Hans Ulrich Obrist beszélgetése Nádler Istvánnal

Hans Ulrich Obrist: - I thought we should start with the beginning and ask how you came to art or how art came to you.

István Nádler: - I think I should start with high school, which I started in 1954. And what I think is very important is that in those times, it was a closed world. It wasn't really possible to know about things, but my teachers, like my master and the art history teacher screened films, for instance, of Picasso drawing - I think it was through a glass panel that you could see him drawing, how he works. Which means that we already knew about the main tendencies in Western art as early as 1954. And it's very important that I had already sensed at this point the creative force that creates a line, for instance, through Picasso's act of drawing.

HUO: - You said in an interview with Nóra Winkler, who asked you about the 1970s, that you wouldn't jump over the 1960s, because for you, the '60s was the purest period. "It's when our small little community was held together by the power of ideas". Can you tell us about this community?

IN:- This community was actually truly formed in the last years at the Academy. Here it has to be mentioned all the same, that after Picasso, Braque and Matisse, at the Academy, we would already be familiar with the École de Paris, which was a definitive experience. So this could also be considered an influence.

HUO: - Your catalogue raisonné seems to start with a painting from 1963, Nike. What makes this painting so important?

IN:- In the last year at the Academy, this was the first work that I could accept as something I could present. It represented a level that I could stand behind. And what's also interesting at the Academy, is that besides the École de Paris, it was already possible to know about Béla Hamvas who gave information practically about the "universal basic stance", through the basis of Eastern philosophy. And this painting Nike is also about the relation with the "above" and the "below". With Nike it's impossible to know whether she's just ascending or arriving. So in this sense, it also reflects the process of creation.

HUO: - At that time, you were still connected to these movements like informel, and then something happened in 1968. There was this exhibition in Stuttgart at the Galerie Müller with Imre Bak, and that's when your experiments with informel gave way to the first hard edge paintings. How did you come to hard edge, and who were the influences? I've always been fascinated by this American painter, Nicholas Krushenick, so I was wondering if he was an inspiration. Who else inspired you?

IN:- In 1964, Americans entered Europe, in the sense that they came to the Venice Biennale. And we saw that in Venice. But already at the Academy I had an idea to bring close the two worlds of the geometry and the emotional, taking my emotional basic stance as a point of departure. I did an experiment to achieve this, which failed, and then it became clear that I had to gain experiences from both sides, and that was how I turned towards geometry. Practically, the paintings here are also about this "universal basic stance", that there are the two opposite sides, there is the centre, and when these two opposite sides approach the centre, something happens.

HUO: - Imre Bak said about this exhibition that it was kind of hard edge and paprika. So it's local and global. And Imre was talking a lot about this idea of folklore, traditional folklore. How did you bring local and folklore into hard-edge?

IN:- First, to return to our exhibition at the Galerie Mueller: we painted the paintings on spot, with one question in mind: how we could represent something from the basic stance of hard edge, which would be not American but definitively Hungarian. And then came the evident musical influence; Bartók was a role model for us in this sense, the way he formulated his approach to folklore, and the way he incorporated it into his own formal universe. And this was how I found the flower petal motif in folk art. For instance, the painting Petal Motif No. 2.: there is the petal motif, and it is always built upon some movement. What shapes the forms is a process that starts a movement. In this case, there is the flower petal motif, and the movement gets pressure from one side, while another force stretches it downward; the movement is initiated from two directions. The era always has a grasp on you, the era you are working in. This is a tougher basic stance, practically the visualisation of violence. Here [Violence, 1968] too, the movement is bidirectional, and partly aggressive: there is this soft shape - the theme - in the middle, which is nevertheless stretched by the two other shapes. The "universal basic stances" work in a way that there is a centre, and from right and left are the two opposites. The Creator created the world by separating chaos from order, visible from invisible, and our role. or at least I think that the artist's role is precisely to unite these. To resolve this opposition by approaching the centre from the two extreme poles.

