Peter Stämpfli par Alfred Pacquement

31.05.2018
Peter Stämpfli par Alfred Pacquement — Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois

Le Quotidien
Huile sur toile
1964

Alfred Pacquement
We’re going to allude to the beginning of the sixties: the 1962-1964 period which forms the real onset of your work as a painter and serves as the subject matter for this exhibition. You then addressed topics drawn from the real world: shaping the first corpus of your work. I would like you to describe the context in which these paintings were made, the artistic milieu in which you dwelled, the exhibitions you saw. Coming to Paris from Switzerland in 1960, how did your eye train itself, so to speak? And how, little by little, a body of work came together that would lead to the paintings you’ll show for the first time at the 1963 Paris Biennale?

Peter Stämpfli
I began by attending the School of Applied Arts in Biel in 1954-58. For me, it was already a choice because, as opposed to my younger days, I was able to work with paint, with colors; I could move toward something that interested me whereas my parents had wanted me to become a doctor. So, I enrolled in this school, where, very quickly, my teachers noticed that I was not making advertisings but paintings, rather. For example, I was asked to treat the “Eat fresh fruit” theme, in other words: design a poster with fruits. For this assignment, I made collages. Naturally, Matisse’s collages influenced me, and my piece became a painting rather than and advertisment. It did not invite to eat fruits, as an ad would have done. I showed it to my teacher, a former student of André Lhote called Max von Mühlenen who had a painting school in Bern.

I showed him my paintings, or at least this attempt, and he said to me “You must become a painter: come to my classes”. What I really liked about Max von Mühlenen was that he was open to a variety of trends. We drew from art models but not necessarily in academic ways, we could make a cube for the head, a rectangle for the body, etc. He respected all young artists in their experiments, unlike Fernand Léger’ school where all students ended up making Legers eventually. I became his assistant, his friend. He had received commissions to make stained-glass windows for Swiss churches so I learned stained glass. With him, I also made a large panel for the 1956 Brussels World Fair. So, I worked with a real artist, a real painter. He opened my eyes and I dropped out of the school that didn’t interest me any longer. The teachers told me that I wasn’t cut out for advertising but to become an artist anyway. They advised me to leave.

In 1958, Arnold Rüdlinger, then director of the Basel Kunsthalle, exhibited American Abstract Expressionism for the first time in Europe. It made a big impression on me. I took the train to Basel to go see the exhibition. When I came back, I wasn’t the same man anymore. I’d had an experience that made me see the scope of these paintings, not just in relation to their size, but also through their expression. I packed my bags and left for Paris.

A.P.
Was it Pollock especially, who impressed you, or was it the entire show?

P.S.
Pollock in particular, I think. Pollock’s gesture, but also Kline, Baziotes, Rothko…

A.P.
All this expressive strength…

P.S.
Gottlieb, too, with his simplicity, his gesture… Later, someone told me: “I understand why you loved Gottlieb since you painted a tomato in an almost Gottliebian red”. I did not understand it at the time, but it changed my life, my vision of art; suddenly I could no longer belong to an academic school. So I went to Paris, where I knew absolutely no one, not a soul. I was very lucky because once I’d arrived, I went straight to a hotel in Montmartre and started looking for a place to work. Unknowingly, I knocked at the Bateau-Lavoir’s door at 10 AM just as a guy came out, whose name was Pransky. I spoke to him in French, which he did not understand, then tried German and Italian. Finally we spoke English! He said: “Come in, there’s a room downstairs, give me 50 francs and it’s yours.” It was a tremendous piece of luck for me: on the second day after my arrival, I already had a 2.000 sq. ft. studio at the Bateau-Lavoir, to start working. In fact, it was a misunderstanding: the workshop belonged to Darius Milhaud’s son, Daniel, who was in Florence at the time and had warned Pransky someone would come by to pick up the keys. I got there before the other man!

I then settled in the studio and, still under the influence of the Basel shock, of Arnold Rüdlinger’s exhibition, went out to buy rolls of blank canvasses, without any primer. I unfolded them in this large space, bought industrial paint, and was inspired by the revelation of Pollock. I made a dozen paintings to let the steam off, because it was necessary for me to find an outlet, in one way or another, for this newly acquired total freedom to live, work and paint.

