Clemens Weiss is a great artist who lives in New York, but also travels frequently to his other studio-home in Germany. His work http://www.weissclemens.com/ is very fresh and poignant and he’s been a working artist for quite some time. What inspires him? Check out our cool chat and find out…
MICHAEL: Hello Clemens, Your work is so cool. I love your drawings and especially your paintings and sculptural works. Much of what I see on your website was done many years ago, but it's still fresh and inventive. We'll chat about it in a moment, but first, I must ask ... what are you doing these days? What's going on in your work and your life?
CLEMENS: Hi Michael, I'm just back in New York from a lengthy trip to Europe for some exhibitions, lectures and other art projects.
I’ve always kept a studio also in Germany after I arrived in New York in 1987. It’s filled with the works that I prepared there before moving to New York. Having all those works there helps with my exhibitions in Europe.
Here in New York, I'm preparing another exhibition at the Ronald Feldman Gallery, but also some other projects and getting organized after that long trip abroad.
One of those projects is getting the material together for a new, state of the art website. The current website has not so many newer works from recent years. The reason is that this current website, designed in 2006, has many flash-files and those seem to have gone out of fashion, especially since they are not supported in iPods and iPhones and new works added to the site cannot be seamlessly integrated. So, it is better to just create a new website, and leave the old as a kind of ruin.
MICHAEL: I understand.
CLEMENS: Right now, I'm also working on some sculptural objects, like the chess-set objects and chandeliers that have a additional function besides being part of my art installations. For example, the chess objects can be played, but with some built-in distractions. Drawings have been the most numerous works of mine overall, some are in long-running series since the mid 1970s when I started as an artist, but often they are building up the volume of the transparent objects and installations.
I did choose glass as the main material of almost all of my objects and constructions because the cutting of these glass panels is very much the same act as drawing and the transparent objects appear then also like three-dimensional drawings.
Since my background and interests originally were more in philosophy, science and also technology, I needed a kind of visual language that would allow me to include all kinds of pictures, images and media, objects and literary samples of everything else. The state of the art at the time was piling and fixing things together like the Rauschenberg 'Combines,' but these collages that fix thing permanently together with force were not convincing to me, so I had to think about a different form of collage.
MICHAEL: What inspires your sculptural works? You combine painting and sculptural pieces. And many of the works are translucent blocks and disparate pieces. Are you still doing this type of work?
CLEMENS: In the beginning, when I decided to become an artist instead of a scientist or philosopher, I had the sense that there was something missing in between science, philosophy and art. I thought you can complain about it or try to fill these missing links or voids. Yet something was clear from the beginning; it had to include all the visual languages, and therefore, their media. That means all kinds of drawings, in all kinds of media and scale, from pencil, charcoal to ink. Also, the same then for paintings and sculptures, from the most traditional, old master style paintings and sculptures to every other kind of image and media.
At the core of my work, there is actually a large volume of a kind of blueprint of logical thought that spans around all languages, like mathematics, biology and psychology, to the visual logic of the associations of images and their media. This 'blueprint' consists of volumes of handwritten texts that were also dispersed within objects and installations.
These texts are in German since the German language is not only my native language, but also better-equipped for my articulation of logical thought and articulating information.
MICHAEL: That makes sense.
CLEMENS: The more visual drawings, paintings, sculptures and objects are what followed out of this information or, leads toward them, when encountered from the outside. So, it was also clear that these installations containing all those individual things had to be transparent and built in modules that can be accumulated and interchanged. While over the years there have been constantly new works of all kinds being created, the transparent constructions that I build around them are still the way I present them.
MICHAEL: Clemens, you are one of the few people in the world who live in both the U.S. and Europe. I'm guessing that Europeans regard contemporary are differently than Americans. No? What are the differences?
CLEMENS: As I said, I prepared a body of work in Europe, but I started exhibiting it first in New York. Before that, I didn’t even have a drawing in a group show anywhere. Yet I could live off my art from the beginning. I found and created my own collectors outside of the art world, mostly people who I met during my studies from science and technology.
