Mati Klarwein - An Interview

INTERVIEWER: Which one of your paintings do you consider to be the best?

ABDUL MATI KLARWEIN: The one I'm working on now.

INT: Good!  I'm glad you're still making spiritual progress!  My second question is: What are you trying to say?  What is the message behind all this imagery?

AMK: What you see is what you get.  Nothing less, nothing more.

INT: Please elaborate - I want an answer, not a motto.

AMK: [Sings]: "I don't want a pickle, I just want to ride my motto-sickle"  ...Well... Some visual artworks are made to be talked about more than to be seen, others are made to be seen more than to be talked about.  I think I belong in the latter category.

INT: In which school do the critics, the dealers, and the collectors think you belong?

AMK: That depends.  During the abstract expressionist epidemic of the fifties, I was dismissed as a latent surrealist illustrator.  In the sixties, when the pop art revolution swept the globe with its tidal waves of whimsical garbage, I was scorned as a psychedelic artist - especially when seen in the company of Tim Leary - too close to LSD for the straight culture-vultures of Madison Avenue.  In the seventies, when conceptualism was the magic word (what else is there, anyway?) and a work of art was called a "piece", I was haughtily snubbed as an old-fashioned easel painter from Montmartre.

It's only in the eighties, now that conservative senility has entrenched itself in the marrow of Western culture, and good old-fashioned easel painting is being resuscitated as high-funk nostalgia, that the art-mart world is beginning to treat me with a little respect for the first time.  I have a very nice, and respectable, European art dealer who peddles my images according to the rules of the game...

INT: It's hard to believe you've never had one before.

AMK: Oh, sure I had!  But they were all pseudomystic eccentrics or just plain spaced-out marginals.  (Some became very close friends!)  I was always my own best rep.  Although, sometimes I'd be seized by terrible doubts, believing that I was just a bad painter who didn't really deserve to be immortalized.  I remember a critic shouting at a Soho gallery owner, while pointing at me, "You are going to give him a show?  But he is the worst painter in the world."  "Thanks for the compliment", I replied.  "The worst is the best because it's the best of the worst!"  Let's face it, beauty has always been in the eye of the beholder... of checks.

INT: Yeah, but not quality.  It is incredible that you don't have a piece hanging in a museum.

AMK: Oh, I've had one-man and group shows in museums, but I'm not in their permanent connections. [Starts to cry]

INT: Come, come now!  Braque didn't have a painting acquired by a museum until he was sixty.

AMK: [Stops sobbing]: Really?

INT: Yes, so you see there's still hope.  Now tell me, what museums have you been shown in?

AMK: Group shows at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris in the early sixties.  Then in 1971, at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, I showed my Aleph Sanctuary - a portable cubic temple encrusted with seventy painted panels.  A bit like a Byzantine chapel, it took me about ten years to complete.  It created a big scandal.  The front panel is a takeoff on the crucifixion, complete with hundreds of black males copulating with white, red-haired females.

INT: What was that all about?

AMK: Oh, just to create a color pattern, you know...

INT: Hmmm...

AMK: Anyway, the museum trustees tried to prevent the opening of the exhibit.  The D.A. appeared and, after a good freak-out, placed a museum guard at the entrance of my cubicle to prevent "children" under the age of eighteen from entering.  You know, there aren't many tribes left in this world that encourage sexual awareness in children.  They all got wiped out by more aggressive tribes that didn't.

My show was a big success and was held over for another month!  Oh, and two years ago, Sandra Hochman gave me a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

INT: Really?

AMK: Yeah, it lasted one day - I showed five paintings in the junior museum at a children's poetry festival.  It was very funny I just walked in with five paintings under my arm, asked the guards for some wire and nails, and hung the paintings up myself.  Nobody said anything.  Anyone can do that.  The problem is walking out again with the paintings under your arm. [Laughs] What a scene that was!

INT: Yes, well... let's not lose ourselves in an endless labyrinth of gossip.  Can you elaborate on the theory of visual art, created to be seen as opposed to visual art that is conceived to be talked about?

AMK: Well, if Andy Warhol makes an eight-hour movie of the Empire State Building sleeping, you don't have to see it to visualize it.  One is not impressed so much by the conceptual and visual impact but more by the gesture of bothering to realize it.  "If a fool persists in his folly, he becomes a genius..." sort of thing.  The same goes for a Duchamp ready-made, a Meret Oppenheim fur-lined teacup, or a Yves Klein blue monochrome painting.  You could even describe the visual idea within a Magritte in a few words.  But you could never describe the experience of a Picasso, a Cezanne, or a Vermeer without a plethora of subjective metaphors.  That is true "painting to be seen."  I like to paint images that are forever receding from so-called objective discourse,

INT: In other words, you don't espouse any rational causes, philosophies of life, or theories of art?

