Hans Furer in Conversation with Claudia Jolles (Chief editor of the Kunst-bulletins)

Claudia Jolles: A folder full of drawings – how did you select them?
Hans Furer: This folder has two drawings for every year going back to when I was seventeen. At first I only did heads. That one was when I was eighteen (fig. 1), and I was forty-two when I did this one (fig. 2). The drawings are always carefully dated. That’s as important as the signature and the title. It’s exactly the same for the paintings.
This drawing is a memory of New York. The people in the street were chanting: “Pope Paul Two – we love you!” (fig. 3). And here’s another one, it’s called Der Rhein, I drew it when we had moved from Rheinweg to Bruderholz. I still had a stamp with the old address, “Unterer Rheinweg 96, 4057 Basel” (fig. 4) – a souvenir.

Are they preparatory sketches for paintings or drawings in their own right?
No, at most drawings might provide a conceptual backdrop for a painting. A drawing or a painting might serve that purpose, but it’s not essential. I could explain this with reference to a series of six paintings called Kalifornien ( wvz 2011/11–14 and wvz 2012/1–3). In 1987 my wife and I made a trip to California. On each of the six canvases in that series is a painted head. Each head corresponds to an earlier drawing (figs. 5–10). They served as models. The six drawings were made at intervals of five years. This concept means that each painting has a set of constants: the date of the drawing, the trip to California (1987), the making of the series (2011/ 12), and the present, when the viewer is looking at the painting. This also perhaps explains what I mean when I say that time and “experiencing time” are themes of mine.

What do you learn from juxtaposing motifs from different times? Do you see past events in a new light when you review those experiences?
We were born into a generation that more deliberately reflects on its own lifetime than some past generations; we also have the capacity to shape our own lifetime. Many young people nowadays (but not all, by a long chalk!) have prospects and great freedom as far as their options are concerned. Most generations before us never had that. Medicine is so advanced now. In the Middle Ages people were happy just to have reached old age. And when there was plague ... the thing that was uppermost in people’s minds would certainly have been just to survive, somehow or other. These days, you can observe, almost like an outsider, the course your life is taking, and — compared to the past — there are so many more ways that you can influence it. Seeing how a person has changed during the course of a particular timeline — that’s exciting, existential.

How have your heads changed?
They were never actual heads, as such. They are a type. All his life Alexej von Jawlensky mainly painted heads. Yet you can’t say the head, as a motif, is over and done with. Every generation has to work out and develop its own pictorial thinking. In my case Edvard Munch’s existential work had a considerable effect on me. He is an artist who matters to me – as do the German Expressionists. But I’m in a different place now. Take the drawing of the Direktor (fig. 11). We see a stereotypical director with a big head, the arms aren’t important, but the smoke swirling around him is all the more important. In another drawing a hand hovers above the head and the eyelids have turned into hands (fig. 12), which seems to suggest that if you turn eyelids into hands, a hand could equally well grow out of the head, too. Pictures come about through suggestion and association. This drawing (fig. 13) provided the basis for a particular painting, only in the finished work the background was different. The television has a thousand dots – I’ve counted them.

I don’t know either! Pre-digital televisions used a color encoding system called PAL. When I painted that picture I remembered the PAL system. That’s how the thousand dots came about (wvz 1999/14).

The red-and-green looks very Expressionist.
Expressionism used to be an important point of reference for me.

