In the midst of installing his first exhibition at Betty Cuningham Gallery in collaboration with Bernd Schellhorn of Berlin, Germany (April 1 – May 22, 2010), Norbert Prangenberg took time off to sit down with Rail Art Editor John Yau on site to talk about his life and work.
John Yau (Rail): I am sitting with Norbert Prangenberg at the Betty Cuningham Gallery, where his show is about open. Could you give the readers of the Rail a little bit of your background, which isn’t very common, either in Germany or America?
Norbert Prangenberg: I went to what you would call elementary school for eight years, which was normal. And then when I was 13, I studied for three and half years to be a gold and silversmith, and then I entered a kind of metal-smith’s guild. I worked another year in this firm, but the whole company was only four people. We have a shop and a workshop. A shop to sell and in the back was a workshop, where four or five people sit and make things of gold and silver. So directly after school I started working and I liked it. And, yeah, after this thing, I went to what they call in German a werkkunstschule, which is a school for apprenticeships.
Rail: What did you study there?
Prangenberg: I studied different things—metalworking, etching, and other techniques. It wasn’t an art school, but a school to learn different crafts. During this time I started drawing and making small paintings on my own. After I got my diploma, I worked for a glass factory and did designs for wine glasses and vases.
Rail: How old were you?
Prangenberg: I was 23.
Rail: And how long did you work in the glass factory?
Prangenberg: For about three and half years.
Rail: Okay, so up to 26, right?
Prangenberg: Yes, and I got married during this time. When I was 26, my daughter Anna was born. At this point, I think, okay, I will stay at home and have time to paint and look after the child. A year later comes a second child, so we are really busy with all this stuff. This is when I started painting. I didn’t go to the Academy. I had to make money and I did make money working for other glass factories at the time. I worked as a freelancer so I had time to have the children and paint and maybe go to the academy at Düsseldorf, but I realized it’s too late. Of course, I went to the galleries and the museums and saw a lot. At this time Cologne was quite good. Rudolph Zwirner and all the galleries there. I saw Jasper Johns, all the Americans I saw at Zwirner. And in Düsseldorf there was Alfred Schmela who first showed Yves Klein in the late 50s. In this area of Cologne and Düsseldorf, which are about 30 kilometers apart, I could see a lot of art.
Rail: Yes, there was a lot going on there in the 50s and 60s. And that was your art school.
Prangenberg: I remember Christo did a big thing in Cologne with oil barrels. I was 16 at this time, so you could see a lot of international art. From 26 to 29, I did a lot of big paintings, but I didn’t like them very much, and stopped making them. I began completely fresh with small drawings and this is the beginning of my artist’s life. All that stuff before was only juvenile.
Rail: So you were around 30 then.
Prangenberg: Nearly 30, 29. And then I showed my things to Johannes Cladders.
Rail: The museum curator.
Prangenberg: Johannes Cladders, you know him. He was the director in Mönchengladbach, at the Museum Abteiberg. He gave shows to Palermo, Beuys, Polke, and so on. I phoned him.
I never saw him before and I phoned him up. I said, “I’m Norbert Prangenberg, I’m a young artist, and I would like to see you, and show you my drawings.” And he said, “Yes, come over.”
Rail: Isn’t that great?
Prangenberg: I asked him, “When do you have time?” And he said, “I have time, you can come at any time.” I said, “Okay, Wednesday,” and he said, “Okay, Wednesday at 2 o’clock.” It was so simple. I went to him with my drawings. He said, “Yeah, that’s good, I like them, they’re fine,” and he gave me two addresses and a note, with best wishes from Cladders. One of the addresses is for Karsten Greve.
Rail: So that’s how you connected.
Prangenberg: Yes. Cladders said, “Karsten is young dealer in Cologne. He’s interested in paper work.” But first I went to see the other person, the curator Gerhard Storck, and he said, “Yeah okay, I like it too, and I have an idea for a group show with young artists and you are in. It was at Museum Haus Esters in Krefeld, which was a famous, famous place built by Mies van der Rohe. The show was in 1981. There were shows for Yves Klein, Cy Twombly there. And then he did a group show and I was in it and this was actually my first exhibition. And then I went to Karsten and showed him the drawings and he said, “Yeah I’m interested, but come back in four weeks,” so I went back in four weeks, and it was I think October and he said, “Yeah, okay, we make a show in December.” Then in 1984, I have a solo show in Krefeld again with only me and this was the first catalogue of what I did. This time I have only small works on paper, though I did bigger ones in ink on paper.
