a discussion between Jacob Dahlgren and Anders Krüger
AK: I’d like to use Sol Le Witt’s formulation from “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”, published in the June 1970 edition of Art Forum, as the starting point for our conversation:
“In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”
The last sentence “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” is an ideological standard bearer for conceptual art. In 1967, this statement must have been quite radical. Even though since the late 1950s some conceptual artistic activity was happening around the world, including the Gutai group in Japan and later the Fluxus movement in Europe and New York, it was controversial at the end of the 1960s to claim that art could be primarily an intellectual activity. Forty years later this approach is part of the artistic mainstream as one of many usable strategies. The pioneering spirit that characterized the early conceptual artists feels distant today, and their formal attempts to define the rules of conceptual art is somehow reminiscent of colonial explorers searching for a new continent – a Terra Incognita – that could be claimed in the name of art.
When I go through your collected works from the last few years, I cannot help but think of Sol Le Witt’s statement “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” There is undeniably something industrial about your artistic production, in part in the impressive number of projects in different media that you work with in parallel and in part in the consistency in which you implement each individual project. Take for example the current work Peinture Abstraite, which consists of you walking around every day dressed in a striped T-shirt, a sort of discrete ongoing happening, and a series of abstract paintings with different widths of horizontal lines and with different color combinations. The paintings are based on your extensive collection of striped T-shirts but you only do paintings of shirts you have worn yourself. The artistic event, the artistic choice, has consequently moved from the studio situation in front of an empty canvass to the daily ritual of dressing which we all do every morning. The choice of which striped shirt you wear determines then how the painting will look. In Sol Le Witt’s words, “all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.”
What are your thoughts on Peinture Abstraite? And is Sol Le Witt’s statement relevant for you at all?
JD: Peinture Abstraite began 10 years ago and isn’t just an ongoing project. It is a project that will continue the rest of my life, in which I paint my T-shirts as different sized acrylic paintings. I am interested in painting but I am not interested in the choice of color and composition. It feels like that it doesn’t matter what you choose. In the end, all colors work. When I was a student at The Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, I worked with abstract painting, often with different striped paintings that were based on Swedish constructivism. A friend told me I looked like my paintings because I almost always wore striped shirts. I then did a painting that was a copy of my favorite shirt, a Hang Ten. The painting looked for the most part like the paintings I had done earlier but suddenly it gained an importance and connection to reality. This was a very important realization for me. The painting became less important but the shirt I wore became more important. I have managed to do about 170 paintings since then and I have close to 1,000 shirts that are waiting to become paintings. I have even used my shirts in different performances. It began with small private parties where I invited people to come in striped shirts. They became exhibits with different paintings that moved round my apartment – everything from narrow stripes, optical, summery and wide-stripped, to drab and garish. These parties were fantastic visual experiences. I work in the same way as Sol Le Witt. My ideas are what are implemented and I’m not interested in fumbling around and finding new solutions. I might get ideas for new works. What drives me is seeing how an idea becomes reality.
AK: One of the best-known artistic lifetime projects is On Kawara’s date paintings Today Series that was begun in 1966. It consists of paintings that only show the date they were painted on. This type of artistic project – like your Peinture Abstraite – sparks some interesting ideas. Not primarily about the project’s aesthetic qualities but rather the artist’s motivation, the idea behind it that drives the work. The desire to cross boundaries between art and everyday reality has been one of the driving forces for the artistic avant-garde throughout the 20th century. Dadaists, Surrealists, Situationists, Fluxus, Conceptual Art – a common denominator for all these movements has been the desire to cross boundaries between artistic practice and the practice of everyday life. This type of ambition has far-reaching aesthetic, philosophic and ultimately political consequences for both artists and the audience. When the artistic practice is liberated from both the traditional view of the artist’s individual and subjective need for self-expression, and from the need of craftsmanship skills, what remain are the artwork’s ideas for the audience to relate to. The cliché argument that is often used against, for example, early abstract expressionistic painting – “Anyone could do that” is paradoxically an important argument for conceptual art. Anyone, theoretically, could actually do it.
Conceptually based art can thus be seen as a democratic art form that does not credit the artist with any special skill or knowledge, which the audience does not have. In other words, wearing a striped T-shirt is a common, everyday activity that most people can do without having any artistic ambitions. The only formal difference between you in your striped shirt and your neighbor’s teenage daughter in hers is that she probably does not think of her wardrobe as an artwork. And that difference is invisible.