Shortly after, I visited the Facchetti Gallery, which had been the first in France to show Pollock and some Americans. Mrs. Facchetti introduced me to an art critic named Charles Delloye who had connections with young American artists in France, such as Sam Francis, Kimber Smith, Shirley Jaffe and Joan Mitchell. Facchetti told me, “Get yourself a copy of Life, there are reports on the current Americans.” So, I bought one, and, in my little hotel room, I hung reproductions of Pollock, Rothko and Kline…

A.P.
Did you showed your paintings to Facchetti?

P.S.
No. I didn’t show them to anyone, it was a youthful romp.

A.P.
Were they large formats?

P.S.
Very large formats, yes, up to 20 feet.

Then, I met Anna Maria. We got married and moved to rue Notre-Dame de Lorette in Delacroix’s former workshop – as I learnt later. I totally abandoned this mode of expression and asked myself the question: “All that, it exists already. One mustn’t remake what exists, one must invent something new.” That’s when I turned to photography. I understood that in art, one must always react to what exists, to revolt against it so as to invent.

Using photography came to me through some English painters: Hockney, Jones, Blake, whom I saw from a distance because at the time, travelling was not so easy, we didn’t have the coverage that’s offered today through magazines, newspapers or television… I was aware of Roy Lichtenstein’s existence, of Wesselman and of a few others. I started to be a frequent visitor to Ileana Sonnabend’s first gallery, on quai des Grands Augustins, while I was working on my subjects from photographs found in magazines. It was totally the opposite of what I had done before, and the analysis of photography fascinated me.

Michael and Ileana Sonnabend came to my studio. Mike said, “Fantastic, you’re the best Pop in the world!”. The truth is that the Sonnabends wanted (or at least promised) to organize a show with European artists, featuring Richter, French artists like Daniel Pommereulle, Roy Adzak from Australia, some others and me. They selected six of my paintings. We were all so proud having been chosen by the best gallery of the time despite our age! But, time passed, they were exhibiting the Americans and we were still waiting for our show until we realized there was a catch: what they really wanted was to silence us by concealing our work. The proof quickly followed, in 1964, when the Venice Grand Prix was awarded to Rauschenberg. I managed to have (parcequ’en fait, il est carrément allé les chercher en “forçant la porte”) my paintings back. They’d been consigned for two years.

A.P.
Do you think that their interest was to avoid European competition?

P.S.
Absolutely, because there were artists of great importance, like Richter, Pistoletto…

But I wanted to show these works… Meanwhile, Switzerland was looking for someone to exhibit at the third Paris Biennale in 1963. I sent a dozen paintings to the Federal Palace in Bern for the selection process, and was chosen, along with another artist, Christian Megert, who was a sculptor working with mirrors. I was able to exhibit five paintings in the Swiss sector.

For me, this marked the beginning of a new adventure. Looking back at the catalog of that biennale, one notices that very few artists were treating their subjects through photographs, or inspired by photography. There were Blake, Hockney and Jones, there were also artists like Kudo, but my French friends such as Rancillac were still under the influence of Lyrical Abstraction. My entry for the Biennale earned me very bad reviews, including that of Gassiot-Talabot who wrote something like “Swiss graphic design takes up residence on the museum walls”. It also aroused the interest of Otto Hahn who came to visit my workshop and recommended me to Jean Larcade. Larcade was a great man; he chose a painting for his first exhibition, rue Bonaparte: Pop Por Pop Corn Corny. My Pudding was hanging next to works by Dalí, Schwitters and Bryen. There were only two young artists, Jean-Pierre Raynaud and I. Larcade went on and offered Raynaud a personal exhibition. He did the same with me a little later.

A.P.
He had shown a remarkable number of artists who became huge figures, I’m thinking of Bacon, of Jasper John… But, let me come back for a while to this exercise with fruits you were given at the School of Applied Art. Was it already a painting?

P.S.
It was a collage; Matisse inspired me…

A.P.
You mean, a collage with images taken from ads?

P.S.
No. I made a bowl cut out of paper and I placed the fruits (un s non?) there … Perhaps the Pot-au-feu that I painted later is the outcome of this.

A.P.
Asking you this question, I was in fact thinking of this 1963 painting you mention which, by the way, is a rather distinctive piece compared to others because, for the rest, they often are close-ups of single objects: an iron for instance, or a pair of shoes, isolated on a white background. And there, on the other hand, there is an effect of collage, of assembly.