MICHAEL: Great. That was smart. Why did you come to New York?
CLEMENS: I always felt like a New Yorker, but I happened to be born in Germany, so it made sense to leave the work produced there, and come as a New York artist, but with the advantage of not having to transport the works for exhibitions over from New York.
MICHAEL: But back to the differences between Europeans and Americans in art. What are they?
CLEMENS: There are still real differences between Europe and the United States with regard to how art, also contemporary art and culture as a whole are regarded.
In Europe, often called the old continent, art is around already for a much longer time, compared to the 'younger' United States. Historically in Europe, art played also a major role for the longest time for the upper classes with all kinds of rulers. It was for the purposes of representing power, but it nevertheless shaped the culture as a whole.
By contrast, the United States had nothing of this, for better or worse. So there has been much earlier and longer support from the public for art, and also contemporary art, but also in Europe there is more aggressive vandalism against public art than here in the United States.
Also, in Germany, there are more collectors of contemporary art who are not rich, not buying only fashionable names of artists and their galleries, but following their own intellectual interests when acquiring art. Something that I’m still trying to figure out now after 30 years is that some of my collectors who never got well paying jobs, I actually have to remind them to keep enough money for themselves, while comparable people here in social background, but with high-paying jobs just don't get the idea of maybe changing the posters from their college days for some original piece of art.
MICHAEL: Ain’t that America. We love our old posters. I also wanted to talk about your drawings. They are so lovely and elegant. Very classical. How do you see your drawings? What inspires you to draw?
CLEMENS: I started with very classical, naturalistic drawings, since I thought earlier of becoming a neurosurgeon. I just translated making precise incisions, where you need good eye-hand coordination, into precise lines with ink and other means. That was also a kind of test for some ideas of how 'thought' works. From there, all other kinds of drawing developed, from studies, portraits etc.
But there are two, very long-running ink-drawing series, the so-called 'Endless Series,' that go in a fast-forward mode through all kinds of narratives; the old stories like myths, fables, religious tales, fairy-tales and so on. The first one, starting in 1974 and just in black ink, combines all those narratives and consists probably of at least thousand that are mainly dispersed within objects and installations. There are also drawings of this series that are meant to be shown as individual drawings.
Then in 1984, these series developed into a series where the line is even more fluent, the format of the figures larger, and they are colored. The ink lines of these drawings are often laid down faster than it would take to just describe the various figurines or what else is there. The colors of these drawings are done first, then the lines are drawn over this smooth surface. These ink lines developed out of all those writings, which are done also in ink. Handwriting and drawing are the closest and most individual expression of thought and articulations of thinking.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. The art world has changed a lot since you the mid 1970s. Has it changed for the better or worse? Do you feel more powerful as an artist now or were you more powerful back then?
CLEMENS: The art scene in the 1970s and art market then were quite different from today with the art market for contemporary art just emerging. But artistic ideas and the idea of being innovative, experimental and even avant-garde were much more part of the art scene and not only for the participating artists, their collectors and galleries.
Public funding, at least in Germany, was also much larger and plentiful, compared with today. So, if some of those artists went out into the landscape, away from the art world, people like Walter de Maria or Donald Judd, the world went after them and built a museum structure around them.
So, like always, some artists ended up in a very powerful position with regard to galleries, collectors and even museums, but for most artists, it is the other way around.
MICHAEL: It most certainly is.
CLEMENS: This was all before I entered the art-world. Since I worked kind of incognito, not introducing myself as a artist until I came to New York in 1987, right in time for the big Wall Street crash that put a damper on the art market for awhile, so I followed the art scene in the 1970s and 1980s - also from a distance.
MICHAEL: Wow. That must have sucked.
CLEMENS: Artists, the ones who progressed rapidly and those at later stages, became very successful and therefore also powerful, at least within the art-world, and started usually with just maybe one powerful new work, but that had to be advanced by other players in the art-world.
There are some instruments that today's artist have at their disposal, like the internet and social media, but those can lift you only so far.
