“Art is the only thing I take seriously”
Herlinde Koelbl
31 May 2016

Markus Lüpertz has always asserted himself and his artistry eccentrically, even aggressively. Even at 75 years old, his age isn't slowing him down. Yet, looking back on his life, he recounts things with a certain gentleness. A conversation about friendship, being alone, and longing for immortality.

Conversations with Markus Lüpertz are always an experience. He speaks as if he were writing: every sentence a powerful, expressive thesis about God and the world, especially about himself and his art. For him, a place in art history is already securely carved out— with his “dithyrambic” works of the 60s, Lüpertz heralded the arrival of an innovative and expressive new style of painting. On April 25, Lüpertz turned 75. Now as much as ever, his boundless energy leaves no doubt that he could take on anyone physically. We met in his studio in Teltow near Berlin, which Lüpertz sold shortly thereafter. We sat alone in the kitchen and went into the hall for photographs. In this relaxed atmosphere, Lüpertz gave us a little insight into himself.

Mr. Lüpertz, you were in the Foreign Legion and were a coal miner. You still work out every day. Why is physicality so important to you?
My work is very exhausting, and I also have to temper my permanent aggression. For me, everything has to happen quickly. I'm impatient, and that makes me constantly restlessness. As a young man in the 1950s, I was very curios; I carried a youthful desire for adventure, for liminal experiences. This was also partly due to the detachment from bourgeois ideas. I wasn't the only one who enlisted in the Foreign Legion. As long as it was a game, it was physically fun for me. Strength was never a problem when I was young; I never hit any physical limits. But when it came to going to war in Algeria, I found myself backing down.

Then again, going to war may well mean dying.
Death did not feature in my thoughts. I was much too young for that. Dying was something others did, but surely not me. If I had gone to war, it would only have been in the knowledge that nothing would happen to me. It's a certain feeling of eternity, of invincibility - feeling as though you can withstand anything and achieve everything. It goes beyond strength. I staged, invented and did everything up to and including my life story through my own agency. I am in possession of a certain amount of self-criticism and self-reflective irony. Apart from art, I take nothing in life seriously— not even myself. I regard myself merely with a cheerful kind of affection. This way of looking at life may be my salvation, because it allows me to live with all my escapades, my crazy ideas, dreams and visions.

Were you ever truly unhappy?
Of course. After all— I've been married several times. But it never lasted long enough to ruin me. When you get divorced, you need to be clear on the fact that you leave everything with the wife and children when you go. I always moved out with just two suitcases. When it's over, of course I feel the loss—a loss of unhappiness, or injured vanity. But the only important thing is that I survive. An artist should always be a little unhappy - unhappy in the sense of unsatisfied. I have never, or at least not for long, experienced a bliss. But my cheer enables me to take things in stride; to endure.

Your family fled to the Rhineland from Bohemia in 1948. Your father had a weaving mill before going bankrupt and becoming a salesman. Was that hard for you?
For my father, who was a very proud and previously also a very wealthy man, it was certainly a big problem. But for some strange reason, it didn't break him, because he had the same cheerful self-possession that I have. Even in his worst moments, my father had an irrepressible sense of cheer and happiness. My mother suffered much more than my father, because he seemed to thoughtlessly move through things. It wasn't a problem for me: although we quite suddenly became poor, it didn't hurt me or make me unhappy. I could muddle through, and I've put my own food on the table since I was 15. I was an artist, and artists were never rich back then. So my future was poverty, but I still never wanted to be anything but a painter.

In 1957, you worked intensively on a Crucifixion painting in the Maria Laach monastery. How did this experience affect you?
I automatically painted religious subjects in the monastery, as a way of studying the place. Above all, I was utterly fascinated by the mysticism, by the building, by the people and by the culture. I was uneducated and found myself confronted by a library full of knowledge and by people of towering intellect. I read everything I could there, but not as part of a systematic education; it was more like a sort of freebooter’s story. I absorbed everything like a sponge.

Were you lonely in the monastery?
I never felt lonely because I'm not really alone. Most of the time I work alone with my art, but in that state I don't want to be disturbed. My profession requires a certain amount of isolation— I have to endure the loneliness of the artist. But that's enough for me.

You have previously said, concerning the relationship between student and master, that is important to serve in order to learn something.
I'm not a teacher, I'm a master. But any master—whether of painting or of butchery—needs help in order to attain his mastery. It's a question of distance. You learn about wonder, not about service. If students aren’t full of wonder before their master, they won't learn anything from him. Fraternity did not characterize my apprenticeships; there was always this distance between master and students. I think this was necessary for them in order to let them free themselves. Once the students have overcome my influence in their lives, they've already achieved a great deal. I myself nurture friendships with artists and have had older colleagues whom I admired a great deal. I gained a lot from them by offering myself as both as a friend and as a learner.