P.S.
There probably is an influence of collage in the distribution of the five elements in an empty space. Let me clarify my technique: I began with a photo cutout from a magazine advert or another. I picked it up and projected it by slide or with an episcope on the studio wall. I gave it the proper size, the distance it took for it to gain the maximum possible tension – be it a fridge, a washing machine, a phone, a hand holding a cigarette or a hand holding a glove. Thus, I was able to determine the painting’s format, always in large dimensions (I’ve never made small paintings). The second step was projecting these photos on my canvas, rolled out on the wall, projecting the image and drawing it, painting the object as I wanted it to be. Once it was painted, I placed it in a kind of void, a white background that sort of acted as a continuous space. The object floated there and the important question was to decide where the space should end. I put black dots, left, right, up and down, and one shouldn’t make a mistake because had it been placed two centimeters lower, the object would have crumbled, no longer breathing. It had to have as much empty space – which was the white background for me – as it needed to stay alive! And it was only after this operation that I made measurements and ordered the chassis, each of them obviously chosen according to each piece.

A.P.
How do you feel today about these paintings in relation to Pop Art? You were talking about Gassiot-Talabot; I read a review he wrote in 1963, so I think he’s reporting about the Biennale, where he says of your paintings that they “escape Pop Art’s brutal terms”.

P.S.
Correct, yes, I remember.

A.P.
So, had you at least seen reproductions of these Anglo-Saxon works?

P.S.
I think my painting has a very personal touch and that one can’t necessarily tie it to a trend. Of course, art critics, journalists and historians always try to classify artists according to labels: this one is Narrative Figuration, that one is Pop, and so on. My approach is probably more Anglo-Saxon than that of other French friends who developed Narrative Figuration. Actually, I was often criticized for this. People thought I had nothing to do in the exhibitions of this group gathered by Gassiot-Talabot. However, I am not offering narratives but the assessment of an object. When I painted the Machine à Laver (washing machine), there were negative reactions that shocked me to the extent which I was told it had nothing to do with art, it was just advertising. In 1980, on the occasion of my exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, Georges Perec wrote the catalog’s introduction and titled it: “Alphabet for Stämpfli”. I believe that artists have always been precursors, from age to age, they are witnesses of their time, but before it is acknowledged.

A.P.
Yes, that’s so true. To go back to the way the painting is fabricated, you said you started by cutting out magazines or posters. How did you do that since you said you didn’t buy magazines?

P.S.
I didn’t have the money to buy the magazine, which cost 20 francs. So I had a knife in my pocket and, discreetly, I cut out the pages with objects I found inspiring. When I arrived in Paris, from our dear little Switzerland, with its respectable mentality but limited in its scale, I had a shock in the Paris subway, confronted to the repetition of posters, in very large dimensions. Unconsciously, without a doubt, it gave me a taste for the large format.

A.P.
And so, this photo that you cut out, you say, discreetly…

P.S.
That’s the lesser of it!

A.P.
Did you then make a collage before proceeding to the painting?

P.S.
No, I tore or cut out the page in the bookstore or at the stationer’s. Then, with this page, I had to compose the framing of the object I was going to use. For example, in a magazine, there was an ad for a drink. I cut it out and made the painting called Brandy, which now belongs to the Thun Museum. It’s only a detail of the original ad because I was always interested in details. Later on, when I switched to my favorite theme, it never was entire cars: like the photographer with his lens, I carried on with the image of the wheel, and then went further in, focusing on the tire. My entire career as a painter has been like the zoom of a photographer, that is to say the enlargement of an object until it almost reaches abstraction, starting from this theme, which fascinated me all my life.

A.P.
So there is no intermediate stage between the cutout picture and the projection, no collage?

P.S.
No. There’s no collage; it’s a cutout.

A.P.
And the resulting shape is then projected on the wall…

P.S.
Projected with an episcope, very primitively since, back then, we didn’t have the technical means we use nowadays. Projected at the scale I wanted to give to it, so as to confer the maximum tension to this object. Then, it was up to me as a painter to intervene and translate the object I had chosen into painting. Of course, I didn’t select any object: the ones I chose reflected the world around me. We live in a large city; my painting is thus urban. It’s not in the countryside that I would have been confronted to these ads. The theme of the car comes into play a little later, and through it, I also came across a kind of geometry that I developed later on.

