© Image Samira Röhrich
AN UNGODLY PLACE
On a rainy Berlin day in January 2017, Hans Ulrich Obrist and painter K.H. Hödicke sat down to talk. Hödicke’s exhibition "Ich bin ein Berliner" was just about to open in Paris. Due to this occasion and over several hours, they discussed painting, the time of Germany’s reunification, and the holes that once blanketed the city.
In celebration of Hödicke’s eightieth birthday in 2018, KÖNIG presents a shortened and edited version of their in-depth conversation. The painter’s work was also celebrated by KÖNIG GALERIE with an exhibition entitled Frühe Objekte – Späte Bilder: Selected by René Block.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: You left Berlin in 1965 for New York and later Rome, and returned at the beginning of the 1970s. What was your impression of Berlin when you came back?
K.H. Hödicke: It was as dead as before. In Berlin, there was no market to speak of, no art was sold here at all. You mustn’t forget that this isn’t even a Protestant city; it’s an ungodly place, and back then the only thing that people seemed to be interested in were concerts. And if somebody came on stage wearing nothing but their underpants, then there would be a small article in the newspapers. But visual art, that wasn’t really happening.
HUO: So what did you do, open up another “Selbsthilfegalerie” [self-help gallery] as you did in 1964?
KHH: No, I had the good fortune to be with René Block's gallery, which I was with until it closed down in 1979. I would say René was hands down the best gallerist we ever had. He had only internationally renowned artists, but back then none of them sold anything; commercially, they were complete failures. There was Sigmar Polke, there was KP Brehmer, there was Richter, Beuys; there has never been anything like that before nor has there been since.
HUO: Even in those days there was this mixture in your work, this constant oscillation between portraits of people and portraits of the city. The city always played a role. What stirred your interest in the theme of the city?
KHH: If we had met in my studio on Dessauer Straße, I could have answered, “Look out this window.” I’m trivializing it a bit here, but that’s how it was. I was just looking out the window and told myself, “That’s what I perceive of the city, it’s what I see from here.” But in the seventies change was still slow. In this central area that I once called “Tunguska”, it was a completely empty space; completely destroyed in the war, just a lonely wine shop somewhere on the Western horizon. It was a wasteland. Many of my works from that time have titles like Gobi or Rote Gobi, because I thought, this is a city with a big nothing at its center. That’s something you don’t see every day. I found that fascinating, really fascinating. And then this little bit of East, well, it made a small change, it brought an alligator into the picture, but don’t ask me why, I don’t know ...
HUO: Surreal elements maybe?
KHH: I would rather call it dramatic (laughs). I wanted a crocodile, like in a Punch and Judy show where the crocodile gets a good dressing-down. So, more like a puppet show, not actually surreal.
HUO: How would you describe this time in Berlin? Was it in isolation? You’re there working in the shadow of the Wall, but at the same time you’re living in a cosmopolitan city. I would call this a paradox.
KHH: Yes, sure. There was a time when I was doing an exhibition at Zwirner in Cologne. Politically, things got a bit tense, and when I arrived there on the day of the opening, word got out that the Russians were coming. “Oh, really, you country bumpkins,” I replied. They thought they were at the frontline of things. Well, as someone from West Berlin you considered West Germany as some sort of province; the awareness of the political situation here in Berlin was huge.
HUO: So, there was this awareness of a cosmopolitan city but also a sense of claustrophobia?
KHH: I wouldn’t call it claustrophobia, we liked each other here. It wasn’t claustrophobic at all. Despite the enormity of the place, we covered a lot of ground by foot. Walking from Charlottenburg to the Exil [a bar in neighboring Kreuzberg] could take you a couple days … (laughs).
HUO: Do you sketch while walking through the city?
KHH: I draw at home at a table on A4 sheets of paper, but it’s more like doodling. There are a few drawings that eventually became paintings.
HUO: And when you’re painting, do you paint fast? What does your process look like?
KHH: Very fast. Real fast.
HUO: You complete your pictures on the same day?