But Jacob, before we continue, am I on the wrong track in terms of your relationship to your artistic practice? Are you a democratic artist? Or stated in another way, does your art have democratic ambitions?
JD: In terms of skill, my art is democratic but in reality there aren’t many people interested in or who have the drive to do the works even if they have the skills needed. So what makes the projects interesting is that I actually do them. No, I don’t really have democratic ambitions. It’s more about doing geometric art and at the same time having a connection to reality. Without reality, it would feel too far-fetched to sit in the studio and try to do abstract paintings that were just about color and form. It wouldn’t feel as if the paintings had any connection to me, only to other people’s art. I consider my neighbor’s teenage daughter in a striped shirt as art even if she does not mean for it to be. Naturally, anyone can walk around in a shirt and see it as art. Painting a shirt isn’t difficult either. The thrill for me is that my interest in geometric art transforms the shirts into art when I experience the shirts through that filter.
I also work with another lifelong project, Signs of Abstraction which is based on photos of abstract details from my every day life that I take on a daily basis. These can be traffic signs, house facades, busses, people in striped clothes, sunshades, gas stations, advertising, flags, signs, painted instructions on asphalt. I have about 50,000 pictures with abstract details. I have begun categorizing the photos based on subject. I arrange the pictures in categories, such as people in striped shirts, which in turn has a subcategory with people in striped shirts taking a step off the sidewalk. The next subcategory is with people in striped shirts taking a step off the sidewalk making a gesture with one hand. And so on. All these photos are like a private photo album of my life, my acquaintances, my family. Where I’ve been and what I have done. The common factor is the abstraction, the small artistic experiences I have every day and which are the reason I have taken the photograph. In this way the idea is a tool for taking photographs without having to think of the composition and subject. This creates a freedom in the same way as when John Baldessari threw up balls in the air and asked photographers to try to capture the balls in the middle of the photographs. In this way he was able to take many interesting photographs. By choosing the abstractions all around us, these tell a personal story about everything from the insignificant to the magnificent. When people have seen my photographs, they usually begin noticing all the small abstractions in daily life. In this way I have opened the door for new artistic experiences outside museums and galleries.
I would also like to mention Roman Opalka, who began “painting time” in the 1960s and used counting from the number one to infinity. He paints a gray canvas the same size as the studio door where he adds one percent white to each painting. The goal is to paint white on white before he dies. He estimates he will reach white at number 7,777,777. Roman Opalka should have passed 5,000,000 by now. At the end of each day he takes a photograph of himself in the studio in front of his painting and the project is complete only after his death. Compared to Opalka, my project will not be completed after my life, but rather is continually completed in every moment. It is in phase with my life here and now.
AK: One should not undervalue the aesthetics of repetition. In particular, projects intended to continue an entire life demand respect and impress simply through the existential time perspective. Such a work of art can lead our attention to all the everyday actions that existence is made up of. We eat, sleep, work, buy things, throw things away, talk, socialize, walk, stand, sit and so on. The difference is that we do all this mostly without critical reflection, while the artwork is a reflecting, conscious and controlled action – a ritual action aimed at communicating in some way to others. And it’s the repetitive action, not the individual work, that gives the serial artwork its value and power.
You have said that your ideas often arise through your work with graphic art. Can you explain this in more detail?
JD: I think more about ideas than techniques but many of my ideas begin as graphic art and lead to painting, sculptures and installations. I received my first art education at the Grafikskolan i Stockholm (Graphic Arts School in Stockholm) and learned to think in graphics. I think it is still there in the back of my head as soon as I am about to do something. For me, things gain a value through repetition. A coffee cup is just a coffee cup but if you have 10,000 cups, they turn into something else. It’s the same thing with the shirt paintings and the shirts – a striped shirt is just a shirt while 100 shirts are an enormous visual experience. As a young man I worked part-time at my mother’s job with putting letters in envelopes. It could be advertisement mailings with 6,000 letters. My practical work as an artist isn’t so different from those mailings.
AK: Graphic art is by its nature serial–and that seems to fit in well with your work process. Your works often consist of collections of objects or of series of variations on a certain theme. What does series mean to you?
JD: I have a hard time summarizing everything in a single image. It is easier to use the individual images to build up a total. My work serves as a watering can that spreads droplets so that something new grows – kind of the opposite of Professor Balthazar, the cartoon figure from the 1960’s, who concentrates everything in his machine into a single miracle drop that contains everything.