HUO: - Like here. [referring to the painting Avar Motif, 1968]

IN:- Like here, for instance, there are two opposite worlds, one is stronger, the other gentler. One from the side, the other from below. It's actually very interesting, that at the Müller exhibition the gallery's artists strongly stood by us very supportively. For instance, Krushenick bought a painting from me. They sensed what my intention was, to formulate things distinctly, to make them Hungarian. There was an article about the show, too, entitled "Hard-edge mit Paprika". And a very interesting aftermath, in the Seuphor Encyclopaedia, an entry was published about me and Imre Bak as well. This was the first time one could be represented in the West.

HUO: - Now, in 1968 there was a very important exhibition called Iparterv. It is often credited to be the show when the avant-garde came together. Can you tell us a little bit about your memories and about what happened there?

IN:- It was that fortunate moment when everybody's foundations - the way they had started - came to fruition, that was a very fortunate constellation of everyone here. And afterwards it was only a question of organising, and that Iparterv undertook this, undertook us.

HUO: - And were you or did you feel part of a group or a movement?

IN:- No.

HUO: - But you and Imre Bak were close.

IN:- Indeed, with Imre Bak we worked already close during our last year at the Academy; we would visit each other's studio all the time. It was a very fortunate relationship because we approached the image from two contrasting stances and we influenced each other to the benefit of quality.

HUO: - I'm interested in this idea that you say you would visit each other's studio, and out of the initiatives that was obviously underground. I'm friends with Karl-Heinz Adler, the great East-German abstractionist, and he always explains that abstraction was illegal under communism, and you couldn't really be an abstract artist and exhibit, so a lot of these activities happened in the underground; it happened between the studios, but it's also things the artists organised themselves: for example, you organised the Budapest Workshop, so I wanted to hear a little bit more about these self-organised initiatives.

IN:- First, let me mention something we haven't talked about, only tangentially, the Zugló Circle. That was right after the Academy: a group of friends gathering in an apartment reading theoretical texts and analysing artworks. Dictatorships always undermine themselves by mobilising the inner forces of freedom, and during those years, there has never been such cohesion, such an experience of belonging together with others, or that sort of solidarity. And not just solidarity, but also standing up for and helping the other. For instance, we were on very good terms with Dieter Honisch from 1968 on who was vice director of the Folkwang-Museum in Essen, and later became the director of the National Gallery in Berlin. He visited Hungary multiple times over the 1960s, around 1966. I had a little Fiat 500 back then, and I drove him from one artist to another so he could see what they were doing. He said this was unimaginable in Berlin. For an artist to direct him to another artist, or help them.

HUO: - So Dieter Honisch was the connection to the West?

IN:- Mainly, yes. He was very fond of Hungarian art. He mentions in an interview how many Hungarian artists he purchased paintings from, and how many from other Eastern European countries. Well, the ratio was in our favour in his case. Not to mention that he bought a house here in Hegymagas.

HUO: - If you look at the historic avant-garde of the 20th century, Dada, Surrealism, there's always a bridge between the disciplines, from art to literature, from art to music, and you mention in an interview that literature was actually very important for you, because Béla Hamvas was a great inspiration. Béla Hamvas was an inspiration also for Imre Bak, and for almost everyone, and he's not really known outside Hungary. So it's kind of a mystery to me. What was it about Béla Hamvas that inspired you? Or was it like Béla Hamvas was important for Budapest like Kafka was for Prague?

IN:- I can only speak about what touched me, which was this "universal basic stance" I have already mentioned. I didn't know him personally - although he lived nearby. That time, his books were only available in illegally reproduced, typewritten [samizdat] copies. And what was important to me, was this "universal basic stance".

HUO: - It's something to do with metaphysics, if I understand well.