On the other hand, you've said that you rarely visit your friends if they're sick.
Should I go visit a terminally ill friend with my hair ruffled by the winds of life, a friend who knows that I've just come from something wonderful, and say "Hey, how are you doing?" That friend needs anything but that. I also have a terrible fear of sympathy. I know this is wrong, and my friends are disappointed in this part of me. Maybe I'm afraid that it will hit me in full force - the fear that my own life will end that way.

When did you, yourself, experience sympathy?
That hasn't happened for me yet. I can't walk around with my big mouth and expect pity. I'm already shuddering at the thought that someday, someone will take pity on me when I'm on my sickbed. Naturally, that has a great deal to do with strength, hardness, self-discipline. You can hurt me by hurting my pride, and that's where you have to be careful. I am of course vulnerable to being hurt, but whoever hurts me must live with my contempt. Despite my low thoughts, I am good-natured and very generous. I hate receiving gifts, because I don't know what to do, the same way I'd rather love than be loved. You decide whether you love; if someone loves you, you're their victim.

You celebrated your 60th birthday with 350 men in tailcoats. Why did you decide do to that?
It's a longing for aesthetics. People today walk to the hairdresser as though they have to swim through rivers in times of war. The only problem I think I have with life right now is the total loss of aesthetics. So if I throw a party, there's going to be a certain dress code. 350 sitting people in tailcoats— what a splendid sight! It goes back to what I feel entitled to. Throwing a huge party is a great pleasure. Great man - huge party, small man - small party. It's very simple. I'm proud of myself, I'm cocky, I make the impossible possible.

To what degree does the public’s perception of you matches your own of yourself?
It doesn’t at all. The public image is one that responds to stupid questions. I have great fun making all sorts of things up, whether because someone annoys me or simply because I feel like it. That's just my arrogance. I am a very polite and very considerate person and mostly keep to myself. But at some point that stops— my aggression starts up like a machine, and it functions without concern for external considerations. I tend towards a certain level of narcissism. I can't fool myself; that is my great failing.

You have said that you don't like sleeping alone in the dark.
I always have a little light on when I'm alone. I get scared. Imagining that I could open my eyes and not be able to see the room is horrifying. That could have its origins in the bunker, but turning this into a war trauma would be hyperbolic. I'm a brave man when I can see everything and I'm a coward in the dark. I'm also afraid whenever anyone touches me in anger. No one who has humiliated me has ever gotten away with it. I don't want to be a victim of God, nor of the Devil or of life. I want the opposite - I want to be life. Why should I willingly submit myself to some or another fate? That'll happen soon enough anyway. Eventually I'll be hanging from some apparatus, someone will come and wipe my behind, or I'll have to wear diapers. That'll happen someday when I'm old. And since I intend to grow old, I have to accept this.

Do you want to be immortal?
Of course. Other people die, not me. For a man who can't be alone, that's a terrifying thought, but maybe I'd talk to fishes or other animals; who knows. Anyway, I would do everything I could to keep from dying. For me, life itself is one of the most beautiful and astonishing phenomena. I'm hungry for life; existence alone makes me hungry. I don't want to miss something as simple as sitting and reading a book.

Were you the only one in your family who had this kind of powerful will?
The Lüpertzes were all small with broad shoulders, a lot of strength and a lot of pride. I'm the first tall Lüpertz. My mother was 1.59 meters tall; my father 1.69 meters. He was a very masculine man with a short temper. If he was spanking me or one of my brothers and the other one laughed, they'd get a whack, too. He was the undisputed ruler of the family, but he worshipped my mother, so there was no oppression. She died of terrible stomach cancer when I was twenty, and that hit me very hard. Of course, I always tried to repress it; I thought "this kind of thing doesn’t happen; she'll get better". And then it was over. I always dwelled on the fact that I there was so little I could give her. She went through all kinds of hardships; she endured the war, she had to flee from her home, and then my father went bankrupt in the early 1950s. At that time my mother worked the opening shift at a news-stand, which she later bought. But just as we were reasonably well-established in the middle-class again, she died. She gave up so much so that we would have a better life. I didn't give her much, but I could have made her incredibly proud. If she had been told that I would become a professor or a rector, a doctor or senator, my mother would have burst with pride. She was never allowed to experience that, and sometimes I resent fate for that.