A.P.
Before the car takes a dominant place in your work, during these first two or three years, your themes often depict domestic life, everyday objects evoking modern living. And then there are a lot of images relating to the representation of woman, make-up, lipstick… That’s obviously what you draw from magazines, but, as you were just saying, it’s not any subject, any object. The selection is very precise.

P.S.
What I wanted to do was to render the history that surrounds us, share the way I saw our gestures and our everyday objects. So, completely banal objects like phones or fridges, and I was criticized for this. In fact, I had stored the fridge painting in Switzerland, in my parents’ cellar, because it was not easy to hang a fridge in the dining room. I invited Harald Szeemann to see my paintings – the first person to see them in Switzerland – and he made extremely interesting comments. He said, “It’s great, but you should go into further precision! So that, at last, we see what you got in the fridge…” As for Ma voiture (1963), where, for the speedometer, I had drawn lines instead of writing 80, 100, 120… He said I should paint the figures and wanted to initiate me into a kind of Hyperrealism…

A.P.
He wanted you to be more realistic.

P.S.
More realistic, yes, since, at the time, American a form of Hyperrealism already existed in the US. But I remained faithful to my interpretation because, probably, on the original document I’d used, I could not read the numbers on the dial!

A.P.
One important painting, if only because it was selected for the Biennale and reproduced in the catalog, is Autoportrait au raglan. Is it really a self-portrait?

P.S.
This self-portrait is a man taken from an ad, but I didn’t say it then because that’s forbidden. I cut him out because I liked him, because he was walking in a vacuum, although he also had a shadow on the ground that I erased. It seems to me that he symbolized the contemporary world: the man who walks in the city. Where is he coming from? Where is he heading? We do not know. He is in a vacuum. It also relates to cinema. This painting had no title and I submitted it to the Paris Biennale jury in Switzerland. My teacher, who was on the jury, said: “But it’s you! You, walking with your overcoat on.” The title was found: Autoportrait au raglan (Self portrait with Wide Coat) .

A.P.
So, at the Biennale, there was a lot of reaction when these paintings were exhibited for the first time in public.

P.S.
Yes, and from then on, Harald Szeemann started paying close attention. In the Biel’s municipal gallery, he exhibited a selection of young artists in a show called 25 Bernese and Biennese artists where he showed my paintings. So he meant a lot for the beginning of my career.

Then came the Swiss National Exhibition in Lausanne, in 1964, and I showed Rubis, a rose on a yellow background, at the Café des Arts. Today, it belongs to the Bern Museum. And since we mention yellow backgrounds, I want to emphasize that there are few paintings where the elements are not placed in a kind of empty space, white and neutral. There is Gala with its green space, there’s Cocktail also, and some others (like Le Quotidien and Proud Beauty in this exhibition).

A.P.
It foreshadows the rest of your work, this neutrality and the choice of a flat painting, a cold technique. Is this in opposition to your first Neo-Pollockian paintings?

P.S.
No, these pieces were made with industrial paint, similar to the one Pollock used himself. I bought paint to cover my walls; it was the same paint that was used for the paintings.

A.P.
So there was no material effect.

P.S.
On the other hand, what Otto Hahn reproached me for was not to use acrylic paint. He said oil was not modern. But I still remained faithful to it throughout my career. Eventually, I made very large acrylic paintings, but it simply was for technical reasons. Otherwise, all the paintings are made with oil on canvas, classic, that’s it.

A.P.
It seems to me there was not so much use of acrylic paint in the early 60’s.

P.S.
No, but Otto Hahn was the Pope of acrylic, he used to say oil stank…

A.P.
Yes, he’d defended what had been called Mec Art, that is to say, mechanical art, in a printed form.

P.S.
If one wants to summarize my entire artistic approach – but to tell the truth I don’t have a large production- one notices that I work for a long time on a given painting. Why oil? Because it allowed me to pick up the same piece the day after and keep working on it, since it wasn’t dry yet, and so, just technically, I felt better painting with oil than with acrylic.

A.P.
You do not have a large production; nevertheless, I was struck, looking a little closer at this 1963 to 1965 period, that you still painted a lot, in those years. You probably had the feeling of having discovered something you wanted to deepen…

P.S.
Yes, having discovered something and wanting to be quick in putting it into practice.