IN:- This is a basic stance where you have to reach a state when you give up your ego. You can only do that if you also give up the preparation for your work and can advance into a more free, more open domain, open towards infinity. This is the essence, the lack of ego. So not that you come up with things and enhance or approach them to formulate them, but that it can also happen without the ego. It's metaphysics, and it's meditation.

HUO: - When did you start to meditate?

IN:- There was a period in my career when I reached a low point. And, in a sense, meditation that helped me through it and aided my healing, was a result of this low point. A meditation aimed at a gentle energy flow.

HUO: - But that has to do with positive energy, and your paintings indeed have a very positive energy.

IN:- In this field you can only work with positive energies.

HUO: - What's the methodology, how do you work? Do you prepare the paintings, making sketches and drawings, or is it spontaneous?

IN:- In this case [showing an early painting in his catalogue], it's absolutely precisely pre-drawn. By millimetre precision.

It's very important where one works. I'm very sensitive of my surroundings. For instance, I painted these paintings in Vence in 1970, which is of course landscape style. The mimosa tree, a sunset, one with morning lights. So the landscape, the colours, the representation of Mediterranean colours. And right after this I went to Essen - on the invitation by Honisch - where Westphalia was such a grey industrial area, so that I couldn't continue that automatically.

HUO: - I can imagine that in Westphalia it's greyer than in the South of France.

IN:- Yes, grey. But there I discovered a very typical form. Each of my periods has a signal-like form, in this case, it's the diagonal.

HUO: - I read an interview where you refer to that as signal art. What is signal art? How did you define signal art?

IN:- I wasn't interested in signal art as such, but to have a characteristic form that defines the particular way of thinking in a period. In this period around 1971, series had an important role. In this case what motivated me was that square is always constant, it's the Existence. Diagonal is Time. And as the diagonal is growing, it always intersects the constant at other points.

HUO: - Can you say that again? So the square is always the same. You begin with the square?

IN:- It's constant, practically, it's Existence. And the diagonal is Time. And always in different ratios, as the diagonal is growing, upwards here, it always intersects with the constant at a different ratio, a different point. So, there's the vertical, the beginning, and constantly, as the square is formed, it's the middle, and then the horizontal ensues from the vertical, or the process of beginning and demise, the end.

HUO: - The end? What's the end? Does it have an end?

IN:- Well. that I don't know. Otherwise, this theme intrigued me later on as well, the role of the constant and the variable. Even after geometry. What is important to me is that I always move on intuitively. I intuited that I had to deal with geometry; this period lasted from around 1968 until 1979, when I started to feel that this much experience was enough. That I have to move on. And I tried to resolve this formally in a way that forms became white. So the emphasis here is not on the form but on the colour.

HUO: - You say, in the late 1970s, there is a new period where colour is the main component but there is more emotion. You call it "emotional geometry". What would be the definition of the emotional content of those symbolic spaces? These works are very intensive, like Memory of my Father, or Mourning, that kind of symbolic spaces where colours expand. Can you tell me about that?

IN:- This came from how the loss of a loved one affects someone. I painted these paintings in relation to the death of my father. The other thing is that geometry, this bipolarity always interested me. If I was on the side of geometry, I also always brought in elements from the other side, from the side of the emotions. So I never clearly made geometry in the sense the concretists had done, for instance.

HUO: - You mentioned somewhere that around 1977, you found a plastic diagonal motif, so you started to go into more dimensions, from 2D to 3D. Can you talk a little bit about what brought you into going to sculpture?

IN:- It was the same period when I had turned towards white. On the one hand, I prepared the next step: to cut myself radically adrift from geometry. And these were so automatic. well, not automatic, but it came really easy, that they could be transferred to plastic art. Like here, plasticity is outlined, and it practically just depends on where one bends the form, and then how one puts it together. Formally, it was so self evident. And with this I wanted to conclude geometry for good.

HUO: - I was also interested if you at that time went into large scale public sculpture, and eventually also architecture.

