Full text PDF download republished in Ull Hohn: Foregrounds, Distances, edited by Hannes Loichinger and Magnus Schaefer, 2016
In 1986 Ull Hohn left Germany—after having studied in Düsseldorf with Gerhard Richter—and went to New York, where he found a fertile and congenial scene, with the gay community reacting to the AIDS crisis and Reaganite conservatism through strong solidarity and political awareness. In the Whitney Independent Study Program he began to hone a theoretical perspective and conceptual approach to painting that took concrete form in fantastic stylistic promiscuity, from abstraction to Hudson River School landscapes, from didactic painting like that of Bob Ross to reworkings of his own creations made prior to his art studies. This last series, entitled Revisions, forms the basis of the conversation between Tom Burr and Fionn Meade, who trace back through the rich, fascinating vision unfurled by Hohn across the short span of his life.
Ull Hohn, penis pattern, 1987. Courtesy: the Estate of Ull Hohn and Galerie Neu, Berlin
Fionn Meade: I am reluctant to start with biography, but there is a positioning, perhaps, of Ull’s work as that of an artist’s artist. I wanted to ask your thoughts about this framing, and how it relates to the Revisions he undertook in the last two years, remaking and retracing works he made in his youth. The ‘artist’s artist’ takes on a particular form of self-awareness here, a kind of pre-biography or estranging of the biographical.
Tom Burr: I think it’s in retrospect that he’s an artist’s artist. It didn’t feel that way at the time. Ull felt out of sync, out of his time, perhaps even relating to an earlier generation. And now his work is related to by a later generation. The Revisions are fascinating in their out of time effect, but they operate on two levels: a very self-conscious way of looking at the filters of his education from Berlin Neo-expressionism to Gerhard Richter at the Dusseldorf Academy, and then on to the Whitney program, and then the lump of earlier self-education separated out in early drawings and paintings. At the same time it wasn’t a hypothetical thing––he really felt his time was running out. It was a way to create a conclusion to his practice or self-consciously write a kind of biography, to take it into his own possession.
FM To take it in his own possession is a nice way of thinking about it. Shaping subject positions within Ull’s work seems irrevocably tied to his engagement with painting and its history, painting as something that can be broken down into genres and conventions. His work seems to continually vacillate between the use of personal images and more distanced borrowings, as with the erection series.
TB He did both. The first were culled from porn magazines, later he took photos of me. We’re talking about one year, so it happened in quite rapid succession. Ull wanted to distance himself from himself and pattern painting had a graphic, decorative quality to it, very much still in the air in New York at that time. It was starting to feel a bit passé—something not to embrace, and this made it interesting for Ull.
FM There’s a remarkable series shown recently at Galerie Neu in Berlin. A stark blurred series of paintings depicting five newborn babies. This gestural confrontation of the body—babies floating in ether, contorted into a non-place—is bulwarked by the unease with conventional pictorial flatness. It’s the same year he produces the fecal/chocolate relief works shown at Algus Greenspon and at SculptureCenter. It’s remarkable how the gleam and just set look of the reliefs is happening at the same time as the newborns.
TB New York bombarded Ull with what we simply called theory at the time and he digested it quickly. He wanted the act of painting, and the specifics of his biography as a painter, to fuse with self-conscious subject positions. In the newborn series he wanted something desperately vulnerable and ideological. They’re painted in purple and plum colors, almost like bruises, the fragility of flesh, but just when they could be too sentimental or fragile, the Ryman-esque armatures make them simply boxes. There’s always this sort of a push and pull in the work.
FM You talk about the theory moment and the way the Whitney ISP shook things up. To me this is part of the restlessness in the work. The refusal of a picture on the wall comes up repeatedly in the support decisions and the painting strata itself. The sag and wrinkled abjectness of the so-called “skin paintings” posing as monochromes, or the untitled paintings with pejorative synonyms for a specifically gay male subject inserted directly into the painted surface.
TB I think that’s a nice word, restlessness. We talked a lot about trying to make work that walked on both sides of the street. Ull thought very much in terms of accumulation. Maybe he didn’t articulate it precisely that way, but it was evident that he thought about how “chocolate paintings” would read off “shit paintings” and, in turn, how “flesh paintings” are rethought next to classical landscape motifs. Even when he pulled back out of his own virtuosity into something like the Bob Ross-inspired paintings, the maneuvers were to be considered in light of each other rather than negating or moving away from each other. The perversion of painting, the turns it can take.