KHH: Well, my motto has always been, “You have to finish your painting before it vanishes in the fog.”
HUO: That’s beautiful.
KHH: When you’re painting a picture, you’re creating something no one’s ever seen before. That’s far out, isn’t it?
HUO: A new world. A world creation.
KHH: It explains a certain aversion I have towards conceptual art, where you basically know beforehand what the outcome will be.
HUO: Looking at your catalogues, I can’t help but be intrigued by the big transition your work went through. You were working away in your studio, and then, 1989 happened and there was this big change in world history. Not only because of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but also because of Tiananmen Square in China, and Fukuyama claiming that the end of history had come, but then one realized that history hadn’t stopped, quite the opposite…
KHH: Yes, it was Fukuyama who talked about “the end of history”.
HUO: But to talk of “the end of history” was complete nonsense. 1989 was full of history, the advent of the World Wide Web, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the invention of GPS. And you amidst all this change. In your diary entries dating from 1990, you talk about suddenly finding yourself on the biggest construction site in all of Europe. Could you describe your memories of ’89 a little bit?
KHH: To give you an idea of what it looked like: my studio on Dessauer Straße has this huge front window, and on one side you have this view of Potsdamer Platz. It was once a stretch of wasteland with puddles, and there were thous-ands of pigeons too, but it had its own tranquility. I was personally affected by the events in 1989 as the building my studio is in hadn’t been demolished, just because they said, “If reunification comes, we need a freehand in planning; then we’ll need to rebuild and connect.” Well, after that they said, “Reunification is never going to come.” And then you could buy the building. It was a complete no-man’s-land. When they opened the gates in ’89, people came flooding in. Next thing you know, the first building cranes went up. By the end, there were one hundred cranes in the area! A lot of new things came to light that had been buried before. After that, a lot of people flocked to Berlin, attracted by a different kind of atmosphere.
HUO: And this vacuum at Potsdamer Platz in the middle of a big city, a vacuum that couldn’t exist forever, that one day had to vanish …
KHH: Well, no one really had a clue what to do with this new center. I mean even today it looks awkwardly assembled. You have the Sony Center, then that strange thing there on the canal. There is no style to it. It all came as a surprise to Berlin, and they haven’t really come to grips with it.
HUO: And all that is going into your paintings.
KHH: For sure (laughs).
HUO: And then, quite often, there’s the “night,” something that caught my attention early on, when I looked at your works as a student during the eighties, something that has continued to underscore your work. It’s not just cities during the day, but, like Alex Katz, you’re often depicting urban life at night.
KHH: Yes, yes. For example, the fireworks over Alexanderplatz at night. We Berliners have always been “nocturnal creatures,” who never leave their homes before eleven at night. So, you went to Zwiebelfisch at eleven, and at five in the morning when that other type of creature went to work, you quietly made your way home. Ironically, people in Berlin were dirt poor, and yet they always had money for beer. And they had time. And there were great pubs, real centers of culture. Not all of them, not many, but a few. Good old Baselitz once wisecracked that all people thought about in Berlin was booze. Well, that wasn’t true at all, we worked like hell.
HUO: One question I always ask is the question of unrealized projects. We’ve heard a lot about unrealized architectural projects, but we know very little about unrealized art projects. That’s why I try to document and archive them. Considering your long, impressive, and extensive oeuvre, do you have an idea of how many paintings there really are? I tried to figure it out, there must be thousands.
KHH: Yes, I would agree, it must be around a thousand.
HUO: Well, in this incredibly comprehensive work of countless sculptures, films, drawings, and texts – you’re also writing – are there any unrealized projects? Things you haven’t yet painted? That were too big? Any dreams?
KHH: I always wanted to go to Greenland (laughs). But I never got around to doing it.
HUO: Well, that shouldn’t be too big of a problem.
KHH: Yes, I know, but I’m too lazy.
HUO: But is there unrealized work? Or major projects? Installations?
KHH: Well, there’s one or two pictures, where I really can’t help but think, “I really should have painted one of these.”