GR: Clear and sharp, and as good as Vermeer of Delft. The blurring is always a kind of emergency butchering. [Laughter] It's an emergency move at the end. To make the picture in some way attractive to look at, I blur it.
RS: I see. Something isn't going right in the painting, and the blurring then‑takes care of it.
GR: Yes, but prior to that, the situation is terrible.
RS: The first paintings that had that quality were from the early 1960s. There is a series of portraits of a family from 1965-Boy Baker, Girl Baker, Mr. Baker and Mrs. Baker-with what look like white strokes on top. Is that the first time you canceled a painting?
GR: With the strokes? No, I canceled the painting by blurring. I cut the four heads off. I was trying to restore the painting because it had small cracks in it, and then I got angry and made all these marks.
RS: Was the Table of 1962 the first canceled painting?
RS: And what provoked you in that case to smear the image?
GR: I painted it very realistically, and it looked so stupid. You can't paint like that, that's the problem. You can't quite stand it anymore. Or very seldom. The Reader from 1994 is almost the way I wanted it, but that's a rare example; it is not too imprecise.
RS: No, it is quite clear. And this is actually what you imagined?
GR: Even better, but that's okay. [Laughter]
RS: It's very okay! So in a way the first cases of blurring the image started out, as you say, as emergencies, either a technical emergency-cracking- or a conceptual emergency-"I can't stand to look at something like this." At what point did you realize that this was actually a way of painting?
GR: That came very slowly. In the abstract paintings, there's sometimes this trick. I have to be careful not to do it, but I sometimes cover the painting with white and then everything is beautiful and new and fresh, like snow. All the misery is over, the terror.
RS: The terrifying part of the image itself or .‑.‑.‑
GR: No, the way I did it, my inability to make‑the stupid stuff, which gets worse and worse.
RS: And what makes something stupid in your eyes? The paint itself is innocent, you know.
GR: I need an example of what you mean.
RS: How do you decide whether something is good or bad? I know it's not logical, it's not something you can state easily, but‑.‑.‑.‑
GR: The most important thing, in life and for humanity, is to decide what is good and what is bad. And it's the most difficult. I remember a time when it was out of fashion to judge a painting good. But all my real constructive experiences with people were about good or not good, with Polke, Palermo, Fischer or the sculptor Isa Genzken, who is very strict. "That's ugly, terrible," she'd say. It's very important.
RS: And what's the difference between good and beautiful, bad and ugly?
GR: It always means good and bad. I don't know if it is the same in English, but in German if you say it's a good painting, you already mean it's beautiful; if you say it's a bad painting, you imply also that it's ugly. It almost has moral connotations of good and evil. If we say something is beautiful, then we mean it's good.
RS: And do you believe this?
RS: What if a painting is disturbing? "Ugly" maybe is not the right word, but what if it's upsetting or makes you uneasy?
GR: That can be a good quality, a quality you can use.
RS: I would think that many people looking at The Reader could easily identify the subject and can also respond to the way it is painted. On the other hand, there are paintings where the colors are mixed on the surface and mottled or unclear. Those pictures could be very disturbing to look at.
GR: Even then, it has to be good in some way. There has to be something that fits or resonates.
RS: Put another way, there seems to be in the figurative paintings, especially the recent ones, a degree of gentleness, an invitation to come into the picture. In some of the more recent abstractions, though, there is a level of aggression and a closing off of the picture. Those are very different experiences.
GR: And both have their own criteria, and they have to be good.
RS: Do you agree with that way of reading some of the abstract paintings?
GR: Yes, of course.
RS: In some of them, as you say, the white closes something off. In other cases, covering or removing the paint almost cancels the image, as if you were committing an act of aggression. Is that an accurate way to describe things?
GR: I think so, yes.
RS: How so?
GR: I find that difficult to talk about at the moment.
RS: I understand that Robert Ryman visited your studio at some point. He said to me with some perplexity that it was amazing that you could do anything and everything. My question is how do you decide what to do if you have this ability to make things in so many different ways?
GR: I never had the feeling that I have so many abilities. I did a little landscape, and then something abstract. The day is long, so I never felt that was so special. Except I developed a bad conscience. When I saw Ryman, so thorough, so persistent, painting every day, this made me a bit nervous. I thought maybe I am not a proper painter. I really often worried that there was something missing, that I was lacking something because I was trying so many things, in all directions. I envied other artists and thought they had a quality I was lacking, especially Ryman. That changed a little after I got to know him better; I got to know his problems, and my problems. [Laughter]
RS: And your problems were?
GR: My problems? They are still the same. They haven't changed, but now I can see I have the right to keep on painting.
RS: Typically, artists were encouraged to make a consistent body of work or to make a conscious progression from one idea to the next. What's striking in your work is the apparent freedom you have given yourself to move from one idea to another without worrying about how the paintings will be received. How did you arrive at the sense that this was okay?