IN:- There were a couple of commissions. Dieter Honisch, for instance, commissioned this plastic work [Three Forms, 1980], for the National Gallery of West Berlin. A school also commissioned me to make a plastic work [Artificial Stone Sculpture, 1978]. There I imagined a basic stance, such as that everyone starts with a clean slate; and processes then shape the students.

HUO: - Clean slate in the literal, or in a metaphorical sense?

IN:- In metaphorical sense.

HUO: - In the 1980s, you somehow came back to painting. 1980 is a symbolic year - Tibor Hajas died, Ákos Birkás also came back to painting. There seems to be something changing in 1980 in Budapest. What happened in 1980?

IN:- I don't really have affiliations. If things happen outside, it's a coincidence. I take my own course. The same way I had experienced geometry, now I had to revisit and re-experience the practice of intuitive painting. This actually wasn't an easy task; I had abandoned geometry while it still had a lot of potential.

HUO: - It must have been quite traumatic, since your entire work was previously connected to geometry. Can you tell me what prompted that? Picabia says our head is round-shaped so that we can change direction. Maybe it's that?

IN:- It's much simpler than that. One chooses a path to take. I wanted to take that universal path, which is through gaining experiences: I had this with geometry. But I felt that this process had been concluded, and, to be able to move forward, I had to gain new experiences. One can only move forward by way of experiences. And the experiences of geometry were sufficient for me to take the next step and to revisit and re-experience the other side. And then the moment came when, around 1985, I tried to visualise geometry and emotions in one painting, to place the two extreme poles in the centre.

HUO: - During this time, it seems that music also played an important role. There are references to Xenakis, Debussy, and to Steve Reich in your paintings from the early 1980s. That's an important chapter, I suppose.

IN:- The early 1980s - it was a period of waiting and figuring out how to take the next step and in what direction. And then, by chance, I bought a Steve Reich record in Germany. Listening to that, and quite consciously so, I tried to connect these two poles emotionally, by way of the gesture. What was important here again was to somehow connect consciousness and emotions. This was my freest period, especially after that much geometry. I could formulate any experience that affected me. In terms of music, or literature. I could, for instance, render onto canvas the poems by Dezső Tandori. I could transfer Biblical citations. But perhaps the strongest influence was music.

HUO: - So it liberated you.

IN:- Yes.

HUO: - And then yet there is another phase, which is often described as "post-conceptual impressionism". You turned your style in 1980, and then around 1984, something changed again. You were free, but here you seem to be completely free. Because the paintings don't resemble each other, they're no longer series; each of them is different: there are different seasons [e.g. Autumn, 1983], different times of the day [e.g. Noon, 1984], and grand gestures [Grand Gesture, 1984].

IN:- But the point where I experienced the representation of the free world, with this radiating liberty was in 1985. Then I tried to visualise geometry, and emotions, and gesture all together at once. I had a quite extraordinary idea, that I'd take the Yellow Parallelogram of Malevich, which is at the Stedelijk, and with a simple gesture, I gave it a nudge here on the side. And this made me realise that I'd practically created the basic stance of the beginnings. As Nike also barely touches the ground, this form is also practically hovering between above and below [Hommage a Malevich, 1985]. And then this form was practically equivalent to the constant, and the changing of the days and the intention, these place the form into another situation, and practically starts endowing the form differently. So that this form, this is the basis, this is constant, and each time, with each intention, in the case of each intention to express oneself, it is endowed in a different way.

HUO: - Yeah, this form keeps recurring again and again. And what it's interesting is that its is no longer the universalist geometric language, it's each time specific in a way. We live in the era of a homogenised globalisation, and this idea of a universalist language is dangerous. At the same time, we have a counter-reaction against the international style: we have a new localism, we have a new nationalism, we have a new racism, in many places of the world. So it's interesting how you and Imre Bak found that third way. Because this seems to be an international language, yet you somehow locally anchored it. Is my interpretation right, or how would you see that?