Today, what in the past had taken years or a generation to establish in terms of an artistic position, movement or work, has been accelerated mostly due to the fact that contemporary art has become fashionable. That’s also because of the influx of new markets besides the traditional markets of Europe and the United States.
That in itself shouldn’t have been bad, but a lot of these new collectors buy art with their ears, not their eyes. Having been married to a private art-dealer in the secondary or blue chip market, I had a front row seat into that segment of the art-market.
And then there are the tendencies that some of today's power galleries are more like multi-national companies rather than traditional galleries that nurture the career and grow with their artist until both are established. But, as the saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
MICHAEL: Yes, indeed.
CLEMENS: So, in light of all this, one of my larger projects is called “The Complaint of Art” from an old book.
MICHAEL: Uh oh, you’re beginning to sound like me.
CLEMENS: It’s based on a Medieval poem by that name from around the year 1250, a time when the artist, a painter, sculptor or poet was not even considered the creator of his work. That changed about 200 years later with the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael. Before that, it was always the one who paid for a work of art who was considered its creator.
So, in this so-called “Complaint of Art,” art goes to court and sues the benefactor of art on grounds that the benefactor at the time - symbolized as a one of the virtues - has bad taste and buys everything trash that is brought before him or her rather than real art … and art wins the case.
CLEMENS: Interesting to me, I did the original artist book in 1990, in its original Medieval German, modern German and also English and have yet to find an art historian who has ever known or heard about this “Complaint of Art.” I’ve always found it interesting that artists and their work in exhibition opening statements during the “Sunday Talks” get credited with having special power and connection to the world, but from Monday to Friday they’re not taken seriously when it comes to real, everyday decisions and power in society.
MICHAEL: Yes, that certainly sounds familiar to me. Haha. Finally Clemens, you know, this is all well and good, but most people in the world do not buy art and many of them will never visit an art gallery. So what's the point? Art is not curing cancer or ending homelessness. Why should people care about art?
CLEMENS: Why people should care about art can be answered in short. It should be self-evident that a civil society requires all its citizens to take part in its cultural affairs - if not as creators, then as supporters - of the arts. That is, beyond being just mere consumers of mass-produced, pop culture.
But this is not self-evident yet to all, so there are also some supporting arguments. There is a lot of talk about the so-called, “human creative capital” that all of today's societies face, large and small. In many cases, art has actually “cured” individuals when they discovered artistic expression and articulation - even from homelessness to even cancer.
So, art gets slowly recognized as a power to transform everything from individuals to whole neighborhoods. One just has to mention that artists are usually the ones who go into derelict areas and are the initiators for those areas to evolve, first slowly, today often very fast, into the most expensive and exclusive neighborhoods. One just has to mention Soho and Tribeca in New York City or San Moritz historically.
CLEMENS: Now, artists don't create art to make an area an expensive neighborhood, but it is a real side effect and real estate is considered the most valuable commodity of any society.
Artists generate with the least monetary investment and support (considering what all other industries receive in subsidies), the highest overall beneficial return for society, with almost no harmful side-effects, aside from the fact that newer ideas still have the power to rattle and shake the simpler believers out of their comfort. That’s actually also one of the overall benefits to every society, since we all still live in a world where ideas matter and shape the world - with the questions of which ideas will prevail.
If we had a more philosophically-oriented society, art would not have to be the remaining area that society has abandoned, where even outrageous artistic ideas can challenge segments of society that are better to be challenged, usually to their eventual benefit and progress.
There are plenty of historical examples of this. The saying, “being ahead of their times” that applies to all creative types, exemplifies this. So, it comes down to the question - What society do we want to be and to create? Dumbing down or aspiring upward?
And, to come back to the specific question of why people should visit galleries or other exhibitions, or contemporary cultural events of any kind, that is where some of the ideas that shape society are reflected upon and alternative ideas are expressed and articulated.
MICHAEL: Bravo Clemens. I couldn’t agree more. Nice chat. Thanks.
Check out Clemens Weiss at http://www.weissclemens.com/.