GR: Yes, I think so.
RS: And how did you, Palermo and Polke deal with the situation when Beuys was such an overwhelming personality?
GR: Polke had a good strategy. He made his jokes. And he is still doing this. For Palermo, though, it was not so easy, because he was a bit weak; he couldn't defend himself. Beuys sometimes had an easy game with him. He would say, "Palermo, come here!" And this made me very furious. But then Palermo had his beautiful belief in painting. It was a paradise for him, the only ideal world.
RS: Did you have that in common with him? Did you see painting as an ideal world?
GR: Yes, but I see it more practically, not in such contrast with the rest of life. He had such a wild life, with drugs and so on, and so the paintings were a big contrast. It's not so with me, it's more seamless. I am proper and the paintings are proper. [Laughter] The floor is clean and the painting is clean, you know. Back then, we wanted to make art a kind of quiet protest. Because only modern art had the power. Gilbert and George had done something classical, or neo-classical, and Palermo and I wanted to introduce a kind of seriousness. That's also when the friendship with Polke broke up.
RS: Because of a particular incident?
GR: No, in general. Funny, I saw him last month in Baden-Baden. It was many, many years since the last time we saw each other. He said hello, and we talked about painting.
RS: What happened between you and Polke?
GR: We were very close and had the same ideas; we worked together and showed together and so on. And then we drifted apart.
RS: Why did you drift apart? Was it just that you each had your own direction or was there a real disagreement?
GR: Oh, no, it was not a disagreement. Just life. He took drugs, and I did not. That's all. And if you take drugs, then you have these strange friends around you. He continued to be wild and cynical and ‑.‑.‑.‑happy. [Laughter]
RS: And you wanted to make something that was the opposite of that? Something more‑.‑.‑.‑
RS: Do you see yourself as a modernist?
RS: Did you ever see yourself as a modernist?
GR: No, never. I mean, I am here, today, yes. But I never had the feeling that I was a modern artist.
RS: Do you see yourself in opposition to modern art in some ways-or modernism, I should say, not modern art. Do you feel yourself in some ways challenged?
GR: That's difficult, because the good modern artists, like Carl Andre, Bob Ryman, I like very much. But modern art has always only shown itself to me in trends and blowhards, so I couldn't be a modern artist. [Laughter] There were always powerful movements or groups that today we don't even know anymore.
RS: One fascinating aspect of your work is the difference between the delicacy of some of the pictures-the blurred figures, still lifes and landscapes-and the abstract paintings, which are incredibly tactile, and everything happens on the surface. What accounts for that change, technically? How do you read the painting?
GR: That's a very difficult question, but they are really different, the figurative and the abstract.
RS: How is your attitude toward the activity of painting different in each case?
GR: I never tried to answer this question, because it is hard for me.
RS: You mentioned that a certain abstract painting actually started out as a picture of the Cologne Cathedral, and now there is only a little bit of this image visible underneath. If you did not know to look for it, you wouldn't see it. What happened between the initial image and the ultimate abstraction?
GR: There the method of making an abstract painting is misused to cover up a bad painting. It's not as terrible as it sounds, because, as in life, one makes a virtue out of a shortcoming. But they are really two completely separate methods.
RS: In The Daily Practice of Painting, the book of your writings and interviews, you talk about-I presume this is more about the abstract paintings than the figurative paintings-how each step of the painting is to cancel out a cliché, an obvious thing.
GR: Right, that's how I described it.
RS: How much do you know about an abstract painting when you begin it? Initially what kind of choices do you make about a color or about the scale of a painting?
GR: I have to have a mental picture, an image, to start. I never reach this image, but it's good to begin with it.
RS: And do you actually get to that image and destroy it, or, once you've started, do you abandon it and just go in whatever direction the painting takes you?
GR: I can't always reach the image in my mind-almost never, in fact-so that the abstract image I create is not quite there, but it gets to the point where I can leave it.
RS: Is there any difference in this respect between your abstract and your figurative work, insofar as you have the technical control to push toward a very deliberate result in the figurative work if you chose to?
GR: In order to complete a picture and say, "This is finished, this is good," it's the same, it's always the same criterion, in both the abstract and figurative paintings.
RS: And what are those criteria? Can you describe them?
GR: It has to do with the surface of both, which at the end becomes erased, or more erased. Before that, they were richer, full of things. Uglier, but more precise maybe.
RS: Well, that certainly seems true of the more recent paintings, which have gone from having very, very rich, detailed surfaces to . . .
RS: It is almost as if, when the picture gets to a certain point, you cancel it.
RS: Are you suspicious of virtuosity?
GR: Yes, very. People always say that I am very virtuoso and that my pictures are, but I don't think I am. I am not!
RS: In what way do you mean you are not?
GR: I am not able to make a sketch from you here, just so, and that's fine. I don't have the facility to do it.
RS: But you can make paint do a great many things.
GR: Yes, it's easy with a photograph.
RS: But you say you are suspicious of virtuosity. How important is it to make things hard for yourself to make a picture? Is it essential to make the process difficult in some way?
GR: No. Ability is a given, that's not what I'm suspicious of. I hate it when people cannot do what they want to do. It goes without saying that you have to have mastery over your medium. I don't mean God-given talent but the skill that's acquired through hard work.
RS: Are you saying that people who set out to be painters should develop the necessary skills, and that you don't have an interest in work which tries to make clumsiness a virtue?
GR: Clumsiness is not a sign of quality for me.
RS: Are you then suspicious of artists who stylize clumsiness, who consider awkwardness proof of their sincerity? Would you rather artists be both skilled at what they do and make their skill work for them in very disciplined ways, even make it harder for themselves?
GR: Why should you make it even harder?
RS: Well, you do, don't you, in certain ways?
GR: I have no choice. It just becomes difficult. I would prefer it to be easy. Wouldn't we all?
RS: What is the hardest thing about making a picture?
GR: The tough part is always at the end. The beginning is always easy. So maybe you are right about making it even harder.
RS: But where does the difficulty lie? Does the difficulty lie primarily in what the hand does or in the conception?
GR: In the conception. To see what's wrong, this is so difficult. To make it right is easy, but to see what to make and what not to make is harder.
RS: What not to make is important. But when you say that, is it because you have a very clear idea where a painting should end up, or because you have a very clear idea of where a painting should not end up?
GR: I don't have a clear idea of either. I have a vague idea.
RS: In making, for example, a figurative painting, how much do you know when you begin about how the painting is going to appear? You do have a photographic image as a reference, and you have a technique that's very much under your control. How much do you know about how the painting is actually going to look?
GR: With figurative paintings, I know a lot. I have quite a clear concept of how it should look, but very seldom does it actually work, or come to this image. For example, I always wish to make a very detailed painting, and I am almost never able to do it.
RS: Where the details would read clear and sure?