Interview with Peter Sager:
PS: The old historical category of Realism has become respectable again in discussing the visual arts. Do you think the word is acceptable?
HK: At the moment we don’t have a better word. But it doesn’t convey very much. In the 20th century when we thought of Realism, it tended to have a negative quality with the implication of academicism and conservatism.
PS: In spite of that, would you call yourself a realist?
HK: I am using, without a doubt, certain aspects of Realism but I don’t think that term is sufficient. Today there is no realist school or even a bar that we frequent as a group. We Americans use the recognizable object only as a method of bringing known things together to reveal an inevitable mystery. We wanted to find out what was happening in the visible world.
The moment I see something that I never fully recognized before is exciting. What I slowly began to realize was that “my” realism was a shocking piece of visual/psychological reality that could not be fenced in by the desire to paint things just as we see them. In the end there was a tenacious connection between feelings and ideas stemming from the recognition of the existence of things. Realism became interesting when it came to express this.
PS: How and when did you start painting realistically?
HK: The first impulse was a biographical matter. When my father died, I was confronted with a lot of family photos which I hadn’t seen in a long time. I became interested in finding a balance with the past and I started working with these photographs. That was in 1963.
PS: What importance has photography had for your work since then?
HK: It has influenced my work in a variety of ways. Sometimes I see a photo that suggests an idea, complete in the photo, that I can use. Sometimes something in nature excites me. I take photos myself and I can filter my original observation through different layers – photo to drawing to paint. We are informed differently in different mediums. That becomes as important as actual fact.
PS: That painters do you admire? From whom did you learn?
HK: The painters I admire most are not necessarily realists. Of course, there was Hopper. But I like Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, and Davis Smith. I was a pupil of Franz Kline. The contemporary realist I admire most is Malcolm Morley.
PS: Where do you see the main difference between New Realism and the Realism of the 19th century?
HK: The New Realism is occupied with ideas. The way you see something is as important as what you see. The New Realism is more complex. It addresses how reality develops, where it comes from.
PS: What is the reason for the increasing interest in Realism’s come back?
HK: Everybody who was engaged in art always wanted some sort of “realism”. Through the whole time when abstract painting was our daily bread, people liked to see figuration.
PS: The absolute concreteness of New Realism and complete dematerialization of Conceptual Art are surely two extremes. But you don’t think so?
HK: Both are concerned with process and how something is made. Concept artists want to detach from the object aspect. Realists don’t. They still paint pictures. However, they have more in common than not.
PS: The first signal for the come back of realism was Pop Art.
HK: The directness of Pop – letting the picture explore , was very important. And the breaking of the taboo against everyday objects.
PS: A main theme in you painting seems to be the relation of reality and illusion.
HK: There is a kind of strip, a ledge, a kind of no-mans-land where reality and illusion overlap. Where one stops and the other starts I never know. Baroque illusionism interests me – the illusion of an illusion. I am trying to build up layers of observation in my paintings, so you don’t see the same things twice.
PS: Your cut-out figures are characteristic of this.
HK: Cut-outs create a sort of illusion stage, androgynous, not quite painting, not quite sculpture. They use tromp l’oeil to create layers of quasi-art between the viewer and the object on the wall, which is immediately recognized as art. They are substitute figures between us and what we are seeing. They are usually conceived of from the back so they are like us, looking at something. They are halfway between “art” and us.
PS: When did American critics start referring to New Realism or Radical realism?
HK: In 1966 in the catalogue for my show at The Jewish museum, Sam Hunter referred to a new realism. But – what I want to say is that there is something going on in the art world today that makes it very difficult for an artist to emerge as an individual. It appears that he can’t just be seen for what he does – rather how he fits into what dealers and critics conspire to invent as a prevailing movement in art. A tremendous amount of pressure is placed on stretching definitions and categories to create an impression that there is this one big important style! This advertising technique does nothing for art. It distorts it.