In Jawlensky’s case, one has the feeling he was painting his own head; but in your case I would see you more in the figures than in the heads.
Quite right! The figures are slightly reminiscent of figures by the German painter A.R. Penck, but the intention, and meaning, is completely different. I am that figure, yet at the same time it is also someone else – a third party

What are these abstract red paintings about?
For the last twenty years, I have painted one red picture every six months (B1– B44). It’s cadmium red, always the same make. Like the color of blood. This red goes all the way through from the first picture to the last. The series is intended to continue as long as I live. Although all the paintings may look the same as each other, there are differences. Every person has things and does things that are the basic building blocks of his or her vocabulary. You get up, shower, go to work, and so on. And there are things that are constantly changing, for example where you live, your attitudes, fashions. In a film on Rémy Zaugg the art historian Theodora Vischer says that although his roots are in painting, he is actually a conceptual artist. It’s the exact opposite for me. I’m a painter, with a conceptual approach. Conceptualism is very important to me: since 1980 the canvases I have used have always been the same size. As was the card I used from 1976 to 1979. Even On Kawara has used different formats; mine have always stayed the same, and I do one painting every month. You can take those forty blood paintings down from the stand and each one is slightly different, has a different texture. In the first one, exceptionally, I mixed white into some parts. The others are all painted in just one color. Like a baker making a Pfünderli [a one-pound loaf] – it’s the same as all the others yet different.

A bit like a spiritual exercise ...
. . . and a meditation. A lot of artists do that, Gerhard Richter, for instance, spreading paint with his squeegee. It’s a similar need.

Robert Ryman has also restricted himself to just one format – the square – and to one color, white. He says he loves colors but using them is too complicated for him. And these restrictions turned into one, vast testbed for him, which has produced astonishing variety in his paintings. What was behind your own self-imposed constraints? Is it about emotions, your state of mind when you paint a particular painting?
You’re reading too much into it. These blood paintings take an hour to do, at the most. I’m not concerned with emotions here, more with existential matters. The idea is, every six months – always in May and November – to make a small mark, a sign of life, materializing a point in time. The deviations have individuality. At the same time, it becomes clear how monotonous life can be despite little variations. My other paintings are all very different to each other. They show how multifaceted life can also be. Our room for maneuver as human beings is fundamentally constrained. We can use our five senses to perceive certain things, which produces a certain amount of variety. It’s not the whole truth, but the basic construct “human being” is as it is. Because I’m more interested in “variants” than in uniformity, the eternally recurrent series of “blood paintings” is quantitatively less of a presence in my work than other paintings. I only do two blood paintings per year, compared to around fifteen others.

Are there other series you have developed over time?
Yes, although I used to mainly paint single works. I have in fact always been interested in series. It was in 2003, some time after embarking on the “blood paintings” in 1992, that I particularly started to work in series. When you are developing a series of three to six paintings, the inner pictures start to crowd each other. But there is a difference, often considerable, between the picture in your mind’s eye and the picture you paint in reality. The challenge starts the moment you pick up your brush.

But a lot of decisions are made in advance. The format, the frame– that already establishes certain limits for the motif. Of course there are motifs that develop a life of their own. But in your paintings the viewer never has the feeling that the motif is trying to escape, as we see in paintings by Degas, for instance, whose figures often seem to explode the picture plane or to go beyond it.
That’s not my thing. I’d see myself closer to Ryman, if anything. It’s the limitations of the initial proposition that interest me. In 1986 I did a painting in the format 2 x 1.5 m (wvz 1986/5). I was going through a crisis at the time. Being limited to just one format had made me despondent. So I decided to paint this large composition with dolphins as a form of self-liberation, only to come up against artistic questions that I was only marginally interested in, for instance: How should the paint be applied in order to achieve the intended pictorial effect? As the maker of a work of art you have to take this into account, like Stephan Balkenhol when he is creating a large sculpture and also has to consider how it will look when viewed from below. Decisions come into play that are not my prime concern. I only became fully aware of that when I was painting this picture – a useful experience. Cuno Amiet, when he was over ninety years old, painted a self-portrait composed entirely of tiny green dots: a head, green on green in the landscape. It’s as though the person, Amiet, is vanishing before our very eyes. So how will I paint when I’m sixty, seventy, eighty?