FM In the label works it almost approaches playing with theory.
TB I think what saves the label pieces and actually makes them poignant is that he used real Avery labels. It made material the idea of labels and branding.
FM They’re awkward.
TB I don’t think he was comfortable with them. That’s what makes the Revision works interesting to think about in comparison. Here we are with the work of an artist who died young, his production was very young, and certain works that one might have chosen not to show, are now included. It’s why it was important to accomplish the revisions, a stroke of genius to get that done. It sets a tone of self-consciousness.
FM We’ve talked about serious parody before, an approach that makes parody a serious matter. What does it mean to parody genre painting and at the same time invest in it? Ull empties out the romanticism of landscape painting and Hudson River School Luminism without actually abandoning it. He takes up Bob Ross teaching landscape painting to housewives and retirees on public TV quite earnestly. The work finds its foils in the populist and the canonical. At first, when you see the Ross-inspired paintings, you think, “Okay, this is a one-liner,” but then you look and fall into the space of serious parody.
TB It had to do with levels of investment. When Ull was very sick, he had already lost his eyesight, we learned that Bob Ross died. No one told Ull because he was incredibly involved in the idea of Bob Ross. I think it’s that plunge, the same way he plunged into Richter as his teacher that allows the paintings to have this quality that you can’t quite know. You presume knowability about the naïve paintings, but by adding bits of virtuosity they are suddenly capable of standing up to other contents he was pulling at.
FM The show at Algus Greenspon like the original showing at American Fine Arts Co. in ’93, forced the Ross-inspired work into proximity with other work, never in isolation.
TB Yes. He knew where he was comfortable in terms of painting but that he needed other factors to mess that up. This style of showing work has felt more resonant recently, a restless or more nervous quality that is contemporary, the eye darts around and each piece is kept in some sort of relation to another.
FM Painting is choreographed and arranged in Ull’s work as with the semi-transparent works. There is a beautiful hyper-vulnerability to the vellum drawings—an oversensitivity or too muchness that matches their leisurely quality.
TB I wonder how far you can think about that. Can one be in different states of robustness or demise physically as well as mentally, where you desire to see different things being made? Can you actively consider longevity or lack thereof as central to the work? I never really spoke to Ull about the Revision series, but I see it as key to earlier works in terms of desire, what one desires to see in the world. They come from this very youthful moment of his drawing and painting things like flower arrangements, quick domestic sketches, small objects placed carefully: a shoe, an isolated moment.
Loving to see a small window with a plant in front betrays a very nineteenth century sensibility in some ways. Of course he was also thinking quite a bit about Sherrie Levine and almost enacting that sort of thing on himself, copying himself. So choreography is a good word, almost a kind of a step or an act, something that gets taught and retraced.
FM Like you said, he goes back to his sentimental education, to look and linger.
TB All the subjects he chose as a teenager seem very innocently self-conscious of another time, almost. Not exactly the product of the 1970s. I think it’s that latent, almost nostalgic quality that really activates the Revision pieces.
FM I was curious about how The Whitney Independent Study Program and New York signaled ‘displacement’ as an operative capacity in the work?
TB New York meant freedom. Starting anew, leaving something that, in his mind, was about family and upbringing, behind. Encountering content and liberating the mind, is how it felt at the time. Ull was a little blinded by that transition, but put it to work, holding onto certain things and bridging gaps in the work.
FM Like the way the abject l’informe look of the relief paintings oddly appends an architectural motif of molding.
TB Don’t you think with that work repetition becomes important? Formal repetition was not so prevalent at that time, but is important to Ull’s work, partiality and stutter, revising and revising.
FM There’s a really ghostly triptych of this cabin, for example. Vantage points are at odds and the impression is voyeuristic and tentative, never stepping into the clearing in the woods.
TB Neuroses about space and privacy and surveillance and protectionism are carried over into these naïve paintings, maintaining a level of psychological disturbance where Ull exploits American mythology. There was a lot of new representational painting at that time and galleries engaged in that but Ull was driven toward a different group of people with different concerns. A new conceptualism that did not privilege material provided a bit of a crisis for Ull. This is partly why Ull worked very hard to denaturalize his relationship to process, to question his own capabilities and his own love of effects.