Rail: And you’re 35 then.
Prangenberg: And then I was, yeah, 35.
Rail: And you worked mostly on paper, because, in 1986, when I wrote about your work, it was inks and crayon on paper mounted on canvas.
Prangenberg: Yeah, after this show at Haus Lange, which was the other building built by Mies van der Rohe, I was invited to Documenta to show my large black ink on paper things and at this time I started making sculpture. First with paper and concrete, then paper, pigment, and concrete, and then it was clay. I also started the first paintings. You know Haus Esters and Haus Lang had a stipendium (translation: grant), which helped me.
Rail: Did you start right away with oil paint?
Prangenberg: No, I painted on the floor with watercolors. So, in between I tried some oil paintings, but I didn’t really get the feeling for the oil, you know? I don’t know, for me, it was always the brush between me and the canvas, so I worked on the floor with watercolors and pigment and pastels and sticks, which was better for me. I started with these paintings and stopped making the big black ink things. But through all of this I kept doing drawings.
Rail: Yes, you’ve always drawn.
Prangenberg: Then, as you know, I did a show at Hirschl and Adler; that was in ‘86. So for these two years, from ‘84 to ‘86, I did a lot of canvas watercolors, and after I finished I put it on a stretcher. I painted on the floor and then I put them on a stretcher. I did this technique until 2000.
Rail: So in 2000 you start to work in a different way.
Prangenberg: In 2000, I start with oil painting. I did some, but I didn’t really get the feeling. Actually, I wonder for myself, is it okay, or not okay? Sometimes you think it is okay, but when you’re really honest, you see something that’s not right. And I ask friends, or, the curator Martin Hentschel, or Heinz Leisbrock who is the curator of the Josef Albers Museum in Bottrop. I show them the paintings and they are honest and say, nah.
Rail: Not so good. [Laughs.]
Prangenberg: And I think, yeah, I have to work more. And from 2000 on, I started making oil paintings and did a lot in clay and sculpture. At first I made paintings on the floor with watercolors and so on. But the oil paint came in, more and more. For me, it was really that I had to get it. I was ambitious. What, for me, was so great was the oil color. I can make these fine lines. I couldn’t do that in the drawings on the floor. You know, it was always a big stick. And, for me, I would like to make more intimate paintings. Then, suddenly, oil painting was very close to me, and I like my brush and spatula. And I can have the work close to my eyes, and see it. And with the works done on the floor, sometimes it was like a garden. You know, you put color here, a little bit of water, like a garden, you know? And then, in 2007, I began to feel like I was an oil painter.
Rail: 2007, that’s really quite recent.
Prangenberg: Yes, so in 2007, suddenly I got this feeling that is a little bit like when I started with the small drawings. I get this feeling that this is what I can do. Now I’m in the painting and I can speak with the painting. And I have a good feeling and it comes back to me.
Rail: It took you seven years.
Prangenberg: Yes, it took seven years. Sometimes I didn’t work on the oils for five months but, then I started again and I said, it’s better but not really good. And so I need this time. I need the time between when I didn’t paint with oil because it gives me space, new concentration. And from 2007 on, I only made oil paintings. The floor paintings are gone now. That’s history. But I keep making drawings, ceramic sculptures, and prints all the way through.
Rail: Woodcuts, you’ve always done woodcuts.
Prangenberg: And linocuts all along.
Rail: Two days ago, when you were talking about how you made the oil paintings, you said that you did a kind of familiar oil painting, that this was how you started. And then you did another oil painting inside the oil painting.
Prangenberg: Yeah. For me, the thinking was, when I start, what can I paint? Actually, that is the big question. [Laughs.] When I was a child it was my problem, too. I asked my mom, what should I draw? She said, draw a flower, oh no, a flower is boring. She said, draw a lion, oh yeah, a lion is better. [Laughs.] So, it’s a little bit of the same thing. And then, I think for me, I paint what I would like to paint. I also imagine them. I start and things come. For me, I see two columns. One is memory—things I remember. And the other thing is what I see and what I’m interested in—maybe it is nature or a butterfly or a flower or a pattern in a carpet or on a cup, or whatever. And when I remember things, maybe it is Pinocchio, but it comes more from this Giacometti figure with the long nose. He’s a kind of Pinocchio, too. Or it comes from paintings. I did some paintings from Casper David Friedrich—the ship in the ice. Or, I did some paintings, one after Van Gogh, “For Vincent.” Or, I did a painting after Albert Altdorfer, a painter in the Middle Ages who painted incredible pine trees.
