Caroline Bachmann

— We’re so excited to have you in Volume! Your work is wonderful.

Thank youI love the circles that you cropped from the paintings.

— The circles are an interesting design element.

They’re a great solution because it’s difficult to reproduce artworks most of the time. Reproductions are often an uneasy way of understanding what we are seeing. But with these circles what you’re looking at is so clear.

— They remind me of your work, too, with the framing that you do. But before we talk about that, I thought I would start by asking about how you came to this medium and subject matter, and about your artistic influences.

Well, it’s very funny that you’re in New York, because, strangely, my work comes there. Here in Cully, next to where I live in Switzerland, is the waterfall that Marcel Duchamp photographed for Étant donnés: 1. La chute d'eau, 2. Le gaz d'éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas, 1946–66), which you can see in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In this installation, you look through small holes in a door to see this scene of a woman lying naked in nature and, in the background, you can see a small waterfall. Duchamp made some kind of system with lights, so you have the feeling that the water is really running (it’s fake, of course). So this waterfall is here, next to my home. And in 2006 or 2007, when my late partner Stefan Banz and I discovered it, we did a lot of work around it.

At the same time, I was teaching and painting at the art school in Geneva, and it took a little bit too much of my time, this research on Duchamp, so I decided in 2012 to come back to an autonomous way of working. I wanted to concentrate on painting. But I began my research around Duchamp in New York; that’s why I think it’s very interesting for me to show my work now in a New York context, because all these pieces are based in research on American artists who were working in New York during the First World War, painters who were friends with him. Through Duchamp, I looked for painters who were making work that was coming from a different lineage than that of the Impressionists. The Impressionists had a very materialistic approach to painting, which at the end had turned into this kind of pseudo-scientific visual splitting of colors and other visual elements.

— Like Pointillism.

Right, like Pointillism. All these artists who were working in nature, in front of the subject, were like scientists, more rational than others. This approach then led to abstraction and conceptual art, which I love, but for me, for my painting, it was a dead end. Here in Europe, you couldn’t paint anymore because everyone would say that painting is dead. And I love painting, so I thought, no, it’s not dead, and I sought a junction before the Avant Garde where people were painting as poets. They were making poetry; they were not making some kind of materialistic attempt to reproduce a visual effect. It was more about creating a feeling with colors and form, sometimes more through imagination than through observation. And this is, in the end, the way I work.

I found all these painters who are fantastic. The first one I found was Louis Michel Eilshemius, who, around 1917, was totally unfamous. Duchamp saw a painting by him, loved it, and organized a first solo exhibition for him. From Eilshemius, I found other painters who were interested in him. For instance, Marsden Hartley made a portrait for Eilshemius, and also for Albert Pinkham Ryder. Ralph Albert Blakelock was also part of this movement, which took a poetical, idealistic point of view in terms of painting. So I made for myself a “grandfather group” of eight painters who were all working in New York at the beginning of the 20th century, and I began making portraits of them. After that, I decided to concentrate on very easy subjectsportrait, still life, landscape, and historical paintingas a means to avoid the subject, in a way, to let the painting decide for itself what it wants to become, without some kind of theme or idea or statement to demonstrate. I wanted to find a way to paint and let the subject come through the act of painting. So for now I just take notes in front of the subjects, which can be a person or landscape, and then the real elaboration is done by invention and memory in the studio.

— When you say you take notes, are those sketches?

Yes, they are sketches with pencil on paper, very fasttaking two, five minutes. When it’s a portrait, I draw through a one-hour pose, more or less, because I have to note everything around the eyes. But the landscape and history paintings are made from very fast sketches of essential details, where I just find the light and shadow and some forms and that’s all. So it gives me a lot of liberty to paint with great freedom of interpretation.

— It’s a kind of blank slate. I was also thinking about your frames as a visual device, and I was reminded of them when hearing you talk about the Duchamp piece, where you go up to the hole and you have to peer through. In some sense, the frames are a reminder of the fact that we’re looking at something, we’re peering into these things, and they give these works such a surreal quality. So it’s fascinating to hear you say that Duchamp is one of your main influences.

