Fifteen years ago, the career of German painter Johannes Kahrs (b. 1965) took off toward a later high when museums like Pompidou, Hamburger Bahnhof or MoMa started collecting his work. With growing shows around the globe, the former HdK (Hochschule der Künste) student’s paintings became more and more in high demand, and art from Berlin was very much in vogue. As part of this ‘scene,’ Kahrs and his contemporaries enjoyed the unbridled liberties of a changing city, without the usual economical conventions and ties of the art world. Around the same time, art collector Andy Hall came across Johannes Kahrs’ work at Art Basel Miami Beach. Intrigued by their photographic quality and existential sensibility, Hall began to seek out Kahrs’ work, adding piece after piece to his growing art collection.
Girl with yellow wig, 2005, oil on canvas, 63 x 56,4 cm
Now both worlds will unite at Schloss Derneburg in Lower Saxony, Germany. The Schloss was acquired by Hall and his wife from none other than artist Georg Baselitz, and has become home to the Hall Art Foundation, an important center for contemporary art. With a big solo show of Johannes Kahr’s work opening there in the fall, it seems timely for the artist and collector, who have never met, to have their first conversation.
Andy Hall: About fifteen years ago, we bought the entire German art collection of Georg Baselitz including quite a few paintings by Jörg Immendorff. One of them has a text across the top of it. It reads: “Pose these questions to the artist and insist on answers.” The two questions, in German, were: “Für was, für wen?”—“For what, for whom?” So my question is, why do you paint, and for whom? Is there a specific audience you have in mind?
Kahrs takes a long pause to think.
Johannes Kahrs: That is a tough question. I think I just paint for myself, nowadays. There was a time when everything I made as an artist was sold. And that was rather tricky, almost dangerous. In a way, too much success is not always a good thing. It hinders the artist experimenting. Instead you run the risk of repeating yourself in your art, because you know that something has worked before. So maybe I was subconsciously working for an audience back then; an audience that I knew my work would appeal to.
AH: What changed that?
JK: I was working with Luhring Augustine at the time and that relationship ended. This was a real shock, because—like in any relationship—these endings are hard. It threw me into a crisis. It was hard, but also helpful. Suddenly, I did not care about the outcome anymore and began to try out different things. I thought if it does not work anyway, I might as well have some freedom.
AH: I have always admired artists who reinvent themselves and do not care that galleries and collectors push back because it is no longer the work that they expected. Philip Guston is a great example of that. He abandoned abstract expressionism and turned to cartoonish figuration.
JK: It was fantastic what he did. He could use the vocabulary of the abstract time and realize paintings in a new way.
AH: But his colleagues and close friends thought he had gone mad! At the first show of this figurative work, Guston asked one of his artist friends for his opinion. Apparently the guy just walked away, and they never spoke again. It must be difficult for artists to challenge themselves in that way.
JK: Actually, I once made a big diptych about political violence titled four men with table. I was so furious about the situation in the country that I had to make an artwork about it. So in a way, there was an audience in the back of my head. A protest can not only be in the studio. It must go somewhere.
AH: That is very topical now, with Black Lives Matter here in America and the focus on police brutality. It is so outrageous how endemic it is in the system.
JK: The painting I made is almost like a dance between the person lying on the ground and the policemen beating him up. Everything is in movement.
AH: About twenty years ago I went from being a casual collector to being an obsessive collector. I had always been fascinated by the intersection of painting and photography and your paintings really intrigued me. I began to actively set out to acquire your work, from art fairs to galleries and auctions. Of course, it is nothing new to base a painting on a photograph. Take Francis Bacon for example. He relied a lot on photographs to construct his imagery, even though you do not necessarily see that in his paintings. There is something in your work that reminds me of Bacon.
Therapy (Stich), 2004, Dyptichon, oil on canvas, 55,5 x 84,3 cm; 55,2 x 78 cm
JK: There is a beautiful interview on the BBC with him. He spoke about how he wants to recreate the sensation of reality when he looked at a certain image for the first time. I painted a small diptych named Stich. A wasp had flown into my shirt and stung me on my chest while I was biking. That’s what I had in mind when I painted it. Maybe you cannot paint feelings, but you can try to paint an intensity which comes close to what you remember the sensation to have been.
AH: Compared to Bacon it is not so much about the image in the photograph for you. It is rather about the idea to produce an image of an image. I think that is also true for Gerhard Richter, or Malcom Morley.
JK: Yes, probably. I especially like his late work. I met him once, what a giant gentle man. He once made this painting of a jungle, with some female legs dangling down from the top. I also want to get away from the photograph more and more.
AH: You are saying that your style is becoming more painterly now?
JK: I look for a more direct and simplistic way to paint, so the paint itself can transport the feeling or atmosphere.
AH: The palette you use seems like it has evolved quite strikingly.