As I thought about those paintings, I thought what can I do in my painting? So, that’s the reason, but I think the first thing is the color, of course, in painting, in my paintings. And then I have to find the structure, and the color and structure as a couple, and then the scene and the title as another couple. Actually, maybe, for me it doesn’t matter if I paint a face or I paint a tree or I paint an abstract. Actually, the main thing is to make this painting and find a way. But the scenes have to do with me. They are important for me if they affect me personally, like environmental things or like political things, but I don’t have a message, actually. I think when I make a painting, if it’s really strong, then the painting has a power. And this power is the message. What can color do? What can structure do? I mean, that is the reason to look at paintings in a museum or a gallery, or to have it at home: the energy. And then, for me it can be figurative or it can be abstract, it doesn’t matter. Or, what you asked me, then I play a little bit with these abstract things. Abstract is a big issue in art, especially in America. And then, I think about, what is abstract? Okay, then, I paint, you know, I put paint on the brush. Actually that is the base of abstract painting, you know, movement. Then, I think, okay, for me it’s not enough, a hundred thousand other painters make the same thing. [Laughs.] What is my special idea? And then I put another abstract in. You know, an idea of an abstract, not a de Kooning or Schumacher. I’m not interested in quotation. I put the image from an abstract painting in. So, then, suddenly I have a completely new thing. I have an abstract painting actually with two paintings in it. You know what I mean? It’s a little bit of playfulness, but it’s serious. And I think, for me, the possibility of making an abstract without quoting anybody. It’s only to find the image. And then, of course, this image that I put in has to do with the color of the base. In the end, it has to fit together. Did I have quotations? I have to be free when I paint. So it has to speak with the voice of the painting. And I think for me this thing to be free is important. I’m not interested in style. I want to be free in my paintings. But it has to be serious. Of course, being free doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want. It has to be based on my experience, on my age. I mean, when I was 15, I started to look at paintings in museums and in books. I really saw a lot of paintings and collections. And, my whole life, I’ve been involved with paintings and color and stuff. I think I have experience. I mean, I teach, I speak with students about art, so this all gives me a lot of background, actually. But, I use this background to be a free painter, you know? It shouldn’t make me narrow. It should make me wider. Not to use the same style, or not to have to find a style like, I’m the guy who only makes the black paintings with the red corner and the other makes the black with the green corner, to use it, to take it and to work. This is what I try to do, or not what I try to do, I do it.
Rail: It’s true, like the painting, “For Vincent,” which you made in a certain way and then others in the show in Hamburg were made in different ways. I don’t feel like your paintings are all made the same way. That seems very clear from the work that’s going to be in this show.
Prangenberg: It’s all a tangle, no? Sometimes I paint with a color, so I take a blue and I think, oh, wonderful blue, blue, blue, blue, blue. But now I need some contrast against the blue so it becomes a sound. Then maybe I put a little bit of red in and then, in this red, I see maybe a kind of flower. Like, when you look at the clouds and see a flower. And then I make maybe two eyes and a nose. And then I have a flower face, actually. But it works. It’s wonderful, in this way to find a painting or to find a scene or to find anything that I agree with. And then I get some figures with long noses. So, I look for that. Where can I get, which condition is fine for a nose? And then I get a group of paintings. A friend told me that in Japan, there is a ghost called Tengu and he has a long nose and I think, great. What I did, I have all of these flower forms, you know, all with the long nose and I think, in Japan, this ghost lives in nature. So it fits, you know, my flower things with the long nose, and I think, okay, this is a Tengu. This is the way it comes together from the other side. I find it in the painting. I didn’t see a Tengu on television and think I’ll use the scene, it was the other side, my painting found the Tengu. But, both sides are possible.
Rail: And, you also talked about being innocent in a way. When you paint, you want to be innocent. It’s like you have all this memory, but at the same time you want to be innocent.
Prangenberg: Yeah, it’s true. This is a balance, you know. And it doesn’t fit every day. You have days when it doesn’t work. Or maybe when I make a painting and I think, this is a good painting, and I try to make a painting in a similar way, normally it doesn’t fit. And then I’m really glad, actually. For me it is a sign that it really has to have special conditions. I have to be free in my head but open, you know? And, maybe my background has to stand behind me, like a big friend. And then I have to stop and use the color, I mean for me, I like to use colors. I think color is, for me, a big joy.