AMK: I do!  I'm a pataphysician.

INT: A what?

AMK: A pataphysician.  In the words of Roger Shattuck, "Seeing all things equally, accepting and/or rejecting all values; aesthetic, moral and otherwise.  Seeing every event which arises as having an infinite number of causes, thereby considering all imaginary solutions valid and/or invalid.  Pataphysics goes beyond metaphysics because it considers every event as exceptional and governed by particular laws that escape vast generalities."  In other words, pataphysics begins and ends with its name.

INT: Sounds a little too cozy for my taste.  I hope pataphysics will never grow into a political movement!

AMK: It can't.  It self-destructs every night...  like me.

INT: So, if I understand correctly, you are amoral, apolitical, and atheistic - a marginal, an outsider, an outlaw?

AMK: Yes and/or no.  My life is my art and my experiences, strained through time, depositing their fine multicolored dust upon my canvas.  The ambiguity of intent in my work is the reflection of the ambiguous diversity of my awareness.

It's as if I were hanging from a branch of the 'big tree', and I ponder: Am I the leaf or am I the tree?  Am I the leaf aware of itself through the tree?  Or am I the tree aware of itself through the leaf?  Or am I all three: the leaf, the tree, and the dream?  Sometimes I end up feeling like a helpless leaf after all, wondering if I should accept my insignificant fate and console myself by becoming a groupie of the one, the only almighty, and forever dancing electron.  I already hear him whispering into my inner ear: "Give yourself to me, surrender! Nothing is gained through individual originality and effort.  I am the gate.  You must pin your conscious self up where it belongs - on the white wall of eternal light.  Accept your role of a mortal leaf and order your mind to identify your consciousness with the one and only me!"  But, as soon as I try to obey the electron's orders and start meditating upon identifying with my tree, the west side of my brain awakens with a jolt and instantly rebels:  "Wait a minute!  Hold it, everybody!  If I am the leaf that is being used by the tree as an instrument for its own awareness, then I am nothing but a dumb slave!  Why not take advantage of the situation and liberate myself, declaring that the tree cannot become aware without me."

My humble east brain listens piously and slowly shakes its head:  "What pretentiousness!  The ultimate nature of the universe is light.  From light we come and to light we go."  [Opens his eyes and looks about him] Hello?

INT: And you consider yourself to be a modern artist?

AMK: Jorge Luis Borges, the Magritte of literature, once said, "Of all the obligations that an author can impose upon himself the most common and doubtlessly most harmful is that of being modern."  I don't care about pre- or post-modernisms.  I'm not interested in events situated within a chronological framework.  For me, everything is new - a prehistoric cave painting or a cheapo velvet carpet in a five-and-ten on Fourteenth Street.  I ignore the lopsided flow of art history.  Pick your time and you're an artist, follow someone else's and you're a schmuck...

INT: It still isn't clear to me.  Do you believe in free will or don't you?

AMK: Being a mischievous person by nature, I choose to believe in it, yes.  We have to believe that we have a choice.  Not to choose is the worst choice of all... unless your choice is not to choose.

INT: Yes, herr Doctor Parmenides, absolutely true.  Therefore, it's time to choose another subject.  In more recent years you seem to have gradually deemphasized the symbolic content of your imagery, expressing yourself more formally through technique rather than subject matter.  Do you see this in your work?

AMK: Yes, I want to achieve a balanced tension between form and content, reaching all energy centers simultaneously - the physical, the emotional, and the mental (that old ménage à trois again).  To arouse physically with narrative content to launch emotional responses with mood and color, to jolt the mind out of its complacency, I use a super reactionary style to infiltrate the mind, surreptitiously placing a time bomb ot ambiguous content.  As Parmenides would have said, if he had been a painter:  "All painters are liars!"

INT: But all paintings are truths.  It seems to me that you are dangerously close to nihilism, to negation of common sense, of not really knowing or caring where you stand.

AMK: Ah! But to not know where we are might be the best place to be.  No, seriously, I do care.

INT: Sure, sure.  So what is the thing you care most about in life?

AMK: To be able to answer the above question!

INT: You are deliberately making me go around in circles.  I find your humor a bit infantile.

AMK: God is young, you know,

INT: And how do you know that?

AMK: I feel it!

INT: Jeez save us.  Tell me, why are you living in New York if your dealers are European?

AMK: New York has been the fountainhead of the arts for the last quarter century.  It's the great cosmopolitan monastery.  The big think tank for global software.  It's electric, fast, open, and delivers itself into your backyard.  But I don't live only in New York.  I live everywhere I go.  I'm a post-agricultural nomad.  The world is my apartment and its many cultures my furniture...

INT: A bit of a pompous braggart aren't you?