People are often not interested in the simple fact that life is passing by, people are interested in changes, in their opportunities to create something, in the workings of their own awareness. What role do your paintings play in this, for instance in your series of “postcard paintings”?
You mean Beschleunigung [“Acceleration”]? In the first painting there are postcards from six years, in the second from eight years, from ten in the third, and eleven in the fourth. When you’re twenty years old you can’t imagine time accelerating, you just don’t feel it. That only comes with age. That’s when you become aware of this phenomenon (wvz 2012/4–8).

How should we read the sense of time in this painting with the man on a boat?
He’s standing on a yacht – it’s the last painting in the series. He’s on the point of sailing out of the picture, into another world . . . actually it’s a picture of dying. There are also playful elements, for instance when life (metaphorically speaking) forces you to do a handstand. That takes a particular ability and effort. The painting with the numerous heads on top of each other is more about social issues. Letters and cards have a social dimension. And here, by contrast, you just see feet. There’s a certain symbolism in the fact that you never see the whole person.

And these drippings (wvz 2012/6)?
I wanted to paint a carpet, but then I stopped. The question is, when do you stop painting? Usually you paint too much.

How long did you work on these paintings?
One day. But when I take my place at the start of the Grand Prix of Bern [a tenmile fun run], I am fully prepared for the event. I am ready, I’ve trained for it, and my adrenalin levels are up. And it’s the same here: I don’t listen to the radio, I don’t have a coffee machine in the studio, and I’m even happy to work in total silence.

Unrolling Time Your first oil painting on canvas, from 1980, was Einsamer Mensch in einer Parkanlage.
Yes, that painting is very different to what I am doing now. Even so, to me painting doesn’t feel like a development, more like a process of unrolling a timecarpet. In 1980 I wouldn’t have been able to paint a picture like this one (wvz 2012/8). My themes were different, my circumstances, perceptions, and my state of mind were all different . . . And yet, when you are engaged in an artistic activity you have to reflect more deeply than you might otherwise do in ordinary life. You can’t just express yourself and assume that you are being creative. You have to have a goal. And you are guided by your artistic role-models. Some artists go to the Louvre and copy Old Masters, others engage with art theory. These days art history has become much more of an advanced study, particularly with respect to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The forms and manifestations of art have grown exponentially. Yet the process of developing your own pictorial language – whatever the medium – only ever takes place in your own mind; it’s very demanding, sometimes even painful, because it’s always possible to lose your way. In order to understand my own development, at the age of seventeen I started dating everything (just the year at first, then, after a time, day, month, and year) and resolved to throw nothing away – even if they were “bad” pictures. It was an instinctive decision.

When you use cards or snippets of paper, they’re usually tied into a painterly ambience. Ilya Kabakov’s collages with postcards or little scraps are anonymous and intimate, reflecting the dialogue between a lonely man and a fly on the wall or a nail in the floor. Each object tells its own story. In your case order matters, yet your compositions also always have a certain buoyancy. The man on the wave has ten cards, but you don’t have the feeling he is oppressed or depressed by them, because there’s only one card per year (wvz 2012/8).
It’s true that these are leftover scraps, not dissimilar to Kabakov’s work, but these are my own personal scraps. I don’t engage in a dialogue with a dead fly, but with my own scraps. This in turn induces an awareness of the burden of material possessions, and the fact that you are the only one who is interested in the dialogue with these leftover bits and pieces; sooner or later everything will be thrown into a skip. And all the traces of what once was disappear. That casts the meaning of human life in a rather different light; it’s humbling. Karl Popper once said that in art – and this is why I paint – there is only one experience that you can pass on, and that is your own, entirely personal experience.

Why do you paint frames for your pictures?
I am not part of the picture. By giving it a frame, I distance myself from it, I signal that it is a picture within a picture, on an artificial support. That gives it a different reality.