Rail: And you use all kinds of color. It’s not like you have a set palette.
Rail: And then, even in this show, there are some where the painting is very thick and then others, where it’s very, very thin.
Prangenberg: Sometimes I paint over an older painting when I think it’s not good. Then I have to put thick color on. That is one of the reasons that the paint is thick. The other reason is, I like it, to have this structure. But then, for example, maybe I make one or two paintings with thick oil colors. Then there’s a brush in the liquid and I have a fresh canvas or a fresh wood panel, and then it’s nice to make it very thin and see what happens then, or what can I do with this condition. So, I like to have this change.
Rail: And you paint on different kinds of surfaces. Like copper, wood, cardboard, and canvas. And you like the different way the surface feels.
Prangenberg: Yeah, especially the metal things. They are very different from the others. It makes no sense to work thick on metal, on copper. On copper I use only very thin layers of color with a small brush. And these paintings have another kind of feel to them. Of course, copper shines a little bit, so these copper paintings have another light quality. Or, I think, when I paint on cardboard, it’s the same, the oil goes in and then the color is more muted. I like to have these feelings, you know. It gives me inspiration, an idea, how I can go further. What is the next step, what can I try?
Rail: And your paintings and drawings are separate, yes? You don’t make a painting out of a drawing?
Prangenberg: Sometimes I start with a drawing on the wood panel, but I never fill it out, you know, so I go over it. And sometimes, some part of the drawing stays, I leave it, and paint around this color, but I don’t make a drawing and fill it out.
Rail: I think that’s unusual, what you do, when you make the drawing and then you put the painting over it, but you leave part of the drawing showing.
Prangenberg: Yeah, for me, I like it to have a drawing be part of the painting. It’s a good tension.
Rail: And then there’s also these paintings you did with the word “Robinson” in them. So, you even write in your paintings sometimes.
Prangenberg: Yeah, I was very proud of that. I never thought I could use letters. So it was, for me, completely not in my thinking. Yeah, but look here at the cover of my catalogue—it is a flower, and the letters of the name are in the petals. Like, I give you this Prangenberg, these paintings, please, congratulations. I did this drawing on the train, when I was thinking about the catalogue, and thinking maybe it should have a title or something. And then I did the same on the bottom of the panel with Robinson, you know? I don’t know, I think that Prangenberg is too stupid. I cannot put my own name on a painting, and so, directly comes Robinson as the alternative to Prangenberg. I didn’t think about it, it just comes. And then I did Robinson and I did this pink painting, it was the first. And then I did three or four other Robinsons, so I tried, how I can use this idea, so then I try it with these other paintings, actually, two I think are here, in this catalogue. And then I did this with a palm tree. But this was, I don’t know, I try it, I start with the frame, this green part, and in the end I have this little square in the middle and then, I think, what can I do? And I saw it was fine, nicely colored, so I did a little bit with a brush and then, suddenly it becomes a palm tree. Maybe I would have tried a Christmas tree, but it didn’t work. The palm tree works, and I say, okay, this is connected to Robinson, you know? And then, I give the title, “Robinson’s Nightmare,” so I think, what can be the terrible thing when he’s back in England, he dreams of this palm tree. But, this is really playing for me. I have fun on this. Maybe this is a little bit childish, I don’t know.
Rail: You have a real playfulness in your work. You have the little figure with the nose or Pinocchio or Robinson. I mean, on one hand, it’s very playful, but on the other hand, it’s also serious, because all of these figures, like Pinocchio or Tengu or Robinson, are isolated figures.
Prangenberg: This is really true, I have a big thing with these characters. This is true, John.
Rail: They seem of the world, but cut off from it at the same time.
Prangenberg: Outsiders are very important for me. I really have a feeling for this kind of existence. This is true. There is a wonderful book by Hans Mayer, who was a German literary scholar. In English the title would be the Outsider. He spoke about outsiders, you know, in the culture. It’s really an incredible book. It’s true. It’s not childish. It’s very much based on my feelings. And now, after the catalogue, I did some other Robinsons. But they are at home and still drying. Then for me, the scene is finished. I can’t make it into an endless story. When I did it at home, before I came to New York, I did some paintings and I feel, okay, it’s finished now. Maybe I have two or three other Robinson paintings that are okay, but that’s enough. At least, with those letters it’s enough. I don’t like to make a style from that. It’s more interesting to see what comes new. For me, it’s so exciting to find something like Robinson, you know? It makes me really glad. But, after a while, it gets boring and then I look for another thing that fits.