AMK: Exuberance, my friend, sheer exuberance.

INT: So you consider yourself above politics.  You'd let Hitler, the Ayatollah, Papa Doc, or Stalin conquer the world?

AMK: No, but I don't find preaching/ideology or going about waving flags and screaming slogans very interesting. Violence (and that includes screaming) starts where imagination leaves off.  It's a form of senility.  You don't really expect me to adhere to any of our ideological camps after what I've been through... escaping Nazi Germany to Palestine in 1934 with my parents; growing up in the Holy City of Jerusalem with Jews and Arabs clobbering one another under the approving eyes of the colonizing Anglican church; shaking in my boots when Rommel and his troops arrived in El Alamein; crying with rage when the British barred the Holocaust refugees from entering the "Promised Land"; watching the crowded ships ram against the stormy beaches at night; hiding the cold, wet, frightened survivors in our homes before the Coast Guard of the "free world" arrived; and then observing the new immigrants treat the local Canaanites and Philistines (remember that term?) with that all-too-familiar disdainful civilized-versus-savage attitude, which always ends in violence.  Then there was the siege of Jerusalem and the incessant shelling of civilian homes... no water, no food; eating sparrows and roadside thistles and wine leaves for dinner (nouvelle cuisine indeed); and listening to the Auschwitz horror stories from my newly emigrated friends.

The only political movement I'd ever join is the one that elects me as world dictator!  And once in office I'd proceed to abolish all frontiers, all political parties and their menopausal monocausal theories, all weaponry from H-bombs to Swiss army knives, all underwear, all private transportation, including drugs (they taste better when forbidden), and all dictators.

INT: Mati, if you are so aware of the world around you, why aren't you painting reality as it is?  A pair of shoes, a parking lot, or a waitress in an all-night cafeteria?  Why always those romantic landscapes, custom-made for anxious escapists?  Isn't real life good enough for you?

AMK: Paint on canvas is the only reality here.  The rest is no one's business but my own.  Arts Magazine recently described my paintings as "extraterrestrial" landscapes.  I doubt if the writer has ever left Manhattan island!

I am a child with a Mediterranean sensibility.  [His eyes glaze over and squint into the distance somewhere between the corner of the ceiling and utopia... his voice slightly atremble with poetic schmaltz.]  The sirens of the turquoise sea are caryatids that lift the high mountains on tanned shoulders, rising like crystallized cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, as the sun scrutinizes their upturned faces.  Bathed in the heat of midday passion, they spread their plaited skirts of red earth in endless arpeggios of carefully overlayered terracing, resplendent with ancient olive and algarroba trees that reek of semen when in springtime's bloom... [Takes a deep breath - continues in a near whisper]  The velvet night breeze, still warm from the sun's good-night kiss, sends me gliding down the stone walls, down the silent asphalt roads that are now rivers of quicksilver; moonbeams oozing toward the dream villages of Lorca and other nightingales.

[Pauses to wipe away a tearlet from the corner of his eye with his painting rag] It sends me searching for the limits of my real estate. But, you know, I don't see the end of it.  I seem to own everything, [Gesticulating wildly] Space! Planets! Motion! Molecules! Waves! Hair! Snails! Tendrils! Candles and Kisses!

INT: [Exasperated, rolls her eyes and hisses]: Jeez...

AMK: [Oblivious]: And as my future spirals down the drain of déjà vu, my present has no choice but...

INT: Yeah, yeah.  I know!  And the past is the poor man's future.

AMK: [Shouting hysterically]: And the future is no one's present!

INT: Calm down, will ya!  Saint Augustine already said, "The universe was created with time and not in time," and Kant added, "Space-time is a construct of the human intellect."  So spare us your stale regurgitations, okay?  Tell me more about your hunting grounds instead.

AMK: I've spent a good third of my life in a little village called Deyá on the northern coast of Majorca in Spain.  Deyá is a community of misfits and artists, founded in the 1920s by Robert Graves.  He is still living there.

Deyá is a timeless and naked singularity.  There you can feel time orbiting around the church's steeple, counterclockwise, in endlessly expanding spirals.  Like Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase to the local beach for a midnight swim of salt and kisses, I can see the afterimages of my past gesticulating in an overlapping succession of familiarity, painting, swimming, walking to the village to go shopping, discussing Wittgenstein at the local bar, getting pissed, playing the congas, tripping over the psychedelics amongst olive trees, and being seduced by my best friends' daughters.

New York and Deyá are the only two places that I never tire of.  There is always an exhilarating feeling of energy in the air.  Both satiate my eyeball's appetite, as they fill the entire area between the upper and lower edges of my inner canvas with a plethora of minute details.  I like my present all laid out in front of me like an Oriental carpet.

INT: Why, are you terrified of the void?

