I was born in Wilhelmshaven, a harbor town by the North Sea. In the 1960s, when I was in high school, my class made visits to the island of Wangerooge, near Wilhelmshaven, and it was there where my fascination for the sea got more intense. Our teacher often had us read novels that were written at the sea there—Die Klabauterflagge by Hans Leip and Das Feuerschiff by Siegfried Lenz, for example. Looking back, it was romantic, all those adventures in that very special and wild island environment.
It was in the 1970s that I began making surf paintings. It must have been after visiting the island of Sylt, which is also in the North Sea and is the closest seaside town to Berlin. Those visits helped me relax from the stress of my art life, and so I went there often. I found pleasure watching the surfers and thinking about how I could catch them in a painting. Much later in life, I was able to have a studio there and follow more deeply what I wanted to express in my work. At some point along the way, I discovered that surfers expressed something very existential, and so I’ve worked toward trying to transform and express them and what they do into paintings.
From early on in my life, I’ve never been fond of a certain mental stiffness in German culture—the überreguliert, or overregulation. The result of that regulation is that people become too reliant on the state to do everything for them, and have lost a certain amount of common sense and alertness. Regulations and rules are important, but following them in every situation, and being too blue-eyed about the rules, doesn’t always work.
On the other hand is the untamable sea and the surfers who fight with the waves. Out there, there is no security; there are dangerous waves that can destroy people. Surfers have to be on a level of high alert, which is what brings about life. I think surfers provide great metaphoric images in that regard and give way to interesting composition in a painting.
Watching surfers—seeing them waiting for the right wave and falling into the sea—reminds me of a situation from Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. The surfers learn certain rules and become trained, but they have to deal with the volatility of nature at all times, and they must be able to react to an unpredictable, always-changing sea. In my subconsciousness, I must have been aware of this very existential situation from when I started painting them. So the image of the surfers and the wild sea is a symbol, to me, of what life is all about—that so many laws people establish for themselves and others can create stability, but they are not the only way to live, because new and unexpected situations will always occur.
Following a show in Los Angeles in 2002, I stayed in Venice Beach for three months. I was able to plunge deeper into my surf paintings because I could watch surfers every day in front of my hotel. I wanted to paint them in action. Day after day, I observed, sketched, and photographed with my small Canon Sure Shot the surfers in all types of situations in the water and on the beach. As a side effect, I fell in love with the non-action elements and the surroundings: the mountains of Malibu in the distance, the lifeguard stands, the concrete structure of the skateparks, the architecture in Venice Beach, the pelicans flying, the occasional whale coming up and down. In California, on certain days, I noticed a special, silvery atmosphere and light over the water that reminded me of Sylt. But California is so different from the North Sea, obviously—a different atmosphere and smell—and I found the differences intriguing to try to express in my work.
My father was a gymnast and art teacher, and so I discovered my own enthusiasm to paint at an early age. I was touched by seeing paintings in person, in museums and galleries, where you can discover traits of how they were done, as the brushstrokes are not hidden on a flat, perfect-looking surface. I found that kind of haptic context fascinating. Throughout art history, there are painters who followed that kind of direction—Diego Velázquez, Francisco Goya, Paul Cézanne, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Lovis Corinth, Pablo Picasso, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko. Seeing their works at a young age made me want to take a brush and start myself.
Once I’ve decided on the subject matter, which is a choice that often happens subconsciously, all of my paintings happen step by step on the canvas. As each new painting progresses, I pull from a wide range of experiences and references I’ve had in my life or in the arts. And there are always new aspects that arise when painting, so I constantly have to adjust to them during the development of a painting. Each painting makes its own rules. Everything has to be transformed, in an abstract way, onto those white canvases. Training can help, but once you start developing a painting, it always confronts you with new surprises, and then you have to react and try to make the best out of it. In my eyes there is no such thing as absolute perfection. Fighting with a painting makes you forget about the mere illustrational aspects. There are times when one loses control while making a painting, and then you have to step back and try to find the right way to master the situation. That’s what makes a good painting. Surfing is no different in that regard.
[Feature art: LA SURFSCAPE V, 2004, oil on canvas, 11 × 14 inches, courtesy of Galerie Thomas Fuchs]