A.P.
This shows in your production, in the proliferation of subjects. But why did you never make small paintings, small formats, at that time

P.S.
Well, for a very simple reason: it seemed to me that an object could not be represented smaller than real, than in reality.

A.P.
Yes, but then, a tomato! You could have made a tomato a little bigger than real without it becoming a huge painting!

P.S.
I do not make miniatures. As I was saying, the huge subway posters inspired me to see the world differently through painting.

A.P.
What will follow in your work is its dominant theme: that of the automobile, the car, a fragment of car, focusing more and more on the wheel, the tire, and so on … The course you’re following is very coherent.

P.S.
Yes. After that, I became interested in the car, the wheel, although never showing an entire car. For me, the car wheel related to movies. I made two films, first Firebird, about the wheel, the rotating car wheel, and then Ligne continue, which follows road markings, with a soundtrack by Daniel Humair on drums. It is again a zooming in of the photographer who approaches this wheel, frontally, and transforms it into a quasi-abstraction. In 1969, I painted SS 396 N° 2, a wheel seen from the side which is a tondo of over 6 ft. in diameter, a cutout frame. It was the logical continuation of my research since it is the only painting, apart from Rouge baiser (which represents cut-out lips), that can be hung in space. I wanted the object to be set free from its background, from its space, with this tondo-shaped painting, no longer inspired by photograph as in the previous paintings, but drawn on a table, as an architect or a land surveyor would have done. This painting was a seminal piece. I only made a single one like that and, from then on, keeping on zooming; I chose to focus solely on the upper part of the wheel. Then, Grand Prix appeared, my first tire, 20 ft. wide in the shape of a half moon. The next step was entering into the tire itself, with my presentation for the 1971 Paris Biennale, where the object leaves a 100 ft. long tread mark, screen-printed on the ground. Then, I did that on the wall at Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, in 1972. Thereafter, the tire disappears as an object. What’s left are tread marks or details. The theme becomes abstract and I then treated it in all possible techniques, making monumental sculptures in several countries, watercolors, drawings…

A.P.
All kinds of media, too.

P.S.
… Charcoal, pastel, bronze, and each time, so as to penetrate further into the details of what has become a quasi-abstraction today, but which isn’t in fact because it is linked to a well-defined object.

A.P.
That is to say that the point of departure always remains present, as in the background…

P.S.
I am an Abstract Figurative painter or a Figurative Abstract painter.

A.P.
Yes, one can say that for a decade, you were a painter who relied on the surrounding reality and that, after a decade, you moved away from this reality toward an approach tending to abstraction. It’s a way of carrying on with the theme, which remains in the background, always present, but which disappears more and more in the image’s perception.

P.S.
It disappears in favor of painting, if you will.

A.P.
For the viewer who discovers certain works, say those of the past ten years, the reference to the original subject may not appear at first sight. Even a watchful eye doesn’t necessarily see it.

P.S.
When I look around, at current productions or even in the past, I can’t think of a lot of artists who, during their careers, have developed a single subject at a level of total realism up to a so-called abstraction, always remaining true to a single theme, in this case, the tire.

Over a 60 years span, my work began with an observation of objects in which I penetrated, zoomed, until I finally chose, through passage, through wheels, to focus on a single object.

A.P.
There are artists who have stopped at a pattern and eventually developed their entire work on this pattern, it’s been seen. But in your case, it’s very different. You start with a subject rather than from a pattern. You must have been very proud when the Swiss Post chose to commemorate Pop Art’s anniversary with these paintings?

P.S.
They wanted to release stamps with several Swiss artists and opted for three stamps by me, which are a great success and which, in fact, made me famous. Then, they made another edition with Franz Gertsch, in a completely different direction.

A.P.
What is exciting, also, is that we commemorate Pop Art through your work… It’s the most beautiful revenge on the little adventures you were telling about earlier!

P.S.
I’ve already been told, “I am sending you a Stämpfli!” In the past, when one went to the post office, one used to say: “I’m sending you a pneumatic tube! Là il faut qu’on réussisse à retranscrire la blague. Par exemple : « I’m sending you a Pneu (wich is the French word for Tire) !”

Paris, May 31, 2018


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