This is perhaps completely unconscious. It’s only after speaking with people that I realize, of course, they’re like the holes in the door. But actually, when I decided to frame these pieces, it came more from a practice I had before. I was always interested in spaces and how you pass through themthresholds, things like thatand I had a problem with painting Lake Leman. With the lake, the configuration was always horizontalthere are clouds, mountains, the horizon line itself—and all the energy in my paintings would go out to the right and left sides. I couldn’t create a perpendicular relationship within the painting. Actually, Eilshemius helped me a lot with that: he invented the painted frame, deciding he could paint a frame more cheaply than to build one. When I saw his work, I thought, perfect for my lakes! So I painted frames to enhance the perpendicularity, to get into the image, not in front of it. They also allow me to bring another color in. It was a great discovery for me.

— I had never heard of Eilshemius before.

He was completely an outsider artist. Before he died in 1941, he was famous for ten years or so between the mid-twenties and the mid-thirties. He painted very, very fast, and often, so he was a really great asset for the galleries. He would give them his paintings for two dollars, and these galleries would sell them for 600. For them, it was really a fantastic deal. There are paintings by Eilshemius in all the major museums in the U.S., and now I’ve begun to collect them. I have around thirty at home. They’re very cheap, and you can buy them on Ebay. It’s a very special situation. But he was, I think, very important for a lot of artists. At that time, people would say that it was a bad move for Duchamp to support him, because everybody thought he was a horrible painter. They thought, ah, he’s making fun of this guy. But Duchamp, I learned in my research, would never make fun of anybody but himself. He really loved other artists. He was respectful. He was self-ironic, he never did anything against anyone, and he really loved Eilshemius and tried to help him. His paintings are incredible—pure poetry.

— I love how you say that paintings are like poems, that they adopt the methods of poetry. Do you have any literary influences that you keep in mind—consciously, maybe, or unconsciously—while you’re working?

I had to read Proust in school when I was 18, and since then I think I have read La Recherche (In Search of Lost Time) maybe three times. I have it on my phone. This is a text that will be with me all my life. For me, it’s an infinite, permanent source of discovery. I never cease to gain new understandings of this text, and its questions about time are a big reference for me. The last book, Le Temps retrouvé (Finding Time Again), is about this moment when you rediscover a connection with something you knew but forgot you knew, and this is something I use in each of my paintings. When I paint, it’s exactly this process: letting things go until I don’t know them, then suddenly recognizing them. To recognize, you have to forget. You let things go so you can get them back. So in this way I am very influenced by Proust. Or maybe it’s not influence but another recognition: I also recognize this in the text because I knew it before. I had the feeling it was like a spotlight that brought out the right point in me, put it in the light. It was not something I learned. I think we know everything, in a way.

— That’s such a beautiful way to think about it. And it also makes me think about how these repeated landscapes are like self-portraits.

Of course, at the end they must have that element. It takes me a long time to paint because I don’t know where I’m going. I follow the painting process, reacting to what happens when I recognize something. I don’t have a goal. I just do and travel.

— So you follow your intuition. I think it’s the same for writing poetry. You want the poem to speak. You’re a conduit for it.

Rightsuddenly a word can come, and it’s the right one.

— Do you know the work of Luchita Hurtado? I was reminded of the Sky Skin series she painted out in New Mexico. She also used this framing device with the mountains, but then in some of her works it’s actually her body. I see that a bit in the organic curves and undulations that some of your frames take on.

Yes, I know her. Agnes Pelton is also a painter I love. And Georgia O’Keefe, of course. I think it’s very important to create connections between other works and artists like that, whether you want it or not. We are really one big body; it makes sense to have suddenly see something that reminds you of something else. It’s like echoes. Sometimes it opens new connections, doors, feelings.

— I have one last question for you: as a practicing artist, what is your advice for anyone who is trying to follow that thread in themselves and make something, whether it’s poetry, painting, or theater, anything?

I have been teaching at the art school for fifteen years now, and with time I have come to understand more and more what it is that we need at the beginning of our artistic journeys, what is really important more than anything else. And I think the most important thing is to have the courage to do what you really like, what you really feel. Most of the time we are afraid of what we love, and I realized that we love things, but we very often think, ah, but it’s too silly, it’s too dumb. So when you have something you love, you have to totally forget any judgement or auto-judgement and you have to do it with all your courage and all your heart. If you can do that, then all the rest will follow.

Caroline Bachmann was interviewed by Madeline Gilmore over the phone on November 2, 2022.

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