It reminds me of Alberto Giacometti and the way that he often used to paint a frame in his pictures in order to locate the subject matter. Looking at some of your paintings, I’ve sometimes wondered what it would be like if they didn’t have frames.
I have done some paintings that go right to the edge of the canvas. They just seemed dreadful to me – although I couldn’t say why. I need a threshold, a little step for me to make my way into the painting; that’s what the white edge is there for. Otherwise I feel that everything is just too close. At some point I set out to discover how wide the frame in the painting has to be, and gradually came to the conclusion that ten centimeters is right. But that took years of guesswork – puzzling it out!

There are artists who are endlessly struggling with the formats of their paintings. Christine Streuli’s paintings, for instance, spill out across the frame onto the wall; the picture plane is constantly expanding.
I would only be interested in existential terms in the question “where does the picture end, where is the divide between imagination and reality?” What do these expansive compositions mean, metaphorically speaking, for real life? What possibilities are there for connecting imagination – the painting – and the real world – all that is outwith the painting? You can address these issues in all sorts of ways, as you can see from Christine Streuli’s work.

As an editor, I’m often struggling with formats. It often seems to me that a topic could have done with more room. You can’t express every thought in the same length of text. There are ideas that require a particular format. Has that never been an issue for you?
On Kawara, who has been making his Date Paintings ever since 1966, maybe asks himself that very question from time to time. His answer: all his paintings are the same (they have a date) yet different (the actual date, the format, and the color). That somewhat approximates to how I see life. In 1980, when I started using my 1 x 1 meter format, that was the outcome of a conscious decision. If you are constantly tussling with questions of form, you lose sight of your prime concern. My prime concern is existentiality.

Could you explain that, perhaps in the context of this painting?
I once painted a picture of the Twin Towers in New York from a photograph I had taken myself (wvz 2 004/11). I p ut a p icture of the site of Delphi next to it, taken in 1978. Delphi has disappeared. Tragically, the Twin Towers have also gone. These two picture call to mind thoughts of transience. Everything disappears, even the work of Hans Holbein will be destroyed at some point. Yet I could never paint a picture of an aircraft smashing into one of the Towers. I only witnessed that second hand, on television. I need to experience things myself.

This painting of Indonesia?
My wife and I went to Indonesia for our honeymoon in 1985. During the flight I photographed the jet propellers through the window. To the left and the right the painting has a ten-centimeter border, but it is different above and below. That’s because I was painting from a slide and working with a slide projector for the first time. It was quite demanding, painting an image projected onto a canvas, because you can’t paint the slide. If you try to copy the colors on the slide, you have no idea what these will look like when you turn off the projector. I wonder how Franz Gertsch paints. It’s impossible to be fully in control of the color values, because the color may match what you see in the slide, but only as long as it is lit. At some point you have to turn the projector off and finish the painting using “visual flight rules.” Initially my intention was to extend the picture to 80 x 80 cm by means of a single color (blue, perhaps), but then I decided, no, it has to stay the way it is. These are crucial artistic decisions that can only be made as the work is under way, never in advance.

It looks less fictitious than the square paintings, it immediately calls to mind thoughts of landscapes.
That’s where the conservative thinking we used to be taught at school comes right out: portrait is vertical format, landscape is horizontal format.

That is the way we see things.
And that’s why the format 80 x 80 cm is particularly demanding. It is at odds with our usual patterns of perception.

How does the Indonesia series make you feel, what is its added value?
It was a technical challenge, painting something from a slide. At the same time, the painting is a bridge between that trip in 1985 and how things are now. Time is one of the important factors here. It’s hard to “feel” time. In the end, it’s about knowledge and intuition! “Added value” is not the right term, existentiality is a value in its own right.

There are many recurrent motifs in your work: fish, figures – some can quite readily be interpreted, others less so. For example, what does the fish mean (wvz 1987/8)?
People often say, I never eat meat, but I do eat fish. But a fish is a living creature, too, and it is also a symbol of a living creature.