IN:- Well, your interpretation is absolutely on point. It's an international language, but it isn't related to any international tendency. What makes it different it's not just a local characteristic, but also mirrors the image of the self, the momentary state of the self.

HUO: - Deleuze talks about the notion of repetition and difference: it's always the same and it's different. Can you talk about repetition and difference?

IN:- This is more about the intention of expression: what one wants, what experiences one has, and then they find the suitable form to express that. For instance, when I got invited to the museum in Graz in 1989, it was the time of the revolutionary events in Romania. And that automatically disrupted the program I was preparing for the exhibition. I'm bringing this as an example of how sensibility, how external events influence the image.

HUO: - Timi?oara, Bucharest - this is the revolution. And that leads us to the question of society and politics; I wanted to ask about the political dimension of your work. The historic avant-garde had a political dimension; Yve-Alain Bois wrote a whole book on Mondrian, Painting as Model - a model for society, and here there is a chapter about art in the service of society. You are about experiments in art, but you've also lived through so many historic upheavals: the dictatorship, then the revolution, and now it seems that the situation here is almost like in Russia, so not necessarily a democracy any more, like a sort of quasi-democracy. And you've lived through all these moments of history in the making, and I'm interested in this idea to which extent the society and the societal dimensions enter the work, and how you believe art can be at the service of society. Joseph Beuys talked about the social sculptor. Do you think there is a social dimension to painting?

IN:- Well, if there's something, you can't evade it, you have to represent it. And practically the whole start right at the end of the Academy was about this, an undertaking of what one would do. And this, the undertaking itself automatically opposed the ruling power. The prevailing power, the power back then. I'm just saying as a curiosity that at the graduate exhibition, there were already abstract things on show; at that time that was unprecedented at the Academy. Unexpectedly, György Aczél [Minister for Culture] personally came to see the show. Consequently, the exhibition was shut down, and my master, who was director of the Academy of Arts and Crafts, was fired for standing by us. So it began already back then. That's a natural thing that, when needed, one should express oneself in a way that serves the positive, the good. But one's way of thinking is devoid of any theory. And then this continued until about 1968: basically all exhibitions were shut down. What's interesting is however much the ruling power tried closing doors, there were always people, or directors of cultural centres, who stood up and undertook the showing of these temporary exhibitions.

HUO: - And how do you see the situation now?

IN:- In a way, that situation was much better back then, when one did something, and there came some kind of a reaction, either anger, either shutting down, anything. But there was a reaction that opposed to what I think. Around the mid-1980s it happened at the Műcsarnok. The political atmosphere was much looser, and we submitted paintings for a spring show. They accepted everyone's work, even the more abstract ones, except Sándor Molnár, who was part of our group. And we had a discussion, went to the exhibition space, took the paintings down and took them home. Next day, the phone call came to each of us that Sándor Molnár would also be exhibited along with us. So I'm just saying, that the ruling power basically reacted. The current situation is absolutely catastrophic.

HUO: - And does that enter the work?

IN:- No.

HUO: - No, because now you're into meditation and that's also an answer, and meditation of course, it's a question about duality, about unity. Can you tell us about how meditation changed the way you work, and that brings us from the past to the present, and these meditation paintings from the 2000s. I am also curious what you did in the last 15 years.

IN:- I continued the same in recent years. With my black on black meditation paintings, the point was that I could move forward in a sense that only the energy was visualised as a gesture. And with this, I've almost reached the end of my path. But I will continue. I would say as much that with this, the period from the Academy to the black paintings has practically come to a conclusion. And then I sensed a new quality of colours, this new kind of quality returns here, much more infused with light. So now I'm progressing from the medium tone towards white. Towards white and light.

HUO: - Is it a transcendence?

IN:- Well, yes. white and light are basically the highest transcendence. Pitch black is a mediator, and the highest transcendence is white.

HUO: - Thank you very much!