Rail: And, to go back to the gold-smithing and the metal-smithing, your paintings seem, to me, like there’s a jewel inside them. I feel like there’s still a connection to your youth. There’s this beautiful green, say, but inside is another set of colors, like a jewel. And that also seems true in the paintings that were done in watercolors. There’s something inside something else.
Prangenberg: It’s inside of the world, with the stones and the jewels. I don’t know how it’s a connected. Maybe it is. I did this apprenticeship and of course we have all those jewels and, of course, I work with them and I like them very much. The students had to make a book for the teachers I had to write about what I practiced in the book and make a drawing from that. When I was 13, every week, I had to make a drawing and I had to paint a stone. So I have this book that’s really lovely. I was really like a child. I did all these things. The other thing is, when I was young, nobody knew what to do with me. I wouldn’t get a haircut or things like that. People would ask me, what makes you happy, this or this? I would say, nothing. Then my father asked me, would you like to train as a goldsmith? And something directly clicked and I said yes, goldsmith would be nice. And I had an idea. There’s a red velvet desk and on the left side is the gold, and on the right side are the jewels, and I had to put them together. It was my idea of what the goldsmith has to do. The reality is completely different. [Laughter.] I remember the first time I came into this workshop, there were massive mountains of tools. And all over the place gas flames from burners. It was crowded and there was no red velvet. [Laughter.] But, in the end, you have to do that. On Monday, the master comes and says, we have work, maybe, Norbert, you make this ring. Okay? I give you the material, I give you the gold, or the silver and I give you the stone. And then you get both, you get maybe a little cut out metal strip and you get the stone and then you start. You cut and then you bend and with a flame you weld. What I would like to say is maybe, deep in me is this interest in shiny things, diamonds, or jewels. And that was the reason that I took this profession. I have very early contact with these beautiful stones. I mean, they really are beautiful.
Rail: Your watercolors are very luminous, and are often a combination of watercolor and crayon and drawing. It’s still there.
Prangenberg: Maybe it’s both. So, I like colors and in these stones you have this beautiful color. I think that it’s my interest, or what I am. I’m interested in colors and this color and this color are not so far from each other.
Rail: And you’re also interested in material, the materials. That seems very clear, the clay, making sculpture, there’s a real desire to use your hands to do stuff.
Prangenberg: Yeah, this is very important to me. I like material, actually. For me, that’s beautiful. The material is great. I mean, we are material by ourselves. So, it’s very close to me. I like to touch it, to smell it, and then to work with it. It’s very simple, actually.
Rail: So, do you have a big kiln in your studio to make those big clay sculptures.
Prangenberg: No, the big things I make in the workshop at Cologne, or in Holland. There’s a big workshop called the European Ceramic Work Center. And I work there three times for three months, build it up, then it has to dry and then glaze and paint. Or, in Cologne, I use a workshop. I mean it doesn’t work to have this big kiln for myself. No, so I go to them. But smaller things, I do at my studio.
Rail: And then, about the woodcuts, when did you start those?
Prangenberg: The woodcuts were, actually, a little bit earlier than the drawings.
Prangenberg: Yeah, I think the first woodcuts were for Christmas cards for the parents or something like that. I think I started at the same time with woodcuts and drawings. What I don’t like, actually, is lithography. I don’t know why. I did some with this technique, but I really had problems. Maybe this is only a stone and you paint on it, but it’s not so important. But, a woodcut or a linocut or etching—that’s different. I did etchings in San Francisco for Hank Hine, who ran Limestone Press. They were the last ones I made. It was in the late 80s.
Rail: So really, woodcuts have been constant.
Prangenberg: Woodcuts and linocuts. For linocuts, I did a lot, hundreds of linocuts. I have two books with only linocuts. Now, when I go back home, I am going to make prints based on Schubert’s Winterreise, the 24 songs he wrote the year before he died.
Rail: Yes, he was around 30 when he died of typhoid fever. He wrote Winterreise when he was sick. They are very melancholy, which doesn’t seem like you at all.
Prangenberg: Yeah, sometimes when I speak, it becomes a little bit cloudy. [Laughs.] I speak German words with English sound.