JK: I used to use a lot of dark tones, but this somehow evolved and now I want to paint more light. I don´t see the darkness at the moment or can’t paint it. You can make something scary or spooky, but it can be light, complete daylight, white.
Untitled (wasted), 2018, oil on canvas, 49,1 x 33,4 cm
AH: You just used the adjectives scary and spooky. Which is what I often think of when looking at your work. There is something unsettling about the way the image is presented. A deliberate choice?
JK: I am not sure, but it is not deliberate. I think it has to do with the special sense of space, rhythm and color, which every artist has. Take Bacon’s approach to the body and portrait, for example. There is something horrible, but at the same time a warm touch, a certain softness in the brutality. Lucian Freud is much harsher, colder. The paintings seem to me more conventional but the way he looks at his subjects is really brutal. A painting by Georgia O´Keefe on the other hand is distant, she paints beautiful light. My own work is somehow uncanny, distorted; and maybe that is also the reason for my more or less old-fashioned approach to painting. The paintings are realistic, yet there is something you cannot see, and it shines through. Maybe this is a deep-rooted mistrust in reality? People often tell me something like “Wow, this person is really beaten up!” But I just see the colors, those tones of magenta or green or purple. They have this effect, but I do not intend to do that.
AH: We own a small painting by you called Portrait of Julie, from 2006. It is the face of a woman lying on her side. It looks like her face is covered in blood... And there is another one of a woman lying on a bed—it reminds me of a Jenny Saville painting—which is also disturbing. But you say that this is all unintentional.
JK: I have no clue why they are the way they are. Again, I think the atmosphere has to do with the way you see things or react to reality. The Julie image interested me for a long time. I once shot a video, based on a scene in Reservoir Dogs. One guy is dying, and the other guy is complaining that his ear was shot off. So, the one that is dying says: “Fuck you, fuck you. I am fucking dying, shut up!” I used this scene for a short film called Six Seconds of Popular Violence, which is a repetition of the scene in the movie. A few years later I restaged the whole thing in France with a real actress, as a performance in real time. For about an hour she was screaming these six seconds. And in order to make it look the same every time, I would pour this artificial blood over her. It was quite intense. The paint, the screaming… And then I made a painting of that later.
AH: Do you use video as a medium a lot?
JK: I used to for some time, maybe between 1997 and 2004. This one was received well, it was shown at PS1 in New York, made it into the press a lot. But I realized videos do not lead anywhere and so they were utterly unsuccessful in this sense. So I just focused on painting more and more. And this Berlin art scene of the mid-nineties that you described started to somehow disappear. The videos had been part of this experimental time where everyone was exploring all kinds of mediums; film and music, but not so much painting. We lost each other and the spaces where we met, and I became a lot lonelier in the studio. Painting became my retreat. And fishing of course, which I have been doing since my childhood. It’s the opposite of the work, of school and family, of people and the city. You have to find your way around the rivers. You try to read the current and the places a fish might swim. You become aware of the soil, moss, clay, sand, and rocks beside the river. You look constantly into the water, which flows mostly crystal-clear over rocks and gravel and sand. You watch the bank swallows, the way they chatter and dive into swarms of mayflies. You see weasels hunting along the bank, buzzards hovering and crippled birch trees, small flowers ducked to the ground. You hear birds singing through the nights of midsummer.
AH: We have another work in the collection, which was the exception to the other pieces as the image does not seem threatening at all. It is titled Man in the Sun and shows a man in a bathing suit. I bought it from Luhring Augustine. We have a home in Florida, and a lot of the art we have there relates to sun and beaches, which is why I thought that this work was going to be perfect for Florida. And then a year ago, we were traveling somewhere and catching a plane at the airport. And as I am walking through the duty-free store, I see this advertisement for Dolce and Gabbana with the model David Gandy. I see this image of him in a bathing suit and I think: “Hold on, I recognize this!" It seems like it’s the mirror image of your painting.
JK: Wow, that is crazy that you saw that! It was exactly this ad that I used for the painting. the photo shows a man lying in a boat. The image is very strange as it has something of the homoerotic, but in fact there is another side to the ad, showing a woman. I was so fascinated by the suggestiveness of the image and by this huge body. It looks like a steak, like a massive piece of meat—it’s truly a successful advertising ad!
AH: A friend of ours, a renowned art critic, used to come down to Florida every winter. I was showing him and his partner our art collection there. When we walked around—he knew every artist—he said: "This is a very het art collection," meaning it was a very heterosexual collection, with female nudes and things like that. And then he stopped in front of your painting and said: "Except for this one!" Which was funny, as in fact it is this picture of David Gandy, with a woman on the other side whom you don’t see. When you take things out of context, you can just completely redefine them.
Kahrs nods, pondering…
JK: Actually, I also have a question for you. A friend of mine recently looked at my paintings. Taking a deep sigh, he asked: “Why does the world always have to be so dark? In your paintings? Can't you make something different and joyful for once?” Now, when I look at the paintings of mine that you own, there are certainly some that are not so easy. People sometimes want me to make something lighter. But you do not seem to have the same issue. Are you not afraid of the darkness?
