his students but, at the same moment, he opened up opportunities for them to go deeper than they would have done without him.
After I completed my studies in the early 1950s, I left London and moved to Kings Lynn for five years, at the time when Alison and Peter Smithson were building their first big commission: a school in nearby Hunstanton. I visited that building at repeated intervals because it was extremely fascinating. Then came the ‘This Is Tomorrow’ exhibition (1956) at the Whitechapel Gallery in London and for me it was an eye-opener. I collected all of the posters from it and, within a few years, it led to my first manifesto on auto-destructive art with its emphasis on materials. All that stuff is about materials, even if they disappear after a few hours.
I started using discarded materials with the first public exhibition of auto-destructive art in November 1959, at 14 Monmouth Street, where I presented my ‘Cardboards’ series (1959). When I saw a cardboard box outside what might have been a shop selling television sets (I never found out), I was struck by the beauty of the material. This experience was fundamental: it’s like when you go into the British Museum and there’s one piece that strikes you above all the rest; it was the same for me with the cardboards. These particular boxes were simply beautiful and in perfect condition. This is important; cardboard boxes could easily be knocked about. I wanted the world to recognize how beautiful something can be at little or no cost. That was the first time that my anti-capitalist politics met with my art-making. Beautiful objects are being made all the time but you can have beauty for free provided you understand the potential of the simplest and plainest materials. We don’t have to spend half a million pounds on objects. The commercialization of art, after I became aware of it, became a dominant preoccupation in my life.
'This is central to my work: the use of art to recharge the human being who can tend toward depletion or collapse.'
Of course, my involvement in anti-nuclear activism in the 1950s was important to the formation of auto-destructive art. If we don’t succeed in controlling nuclear destructivity or any mechanically based destruction, we haven’t got much to look forward to. Here we also go back to my early, fervent exposure to the Jewish religion. Judaism urges the protection and stimulation of healthy kinds of growth. If you look at the first manifesto for auto-destructive art, the term ‘auto-creative art’ receives more prominence, so there’s a side of my activity that has to do with growth and opening to the endless in life and art. I am in favour of this protective aspect of the practice of religion.
Science has also played a significant role in the development of my work. After a long period of research into liquid crystals in the mid-1960s, I asked a physicist in Cambridge to help me arrange them for projection. But my interest in science goes further back, to the fountains of my childhood. My projections are light fountains, which constantly rejuvenate themselves. We’re moved by liquid-crystal projections and fountains to go deeper into ourselves; we are stimulated and recharged. This is central to my work: the use of art to recharge the human being who can tend towards depletion or collapse. I have envisioned a project in Mexico where domes would be built across the country and inside there would be liquid crystals projected onto the walls. People would be able to enter them at the end of the working day and feel the benefits. These liquid crystals have become a key effort of mine and whenever I have an exhibition I try to include a display of them.
I think a good term for my relationship with fluxus around that time is interaction rather than influence. My life is unfortunately full of gaps and errors and breaks. Certainly, the climax to this interaction was the Destruction in Art Symposium in London, in 1966, where 100 or so people from around the world came together on the basis of their interest in destruction and disappearance – the most striking figure being Yoko Ono, who had never been to the UK before; she came specifically to take part. So, we interacted and the first time fluxus was shown in London was at an event organized by the Destruction in Art Symposium.
My declaration Years Without Art 1977–80 (1974) was inspired by the realization that art was being absorbed by the capitalist system of overproduction and overcharging. There is currently a display at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London revisiting the exhibition ‘Art into Society/Society into Art’ (1974), where I announced Years Without Art 1977–80: a call for artists not to produce or sell work for three years. Commercialization now dominates the art world, but back then it was just beginning to take off and I felt I had to respond. I also spent six months in the reading room of the Victoria and Albert Museum – a beautiful, quiet spot – producing a large bibliography of articles on art dealers in order to criticize their excesses. Years Without Art 1977–80 was then eventually taken up by people in America who did their own version called ‘Art Strike’ and produced a fascinating journal on the subject.
In the 1980s, I withdrew from art-making, moved to the Netherlands and spent around five years on a study of Johannes Vermeer. I suddenly realized that he was, perhaps, the greatest painter and that he had always been important to me. I was hooked on him and on the Netherlands of his time – the art, the religion, the countryside, the people – which was relatively calm, controlled and, although commercial, within bounds. It offered a counter to the more fevered culture that we are in. Vermeer and the history of that period fascinated and challenged me; I do like a challenge. I thought the best thing was to write a biography as an act of homage. I had almost finished writing it and then, somehow, the manuscript disappeared, or someone took it. It’s very sad.
I was still in the Netherlands and working on my study of Vermeer when I conceived of the ‘Historic Photographs’ series (1994–ongoing), although the first was not made until I returned to London in 1994. I saw the possibility of enlarging photographs as a step forward from this art-historical work. There is a connection, too, to my experience of coming to Britain from Germany. The connection is the Holocaust: the forced removal of people, which, of course, you see now on a daily basis in Europe. The most successful of the photographs, To Crawl Into – Anschluss, Vienna, March 1938 (1996), I placed on the floor. It shows an image of Jews being made to clean the streets and challenges the viewing public to crawl onto the image. Ono and Marina Abramović are influences here. Ono’s Cut Piece (1965) invites participants to cut into her dress and she has to accept it, just as Abramović accepts being knocked about by the public. She offers people the opportunity of hurting her, so that they know that there is a risk. I don’t challenge people to get hurt physically by crawling in – rather psychically hurt – and there’s a risk of damaging the photograph. Challenge and risk are integral to the work. And risks are what life is all about: some of them we are aware of; some of them we evade.
As told to Paul Clinton, assistant editor of frieze and Frieze Masters Magazine.
First published online 19 March 2016.