Peter Joseph studio visit with Hans Ulrich Obrist
As a tribute to Peter Joseph (1929-2020), the artist to have held the longest continuous association with Lisson Gallery, we are publishing a never-before-seen extract of an interview conducted at the artist’s home and studio in Stroud, Gloucestershire, in 2011, with Hans Ulrich Obrist. This comes ahead of his second exhibition at Lisson Gallery, New York, entitled 'Border Paintings', which he had been working on at the time of his death, aged 91.
The focus of this excerpt is an aesthetic epiphany that came to Joseph during a visit to the cinema in 1971, at which the film projector broke down and the artist found himself staring at the blank screen for close to an hour. This experience, of a shimmering off-white central space and a darker surround, would characterise his so-called Border paintings, executed over the next three decades, with two differing hues competing for our attention and with each other.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: We’re here in your studio, which you built yourself.
Peter Joseph: Yes. And the garage!
HUO: You drew the roof, also, no? But you don’t have any unrealised architectures?
PJ: No, no.
HUO: But it’s very fascinating that within this new openness, one can say, open system – within that, there is still the division of basically, horizontal or vertical.
PJ: There’s a dialogue between these two colours, light and dark, as well as whatever happens through colour and atmosphere.
HUO: Or in this instance, a dialogue between three colours.
PJ: Well, it’s also my discipline, I need a discipline, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to work – parameters.
HUO: So you’re actually not copying the sketch, but you’re interpreting the sketch.
PJ: Yes, I’m not copying the sketch, but I’m interpreting it, yes. And even things like this, where I’ve hurriedly done it, even on a small scale, then become possibilities for something – a movement of a brushstroke with energy.
HUO: I’m very interested in something that plays a big role for you today – these coloured papers. You said that, all of a sudden, you saw them lying on the floor of your studio. And that seems like an epiphany, one of the key epiphanies in your work.
PJ: Yes, it was. I remember how that particular series started. All of these here, to the late ones… That went on for about thirty-two years.
HUO: With a centre and a border.
PJ: Yes, but gradually the surface became more important, and the light changed to much more of an inward existence. But that started when, in the late 1960s, I was sitting in a cinema – I think I mentioned this in some writing there – and the projector had broken down and I was left just with the screen, the silver screen, and I could see the edge.
There was a darkness around the edge, of course, and I found that this surface that I was looking at had a delicacy about it. It wasn’t just a simple tone or colour. And I realised that this, to me, had more possibility in it for what I could only call a reflection. I’d already discovered the paintings of Claude Lorrain, and I knew of Rothko. I didn’t quite understand what he was doing, and he’s a different sort of personality, of course, altogether. But nevertheless, he used what I would call the possibility of reflection, and empathy with his work, which was all-important to me. If you like, a total subjectivity.
And so when I got home I found pieces of paper lying on the floor and I began to put just two pieces of paper together, and there was the inner and the outer, and both of those became like landscape, the near and the far, like a Claude Lorrain, with the tree, and the distance, and the atmosphere…
HUO: So chance plays a role?
PJ: That’s right. And by chance, it’s the very thing that’s total to me in this work, because I could never find it by trying to make a shape. It’s because it’s happened the other way around. I’m painting with this paint and allowing it to find its own shape, rather than me making the shape, to find the shape. And so that’s what became one of the intrigues of this. At the same time, as you can see, I was still involved in the relationship of colour, which was still and always will be, possibly, my fascination.
So that early one leads to this kind of thing, where I’m much more conscious now of these shapes. I use the same technique. These shapes left behind are by the ground showing through, rather than painting on top of. There’s also another aspect too, which intrigues me, and that is what I can only call the – I don’t know quite what to call it, exactly, but what you find in Greek temples, and what is left of Greek or Roman statues – it’s the very ruining of things which becomes intriguing to me.
HUO: The fragment?
PJ: I find that immensely important because, I think that that’s all that’s left of what matters. And it’s the only way to find anything of any worth; it’s like a fragment that I’ve found. Like Paul Celan talking about putting a note in a bottle and sending it out to sea. That is all you can do now.
HUO: But maybe you can invent the future. Panofsky, the great art historian, said we can maybe invent the future out of fragments from the past… And thinking about the future, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a little book, which is the advice to a young poet. What would be your advice, then, to a young painter?
PJ: Well, definitely, there’s nothing more worthwhile to do than painting. But don’t ask me how to do it – ask yourself. Simple as that.
HUO: So silence is also important? I mean, it’s not by accident that we’re here in a completely silent studio.
PJ: Yes, yes, yes. Silence, if you use the word like that, it becomes almost like a failing, like a refusal to cooperate… But it’s not is it? It’s a rare quality.
HUO: And it cannot be transcribed, as the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, who worked with Heidegger, told me – he was a hundred years old – he said: “silence cannot be transcribed”.
PJ: Yes, yes. That’s interesting. That’s very good, yes.
HUO: And what about nothingness?
PJ: Nothingness? Well, regressive perhaps, I mean by that, that you would go in, and deep as well as just proclaiming out.
HUO: So that regressive going in, instead of going out, falls hand in hand with you going into inner exile, because this is an inner exile, one could say.
PJ: Yes, yes. Exactly, exactly. I don’t consider myself or wish to be thought of as a hermit, but on the other hand, I can’t join in the clamour of daily survival, if that’s what it is. Right, some more work.