And it has a simple shape, like a snail shell, which is easy to draw and immediately recognizable (e.g. wvz 1990/5).
I like painting fish and snails, like a child. I started making drawings – of all sorts of things, including snails – when I was just three or four years old. Y

ou mentioned On Kawara a moment ago. World affairs play a part in his work in the shape of the newspaper pages that he uses to line the custom-made boxes his works are stored in.
His biography always takes the same form – “29,200 days” (for instance), followed by the date, in brackets, on which it was issued – the length of his life so far. There are no photographs of him and he never gives interviews.

His work is partly about preserving evidence.
Mine is not about preserving clues that I have l left, but about understanding existence. It’s a dialogue. What does it mean, going to the office each morning? I ask myself, what exactly am I doing there? In my studio I try to grasp, on a much more philosophical level, what a human being actually is, what makes one human. Our globe formed from matter in outer space. It’s a miracle that you are now Claudia Jolles, and not a snail, or a fish, or nothing at all. It’s a miracle, and it’s not a miracle: it’s a question. And I want to find a way to address questions like that. My paintings are my own question- and-answer game.

Will there be more series that extend over a longer time?
Well, for example, there’s this painting here, this is the beginning of a series called H. The H is like a pincer with something inside it. But I don’t know yet how this series will continue. The “H” stands for heart, but also for Hans. You can’t see the “H” straight away, it’s like an optical illusion (wvz 2012/9).

You have a lot of boxes here, filled with drawings, paintings, lino prints. Your mother has carefully kept everything. She’s your trustee for the past; your family is clearly important to you. What sort of contact do you have with other artists?
The Swiss artist Rémy Zaugg, who died in 2005, was the most important conversation partner I’ve ever had. We used to talk about art with great intensity. I often came away with a headache from the sheer effort. He came to my studio several times; we mainly talked about his art, but also about mine from time to time. He even conceived my studio for me. But I also talk to other artists, or friends like Thomas Ruff – except that he doesn’t want to talk about art, he only wants to make art. Stephan Balkenhol and Pia Fries are also important to me. A lot of artists have approached me at the Verband Schweizer Galerien and we had good exchanges. I was the secretary to the Swiss galleries’ association for fifteen years. But the conversations with Rémy were the most intense. I was greatly affected by his intellectuality and spirituality. I should perhaps also mention that, aside from two exceptions, I have never presented my work in exhibitions.

The question is what response one should expect. For the public it’s normal to see paintings. But, for most artists, showing paintings is a stressful matter. The question is to what extent one wants to become part of that business.
My own commercial independence is important to me. People have asked about buying paintings, but I have almost always declined to sell anything. Early on I did sell two paintings, but I don’t know where they are now. I find that bothersome! It’s important to me to be able to review my past work. A lot of what I do develops from what I did in the past. That’s why I want to have my works around me. The catalogue raisonné will change things. Now I have the overview I need. I know that now I would be able to part with individual paintings. Maybe you could compare it to someone breeding dogs, who wants to be sure that her Labrador pups are going to a good home ... because in the end you can’t hold onto anything forever.

fig. 1

fig. 2
Mann mit Brille

fig. 3
John Paul II - we love you

fig. 4
Der Rhein


Kalifornien 1987 / Erinnerung (1)

Kalifornien (1987) / Erinnerung (2)

Kalifornien 1987 / Erinnerung (3)

Kalifornien (1987) / Erinnerung (4)

Kalifornien (1987) / Erinnerung (5)

Kalifornien (1987) / Erinnerung (6)

fig. 5
Ohne Titel

fig. 6
Ohne Titel

fig. 7

fig. 8

fig. 9
rote Haare

fig. 10

fig. 11
Direktor 1950

fig. 12

fig. 13

1000 Farbpunkte und 10 Farben

Oktober 1986
Das Meeresrauschen im Ohr

1985 - 1992 / Beschleunigung

2003 - ?8 / Beschleunigung

Griechenland Juli 1978 / New York Juni 1978

Indonesien (4) (1985)

ein Fisch an der Angel

Ohne Titel