It’s actually quite fortunate that his work came up against practices he fell in love with that were very different from his own, work that was emerging out of a psychoanalytic and architectural dialog––ideas in place, in situ. Ull was enamored with American Fine Arts Company, for instance. But it was not immediately a comfortable inclusion, and Pat Hearn was a pivotal figure in transitioning that. She represented and worked with primarily women, but also pattern painters, and embraced a lot of what had been happening in the East Village just before this moment. There was a notion of glamour that Pat embraced––self-conscious, low-key glamour. This provided a way in for Ull.
FM Was this performative low-key glamour and conceptualism part of an exclusive group?
TB I think there were several groups that did feel quite distinct at the time. I remember feeling, for myself––and Ull and I were very close at that time––that there were real conflicts. In New York we were seeing the emergence of identity politics, the AIDS crisis, and an increasingly advanced understanding of crisis more generally. Very clear, topical group shows embracing crisis brought things to the surface in the art context.
Positions got defined. At that time, to be gay artists interested in conceptual structures presented conflicts. American Fine Arts, for example, before Colin got together with Pat, felt very heterosexual. Gay politics were elsewhere. When Colin and Pat began a relationship, even though they had entirely separate galleries, there started to be more of an exchange, and a larger enterprise by association formed. One was able to enter American Fine Arts through the filter or the lens of Pat Hearn Gallery, which had always been extremely open to gay work, gay artists, her work with Mark Morrisroe and the friends of Jack Pierson. But it was still very different than the Cady Noland, Jessica Stockholder, Peter Fend camp.
FM When was your first show there at AFA?
TB My first show was ’93.
FM So you and Ull both showed at AFA in ’93. We were talking earlier about a generalizing politicization of art at that moment––the ’93 Whitney Biennial, for example, which may or may not have been that political, is often brought up as a flash point. In fact, James Meyer’s show at AFA What Happened to the Institutional Critique? responded to the biennial in part. Can you talk about that moment and movement around institutional critique and its genealogy?
TB Douglas Crimp could speak well to the conflicting facets of that moment and the importance of the political, and what it did to people. But I know there was a shift at American Fine Arts Company that had to do with Colin self-consciously looking at different work after a certain moment. All of a sudden a more benevolent environment for work that engaged a complex notion of site and subjectivity arose. Every artist I can think of in that show that James curated had particular territory that came out of site-sensitive work and institutional critique. Each artist had almost rooms of things that their model could act on, moving well beyond the facile notion that if the content is this it’s therefore political.
The title What Happened to… implies precedent and previous models. All of the artists included in that exhibition were consciously harvesting ideas that had been left behind in the 1960s and 1970s, but always via the lens of the 1980s and appropriation, redirecting and renewing ideas and structures and materials that had atrophied or been left behind.
FM Do you think this heterogeneity of critical approaches was in part due to the weaker role of the market, allowing for critique-responsive practices?
TB We all thought a lot about the market then too, but we didn’t imagine something like what it is now. It could be looked at but it wasn’t all consuming. The trajectory of artists like Sherrie Levine and Barbara Kruger was important. I don’t mean the content of their work, in this instance, but the way they navigated things. It’s hard to imagine today what a sensation it caused when Sherrie Levine and Barbara Kruger joined the Mary Boone Gallery, which had been an exclusively male stable.
But also, you could question what constituted a practice in a very different way then.
FM The idea of work that brought with it a terrain or territory. Today you see what you might call a light touch instead where this aligns neatly with that, lightly referencing this and that and that.
TB I think this is where it’s okay to make a very clear connection to Ull because when I think of moments when he floundered, I remember emotionally thinking that he did not have that terrain for a period. But then he absolutely realized it. It was something that is easier to see now, but it didn’t have an explicit subject matter at the time. He did not deal with race or gender exclusively. Ull had this extraordinarily outmoded territory, which was painting, that he activated through a lot of his own desires for how he wanted a painting to act, to behave.
Sometimes I think that Ull played out a very entrenched critique. “I can do this and I can do that. But I know that I’m doing this and I’m doing that. So it won’t be effective unless I really show passion in relationship to the critique of self and artist.” We were all incredibly passionate about these things, largely because one had to define terms and effects, and talk about them and make them real, make them exist. That’s what Ull did in relationship to painting. He didn’t take any of its stances for granted. He didn’t let any of its positions be quiet.