AH: I think art should be more than pretty pictures. Certainly, a lot of people buy art to decorate their homes, so maybe they do not want to have a flagellated body on their walls. I collect because I like collecting and because I am a frustrated museum curator. I could never get a job as a curator, but I can be one myself by having my own museum. And I can present exhibitions to the public that I choose. Maybe there is some vanity in that. But it allows me to present what I find stimulating, what I find engaging. So maybe we do collect a little differently from other collectors and are more open to more challenging art. Having said that, one of the most sought-after artists in the world is Francis Bacon. And his paintings are not exactly easy either.
JK: I was just thinking about that. But I do not find his work brutal at all.
JK: No, you must really look at them. If you step away from the figuration and see the colors and their composition, it becomes another thing.
AH: That's why I like Baselitz so much. He was very clever with turning everything upside down. Of course, there is an image there, but he is forcing the viewer to confront it on different terms.
JK: I sometimes fear the viewer. At my openings, I often feel shy and would like to run away. My images are not my images anymore. Suddenly they become brutal and dark and somber and I am afraid of the emotions they somehow seem to create. When I am in the studio everything is fine and the paintings are always good enough. But during the opening I start to worry, I question everything.
AH: It must take tremendous courage to be an artist, because you are exposing everything and putting yourself out there for evaluation.
JK: What is really devastating is to work on something for over a year. And then someone looks at it for five or six seconds and says “Oh, this is nothing.”
AH: But you must think about it differently. You are not painting for these people but for the people who will buy your paintings and will live with them for the rest of their lives. Some people come home and turn on the television, I come home and look at a painting.
JK: That is a good thought. When I was a child, there was a painting by my father on our dining room wall, across from where I would eat. For years, I would sit across from that painting. And I never knew what it was, but it affected me a lot.
AH: A painting by your father?
JK: Yes, he was a painter, photographer and a musician, but finally he headed the tax department in Bremen and was the Senator for finance, specializing primarily in European tax law.
AH: He must have had an enormous influence on you.
JK: The house was always filled with music, art and literature, which was a positive thing as it drew attention away from “family life.”
AH: What artists influenced you when you were young?
JK: I was influenced by the artists from the 80ties, as I was a studend at the academy then. But everything was massive, huge paintings and actually I was looking for something else. Later by Vija Celmins, Luc Tuymans, Richard Prince, Georgia O’ keeffe, Bruce Naumann, watercolors by Otto Dix of wounded soldiers, Velasquez, Goya, Lucien Freud, Larry Clark, the uncanny by Mike Kelley, Monica Bonvicini to name a few. One day I came across a small painting by Luc Tuymans at documenta, and it had quite an impact on me. I realized that you can make small paintings and create a huge effect. It was a little, crooked painting of a gas chamber.
AH: There is a similar enigmatic quality to your work and Tuyman’s, but at the same time it is a very different sensibility. Your work has this darkness.
Untitled (man in the sun), 2010, oil on canvas, 90 x 67,5 cm
JK: I do not find his art very sexy. For me on the other hand, eroticism is an important factor, and I think Luc does not have that.
AH: He is somewhat cerebral.
JK: He is fascinated by power structures.
AH: I feel like his pieces often need a backstory, whereas with yours it isn’t necessary. Like your painting Stich that we talked about. It works well without knowing what happened.
JK: There is something intriguing about this image, it has no head, seems almost decapitated and a bit like Jesus on the cross.
AH: When I bought the painting at Art Basel Miami Beach, I showed it to (American dealer) Tony Shafrazi, who showed Basquiat and represented the estate of Francis Bacon. We both agreed that there is Bacon in these works. I think Tony bought the other work of yours that was available at the fair.
AH: Do you have many artist friends, or are you an island to yourself?
JK: Well, I have so much to do and need a lot of time for myself. There are friends for different times and some of them stay, but many do not. I liked the friendship I had with Eberhard Havekost. He was helpful.
AH: Oh, we have a lot of his work!
JK: Yes, he was a lot more communicative than me, which was great. But we fell apart.
AH: What a shame.
AH: I am imagining the Berlin from twenty years ago. It must have been competitive with all these great painters around.
JK: Only on a subconscious level. There were no galleries, no real museums. We were doing everything ourselves. There was no art market structure, like in Düsseldorf or Cologne at the time. It was a good time to be there. But it was a hustle and I pushed many people away to get what I wanted, then.
AH: You are more humble now?
JK: Much more! I guess that is the good thing when you get older.
AH: I think that happens to us all. Looking back at how I was thirty years ago, I also often think I must have been very obnoxious.
JK: Sometimes it feels more peaceful today and of course a bit more boring. In this sense I keep up with Hölderlin: “Friedlich und heiter ist dann das Alter”—"Old age will be peaceful and serene”.