AMK: The void is not terrifying; it's boring.  The void is an old concept, an ideal... so to speak.  I have lots of empty spaces in my canvases.  Space that has not been painted or primed - just raw canvas.  But what is raw canvas if not a densely woven grainlike pattern alive with vibrant energy?

My Deyá reality carpet is a pebble-encrusted sky; a land sparkling with silvery trees astride demonically twisted trunks and branches; mountains studded with sheep, dogs, cars, and deep wells; stone houses with terra-cotta tiles, blue gardens, and green wooden shutters; magenta bougainvillea vines, waterfalls, and slimy reservoirs swarming with frogs and stone terraces stitched with patches of tilled red earth.  Farther down by the coastline, we have fishing nets and boats, figs and goats, palm trees, and shiny tourist buses carefully cruising the winding asphalt curves.  That is Mati-realism - Deyá is real.  Deyá is breakfast.

INT: [Snores]: Z-z-z-z-z

AMK: [Leaning over and slapping her face gently]: Hey, wake up!  Can I make you a cup of coffee?

INT: [With eyes still closed] : No thanks, I just wish you would stop your romantic dribble.  I mean, for someone who's allergic to idealism, you are full of it!

Can't you give me some hard news?  Something I can write home about... technique? process? mediums?

AMK: Well, I wake up in the morning with an idea for a painting.  After a breakfast of scrambled eggs with onions and two cups of Cafe Bustelo, I go down to Canal Street and buy raw canvas and stretchers at Pearl Paint.  Then, back to the loft to stretch the canvas or glue it to a piece of Masonite that I have nailed to the stretcher.  I size the canvas with a layer or two of acrylic gesso.  Sometimes I leave certain areas unprimed, depending on the textural distribution inside the composition.

Once the gesso is dry, I sketch the main composition onto the canvas with charcoal that I go over in Indian ink mixed with water.  When the subject requires precise proportions, like a face or a hand, I draw the image on paper and transfer it to the canvas.  I usually cover the areas allocated for human skin with a thicker and smoother layer of casein tempera, applied with a palette knife, so as to eliminate the goose pimples caused by the canvas' texture.

Once the outlines are completed and the main composition drawn, I cover the entire surface with a translucent glaze of liquin and turpentine mixed with a warm or cool tint, depending on the intended mood of the picture.  My preference goes to a fiery or a sienna-tinted underpainting, which I cover, after it is dry, with cooler oil overtone thus giving the impression of contained inner fire.  After this layer dries, I paint in the highlights with casein tempera white, just like the Flemish painters did five hundred years ago, again glazing the tempera with another layer of translucent oil color.  The tempera white reflects the light and gives the painting a powerful inner luminosity.

Van Eyck, who invented this technique, repeated the process of tempera-oil layers several dozen times, and his paintings not only maintain their original freshness but glow in a dark room!  Later on, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, painters abandoned tempera, preferring the sensuality of oil or even bitumen tar as a medium.  This method turned the paintings into dark yellow or black quagmires that cracked mercilessly all over.  The tempera-oil technique is the longest-lasting, most-luminous way to paint.  These days painters pay even less attention to their craft when applying the paint to the canvas.  Yet the two, I think, go hand in hand.  I find it rather bad manners to paint paintings that crumble shortly after being sold.  Collectors are not usually existentialist saints.

INT: Oh, I thought they bought art because of its spontaneity, rather than its durability?!

AMK: [winks and points his index-finger at her]: Gotcha!

INT: In your earlier paintings one can see that you took great pleasure in describing your landscapes leaf by leaf and stone by stone, piling myriads of detail onto a single canvas.  Recently, however, I've noticed that your brush and palette-knife strokes are getting bolder.  Are you losing your patience with age? [Leers viciously at him]  Life getting shorter?  Time more precious?

AMK: No, au contraire.  Life's getting longer, and there is a ninety-nine percent chance that we shall die together, or separately, you know, therefore, I have all the time in the world!  My ideas are getting clearer and more abstracted.  My final definition of art is to make more out of less... to get two thousand pebbles out of one brush or palette-knife stroke.  That seems to have more merit than painting them one by one, I have evolved from tracing landscapes to creating them, just like Mama Nature herself.

INT: Why do you call yourself Abdul?  Are you a Moslem?

AMK: Hell no!  I'm a born-again pedestrian.  But since I originated more or less from Israel and still care about that place (after all, my father was the architect who designed the Knesset Parliament building in Jerusalem), I think that all Jews should adopt Moslem first names and all Moslems, Jewish first names.  It's no big deal, but it would be a first step toward solving the Palestinian problem.

INT: And your last wish before I shoot you down?

AMK: I wish the world so peaceful that the headlines of its leading daily paper could read: DOG EATS NAPKIN IN SLOW MOTION.

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